COFEPOW has been supplied with several accounts of POW experiences in Saigon, below are just three of those accounts.
Some details of my visit to Saigon
by Govan Easton
Departed Singapore 2nd February 1945 aboard "Friedstrummer" a vessel of some three thousand tons built in Glasgow in the Twenties. About one thousand three hundred of us aboard. Accommodated in holds on what I would describe as shelves, scarcely room to sit up. Just space to lie down. Ship sailed at dusk, air in holds soon became stale and many of us were suffering from dysentery and failed to get to toilet, or should I say the ships rail. Guards posted at every hold, they were reluctant to allow more than one out at a time, hence accidents. Toilets - box-like structures hanging over ships side. Constant queues day and night.
Food - rice in wooden buckets, usually cold, many could not eat. Three other nondescript vessels in convoy, Japs aboard as we had two naval vessels as escort. No lights at night. Second night out heard thuds that shook the ship. Thought they might be bombs or were we under attack by submarines. Next morning as we emerged on deck no other ships around. Sailed up Saigon river. Disembarked late afternoon. Sent to camp across road from the docks. Huts with tiled roofs. Water tanks between huts for ablutions. Electric lights. Toilets of eastern variety connected to mains. Food - good quality rice and a vegetable stew. No British Officers in Camp. W.O's in charge. Sergeants in charge of groups given orders for working parties. A problem to keep record of who worked and who should have time off, no writing paper. Worked on docks (again). Rice cargoes.
Saw B27 plane fly over. Carrier-based planes attacked oil storage depot at Nhabe. Two days later we were working there. Built earthen blast walls around remaining storage tanks. American planes flew over at regular intervals. We also filled oil drums with aviation spirit. Loaded on trucks for transport to airfield. Worked at airfield filling holes left by bombing of runway and then extending runway, materials supplied by natives driving bullock carts. Some time later back at Nhabe about mid-day heard droning of planes so a shout and everyone dashed to paddy fields nearby. Japs ran faster than we did. Down came the bombs. Many fires started. Damage to all except the tanks we had protected. Many tales told relating to this. At airfield we could be involved with fuel for planes, loading and unloading drums of fuel. We tried adding sand etc. when we could.
Runway repairs constant as each time we completed it planes came over and dropped a few more bombs. Rare visit into Saigon city to walk along canal side to a storage site beside one of canals. Ignored by natives. We did notice lovely girls, and the street cafes with food. On 17th July 100 of us were taken by train to Nha Trang a small village on the coast where a railway bridge across the river had been bombed. We lived in former French Barracks, now completely empty alongside an airfield, no planes. Work was to build jetties to allow vehicles to be carried over river on barges. Others repairing railway bridge a task we also performed. Driving piles very strenuous.
Food very much better, with meat from time to time. French internees near to us. Food taken at about 11.30 each day. An American patrol plane came along railway about this time, bridge almost completed and overnight a train crossed. Next day plane came over saw bridge turned dropped one bomb and the bridge span had gone We were unsure whether we should be pleased or angry. Great joy was being allowed to bathe in Pacific on route back to barracks. 'Skinny dipping' I believe to be the expression. Spent a few days digging fox holes for Japs. About half a meter across and over a meter deep.
On 22nd August about 9.30 the Gunzo, that was Nobby Clarke, who was my senior and actually the Sergeant in charge of the group, was summoned to the Guard Room. He asked me to accompany him as he could not understand what the Japs said. I was to be interpreter.
Guard Commander, a Jap Sergeant, said "Senso Iwari". I asked him to repeat and then said to Nobby that he says the war is ended. The Jap then told me that tomorrow there would be no work, we could rest tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
Back in Barrack room everyone stunned, there was quiet, no signs of elation. We were now responsible for organising ourselves.
Next morning the japs asked if there was anything we needed and we said more food. They brought a whole sheep which they had shot. We ate well.We had no idea what would happen now, perhaps Americans would land to collect us.
On 25th August the Jap Ounso came to see us and told me that a train would take us back to Saigon We were to collect our belongings. One haversack each. Walked to rail at 11.00 a.m. Train stopped at every station and there appeared to be an altercation with locals each time as Japs tried to get us to Saigon. We arrived there on 27th August and joined up with many friends at Artillery Barracks. Dutch, Australian, American and French also there. Sound of shooting around us
Two days later a Squadron Leader and an Army Sergeant came into the camp, they had parachuted down to take over from Japs. Captain Suuuki made to formally surrender.
Air drop of food and clothing followed. Additional food strictly controlled. Allowed out into town so we visited Cholon. Had little money so purchases out of question. We did have some coffee. Next day I was part of a group entertained at City Hall apparently by Communists. A veritable banquet.
