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"Stranger than Fiction"

An account of young lives changed forever

By Amanda Johnston (Daughter of the late Flt. Sgt. Eric "Johnny" Johnston, ex-Haruku and Java)Note

: The Japanese religious and spiritual teachings advocate the importance of ancestor worship - the veneration of one's forebears. Thinking about this I wrote the following piece of prose from my heart (enhanced by the poem by G. Whiting) and hope that others will find comfort in it when reflecting on the lives of those we have lost who were prisoners of war under the Japanese in the Far East

Haruku stank of rotting bodies. It was such a terrible place a Korean guard shot himself…

My father in his fifties, toiling in his workshop and sometimes outside in the biting wind at his workbench amongst stacked up piles of metal and wood, heavy tools and myriad other artefacts. Nothing was ever disposed of but was tucked away assiduously in the event of its useful deployment. His workshop was a source of fascination where I was allowed to experiment with a range of activities such as soldering, wiring up plugs, changing fuses, pouring plaster of paris and polishing stones.

Within me there burned a deep sense of curiosity about what he was doing which so absorbed his attention. Perhaps I could have asked him but this would have entailed a lengthy explanation and one which may not have been fully comprehensible to me anyway.

There they lie, in rows four deep

Upon Haroekoe's shore.

Imperial palms watch o'er death's sleep

Like guardians evermore.

Where is Haroekoe (the Dutch spelling) or Haruku? I see from my father's notes, which we found only after his death, that it is one of the Molucca Islands but still I am none the wiser. Looking at an atlas I do not find it but locate Ambon nearby, which is also mentioned, and then a scan of my research friend, the Internet, reveals a map of the Moluccas or 'Spice Islands', so named because of the proliferation of spices sought after and fought over by colonial powers scenting a rich source of trade. Part of the former Netherlands East Indies, it lies in the Banda Sea west of what was once Dutch New Guinea. With irony I reflect how the name Haruku sounds Japanese though clearly its name pre-dated their short occupation from early 1942 to late 1945. But still it is simply a name, not yet suffused with meaning for me, nor yet the carrier of a second-hand anxiety that precludes sleep and engenders feverish nightmares.

Their battleground, a bamboo bed,

The foe - disease and death.

In 'No Man's Land' the living dead

Fought, grim to the last breath.

Locations and dates in a book detailing a doctor's account of his experiences in the Far East closely match my father's scant notes. So this is probably the man who treated his prolapsed rectum with the most primitive of medical means; an episode which he had related to both my sister and I. Dysentery, beriberi, pellagra, malaria, tropical ulcers the size of a dinner plate, avitaminosis and not to mention starvation and beating. Such were the realities of daily life for three-and-a-half years.

Four hundred heroes of England

Deep in the sandy soil,

One fifth of that two thousand,

Who were sent there to toil.

Dulce et decorum est… What was a twenty-one year-old highly-trained Royal Air Force ex-Halton apprentice, 'Trenchard's Brat', so lauded in RAF history, doing in such squalor? Blind fate, chance, ill-luck. Three years of detailed training in every aspect of aircraft armoury and bombs, only to be carried by cockroach-ridden steamship to jungle-clad Sumatra with no aeroplanes to tend and even less in the way of hope on the day that Japanese paratroopers were commencing their occupation of that island, closely followed by a period at least as long again in the bowels of hell on earth following the Dutch capitulation in Java. Then the abysmal journey in a rusting hulk to the remote island of Haruku. Witnessing your friends and associates over time dying in droves, not on the battlefield or amongst the ravages of warfare, but at the hands of a cruel and amoral people.

Within a week of landing there

From hell, through which they came

The camp was in a chaos rare,

And prisoners the same.

A prisoner. A Prisoner of War. Prisoner of fate. Surrounded by brutal captors, hostile indigenous peoples, thousands of miles of ocean, enemy shipping, 'friendly fire'. Churchill's Forgotten Army, Left-Behinds, sacrificial lambs to the slaughter but not killed humanely. Slowly starved, dying in excruciating pain and indescribable squalor, worked to death, beaten to death, chopped, bayoneted, burnt, tortured to death.

Dysentery had smote them hard,

In stomachs long unfed.

All medicines to them were barred;

They had to die instead.

As a young girl, I observe that my father sees four Japanese men horsing about in a garden and I know that it is an anomaly but I do not know the exact nature of this. When questioned he states that he does not blame the current generations of that country as it is nothing to do with them.

When I study Jung many years later I wrestle with this in the context of archetypes and the collective unconscious and now I think about how we offspring bear the mental scars of the private war fought by our fathers against atrocities too difficult for us to imagine from the perspective of our comfortable consumerist lifestyles.

Twelve hundred soon in torment lay,

Packed tightly side by side.

A bowl of rice, three times a day;

All else to them denied.

I recently met with a nonagenarian Professor Emeritus of Botany. Chance had dictated that sixty years ago he was on the draft to Haruku. His presence there saved many lives and resulted in around a third of the temporary guests of this 'hell in paradise' ultimately being able to return to their respective homelands instead of fertilising the soil of Ambon. By a near miracle he managed to cultivate yeast, starting the culture with a mould from rice… but this really is another story. The result was that the vitamin B within the yeast added to the men's meagre diet, saved the sight and the lives of many in their struggle for survival.

