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John Frederick Bruns Crosse Letter

A letter written by John Frederick Bruns Crosse to his father.

Taken captive 8th March 1942, he was a 2nd Lt in the Royal Artillery, held in Fukuoka and Moji Japan

This is the transcript of the letter



I am writing to you still in our prison camp where we have been held for the last two and a half years. I really cannot tell you just how I feel, to be able to write to you all again after all this time (though Heaven knows when I will be able to post it).

The news of the end came like a bolt from the blue - we little expected such a thing to happen just yet because we were ignorant (and still are) of any news. I will just try to give you a brief idea of what has happened to us since leaving England, because I have no idea which was my last letter to you, and how much you know of my wanderings.

Our first port of call after leaving home was Freetown in West Africa, which, in the opinion of all was just no place at all. We were fortunate in that we were on the “Cape Town Castle”, which is one of the Union Castle’s newest ships. I had a very comfortable cabin with a bathroom attached! And the food on board was perfect. It was a little disappointed not going to Cape Town, but as I expect you have heard from Joan, I had a very good week in Durban, and in my opinion, South Africa is a very fine country.

After leaving South Africa, we changed ships, because Japan’s entry into the war altered our destination from Iran to Singapore. The ship we travelled in as the “Aurangi” a very dirty Australian ship, which was not pleasant to travel in. We called at the Maldive Islands on the way, but did not land.Our voyage was uneventful until our arrival in Singapore, where the Japs gave us quite a reception. Fortunately a rainstorm saved the situation. We remained in camp for about a week, and were then sent up the line in Malaya, where we were in action for about three weeks. I had several little adventures, which can wait until the happy day.

It was then decided to evacuate my Regiment to Sumatra, so on about 30th January my Battery boarded a mail steamer with all our guns and equipment, and sailed for Palembang in Sumatra. The Japs, however, bombed us in the straits of Banka, and I had my first experience of stoking a ship under fire, after the Malays had run. Never again, as long as I live. They sunk us in about 20 minutes, and we were picked up again after swimming in shark infested waters for about three hours.

I expect the bombs drove them away. I was picked up by the “Taklewa” of about 7000 tons, and taken to Ousthaven in South Sumatra. We were very kindly treated by the Dutch, who clothed us and looked after our wounded.I made several very good friends there, and had many parties. I wrote to you and gave the letter to an American girl who was going to Durban. She promised to post it, but I don’t know if her ship got through. We left after the Japs dropped Paratroops and kicked us out, and eventually arrived in Java.

They tried to refit us and turn us into Infantry, but of course we had very little training. They sent us to an aerodrome near Bandoeng the capital, to defend it against Paratroops. After the invasion we were bombed and machine gunned, without ceasing and really reduced us to a very bad way. We were eventually forced to retire and I had to drive a lorry with a small body of men, for three days and nights, until I was nearly crazy with fatigue. The Dutch eventually surrendered, and for 24 hours the British Troops tried to organise a defence by themselves, but of course it was all-impossible. The Capitulation was a most heartbreaking affair, and as soon as possible some of us got to the coast to try and get away in a small boat, but of course it was a hopeless proposition. We were left to ourselves for about two weeks before the Japs began to rope us in, and during this time we had our final fling as regards food, etc. At last we were moved by train to Batavia, and about 2,000 of us were put into an ex-coolie camp which was in a filthy mess. Living conditions, once we had cleaned up, were not too bad, and for a while we were living off our own canned rations. At this stage all my friends were with me except Clavell, who was wounded, and of whom I have not heard of since.

After a short time we went onto rice rations, and we are still eating it. It was very bad fare, but, we were able to buy eggs and a small amount of canned food. We had concerts. Football matches. And many forms of amusements, and looking back, we did not have a very bad time. There was plenty of dysentery and malaria, but I avoided all except dengue, which laid me up for about a week, but I was very well nursed by my batman, whose name was Albert Heath, a dustman of the Nottingham Corporation – a very rough and ready, though devoted servant. I shared a small billet with two other officers, and our experiments in cookery were most interesting. We made strange jams out of tropical fruits, duffs out of tapioca flour, biscuits out of rice, anything we could get hold of. I even went as far as acting in a Shakespeare production to pass the time. We were fortunate in having radio sets hidden in camp for news, and about our efforts to lump stores “through the wire” from natives. I will tell you later.