5th Sept Americans left the camp.
8th Sept three groups of sick and disabled left to fly from airport to Rangoon. Just before leaving learned that two planes had crashed. My friend was on one. I was in charge of group, surnames A to F Plane no.51 POW numbers still recorded. Mine was 6940. Boarded a Dakota. No refinements. Stopped off at Bangkok en route to Rangoon where we were greeted by clean well-dressed English speaking men and women. Strange.
Summary of my FEPOW experiences
With extended reference to Saigon and French Indo-China by A.R. Dermont
March 1942 - Taken prisoner in Singapore.
June 1942 - In very first group of prisoners (about three or four hundred) taken by rail to Bang Pong in Thailand, where Japanese engineers began building railway to Burma. Worked mainly on jungle clearing, hut building for camps to be established, etc. Conditions were harsh and often brutal with severe shortage of food. All the usual tropical diseases, illnesses due to vitamin deficiencies, body lice, bed bugs and scabies, etc., etc.
December 1943 - Returned with a group by rail to Singapore, River Valley Camp for work on docks in Keppel Harbour and on the island of Black Amati (now a tourist attraction named Sentosa).
March 1944 - By sea to Saigon on board (standing room only) small Dutch freighter S.S. Fydjnnora (spelling?). Four ships in convoy, one of which was spectacularly torpedoed one night during the ten-day voyage - the torpedoed ship carried freight, not POWs.
On landing we were all hardly able to stand up straight or walk owing to the cramped conditions endured. We spent the first few nights in a dockside godown. We then moved to a camp - an empty French Foreign Legion Barracks fairly near Saigon, from where we went out on daily working parties servicing Japanese troops. As usual, conditions were severe and food extremely sparse.
June 1944 - A group of about 120 of us was despatched by rail to Da Lat - a hill station 150 miles or so north of Saigon. We were in four covered wagons coupled directly behind the engine, setting off either afternoon or evening. Waking up in the wagon next morning, I made my way to the open door and stood admiring the distant mountain range I could see and chatting to the little Japanese guard sitting near the door. I spotted an unfamiliar aircraft in the distance and pointed it out to the guard,. The 'plane flew out of our field of vision. Next moment the train juddered to a sudden and violent halt and I saw the two drivers leap from the engine. Then I too jumped clear of the train followed by the Japanese guard and a couple of others I believe. Almost immediately we all sprawled flat to the ground as the 'plane raked the train with gunfire and released five bombs. I waited flat to the ground expecting another bombing run. When none came I tore, panic-stricken, into the scrub for shelter. My head was buzzing and blood was streaming from different parts of my body. This is what it feels like to be mortally wounded, I remember thinking, but it was no such thing; merely a number of surface wounds from small fragments of shrapnel.
The carnage that I witnessed when I returned to the scene was appalling. The four wagons had become a tangled mass of metal and bodies and there were screams of agony coming from those who would shortly die. Less than 20 survived and of these a number were seriously wounded. The little guard who had jumped behind me was quite dead. A piece of shrapnel had penetrated his tin hat, yet I who had sprawled next to him had escaped with a few scratches! Further up the train, untouched, there was a group of Japanese soldiers who had been picked up en route and obliged to travel in open trucks. The U.S. bombardier undoubtedly deemed the closed wagons to be a more profitable target. These Japanese soldiers immediately came forward to give assistance and clear up the mess. That day the hot blazing sun beat down mercilessly on the stony shadeless scrub where we waited.
Relief came at last that evening as an engine with two open trucks shunted up the line and it even brought some food and water. The survivors, some on stretchers now, clambered aboard and the train set off back to Saigon. The journey through the night seemed interminable. When we arrived some time next day, we were greeted with a string of ambulances and on the station platform a party of Vichy French nurses, immaculately clad in snow-white uniforms. There were also cinema cameras set up so the Japanese could show the World what the U.S. bombers were doing, i.e. the Japanese turned the whole sorry event into an occasion for anti-American propaganda. We were examined and treated at a Japanese military hospital and two or three of us were presently pronounced fit and returned to camp.
