by John Franken
Late in the afternoon of October 23, 1942, we arrived in the harbour of Nagasaki, Japan. The temperature was about 14C, and many of us caught pneumonia when we got on deck. The difference in temperature from below deck and above was so extreme that it was unavoidable not to catch something. The harbour looked beautiful though, with the hills in the background and the clear blue sky. Flat boats came alongside the Asama Maru that each took about fifty POWs and their belongings on board. An old man was navigating the boat I was on, with a long paddle at the rear and there was one guard at the front. After we landed, we were counted again and again. Then we had to march to the famous Fukuoka II, a wooden camp with a guardhouse and a high barbed wire fence all around it. Again we were counted and re-counted and then searched. Everything sharp was taken away.
The camp was built in a U-form with 18 rooms on each side and in the connecting rounded part were the washrooms and the kitchen. Each room was for 52 POWs. There were bunk beds on each side of the room, two rows of 13. The lower bed was about two and a half feet off the ground and the space underneath had sliding doors; that is where we kept our belongings. Over the whole length in the centre of the room were narrow tables and benches. At the end of the room was one big glass window wall. I was going to be in this room for the next few years, room 14. My number was printed on a band of cloth which I had to sew on all my clothes: it was No. 620.
After a few days of rest, dysentery broke out among the men and many dehydrated very quickly. They got opium drops to stop the outflow. Often, they did not make it to the toilets as the waiting lines became longer and longer every day. Many died in the first period in this camp, also because they suffered from pneumonia caught when they were exposed to the drastic temperature changes when coming out of the boiling heat of the hold of the ship into the cold fall air. There had been nothing to cover up, no warm clothing or anything...
On the 1st of November 1942 we had to report for work. The only thing we heard again was Kurah, Kurah! I was suspicious when they asked for volunteers, as I remembered the day when they asked for volunteers for the famous telegraph jobs in Makassar, which turned out to be the carrying of telephone posts! Here, all kinds of work were available, as they needed drillers, cleaners, welders, etc. Then we got the speeches... about working hard and being punished if caught loafing, about violating rules. I did not like to volunteer for the heavy work so I chose to be a cleaner. This meant I had to sit in front of a big heap of dirt that had been collected off a ship that was being built. The main thing was to take out all the nuts and bolts and other metal objects for cleaning and re-use.
There was little control and the guards were far away. We were now under the supervision of some wharf foremen. It was a very cold job and, without gloves, my fingers became badly swollen. The noise around us was unbearable, so I put a piece of wet newspaper in my ears. The officers did not have to work. I was envious of the riveters who had a little coal stove to heat up the rivets before they were installed on the steel plates to be hammered in. The ship being built was resting on big wooden blocks which we also had to place when the keel was laid.
What I did was a very dirty job and it was very dark under the ship. There were lots of pools of water and I always had wet feet. One day while we were resting, we made a small fire to warm ourselves when a guard happened to spot us and then all hell broke loose! We had to remain in a push-up position for twenty minutes. Every time our bodies sagged, we were hit on the behind with the but of his gun. My stomach muscles were hurting for weeks afterwards. I went to see one of the four doctors. He told me to use hot towels to relieve the pain; the same remedy applied to all twelve of us.
Our lunch consisted of an amount which could fit into two sardine cans. One with some seaweed and the other with rice. Some of our boys filled these cans up prior to going to work, but once there, we had no chance to heat it up. We also could not leave the cans out of our sight for a moment or they would be stolen in no time. When we were passing an office, we were always looking for scraps of food and especially the smokers were after every single cigarette butt they could find. After a day's work we were starving when we came back to the camp. Then the Japanese would promise extra food for better production.
After a while, I got a break: they were asking for welders. I had learned that at the Technical School, so I volunteered and was told to make a test piece. Just before the foreman came for inspection, I heated up the piece with an acetylene burner. The foreman was very pleased and the next day I got my welding outfit. It was made up of a canvas jacket and trousers plus a welding cap. Now I could sabotage by so-called 'cold welding'. It looked good on the outside but it was not melted together on the inside. After a while I was promoted to welding the big masts of the ships and I started to do a better job. The trick was trying to stay healthy as you would get only half a ration of food when you became sick. The weather turned colder and colder and I was glad I had my canvas outfit. Then one day, while I was hammering off the slag, I got a sliver in my eye and it became seriously infected.
