Tom Marsh - The Ghost of Christmas at Yokohama

Everyone, if they live long enough, can tell a ghost story and I tell this one for what its worth. At Yokohama we were housed in a long hut divided into bays. Each bay was like a room. There were about ten of them. When we first arrived there were eight men in my bay and I came to know them well. Too well in some cases as constant companions in misery often bored one and I could have screamed at the sameness and the pettiness. The same man at the same day after day would make the same complaint about his rice, upbraiding the cook with the same string of oaths. Another would take his bowl at every meal and compare for quantity with every other in the bay. Another sat mute and glum and said nothing to anyone, sullen, surly, starving. I often took my bowl of rice and ate elsewhere and was benefited by the change.

Gradually the number in our section declined. One at a time they sickened and were removed to the hospital, never to return. We were down to four. A chap named Roy Robinson, who was a particular friend as he came from my home district. Another named Lavarie (Lavriere?)and one other made up our group. We four discussed the demise of the others and one day, feeling miserable, I predicted that I would be the next to go. Roy would not have it and urged hanging on although he was actually weaker then myself. Lavarie said very little and soon after sickened and was taken away and died. This left only three in our bay.

One night I had occasion to go to the washroom. The two others were asleep. Returning to the gloom I entered our room and was surprised to see a figure sitting at the foot of the platform that had held the beds of those who had died. It was Lavarie. Startled I stopped. Lavarie was dead. He seemed to turn his head towards me and I beat it and awoke a friend in another bay. He was skeptical and obviously thought I was sickening from fever and was already seeing things. I got him to accompany me back to my bed. The ghost had gone. I told Rob Robinson and he regarded me suspiciously but as he later admitted felt a little squeamish. I never saw the ghost again and no doubt a figment of the imagination but that night Lavarie was very real and I felt that he wanted to give me a message.

I spent two Christmases in the Yokohama shipyard prison camp, 1943 and 1944. The first was a little better than the last for there was not such a shortage of food, which developed as the blockade of Japan tightened. But Christmas 1944 was most hopeful, as it was obvious to the Jap Officials that they had lost the war. Christmas had a certain nostalgia for all of us. Childhood memories of peace and plenty were opposed to our situation of war and want. Gaunt, emaciated prisoners sat on their beds and vied with each other in devising decorations for their particular ward. Bits of coloured paper, paint, any greenery, all were collected and arranged as decorations. No Merry Christmas or Happy New Years appeared however, Xmas 1943 or 1944 sufficed. My friend Allister, the commercial artist of the Jewish faith, outdid himself in painting Christmas cards scenes on the walls of our quarters. The bright stars, falling snow, cozy cottages and open hearths all were there. I asked Allister why he went to all this trouble to commemorate a Christmas feast. He replied, “I like the idea of Christmas. Peace and goodwill, I like that.”

The boys built imitation fireplaces. There were three of them in our hut made of painted cardboard and coloured paper. They had even rigged up a fan connected with the electric light and obtained the effect of smoke and flames. The Japanese guards thought this was wonderful and pointed it out to each other. They were like children. Their lives are so drab that the little color the Christmas decorations made pleased them immensely.

The Commandant ordered that no one should disturb us on Christmas Day. Possibly he expected to be let in on some secret rite that all this preparation foreshadowed. Happily we had a Red Cross parcel. The McKnight brothers had held an orchestra of five pieces together.They had very little opportunity and practically no place to practice, but they managed to play creditably. There was an impromptu concert but few had the heart to sing. Our entertainers thought they would try to cheer us with something bright, but it didn’t sound that way.

At the last Christmas the Japanese shipyard authorities as a great contribution to our happiness, gave a Christmas tree about two feet high. It was some kind of a scrubby birch but it was a tree and was received gratefully. It was decorated with paper and put in a position of honour. The Japs thought, ‘ Ha, ha!’ These are queer people. They are like children. Give them a few bits of coloured paper to play with and they are happy. We will humour them, as it is harmless.