Within a couple of weeks I was with another group bound once more for Da Lat, only this time the trains were travelling only at night and ingeniously hidden along camouflaged sidings during the day. Da Lat is a breathtakingly beautiful area of pinetree-covered mountains and fast running rivers and waterfalls. The sun here was always blazing hot when it shone, but mostly it appeared to me as a place of heavy rains and water dripping constantly from the claustrophobic tree canopy under which our camp lay. The camp was also right next to a large spectacular but extremely noisy waterfall, calculated, it seemed, to shred the nerve ends of all but the most phlegmatic. It was also extremely hot and humid during the day yet damp and chilly during the night. The Japanese gave us blankets and lovely new boots. We were delighted until we discovered they were only half blankets (whole blankets cut in half to make up the number) and the leather on the boots rotted so the soles fell away within a day or two. We laboured mainly on airfields which were being constructed in the surrounding valleys. My hearing is not so good these days, but in those days it was acute so that I could detect the sound of an approaching 'plane, even when it was no louder than the whisper of a gentle breeze stirring the pine needles. A U.S. bomber flying very low along the surrounding valleys was almost impossible to hear, then suddenly with a great roar it was over you, so low you could almost touch it, with all guns blazing and bombs dropping. When it was gone we cleared up the mess and filled the holes.
I think at this time our morale reached a new low. The long years of hardship and malnutrition were now beginning to really show. One could see on the faces of one's fellows a new look of strain and despair. Hitherto one had always nursed hope. Of course, we all knew from scraps of information and rumour that the eventual surrender of Japan was assumed, but how many more years would we have to wait for that? The Japanese had always maintained that they would fight every inch of the way and prefer death to surrender. We believed them because this was precisely what they were doing on the island of Okinawa.
One incident of special mention occurred here at this time. Two Australian prisoners had been caught by the Japanese helping themselves to goods in the stores. The Japanese had always taken a very serious view of stealing, which could be punishable by death even in their own army. The unfortunate prisoners were interrogated and then subjected to water torture. As pint after pint of water was being poured down their throats, one of them broke free and ran helter-skelter to the camp perimeter and thence into the forest outside the camp. He was chased by the camp guards and subjected to a hail of ineffective rifle fire. The guards searched for him for hours but he was never caught. The Australian was astute enough to realise that if he truly escaped he would not get very far and would almost certainly be caught. He therefore stayed hidden in the forest near the camp, returning late every night to his mates for food and comfort and then out of the camp before dawn. When we eventually returned to Saigon he followed us to the railway, where he was secreted onto the train by his fellows, returning with them to Saigon.
1945 Late Spring - We left Da Lat and returned by train to Saigon to a camp outside the city. Saigon was now being heavily bombed day after day. The Japanese had assembled in the Saigon River a motley fleet of perhaps some 100 freighters, as part of an armada, with the object of landing on and re-taking the Philippines. Over a period the U.S. bombers disposed of that idea. All that could be seen in the river was a tangled mass of metal that had once been floating ships; effectively blocking the river to all large traffic.
The prospect of surrender and freedom for us still seemed to be as far off as ever. From what one could tell, the Japanese still seemed to be as defiant as ever, if not quite as cocky and confident. Some seemed to think that there would be some kind of truce. One even assured me that plans were afoot to send us all by train north along the length of French Indo-China to Hanoi and thence across China to Manchuko (the Japanese word for Manchuria). "That colony needs settlers" he said, "and when peace comes you will all be given land and be free to settle there". I'm sure he quite sincerely believed this fantasy.
August 15th 1945 - However, events were to take us all by surprise and the surrender came far sooner than expected. The fateful day dawned like any other as we arose and prepared to join working parties. A reconnaissance 'plane was flying overhead. It seemed to be unusually high and travelling rather slowly. Suddenly it discharged a scattering of small silvery objects that sparkled in the morning sunshine. Presently we realised that the silvery objects were pieces of paper floating down over Saigon. Several landed near us. The papers had a clear message written in many languages. The short message in English (as I remember it) read:
The Imperial Japanese Forces have surrendered unconditionally and ceased all hostilities…..
It took many weeks for us to be evacuated by air. In the meantime Saigon was in turmoil - but that is another story!
Gunner A.R. Dermont 135 Field Regiment R.A.
1. When I have mentioned conversations with the Japanese I seem to be implying that I could speak the language. Well I couldn't, but over the years one picked up a small string of Japanese words; as did the Japanese similarly pick up words of English. Thus, together with sign language and acting the part to convey meaning, communication could be established.
2. On re-reading what I have written, I am wondering whether my words convey criticism of the U.S. bombing. Well, that is certainly not my intention. Far from it. The U.S. airmen did what they had to do and they did it magnificently.
Extracts from Ken Bailey's Memoirs
Continuing from Ken Bailey's Memoirs of the 5th Suffolk Regiment ( look under the heading of "Regiments)
On the 8th February 1945, our ship docked at Saigon, Indo-China where we were very relieved to disembark and to be later accommodated in dockside buildings. There were signs here of bomb damage as we saw a number of half-sunken ships lying in the harbour and also some damaged buildings in the vicinity. At the time of our arrival we were given a great boost when we were told that American 'planes had flown over the docks area shortly before but no bombs had been dropped. For this we were grateful after our frightening experiences at sea hours earlier although happy that our allies were operating in the area.