We were not separated from the men as we expected, but all lived together in one camp. The officers did not have much work, but every day certain of the junior officers went out with the working parties to supervise. This was not too bad because it gave us a chance to buy stores on the quiet. The men worked in the docks loading petrol, oil, bombs, in fact all the things they were not supposed to do, but our friends the Nips had no use for international law. The treatment, however, was not too bad in spite of a few beatings up, and I was only hit once in the 7 months that I was in Java.

At last the day arrived that we had all been dreading, when we received news of our departure for Japan. It was from that day my troubles really began. We were all crowded into the hold of a tramp steamer, and set sail for Singapore, a journey of about 5 days. We were so crowded I couldn’t even lie down, and of course we were all mixed up, from the Colonel to the private. The food was not impossible, and by this time we were used to eating rice. Our arrival in Singapore was very welcome, because we were allowed of the ship to wash. We were there for about four days, and then put on board the “Shonan Maru”, a filthy tramp of about 4,000 tons. Of the journey to Japan I will tell you later, but I think the “Altmark” was a pleasure cruise in comparison. We contracted dysentery, in which about 60% of those who caught it died. I suppose we had about 20 burials a day. In all, there were about three hundred deaths as a result of this voyage. We called at Formosa on the way and on our arrival in Japan, we were put into a “hospital” camp in Moji. We were taken from the ship on a freezing day in open lorries, in tropical kit. There were two of us alive on our lorry on arrival at the camp.

The unfortunate part of it was, that I was separated from all my friends. We had many deaths in the camp, and the Japs did very little to help us. Some American Navy medical staff did some very good work for us. The food at first was quite good consisting of soya beans, rice mixed with wheat, and a little fish, also one meal a day we had bread. Work for the men started after about 2 months, on the ships in the harbour, loading cement and flour, etc., and at first life was not too unpleasant. There were about eleven officers here, and we were sent out to supervise the parties. After about eleven months, about 70 “Dutch” arrived from Java. The unfortunate part, the majority of them were half-caste Malays, and were as black as the ace of spades. Conditions in camp began to get very bad.

Food was scarce, just a little rice and watery vegetable stews. I lost so much flesh I began to look like a bag of bones. There were many “beatings up” of which I came in for my full share. Some were really serious and several broken limbs have resulted. It is very difficult to write about life here, so I will deal with each aspect by itself.

First of all, the most important thing was the food. At breakfast we had vegetable stew and steamed rice. The stew consisted mainly of water with such vegetable as happen to be in season. These consist mainly of cabbage and a vegetable called Dicon. It is really a large radish without any taste at all, and it appears to be a staple food of the Japs. In season we have a few sweet potatoes - Irish potatoes are a luxury here, and we very seldom see them. In the summer we have squash, which is like marrow. The rice is unpolished and mixed with wheat, and as the war progressed we have had plenty of millet. We have the same meal in the evening, occasionally they give us soya beans to mix with the rice, also about once every ten days we had a little fish, but recently there had been nothing. A little fruit from time to time, which was very nice. For lunch we have had a form of bread. This is made of flour and baking powder, and is steamed. As you can well guess we have had a very thin time.

As regards the Red Cross organisation, there has been little chance for them in this country. We have never seen a representative. A few food parcels have been sent into this camp, but a lot of them were stolen by the Japs. What we did receive were very pleasant. We also had some American clothing, of which I got a blanket, an overcoat, a pair of gloves, winter cap, towel, and an under vest. The clothing problem was very bad, and most of us finished up in rags, especially bad were boots, in which I was luckier than most

It was not long before you had news of us, it seems – we were all very anxious because we were unable to write to you. I have received about 30 letters and cards from you, including a photo of you all, which certainly cheered me up. How grown up the girls look. I have also had a cable from you, I was the first in camp to received one. I also sent one, but I doubt if it ever reached you. The Americans received a few parcels from home, but we have not, for which we are glad, because they would only have been stolen. I also received a letter from Major Dimmock, which was very much appreciated. Lorna, Mary Bull, and Audrey Wilson have written several times, but I have not heard a word from Mary Tracey.

As regards work, the men here have been employed as stevedores on the ships, and also in a railway goods yard. It was very hard work for the poor fellow, especially as they were not getting enough to eat. At first the officers went with them to supervise, but later we were given a large vegetable farm to work on. The method of cultivation in this country is a very primitive one indeed, and we found that the tools very awkward to manage. We grew Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, tarie root, onions and tomatoes. The climate is really perfect for these things, but nothing tastes as good as it does at home, because it grows too quickly. We used to work about a 10 hour day, so you can imagine I am very sick of gardening.

