Tom Marsh - Prison Break

On the Island the Canadians were grouped together at North Point prison camp. The Grenadiers were in some huts and the Royal Rifles in others. The Sergeants of the Grenadiers made a little group at one end of one of the huts. Here were my own particular friends, Sergeants Bob Manchester, John Payne and Ken McCully. As work parties at this time were few we had plenty of time for discussion. John Payne contended that it was the Jap’s intention to ultimately destroy all of us and that starvation and disease were all part of that plan. He also was of the opinion that the best we could hope for was years of slavery and then death. He stated he would much prefer to take a chance of dying now, while attempting to escape, then to live in the misery were experiencing.

The matter was discussed pro and con. Bob Manchester and myself were of the opinion that it was impossible to escape. We were on an Island and would have to swim at least a mile. We would be easily identified as white men and were not able to speak Chinese. A reward would be offered and many of the Chinese would gladly turn us in. If recaptured the Japs would kill us all after torturing us. Our friends left behind would be punished, perhaps shot. Where would we go? It was a thousand miles through hostile country to our nearest lines. Still John was determined to go and was annoyed that we tried to deter him.

He was in touch with a group of three enlisted men in another hut, Privates Ellis, Adams, and Bereziski. They were of the same mind as John and would accompany him so they prepared for the attempt. His plan was to steal a boat and to make his way along the coast. Somehow he provided himself with a large knife, which he sharpened assiduously, and I believe a revolver. He had obtained a pair of cavalry britches and puttees and seemed concerned that there should be no mistake he was in military uniform. The Jap however makes no distinction with escaping prisoners. In their code any prisoner escaping had broken the surrender terms and his life was forfeit.

John made a smart and soldierly figure as he left our hut that night to join his companions in their desperate enterprise. To make the escape John and his party had to climb over or through encircling heavily charged wire, over the roof of an old warehouse that abutted the camp and then down into the streets of Hong Kong, all this past the Japanese sentries. This they must have done successfully.

The next morning before our meager morning meal there was a roll call taken by the NCO and the Officer of the day. All the NCOs knew the boys were missing but delayed admitting it as long as possible. The Officer was told that they were at the latrine and he dispatched the NCO to find them and have them report, as he could not turn in his list as correct unless he actually saw them. Being unable to locate the men he demanded an explanation and it was finally admitted they were absent. He reported this to Major Trist and the other Officers. They were in a quandary. If they delayed reporting the escape to the Jap Commandant they would be held as abetting the escape and punished in the Japanese style. If they reported, so much less time the boys had to get away. They hesitated as long as they dared and then reported the escape.

Almost immediately the camp was in an uproar. The Japanese guards began running from hut to hut routing out the prisoners. All had to assemble on the square in their proper companies and platoons. The sick, bedridden and wounded, were all carried out and laid in rows. No one was allowed to leave for any purpose. All except those who had been carried out had to stand at attention. The guards slapped and beat us. A Japanese NCO tried to number the men in Japanese and the attempt broke down every time, as the men could not remember the Japanese numbers. They would add up the figures they had obtained and find their total differed from our own … more beatings, more confusion. No one ate or drank all that day. Men fell from exhaustion and were left to lie where they fell.

Evening came, then night, still we stood there. It turned bitterly cold and at last the Jap Commandant allowed the sick and those who had fallen to be carried to the huts. Men eagerly volunteered to carry these comrades. I was one of these and helped carry a sick man to our lines but instead of taking him to his own hut we took him to ours. We laid him on a heap of rags, looked about and grabbed all the loose articles of clothing we could find to take back on us to the square. Here they were distributed among our friends. This extra clothing helped us to withstand the rigors of the night, unlucky some never recovered from this exposure. Towards morning the whisper went around,“They have been caught.”

And shortly afterwards we were dismissed and hobbled frozen and stiff to our huts.

Soon the Gempi (Japanese Gestapo) came to our hut and began to question everyone about the escape. They finally concentrated on our little group of Sergeants. They had a mean pinched face interpreter along and like a ferret he was to trick us into saying something that would incriminate our companions or ourselves. Both Sergeant Manchester and myself were closely cross-questioned.

“ Did you know this man Payne?”

“Only as a chance companion in the next bed.”

“ Did he ever say anything about escaping?”

“ No we seldom spoke.”

I know how Peter must have felt denying his Lord.

“He was a big, fine looking man wasn’t he?”

My heart fell. I knew that this little rat had already questioned John. I also knew that he would get no information out of him that would implicate a comrade. Then came a typically foolish Japanese Question “Why did he want to escape? Was he not happy here?”

“I don’t know.”

