Necessity: The Mother of Invention
by Fred Eygenstein
When the Japanese started to separate the older boys from their families, I left my mother and sisters in Banju Biru and went to Salatiga, where I ended up in the house of a Chinese with five or six other boys. One of those was Willy Zweers, who also came from Banju Biru and we would stay together all the way to the 15th Bat. — or Tjikudapateuh, meaning "Crippled Horse" — in Bandung.
Shortly after my arrival in Bandung I heard about work in the hospital, so Willy Zweers and I both ended up there. The hospital staff consisted of several physicians and some nurses, all male. I worked in the dysentery hospital, which had a nursing staff of five: one nurse was a heavy set man — who through the war never seemed to lose the weight! — and the other nurse was called Moen, and then there were three young men, including me and Willy.
We slept in the hospital, all together in one room. There were no shifts to work: whoever was awake, worked. The hospital was always full, and often the morgue as well. There was very little medication and when you were admitted to this section, there were only two possibilities: you got better soon or you died. For hospital work we received extra rations, which would be maybe half a bun. A bun was about the size of a small hot dog roll, and the bread was very compact. As there was no yeast, someone thought of collecting the urine of the prisoners and then use it to make yeast for the baking.
In the hospital, we were responsible for changing the beds, which needed to be done very often with dysentery patients, and for cleaning and washing the patients. For this, we had to get water for the mandibakken, which are the large basins holding the water for baths and other purposes. The water had to be carried over quite a distance from another part of the camp. The camp had a Technische Dienst or Technical Service, a sort of think tank consisting of knowledgeable people who came up with ideas on how to solve problems with the limited resources available. They eventually made a pump near the dysentery hospital, so that getting water became easier. To accomplish this, they used a steel hydro pole and made teeth at the bottom of it, so the pole could be used as an auger for digging. At the top they made a handle for turning the shaft. Luckily, the soil lent itself to digging in this fashion. Once the hole was dug, the water was brought up by using telephone poles, which were hollow pipes, with a pump-handle.
Every now and then, when it was not busy in the hospital, we had to go on work detail. That often meant unloading trains. Sometimes we had to carry bags of salt, and when the salt would leak through on our bare skin in the hot weather, it would really sting. Sometimes it was sugar. When possible, we would try to bring some of that back with us in our pockets. We might also get extra rations for the heavy work. These were just short term assignments.
When animals were brought into the camp, they were taken to the slagerij to be killed. In the beginning the buffalos were killed by hitting them with a sledge hammer between the eyes. Later, the Technical Service developed a metal mask with a hole in it. A sharp chisel would be placed in the hole and then hit with a sledgehammer. The hole covered a strategic spot on the animal's head.
Cooking by the inmates was not allowed and the Japanese could tell by the smoke where this was done anyway. So the prisoners developed a way of making a fire without smoke. This was done as follows. In a large drum — about 5 gallon size — a hole was made in the centre of the bottom and in the centre of the lid. A broom handle was inserted through the bottom hole and the drum then filled with sawdust which had been moistened. The sawdust, which came from the zagerij (saw mill), had to be packed really tight. Once the drum was full, the lid was put back, the broom handle removed and a fire started at the bottom hole. The cylindrical hole in the centre worked as a chimney, and the saw dust fire did not smoke. When the fire was no longer needed, or when a guard came around, a rock was put on the hole on top and the fire would die for lack of oxygen.
To light the fire, we had some matches, but also used lighters without fluid, but with a cord that would start to glow because of the flint. Not having pots or pans to cook in, we used tins from the Red Cross parcels or anything else that served the purpose. An English army helmet served as wok. We had very few utensils and no toothbrushes. I still eat with my camp fork, but have somehow lost the spoon.
There was a Japanese officer who was always ranting and raving and could be heard from afar. But he never hit anyone and he never tortured anyone. After the war I saw him again with the allied military forces in the uniform of an American colonel, so I went up to him to ask for an explanation. He told me that he had grown up in San Francisco and was on his way to Japan for a family reunion, when the ship was stopped at sea by the Japanese and taken over. He was put in uniform and had little choice but to do as he was told. By being very loud and always screaming at us, he satisfied the Japanese and did not hurt the prisoners.
One day a plane came over and we watched three parachutists come down: an American, a Dutchman and an Englishman. They walked over to the Commandant's Office and later came out with the Japanese officer to tell the men the war was over. Then the military left and the Japanese had their orders: to protect us!
Story copyright © Fred Eygenstein, 2005
All text on this site copyright © 2005, 2010 by Ria Koster, except as otherwise noted.