As regards the actual war, we have never been more than two weeks behind the main events, thanks to a few who learned to read a little Japanese from papers smuggles into the camp. Of course, we never knew details, and some of the rumours were amazing.

Things have been getting very bad here, as the war progressed, and the economic condition in this country is appalling. The poverty and squalor is really awful. The Americans have been bombing this country with fire- bombs – they raided Moji for about three hours one night, and about burnt the town down. All the warehouses and buildings are built of wood, and they burnt like tinder. We were fortunate in that our building was not destroyed. All our men were busy that night fighting fires and trying to save the property of the poor civilians who have lost everything. We have been told that nearly all the towns have suffered, and we all observed the town of Shimonasaki burnt out. We were also dive-bombed on one occasion, but no prisoners were hurt. Almost every night we spent several hours in the air-raid shelter, whilst they dropped mines in the harbour. We have had the satisfaction of seeing several ships sunk. We actually saw one ship strike and sink in about half a minute. The harbour here is full of wrecks

As regards to medical treatment, the Japs have been very slack and many men have died that could have been saved. We have been sent plenty of American medicines, but of course the Nips would not give it out. The Jap “doctor” was a swine, and sent men out to work who were in a very bad condition. I suppose we have had about 300 deaths, of English, Dutch and Americans, mostly from dysentery and malnutrition. The death rate of prisoners in Japanese hands must run into thousands.

Many were sent to Siam to build a railway, and thousands died of cholera. The Americans in the Phillipines had a bad time of it with tropical illness. Hundreds of prisoners were sunk by the Yanks on the way to Japan. So, taking it all round, we are very lucky to be alive.

So now we are just waiting for the boats to take us home. We are of course very impatient, and some of the Americans are a little trouble-some , but no doubt all will be well in the end. Fortunately we have plenty of good books to read, and I have done a lot of reading, here. It is really strange, being left alone by the Japs, and no work to be done. The weather is really perfect, although perhaps a little too hot in summer. It was, however, in winter that we suffered most, owing to the inadequate clothing and food.

Please excuse this bad writing and disjointed phrases, but after three years it comes a little strange to write at all. There is so much to say that I cannot even attempt to write half of it.

There are so many questions I want to ask you. I was very surprised to see Dad in Blue again, when did he leave the Home Guard? And what was the City job you speak of ? I am longing to see Ruth and Betty and Lovell again, and find out what they have all being doing. I have been making so many plans for my first holiday, that I don’t know what to do. I am also very anxious for news of Spencer and the Blands, and the rest of my pals. I also hope most of my school pals got through safely. I hope the ford is still working, and that there will be a little petrol available.

You cannot guess how I am longing to get home again to mother’s cooking - she certainly won’t find me very had to please. I often wonder how you fared for rations, I hope it did not get very severe. We also wondered what the V.1 the Germans used were all about, and how much damage they did.

My birthday is in a few days, and am hoping to be on board a ship and out of this damn country. My 21st birthday I was in prison camp in Java – we celebrated it with a feast of a tin of bully beef (amazing luxury), 3 boiled duck eggs each, a pineapple and a coconut. But I intend to make up for that when I arrive in the land of the living, and we are all banking on Xmas at home. Boy! What a Christmas that will be, after all these years!

As far as Japan is concerned, I have seen very little of the place apart from the district around the camp, but what I have seen of it the Nips are welcome to it. The towns are dirty and unhygienic. In our building we have fleas all the year round, and lice in the Winter, The ordinary people have been quite alright as far as we are concerned, but the soldiers are a bullying and cruel crowd, and I have no time for them at all. Now that Japan has lost her possessions, they are going to have a very hard time of it.

Of my own unit, the 89th Bty. I am afraid there are only about half of us left, and I have been unable to get very much news of the others in other camps. I am glad you got to know Mrs. James – did you meet any of the other relatives of any of the officers? Mrs Harper-Smith lives at Oxted Surrey, which is very near Couldsdon. I would very much like to know about Clevell, who as you know was with me from the very beginning at Aldershot.

I have been reading through your letters and I will answer the questions as far as possible. I did not received any letters addressed to Borneo – the first I got was Dated May 21st

You talk of moving again, but I really don’t know where to suggest. Sussex and Kent are both very nice, and are not too far away from town? I would love to live in Devon, but that is a bit remote. Your suggestion of Angmering sounds good. Some of the fellows here speak very highly of it although it is rather quiet. We used to spend hours here talking about places we knew at home, as you can guess we were all very homesick.