Thro' many a long day they fought

'Gainst destiny's strong hand.

And those who sanctuary sought

Rest now, beneath the sand.

Another dogged survivor of Haruku aged ninety with whom I regularly converse describes how he must have had a Guardian Angel. Not a religious man, yet in reflecting on his memorable past he is nevertheless forced to believe that providence had a hand in it and this is supported by the known odds - only one in three sent on that horrific draft lived to return to Java. Those who did not die in the dysentery epidemic or from other illnesses, starvation and brutality, perished in the holds of the 'hellships' that transported them from one miserable corner of the inaccurately named 'Greater South East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere' to another. Ships that were bombed and torpedoed by Allied craft and survivors of which would be machine-gunned in the water by the Japanese or Korean guards for fear that their rescue by the Allies would reveal to the world the unspeakable cruelty meted out to them as 'guests of the emperor'.

Some men were a ghastly spectacle

Contorted, lame and blind,

And stout were the tired medicals

To whom they were assigned.

Survivors who returned to their homeland after the War were faced with multifarious problems, many of which emerged later in their lives: The mental strain of their inability to talk about their diabolical experiences, physical debility and illnesses resulting from their maltreatment, constant torment by nightmares, the 'guilt' associated with being a survivor in the context of so many deaths, remoteness from loved ones caused by the repression of their experiences, amongst many other bodily and psychological traumas peculiar to each individual.

In vain they fought a losing game

Tenacious and with skill.

But as more fierce the fight became

The graves spread up the hill.

In early adolescence my much-loved cat of many years was killed on the road and for some time my world fell apart and I grieved with bitter tears. My father dug a hole in the garden and dropped the limp grey feline body into the ground fairly unceremoniously and, in contrast to my own suffering, with no show of emotion whatsoever. I thought this strange at the time but now I realise that when you have helped to carry and dispose of up to fourteen human corpses per day in the most desperate and squalid circumstances - the lifeless cadavers of your friends and comrades no more than piteous skeletons with flesh stretched over the bones like thin leather and with faces contorted in agony - then death has no great significance.

The enemy invincible

In night's abysmal gloom,

Struck down the indefensible

To death's ethereal tomb.

It was I who found my father dead just six months shy of three score years and ten. He had already told me several times that he did not fear death but when I saw his body drained of life, tableaux of my own two-and-a-half decades of life flashed before my eyes in seconds along with fleeting glimpses of his life in terms of mine. No more would I have access to his wide knowledge of the world, the adrenalin of debating and his kindly humour. Never in the future would I be able to gaze into the faces of his grandchildren and see similarities in their expressions nor could I delve into his past. I was bereft then and now.

They groaned and writhed away the time,

Intestines strafed with pain.

Life drained from them in blood and slime,

Not by explosives slain.

Blood and slime are the diabolical bedfellows of dysentery. They were also the names given to the abominable Japanese sergeant Mori who was the master of Haruku and his sycophantic Korean sidekick and English interpreter, Kasiyama. 'Blood and Slime'. True, Blood and Slime did not 'disgrace' themselves in the eyes of their families by surrendering to their enemy. No, they conquered and humiliated their enemy day after day within the confines of the barbed wire and outside it on the working parties where their vanquished foe toiled under the burning tropical sun, chipping away at recalcitrant white coral with a few primitive hand tools to build an airfield for the Japanese war effort. Thus, they could return to their loved ones as heroes, having despatched at least four hundred of their helpless adversaries to join the heavenly ranks of their ancestors - their fight being one against the lashing of a bamboo rotang and the intestinal assaults of dysentery and starvation.

Some saw the end approaching swift,

Darkened with certainty,

They prayed for the immortal gift,

…peaceful eternity.

Others in British tradition

Fought bravely to the end,

The valorous 'killed in action'

Our honour to defend.

I always knew my dad was a brave man although he told me virtually nothing of his experiences. He never once mentioned the name Haruku, which nowadays fills my mind with images of despair beyond anything imaginable. Now I have to re-construct his life in the context of this knowledge, supplemented by the accounts to be found in books and from the lips of the elderly men who endured a terror that he shared.

So now four hundred rough crosses,

All raggedly aligned,

Mark out the terrible losses,

The battle left behind.

All the surviving Far East Prisoners of War confirm that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki not only saved their lives without a doubt, but also those of hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of Asian peoples and Allied servicemen who would have been killed in the invasion of the Japanese homelands.

No medals ever will be worn

By those 'across the way',

But the thoughts of those behind, who mourn,

Are with them, night and day.

Every November 11th the British people remember the sacrifices made by the brave men and women who gave their lives, health or sanity in the service of their country and in the name of freedom. For some, the process of remembering and trying to forget battle painfully in their consciousness and unconscious their whole lives long as they mourn for the fathers they never knew, or the fathers who were there in body but not in mind, or the fathers who tried to pretend that everything was fine but could not hide their mental torment and the physical effects of their suffering. Those offspring will never be free of the horror which is their heritage and the sense of a young life changed forever.

I look at my son, born within days of his grandfather's birthday and observe many similarities between them both in looks and personality and I am deeply sorry that they did not have the privilege of knowing one another in this life, but their being - past and present - forms a bridge for me in coming to terms with my sense of loss. I believe that I carry within my heart and soul the sense of my father's life. For to understand is to bring meaning.