I had determined that my best policy, if I wished to survive, was to play along with the Jap civilians who worked in the shipyard and to make myself obliging and useful. Most of the prisoners did the same with the result that we were able to obtain small favors and sometimes a little extra food.
Having had experience in civil life in mixing paints I was given a job that kept me around the shop, cleaning and repairing brushes, mixing paint, making pails from old drums and finally looking after the fire. This last meant hunting for fuel, as none was provided. We were all interested in keeping the fire going. When it was cold and damp it was a great comfort to the men working on the ships to be able to warm themselves for a while before going back to our camp.
Devious were the ways we obtained fuel. No one dared to leave anything around the shipyard that was either movable or inflammable. Even parts of the building were torn off. One particular cold spell when we were desperate for fuel we obtained quite a supply. In another part of the yards a gang of prisoners had erected a wooden scaffold for some repair to a building. The repairs finished the scaffold was not removed immediately, so a gang from our shop marched smartly up to the scaffold and under the noses of the guard, who could not tell one white prisoner from another, dismantled it. They carried the planks to the back of the paint shed where they were quickly broken up and stored for use as fuel. Later when the Japs came to remove the scaffold they were mystified as to where it had gone. They never found out.
After I had been working around the paint shop about a month I was taken into the confidence of the grand master himself, that is, the Master Painter. He, it seems, was running a little graft all his own. This was a small soap making plant consisting of a boiler in which were put any oils and fats that could be picked up around the paint shed. To make the soap the fats had to be boiled and mixed. I was given this job. Soap at the time was at a premium in Japan and there was no doubt that this little racket was extremely profitable to the Master. As it was all strictly secret, I was told that on no account must I let the guards catch me tending the fire or making the soap. We all kept an alert lookout. The old Master had solved the problem of getting the soap out of the shipyards by molding it into the form of daikons, which were large radishes, a popular food in Japan. To make this deception more realistic real daikon tops or greens were placed on the soap imitation. This made a very realistic looking vegetable and with four our five under his arms the Master smilingly slipped through the gate each night. The guards, placed there for the purpose of searching all suspects, never caught on.
I was getting to be quite an expert soap maker and we were never suspected. One day when I was scraping a batch of newly made soap out of a pot, a particularly snoopy guard spied me and putting his flat yellow face over my shoulder, he pointed at the soap saying, “ NÂN DE” (why or how)Which means everything in Japanese from a question to a command. I feigned stupidity and pretended I could not understand, in other words ‘no soap.’ it was no soap I thought for both the master and myself. We were fairly caught. Then the office door opened just a little and spectacles himself peered out like a rat peeping out of a rat hole. He saw in a moment just what the trouble was and came out and approached the guard all smiles, bowing not once but several times. There was much gesticulating and finally they made an adjournment to the Master’s office. A little while later the guard came out beaming with a couple of big soap daikons under each arm. He waddled away evidently well satisfied with himself. The Master thoughtfully watched him go and sadly shaking his head turned to me and said, “We must make more soap. Much more soap.”
All the time that I was chief soap maker the guard got his daikons.
Some of the Jap workmen took enough interest in me to leave a small portion of fish or rice in their lockers. I also received a few extra cigarettes. How little, before the war, we thought of such things, that for such small favors we should be beholden to such wretched creatures. Yet this extra food to one like myself who had never regained his heath and stamina since Hong Kong was a Godsend. I was able at times to smuggle a little of this extra food back to camp. Sometimes I obtained tea, which was very welcome to the sick friends.