My father’s war story, Part 1: Ward 26

Sep 30, 2016 07.00PM |

by Bertha Henson

MY FATHER had to escape from the mainland and hide on Sentosa island during the Japanese Occupation.

Of course, the Sentosa then was not the Sentosa now with hotels and theme parks. It was known as Pulau Belakang Mati, which means Death from Behind in Malay. For my late father, however, the island inhabited by fishermen and their families was a safe haven. It was where he could escape the Japanese Kempeitai who was hunting for those related to two other Hensons who had been arrested as spies. They were his father and brother.

My father, who died in 1989, had spoken of his days in the Japanese Occupation running away from the Japanese military police and helping British Prisoner Of Wars (POWs). He kept a journal of those war days and recorded his experience for the National Archives.

I listened to the tapes last week. I knew my father was a brave man. His row of police medals kept in a display cabinet in my mother’s house testified to that.

But just how brave, I didn’t know.

I knew my father was a brave man. But just how brave, I didn’t know.

He was an orderly at Woodbridge Hospital when the war broke out. He used to be in the police force and had made the mistake of standing as a guarantor for a friend who owed someone $100. That friend later ran away. The blot on my father’s record meant dismissal from the force. That was how he became a dresser for mental patients, cleaning wounds and bandaging injuries plus other sundry duties.

When Singapore fell in February 1942, the Japanese cleared the Europeans out of hospital, renamed Miyako, and left the locals to tend to the patients. I have always thought that, that was a lucky thing. That they didn’t gun down everyone like they did in Alexandra Hospital. Instead, they cleared out a ward, Ward 26, which was known as the Kempeitai ward, for POWs whom they had tortured.

I wondered how the locals working in the hospital felt about working under the eyes of the military police. According to my father, it was “slap here, slap there” whenever the soldiers thought not enough respect was being accorded to them.

A local Indian volunteered for the job of looking after Ward 26. He left after two days. Just like that. Went AWOL. A job notice. No one volunteered.

After two weeks, my father got picked. He asked several times why he was picked but simply told that he was. He figured that it was because he was not Chinese, thousands of whom were being rounded up in an ethnic cleansing exercise.

The Japanese military policeman in charge of the ward told him that if he was caught speaking to prisoners, “I would lose my head”. That was when my father replied in Japanese, to the MP’s great surprise.

He had picked it up during his younger days as a seaman, working on Japanese freighters. The MP was delighted. He was even more delighted when my father followed his style of barking at the POWs there.

For my father though, it was an act. The Japanese made it clear that no one was allowed to talk to patients. The ward was locked and when my father did his rounds, he was accompanied by the MP.

The doctor, a local Chinese, wasn’t allowed in either and my father had to describe what the patients were suffering from and take instructions.

With instructions from the doctor, he learnt by trial and error how to insert IV tubes into patients, lance ulcers and other suppurations, including from a patient’s testicles, and became proficient at dispensing medicine.

But he was heartbroken.

In his journal, he wrote: “The prisoners had no proper beds. They were bare-bodied and in bad shape. All they had to lie on were hard wooden beds, no pillows or blankets.”

Meals were brought in buckets to be dished out onto enamel plates for each patient: two ounces of rice mixed with sweet potatoes and yam. Soup was vegetables boiled in water. And thin tea without sugar.

My father wondered how the patients, most of whom were passing blood mucus, suffering from dysentry or beriberi and septic wounds, would ever get better on such a diet.

“When I saw the food, oh my God, the food was fit for animals. Not humans. Hunger knows no laws. They ate it. Tears ran down my face when I saw them eating it. Still, they want to be alive. They ate it.”

Oh my God, the food was fit for animals. Not humans. Still, they want to be alive. They ate it.

Over time, the Japanese MP came to trust my father enough to leave the ward in his care while he hopped off to see his girlfriend in a nearby kampung.

That was when my father could unlock the ward and talk to the POWs. They were not ordinary soldiers. Among them were Brigadier Hugh Fraser, the Colonial Secretary, then Attorney-General Adrien Clark who had been caught ferrying messages to the POWs interred at Changi Prison and Mr Robert Burns, who later became the Commissioner for Southeast Asia.

They told him his father and brother had been captured and warned him to be careful. Mr Scott told him that the Kempeitai had set fire to his father’s beard.

“They were with us in the Kempeitai headquarters. Your brother’s face was used as an ashtray. Each time they wanted to put out a cigarette, they rubbed it on his cheek.”

My father was also told that two friends of the family who had also been rounded up were in the hospital as well. They were kept in isolation in private rooms under lock and key. They had been tortured badly. Both died later as did Sir Hugh Fraser and Mr Clark.

My father never recorded how he felt about the news. He was not close to the family and described himself as “the black sheep”. But he knew he and his pregnant wife who were living in hospital quarters were in danger for their lives.

He told the POWs he would try to smuggle them extra food and managed to persuade the hospital steward to procure some marmite for their rice and to add sugar to the tea.

When the MP’s superior came round, he made a case for the POWs to have proper mattresses, pillows, blankets and hospital garb, which the hospital had in abundance. It would, he said, demonstrate the magnanimity of the Japanese to their Axis partners, the Germans, if they came to visit.

He was taking a risk speaking to a Japanese officer on behalf of the POWs – “I think I have gone too far,” he wrote in his journal – but the officer agreed to his requests.

Then the Kempeitai came a-calling for him in the hospital.


Read more about Bertha’s journey into the past and other prisoners of war here:

My grandfather’s war story

Singapore, the former hub of war crimes courts?


Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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