I was transferred to the saw mill where I had to assist an elderly Japanese at the smith's fire. I had to hammer with a five pound hammer and make parts for the saw mill under the guidance of the old man. From some steel rods I made a rack for inside the chimney to heat up the lunches for the boys who were working outside and this was greatly appreciated, especially in the winter.
As part of the job, I had to get the coal for the smith's fire. I had to travel through a little village nearby where the dried fish was hanging outside and so sometimes I had dried fish for lunch. Because I had trouble walking in my rubber shoes — there had only been a size 11 available — I filled the front end up with straw which kept my toes warm, but in the meantime the shoes were still flapping around.
Sometimes I had to help outside and one time a big steel plate fell on my foot but, luckily enough, it landed on the tip of my shoe which was filled with straw and that saved my toes. On another occasion I had to help with directing steel plates which were to be hoisted to the side of a ship. I had to signal the crane operator by hand movements so that the large plates could be pulled out of the big piles. He could not see what he was doing, so that made me the eyes of the operator. The cables of the crane were one inch thick and there was a large metal block which kept the cables taut. At one point the cable kept rolling off the main roller uncontrollably as the operator had not paid attention. The cable block kept on coming down! It grazed my head and it stopped just above my hand which was just above the steel plate wall of the ship. I had to force the block away and only the inside of my hand was blood stained.
One afternoon, the steel cable slipped off the main pulley at the end of the beam attached to the main tower, about 150 ft high. I was ordered to go up there and put the cable back on the pulley roller. It was quite an ordeal, as I also had to take all the equipment up with me to attach to the cable, so the hoist could be put back in place. Only when I was back on the ground again did I get a reaction to what I had done. I needed a rest and went under the ship out of sight — or so I thought. I was spotted by a soldier and received the same punishment as before. He let me off for a change with only 15 push-ups but my muscles were sore just the same.
Thank God that I was not a smoker, so I could trade my ration of cigarettes for warm clothing and food. One of my friends was quite a smoker. He pretended to be nuts and performed very well. The Japanese made him do all kinds of tricks. When they threw away their cigarette butts he crawled over and from a distance of about three feet he made a jump for it. He got a sign sewn on his jacket that read Bakka, which means "crazy." After the war we had some good laughs about it.
One of my friends lost his life — he was one of many — when he was working about 50 ft above ground transporting concrete in a wheelbarrow in order to fill up a pillar that would support a rail track for the new electrical crane. Because of his rubber shoes being too big, he tripped over a bolt which was there to support the new track. He fell to his death breaking his neck which, the Japs said, was his own fault. Four of us, who were his closest friends, paid our last respects and took him by boat to Nagasaki for cremation. We had to gather some bones and some ashes and took these back in an urn to the camp. This urn was placed in a special room with those of others who had died due to illness and accidents.
At the beginning of December, 1942, about 300 POWs came in from Singapore and they were quite warmly dressed. I traded cigarettes for some of their air force shirts. They had lots of news and told us about the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse. Then Christmas came along and the Japanese surprised us when we each received an apple. We were very happy with this small token. We also got four days off, just like they did. We deserved this rest and we used part of it to fix our clothing and do our laundry. In room 18 was a soldier who got a violin from the Japanese to play on special occasions and weekends.
For the New Year we received our first winter outfit of the same quality as that of the soldiers. It made the winter more bearable. We felt miserable when it rained as we got soaked and our feet were always wet, so we had a hard time keeping warm. The road to the wharf was a real country road and when it rained it was very muddy. I used to slide instead of walk and there was always that guard with the stick...
Then it was my turn to get dysentery. The old Japanese man who was my boss hid me under the driving belt of the main power supply and every morning, as soon as I was at work, he brought me some soft rice. On the way to the wharf I had to break out of the marching ranks to go on the side of the road and then I had to run to catch up with them all. I lost a lot of weight and I was able to count my ribs. From Dr. Niewenhuis I got opium drops to stop the outflow but I surely had to cut some more holes in my belt. I count myself very lucky to have pulled through, as many died from this disease.
Our resistance was very low and there were many trips to the crematorium. Then the Red Cross parcels arrived. With them were also very good leather shoes, but we were not allowed to wear them to work. They were waterproof and had heavy leather soles (I think that it would have made the other Japanese labourers who worked alongside us jealous if we had been wearing new shoes).
