A Day in the Life of an 11-Year-Old Prisoner of War
by Wouter Hobé
It happened in Tjimahi, a town on the island of Java, formerly the Netherlands East Indies. This town is high in the mountains. The early mornings are quite cool and misty.
The year was 1943. It was during the Second World War when the Japanese army had invaded Java and held all the white people in prison camps.
The camp was a part of the city which they had encircled with barbed wire and covered with gedek, a mat made of bamboo strips, so that you could not see out. This barrier was made double, so that in between the guards could do their rounds and prevent us from contacting the outside.
The guards were first Japanese or Korean soldiers that were forced to join the Japanese army or stay in prison themselves. Later they were replaced with local Indonesian guards that were also forced into the Japanese army. They were called heihos. These were recruited from the romushas, forced labourers of the local population.
I was 11 years old when I was taken away from my mother. My father had first been incarcerated, then my mother, brother and I. Later my brother was taken away and then it was my turn. We had no idea where everybody went. Only after the war were we reunited with each other through the work of the Red Cross.
In that section of town there were normal brick houses, which formerly housed one family. The floors were covered with ceramic tiles, so that they were easy to clean and disinfect. In the tropics one always has to fight diseases. Now, however, there were forty to fifty people living in each house. Everyone had the bedspace of one person to call his own. What bed? We slept on the hard tiles with only a pillow and a small army blanket to cover ourselves with. I had a little suitcase with some clothing in it and my personal belongings like a toothbrush, a comb and a bible. This suitcase was situated at the head against the wall. We were all sleeping with our heads towards the wall and our feet sticking into the aisle, on both sides of the room.
This particular morning I had woken up and noticed that I had slept with my mouth open. It was very dry and I tried to work up some saliva. To that end I chewed and chewed or, at least, made the motions. Till I really put my jaws together and I almost vomited. What happened?
During my sleep a bedbug had entered my mouth and was sitting on one of my molars, till it got squashed. I have never had such a bad taste in my mouth and the smell was awful. It smells like cilantro. That is why to this day I cannot eat the stuff.
So now I was awake. I was very thin, due to malnutrition. I was wearing a loincloth only. It was a marvellous piece of equipment. You could easily wash it and when you had to go to the bathroom you had no trouble removing it. Why do I make a point of that? First, there was no bathroom. Second, we had chronic diarrhea so that when we thought we had to go, it was a run towards the riverside.
We always sat together with other guys and watched each others stool. This was a survival tactic. When you saw blood in the stool of your neighbour you first advised him to see the doctor immediately. When he refused, you reported him.
It happened one day that I saw blood in my neighbour's stool and he went to the doctor, was diagnosed with dysentery and died a couple of days later. Dysentery is a very contagious disease. And we had no medicine to fight it.
Breakfast consisted first of a nice cup of coffee. This was brewed in the central kitchen and was brought to us in big drums that were carried on a bamboo pole in between two people. This coffee was mostly brown water and warm. We were sitting hunched on the curb of the street wrapped in our blankets, the morning mist hanging around us. Then, in the same fashion we were treated to a porridge-like substance. It was actually starch boiled in water. No sugar or salt was added. Yes, the same starch that one uses to stiffen material. If you did not feel like eating it right away, the starch would separate and sink to the bottom, with water on top.
Three times a day we had to be counted. That was always a very traumatic experience. Firstly, it was a humiliation because we were kids and did not speak Japanese. We learned fast to obey, as otherwise there would be a beating.
It was accompanied by a lot of screaming and howling.
We were treated worse than dogs.
We had to line up in rows of ten, three deep. At a certain command we had to bow down to the Jap in charge as if he were the emperor himself. If you did not bow down deep enough, there was a beating, usually with a bamboo rod, sometimes with the sheath of his sword.
Kiotski! — Attention! Keirei! — Bow down! Ichi, ni, san, si, go, etc — one, two, three, four, five, and so on.
Then: Ijo arimassen! — everything in order! And we were dismissed.
If there was one person missing we had to report the reason, usually this was "in hospital" or "dead."
When somebody died he was put outside the house to be picked up by the "ravens." He was then wrapped in bamboo matting, as there were no coffins, and buried the same day.
The cemetery was not too far from our camp, on the left. We were the last camp on the way. There were various other camps to our right.
So every day the other camps were also burying their dead and the procession passed our camp where we joined them. Sometimes there were more than a hundred bodies in one day. Some of these bodies were already disintegrating due to the heat and the malnutrition. Sometimes it happened that an arm or a leg fell off the cart. We would pick it up, put it with the body and continue on our way.
Lunch consisted of one bun a day. This bread was baked in another camp. There was no yeast. This camp consisted of mostly older people: 10,000 of them. In the camp were people of all backgrounds. Scientists, doctors, engineers, common folk, pharmacists, etc. One particular guy had found out that urine of older people contains vitamin-B, and yeast is also vitamin-B. Therefore, in the camp big drums were placed in certain places for everybody to urinate in. This was brought to the kitchen and boiled. The dirty part was removed and the rest was used to bake bread.