After a few days working around the dock area and also at Saigon airfield, a party of us were taken to the small town of Da Lat. This was a neat European/French-influenced town consisting of brick-built tiled houses the like of which we had not seen since leaving Singapore months earlier. We eventually arrived at a compound of half a dozen substantially built buildings situated on the outskirts of Da Lat and here we were to encamp for only a few days. The weather in this area was quite different to the humidity we had experienced before. The temperature was low and the absence of the sun was so noticeable. We were thankful that the huts which we now occupied were not built of bamboo and open to the elements as were the huts in the Thailand jungle. In the open centre of the camp area was situated a brick-built communal bath into which we put buckets of hot water obtained from the cookhouse and where we all enjoyed the first hot baths since our arrival at Singapore three years before.
The work we were set to carry out here was that of the continuation of the construction of an underground war bunker for the Japanese. Our particular task was to dig and remove earth from the coal-mine type face at the end of a tunnel which had been excavated through a large grass-covered hill. The tunnel was laid with a rail track, together with trucks for removing the earth from the face to the exit. This job was not very popular except for those few who had experienced work in coal-mines but for those of us who had not been underground before, it was a little frightening. Thankfully the job was to last for just two days.
The spirit of each of us at this time was noticeably changing for the better, particularly with the news that allied submarines were active in the area. For some months the feelings had been, that apart from rumours of successes by the Allied forces in the Pacific area, there were also signs that the Japanese guards generally were becoming slightly more sociable towards us.
After the underground job was completed our party moved back towards Saigon where we were to be employed on maintenance of the railway track close to a busy siding. It was here whilst working on the track one morning that the Japanese Corporal in charge of us screamed at us to run into the jungle as an aircraft was coming. We left the track at speed to take cover in the trees and prepared to await the arrival of the aircraft. Meanwhile our Corporal guard, who was rather corpulent and not built for speed, was well behind us running from the railway embankment, screaming as he ran, creating the amusing picture of being chased by the 'plane which we could then hear approaching. We saw the guard throw his rifle into a trench by the track and he quickly followed until he was lost from our sight.
We were all still enjoying the incident when an aircraft appeared from our left flying very low and following the railway line. We had a wonderful view from the edge of the jungle, less than a hundred yards away, of an American Lockheed Hudson bomber, so close that we could see the occupant of its gun turret as it went by. This was, of course, a most exciting and thrilling incident which gave us a tremendous fillip. Within minutes there was an enormous chain of explosions as the aircraft reached and passed the sidings some distance to our right. We learnt afterwards that an ammunitions train had been destroyed and we now knew that our friends and allies must be moving closer toward us.
Our small party of around twenty men was then moved to a hut in a jungle clearing close to the Saigon railway track and some miles from Saigon itself. The Jap guard was the same Corporal who had panicked when the American bomber had appeared on the previous job. At this site our task was to build a small bridge for the purpose of taking the railway track from a nearby siding. This first of all entailed carrying hefty tree trunks from the jungle. To do this the trunks were manhandled by the prisoners to the site by means of wooden poles placed under the trunks with the men in pairs on opposite sides of the trunks, lifting in unison and carrying them step by step. Bearing in mind the great weight of the trees, it was necessary that the 6 to 8 men who were doing the carrying had to be given a signal for the simultaneous picking up and placing down of the trees.
With knowledge that our friends and allies were now close at hand, we were becoming confident that the war would soon be over. It was a few days later that some Japanese officers arrived on the site. These officers called the guards to them and they all left the site and walked into the jungle. Within a few minutes the Japanese emerged to announce to us that work was finished for the day and that we were to return to camp. Back in camp we were all agog, spirits were high and there was a certain air of expectancy amongst us, especially as we saw that the Japanese were grouped together in their hut, talking excitedly as they appeared to be engrossed in reading from papers of some sort.
The next day we were called from our hut and assembled before a Japanese officer who announced to us that the war was over and that Tokyo had been bombed. We were later told that we were to return to Saigon the next day. Although we all had plenty to converse about there was no loss of control of discipline by anyone, we were just happy and sensible enough to await developments.
Early the next day we were picked up by a train which took us to Saigon and then we were transported by lorry to a former French Indo-China barracks on the outskirts of Saigon City. Here we could rest in peace on half decent beds and could indulge ourselves in some decent food.