That first winter made me feel really miserable. The days were very short and I was wondering how long this prison time would last and whether I could survive it now that my health had deteriorated. Sometimes I was feeling very low, but then I went to see my friends and we talked and talked about willpower and trust in God as he would take care of everything. We talked about home, what the future might bring and about our plans for when we would get out of prison.
The hunger got worse. We started to talk about food all the time. The Red Cross boxes had to be divided. We received a two pound box for the four of us but we were keeping that for special occasions. Our water retention got slowly worse due to lack of salt in our food. Sometimes we had to run four times during the night and the lineups for the toilets also did not get any better. Then four of us found a solution by bringing a tin can with seawater from the shipyard to camp. We boiled this water on the kitchen fires until it was all evaporated. A black salty powder was left in the bottom of the tin can which we collected to add to our food. This took care of that problem and many followed our example and did the same thing. Then our feet started to swell up due to a lack of Vitamin B. The sawmill where I was working at the time had a machine at the smith's fire to separate the chaff from the rice. I managed to gather a couple of cups per day which I ate after I had cooked it in some water above the smith's fire and it worked — slowly my legs got back to normal.
At work we were always on the lookout for the guards. This was not only necessary for us POWs but also for the civilian workers who had to do their share in the necessary war effort. They could be reported and punished as well. We knew our way around on the ships that were being built very well. The guards would not come to the places where there was a chance of accidents. For example, the riveters were throwing red hot metal rivets way up to other riveters who would catch them in a metal cone. Where this was going on, we were quite safe and were never caught for resting or committing other infractions.
The noise was unbearable and the cranes overhead kept on running with the beams and steel plates for the ships. One day an accident did happen. A steel cable carrying maybe a ton of beams broke only about 20 ft away from me after it had just passed over my head. Nobody was hurt this time, but there were many other accidents. A friend of mine tripped and fell over the side but luckily landed on a coil of riveting air hoses, which saved his life.
Our sleep at night was very often interrupted due to the attacks by the bedbugs so we tried to catch up a little during the day when we were at work. Some of us would be looking out for the guards, although they would not come to the dirty places since they were wearing white uniforms. Most of us would sleep during lunchtime when everything came to a standstill. It would be over in no time and then everything came to life again. We were happy when the day had gone by without any mishaps or beatings. Upon our return, we were counted and counted again when we entered the camp, just in case someone might have escaped on the way back. After everybody was in, it would be time for a smoke, but only when the guard came around to supply the match. If anyone tried to light up before that, it was considered a crime and you would be severely punished as this meant that you were in possession of matches.
Around six o'clock it was feeding time and every room in turn picked up the barrels with rice and the soup with sometimes a small piece of meat in it. Then came the "tea water" as it looked only slightly yellow but it was hot, which was important to me. We would talk about the events of that day, but mainly about food. When the horn sounded, it was time to hit the deck and at 9:30 it was lights out.
We received Red Cross parcels four times a year and we divided them among ourselves. I am sure that there were enough parcels for each and everyone of us, but I suspect that the guards must have taken part of them because their food was also not so good due to war rationing. Later on we got our bath once every ten days in a cement pool about 12 x 15 ft. The idea was to get in there first and wash yourself. Even if the water was boiling hot, it was clean only for the first groups. By the time it was the turn of the last rooms of men, the water would be black but still nice and hot. So they rotated the schedule and every time another room was first. On those occasions, when everyone was naked, you could see our ribs and bones sticking out, as well as the bites of bedbugs and lice which had left welts and marks all over our bodies, but at least we felt clean once every ten days.
Then there was a big catastrophe. Where we were working there were four ships in the docks. Two near the sea, behind a movable hollow pontoon door. The other two separated by another movable wall. When the ships near the seaside were finished and ready to go, the doors of the locks were opened and the seawater let in. The ships would rise till they were even with the sea level and then they were pushed out for further completion. On January 24, 1944, there was a spring tide which happens only when there is a full moon. The first door collapsed and the whole dock flooded in no time. The two ships in the dock were lifted up and pushed against the second hollow movable wall, which cracked. Then the water seeped into the second dock. We saw that an accident was about to happen and every POW got out of there as fast as possible, but the Japanese labourers just kept on working, which is still beyond my comprehension. Suddenly, the dam burst and the other two ships rammed the ones which were not yet in floating condition. It all happened in a flash. We pulled lots of Japanese workers to safety, but many drowned under the ships. When we were counted, none of the POWs had lost their life.