I am so glad you have kept my friends posted, because I have only been allowed to write about five times, so of course so they have all been home. They have all been so limited in the amount of words that I have not been able to tell you much.

This waiting to leave the country is grim. So far no Allies have arrived here, but we have been told tat American aircraft will drop supplies into our camp. So we are looking forward to some good food soon, A few days ago we went for a swim, but bathing in this district is very bad, dirty water and rocks.

I will keep this letter open until we eventually leave, and then I will post it as the first port of call.

30.8.45 Just a few more lines - yesterday I received 4 more postcards from you, and one more from Audrey. So you have decided on Bexhill, and I am looking forward to seeing the place. Is it fairly easy to town? I am surprised to hear you have only received three cards from me, I have written several, including one long letter.

I am still waiting for the aeroplane to drop supplies to us. Yesterday a B17 flew low over the camp, and spotted us, so we are in great hopes for today. It isn’t as though we are hungry at the moment, but the diet is still damn dull

9th September 1945

Please excuse the remainder of this letter in type, but I have no pen of my Own, but I have to borrow what I can. Since I stopped writing last many interesting things have happened to us . In the first place, B.19s have been dropping food supplies by parachute to us, so we are now living very well indeed, and as you can guess I have put on about 16.lbs., in the past three weeks. These enormous aircraft come down to about 300ft with their bomb racks open, and drop about 16 chutes at a time. They have dropped food of all kinds, canned meats, biscuits, cheese, etc. and all kinds of sweets and cigarettes, toilet articles and clothing. I* received two sets of underwear, a towel, hankies, long pants, so I am looking very smart again after all these years. It was strange to see the American bombers come over and not have to go into the air raid shelter, especially with the atom bomb about. Of course by now the s come over and not have to go into the air raid shelter, especially with the atom bomb about. Of course by now the Yanks have landed in this island and we see a lot of Aircraft flying over us.

We are no longer prisoners of course, and are allowed to wander about as we like. So far I have been by train to the Headquarters camp at Fukuoka, and hour and a half journey. The railways in this country are not very fast or very comfortable, but of course Mother knows them as well as I do. I have also been over to Honshu the Main Island to visit a camp at Ubi. There I saw Chenery, George James, and all the other old pals, I had not seen for over three years. What a re-union we all had, and what a party, we all had to celebrate our survival. The only thing that marred our happiness was the fact that we still knew nothing of Clavell or of Lt. Harris and Capt. Bickerton, who both went to Borneo.

I do hope they are well, but it must have been a terrible place to have to work under the Japanese. We do know that the casualties in Thailand were terrible. Many of them of course, have died as a result of the Japanese hospitality, and many are in a very poor state of health and are just shadows of their former selves, but I think a few more weeks of good living will make all the difference in the world, and by the time they arrive home, they will be looking as fit as they were when they left

American aircraft have also dropped plenty of magazines to us, and we are learning the events that led up to the end of the war. It is of course all new stuff, and we are longing to be able to read the whole story. It appears that the prisoners in Germany got as bad if not worse that we did. I certainly hope that they make the responsible people suffer in both countries.

At the moment we are complete masters in Moji. The authorities have been ordered by Headquarters to do everything for us, and in the usual Jap way they are bowing and scraping. They are providing us with beer and have given officers motor cars for our use. I went to a kind of Japanese café the other day with some of my pals, and had quite a gay time – there was plenty of beer and Saki, a Japanese wine distilled from rice, and they even produced Geisha Girls. While I was at this other camp the other day, which is in the country, I had my first egg for about three and a half years.

Today we had instructions to stand by and get ready to be flown out of the country to Okinawa, so maybe I will be clear of this accursed country soon. The story goes that we are to be flow out in DC.3 transport planes to this Island, and from there we will be sent to Manilla in B29. But of course the plans are by no means cut and dried yet. It appears that the authorities are very concerned about us, and are very anxious to get us out just as quickly as possible. The newspapers in the United States are printing the most amazing horror stories about conditions of camps in Japan, and I do hope that you have not been unduly worried about me because I am sure I have in no way suffered any permanent harm at the hands of these damn people.

I am very upset to hear that my batman, Albert Heath, who nursed me so well when I had dysentery, died in one of the other camps, a little while ago. He caught a cold through getting wet through on a working party and because he was in such a weak condition he developed pneumonia, and the poor old boy died He is one of many I am afraid

That just about brings me up to date, so I will close for now and leave the letter open in case anything else turns up before we depart

Will close this now


Best Love