Tom Marsh - Attitude of Prisoners

It was surprising to watch the different attitudes of the prisoners to their imprisonment. Some resented confinement and reacted so strongly that, like John Payne, they preferred escape and death to further captivity. Some escaped by throwing in the sponge and dying. Others became a listless as dumb animals. They paid little or no attention to their surroundings. They did only what they were compelled to do and disappeared into the mass, losing all individuality. A few, however, became leaders and took responsibility. These the Japanese put in charge of work gangs and fatigue parties. Some of the NCOs were very helpful in organizing the men and keeping up discipline and morale. Others were useless. Our officers at Hong Kong made promotions to Corporal, Sergeant, and company Sergeant Major. These promotions were sometimes not in line with field service and seniority. Those who showed the most courage, initiative, and capabilities of command in front of the enemy seemed to receive the least recognition.

I was told that one fighting Sergeant who had provided splendid and courageous leadership to his men, while his Company Officer sat in a dugout drinking and refusing to engage the enemy, was threatened with a court martial for fighting that enemy. This never materialized however, as the NCOs record and conduct under fire was too well known.

But to return to the deportment of prisoners, most of the Officers and NCOs hung onto their distinction of rank. The Officers especially benefited by this distinction. They were not required to do any work outside of keeping their own quarters clean. They got a little extra pay and thus some other extras. Their hat and other insignia of rank therefore had to be treasured so that they would be confused with the men. This class distinction was in line with Japanese military practice. The Nips put great importance on rank. A little higher rank gave the owner the right to abuse and beat those beneath him. That our officers did not beat the men was always a surprise to them.

As I recovered from my wounds I put some importance on my appearance and having little to do at Hong Kong I was generally found cleaning my buttons. The rest of the prisoners thought I must be crazy for they had ceased to clean buttons as soon as they were released from the obligation. I however tried to regain my pre-capture standing. Cleaning my buttons I forgot that I was a prisoner. Later the Japs forced all prisoners to repair their clothes, often without proper material. I remember making a needle from the lid of a milk can. It was surprising the things the boys did make, pen knifes, compasses, lighters, and razors. Speaking of razors one lad was an expert at making them. He could take an ordinary table knife with a bone handle, temper the steal and grind and hone the blade so that it was the finest shaving instrument in the camp. Some excellent carving and other artwork were also done. There were also poets and musicians among the prisoners. Some of this poetry and a song have since been published.

While working as a painter in a shipyard near Yokohama I had a Jewish friend named Allister. He was the exact opposite of myself. No one put less importance on his appearance than he did. He just slouched along, his hat pulled down over his ears, his clothes hanging on him with pins. His pants fell over his shoes. He was so slovenly and grotesque that even the Japs at the shipyard mimicked him. One, whom we called Joe Lewis, would ape Allister’s hunched up appearance and shuffle but would pretend to swing a cane. He would say as he shuffled along, “ See American gentlemen take a walk” Then suddenly he would pretend to spy a cigarette butt on the ground, spring upon it, crouch down and furtively hide it on his person. We could not help smiling at these performances for they were just the way Allister acted.

Joe Lewis and Allister did not get on well together. Joe was a “two-ringer” or foreman. He was always trying to ride Allister. The climax came when Joe, in charge of a small gang in which Allister was supposed to be working, thought of the idea of telling Allister to stop talking. This was the worst punishment he could have devised. Allister talked all the time. He talked now, telling Joe there was no rule against talking. Joe replied to the effect that there was one now. Every time he caught Allister talking he threw stones at him. Allister, at last really engaged, seized a very small stone and threw it at Joe. The boys intervened. These little disputes never went to the guards, as all knew that once the Jap Army was brought in all suffered.

Allister was a meek appearing chap. He was so disinterested in his work that he would, by slowly dragging the paintbrush out of the pail, let half the paint drip on the ground or down his coveralls. His coveralls became a dried mass of paint. He would apply the remainder to the surface to be painted paying no attention to how it was spread and as a result left thin and uneven bare spots. In the meantime he talked about anything but the job. I asked him why he did not put his mind on what he was doing.

“On this rusty ironwork,” he replied, “I would go crazy if I did.”

He was quite a philosopher and argued that we should put our real selves beyond being hurt or hungered by the Jap. We should stand back and regard our bodies as something apart. Something that could be exploited and battered but which we would not let affect our true selves. One time when Allister was pretty low, having been given a slap over the head with a rifle butt causing a nasty wound, I said, “What about your philosophy. Can the mind get away from the suffering of the body?”

He replied, “ I can only try.”

I think my association with Allister kept me sane. We talked about everything. We diagnosed the character of others and ourselves, and he said this about me,“You remind me of the typical volunteer British soldier. Your thinking is a hundred years out of date. You see glory in the arms and in war. That went out at Waterloo with the bright uniforms. You have a militia mind that wants to march in step over the precipice.”

I replied, “Do not these modern wars prove that it is your thinking that is out of wrong? Are we not still back a thousand years? Does not our survival and liberation depend on the so called militia mind of thousands of young Canadians, Americans, and Britishers, who are ready and willing to march in their country’s defense.”

He replied “ Perhaps.”

Still, although we sometimes disagreed, we were fast friends and I trust that the world is now treating him more gently.