I had misgivings about the Japanese behaviour. Anything happened that they did not like, and we were punished. This usually meant no food that day. So to have a sort of buffer against this, I saved one slice per day until I had saved a whole bun. The slice that I saved I dried in the sun, my toast maker. The next day I ate it and saved two slices, etc.
You must understand that this was all done in secret. If your mates found out that you were hiding food, they would steal it from you. Everybody was very hungry and you could not possibly condemn them for doing that. So I had this little suitcase above my pillow that would contain this bun hidden in some clothing that I still had. This bun was fresh everyday as I ate the stale one.
Dinner consisted of a cup of cooked rice. Not our measuring cup, but a teacup size. From this I dried also a spoonful every day in order to have one cup saved. I would then the next day add water, let it swell and eat it, and save two spoons, etc. We ate the rice with some "vegetable." Usually it was the leaves of the sweet potato, or the greens of the carrots. The Japs ate the sweet potatoes and the carrots. Sometimes we also got the sweet potatoes but they were mostly the rotten ones. To this day I have trouble eating them.
All this saving came in handy one day. There were some people caught smuggling and the Jap punished our camp with two days no food. I remember the second day, when I also had nothing to eat. It was very painful. We were rolling on the floor because of stomach cramps.
During one of the transports, now with sick people to the hospital, I was told that somebody was looking for me. It was the custom to mingle with the others and ask whether anybody knew a member of your family. This was the only way we could find out any news.
It so happened that my brother was in another camp in Tjimahi. We had passed each other three times without recognizing each other. He had grown, tremendously according to my view, and I was still small. He was wearing clothing that I did not recognize as he had traded his clothes for larger ones. He was wearing wooden slippers. I was bald due to the fact that head lice were rampant and this way we could control disease. I was almost nude due to the fact that I only wore a loincloth and I was barefoot. That's when I found out that one of the sick was an uncle of mine; he died on the last day of the war of beriberi.
I also joined work groups. With carts we had to go to the station to pick up wood that other prisoners had chopped, for our kitchen. This was the only other means of getting out of the camp, so every opportunity was taken. Our job was to push the carts.
We had a marvellous scheme going. Somebody had made contact with the local population. Of course, there were Japanese guards with rifles. But when you had to go, you had to go.
First, permission was asked and then we got off the road behind a bush, where we found a native waiting for us. There was no place you could smuggle anything in. But we found a way.
The adults in our camp provided us with money that we put into an aspirin tube. This we inserted into our anus. We had made a special cloth bag, elongated with strings on the end, in order to attach it to our loincloth between our legs. When we had to go, we retrieved the money and exchanged it for a piece of meat. This we put into the little bag and fixed it between our legs in our loincloth. We suddenly were very "well hung," but the Japanese soldiers never searched between our legs. When inside the camp, we passed by the kitchen to relieve ourselves of this burden. It was for the common good as this meat was strictly for the patients suffering from beriberi. One little cube of meat per week would cause the swelling of the patients to diminish. Can you now understand that we overeat here in this country?
We also had fun among each other. One day we were at the riverside doing our business and somebody spotted a water snake. We fell over backwards in the water and grabbed the animal. It was skinned and boiled and we ate it.
Further downstream, the adults had built a toilet over the water. A platform with one plank removed and sides to provide some privacy. We were waiting upstream till all cubicles were filled. To that end we had to be in the river with just our heads above water and we could see the "men" through the missing planks. Upon a sign from the ones in the water we put a paper on the water and struck a match so that it was like a flaming ship passing under. In no time there was some screaming as people jumped out of their cubicle, holding their crotch as the hair was singed. This was of course accompanied by huge amounts of laughter on our part.
Most of the day we were loafing around not to get in the Japs' way, otherwise you could expect a beating. Some people were not so lucky. They were put opposite each other and had to beat each other in turn on their faces. In no time flat, two friends can become enemies and will beat each other to death, under great laughter from the Jap.
Or, the Jap would force a couple of people to put a table outside and force them to run around the table. This usually happened at midday, when the sun was at its peak. In no time everybody faints. Ha! Ha!
Or, you had to kneel down on the hot pavement. He would put a bamboo pole behind your knees. You cannot sit down without your knee becoming completely disengaged. Ha! Ha!
You can see where it was utterly necessary to evade the Jap at all costs.
The clothing that I still had was used to trade. I traded one suit for a comb of small sweet bananas. To this end, we crawled through the sewers at night between the changing of the guards and met with natives. I ate this whole comb at once and cured myself from the chronic diarrhea.
God, I am so grateful that I may live in this country Canada, where there is no war and where there is enough to eat. I cannot urge the people enough to count their blessings and bury their differences. Accept one another and learn from each other to the benefit of all.
Story copyright © Wout Hobé, 2005, 2010
All text on this site copyright © 2005, 2010 by Ria Koster, except as otherwise noted.