On both sides of the dock were many concrete floors which were used to supply the ships below with the steel components. There were ten floors on each side. While we were being counted on the side of the dock, one of the Japanese workers fell down from the tenth floor right in front of us. His brains were smashed all over the pavement but the guards apparently found it a big joke. They were laughing their heads off when this worker had his accident. Until today I cannot understand the Japanese sense of humour!
We would occasionally see badly damaged ships in the harbour which were to be repaired. The Japanese did not like it when we heard rumours and we were threatened with severe punishment if we would spread them. In June, we heard about the invasion of France and a possible end of the war in Europe. In March 1944, we heard the air raid alarm going off daily and we were overjoyed to see the first B29 bombers flying over. It was not possible to have a sign on top of the roofs of our camp buildings to indicate to the pilots it was a prison camp. We were put to work by building big tunnels into the rocky hills to be used as air raid shelters. The sirens were now going off several times a day. On May 14, 1944, we saw the first fighters flying over which meant that aircraft carriers were not too far off the coast of Japan or, that the Americans had captured an island not too far off. We were not sure whether the Japanese would continue to fight if the Americans would land on the main island.
On the 27th of May we were told to get ready for transfer to another location. Only a few hundred would have to stay behind. On the 17th of June the names were made known and I was one of the men to be moved to a coal mine. We packed our few belongings in a bag and took it with us. We left around 2 a.m. to go to the train station and from there we did not leave until 7 a.m. The windows were tightly shut and we sat like sardines in a can. There was hardly any room to walk over to the toilets. We arrived in the evening after an almost 12-hour ordeal. We had to walk a good 40 minutes to the coal mine camp while a truck took the bags with our possessions. The camp looked very bad from the outside and we did not know what to expect. As soon as we arrived we were told to gather to listen to a speech from the camp commander. We were told to work hard, not to try to escape... the same old routine. Then we were searched and counted and counted. Anything of value was taken, also any writing material.
The camp commander was very strict. You had to make sure that you had all your buttons done up at all times. If you had missed one, you would be severely punished but, on the other hand, here the coal miners could take a bath every day and we also received more food. The rooms were small — six men to a room — but it was a little more private. We were being trained for the work in the mines. It was very dangerous and there were many accidents. I became skinnier by the day but tried to remain healthy. We had to walk down the shaft while the Japanese used a little lorry. I did not see daylight until the weekend, as we left very early in the morning when it was still dark and it was evening when the work day was over.
When we heard that the planes had been flying over to bomb Tokyo or other places many times a day, we felt that freedom could not be far off but did not want to expect too much.
In the spring of 1945, we heard that Germany had surrendered. Then, on August 9, my friends saw a flash in a northern direction and we knew something important had happened. In the evening we saw a red glow in the distance — another city had been bombed. On August 15, we noticed the Japanese soldiers listening to the radio with long faces. We did not hear any air raid sirens any more and the night shift did not have to go to work. The tension in the camp was growing. We felt that this was the end of the war. Our officers were invited to come to the main office and were offered chairs to sit on. There they heard that the Emperor had decided to end the war. It was hard to make the change over to freedom and to this day, I thank the Lord that I made it.
Then came the first Americans and there were a lot of handshakes. It became possible to make small trips outside the camp. We noticed that the population looked very poor because they also had suffered. I remember that three of us had our picture taken and we paid with a blanket.
On the 18th of September we left the camp and were taken by train back to Nagasaki. This time every window was open. We yelled at the farmers in the fields. Some of us were chewing gum and smoking the best of cigarettes.
The train arrived in Nagasaki where a month before the atom bomb had been dropped. We were all very quiet when we saw the damage. The train took about 40 minutes to get to the main station where the American Red Cross was waiting for us. We could only make out some streets and the remnants of some concrete buildings. Everything was burnt — the town was no more. The burning smell still lingered and it seemed that the shadows of the dead were everywhere. Only the clicking of the wheels of the train was heard as we went through this mass grave.
Story copyright © John Franken, 2005, 2010
All text on this site copyright © 2005, 2010 by Ria Koster, except as otherwise noted.