My head was wet with sweat when they departed. If they thought we were implicated I am sure they would have tortured us.

Shortly afterwards we were all placed in groups of ten and warned that if any escaped from a group the rest would be shot. We never heard anything more of John and his companions. I understand the Canadian Authorities have confirmed the manner of their deaths and that they were all shot.2 There was no other attempt to escape made by the Canadians but certain individuals who could speak Chinese or who had friends outside able to hide them, escaped from the settlement interment camps.

This event cast further gloom over us and we were glad to volunteer for labor in Japan. This volunteering consisted of being able to walk five paces without limping or falling down. Both Manchester and myself passed the test at Sham Shui Po preparatory to being shipped abroad.

At Sham Shui Po Camp conditions had worsened in our absence. An epidemic of diphtheria was at its height and assisted by malnutrition the death list was long. There was no medicine and it was some time later that a few inoculations of antitoxin were received. Every morning we felt our throats. It was the melancholy duty of the doctors, imprisoned in the Camp, to inspect our throats daily. Those found infected were removed to the so-called hospital, really a death house with no medical supplies and little food or attention. The chance of coming out alive was a slim one.

I awoke one morning with a sore throat and was examined for diphtheria, but was not removed until the doctor was certain. It was found I did not have the disease, which I accredited to the fact I had already had it in earlier years.

Supplies of food were getting scarce. That Christmas of 1943 we received one British Red Cross parcel. This was the only Red Cross supply I saw during my fourteen months stay at Hong Kong. What joy there was on the receipt of these parcels! The men hugged them to their chests as they carried them away and though close to starvation did not wolf them. We had learned the necessity of conserving food. A few thought, and said, “Now all will be well. We will be getting a parcel every week. Let us eat to the full.”

Most being governed by the bitter disappointments of the past carefully apportioned their parcel and used its contents carefully to supplement their meager daily ration. This is what I did though I ate enough at a time to derive benefit. A friend of mine, a very thoughtful fellow, had it all doped out that about a spoonful a day would make his parcel last a long time. I reasoned he would get no benefit from it. He went on his spoonful a day but soon quit. He devoured his parcel before mine was finished.

The habit of hoarding food for a last emergency became a fixed one. One prisoner got a tin of bully beef in his parcel and having eaten the rest hung onto this prize. It became a treasure, always in his thoughts, the most valuable thing in the Camp. He hid it by day and examined it at night. He suspicioned his comrades as desirous of stealing it, as perhaps they were. His first thought upon returning to the hut was to see that the tin was safe. Then he sickened and was removed to the hospital, holding tight to his bully beef. He was slowly dying of malnutrition but he still had his bully beef. He had lost the power to open it. He died with the tin clasped in his skinny hand. I wonder who ultimately ate the beef and if they did not feel his ghost protesting.

There was a Catholic Priest in the Camp who made vigorous protest against our treatment and of the disappearance and non-arrival of money apportioned by the Holy See for our relief. He became such a nuisance to the Jap Commandant, who possibly had misappropriated the money, that he was taken away by the Gempi and returned in a few weeks time with his finger and toenails torn out.

It was interesting to watch some of the prisoners trading articles and food out of their Red Cross parcels. A shrewd trader might, by trading cigarettes for a packet of raisins, trading the raisins for chocolate and chocolate for cigarettes, end up by having twice as many cigarettes then when he stated. If the boys had not eaten most of the stuff quickly, the really clever ones would have cornered the lot. I could see how our own civilization works right there. To the clever go the spoils.

In February 19433 about seven hundred Canadians and other prisoners were taken out in tenders and loaded on the Tatuta Maru. We were poured down the hatch and into the hold like so much coal. There were no bunks, nothing but steel walls and stanchions. We were packed so tight that there was no room to lie down. I sat on the metal stairs that went up to the hatch for three days it took to get to Nagasaki. Guards were mounted above and kept a constant watch over us. We thought of submarines but worried little. We were a miserable bunch. I thought of my boyhood and the stories I had read of the old slavers that sped through the night with their cargo of slaves battened down in filthy and stifling holds. I never thought then that I should live to experience something very similar. Many of those we left at Sham Shui Po sailed later in other ships. Some were torpedoed. I knew several fine fellows that went down. In January 1943 we landed at Nagasaki and were loaded on a train for Tokyo.

The Tatsuta Maru (16,975 grt, 584 ft. long) commenced her maiden voyage between Yokohama and San Francisco in April 1930. The transliteration of her name was changed toTatuta Maru in 1938. She became a troop transport for the Japanese Navy in 1941, but ended her days two years later when sunk by a US submarine.