Memories Uninvited - POW Life

Vignettes of Life in a POW Camp

What follows is a series of short accounts of life as we experienced it in the camps. The stories are not necessarily connected. They are memories as  they occur to me now. I hope that they will give the reader some idea of what occupied the mind of the POW after long years of isolation from the real world.

They should also reveal what little it took to amuse us, and how, in what leisure time we had, it was possible to do something to occupy our minds and keep discouragement, despondency, and despair at bay.

I have related most of these stories in the "Bamboo Telegraph" over the eight years in which I had the distinct pleasure of publishing it. I think they deserve a place in these memories.


In North Point Camp, before the lack of protein weakened us, we used to play softball on the square. I don't think we had any kind of formal organization such as a league, and no records were kept, as far as I can remember.

One day a heated exchange was taking place between our team and another. The opposition was at bat, with bases loaded and no one out. I was playing at first base and Arley Enright was playing short stop between first and second.  It looked as though we would get a thrashing.

The pitcher wound up, the batter wound up -- and connected! The ball came off the bat straight at Arley. Barely moving, he caught the ball with his left hand, tagged the runner from first who was running past him, stepped to second and caught the second base runner trying to make it back to safety. A triple play!

It all happened so fast that the opposition wouldn't believe it at first, and wouldn't be convinced until the whole play was re-enacted. I think we won that game!

Banging the Can

In North Point Camp, the Japanese guards used to sit outside their hut at the gate and smoke and throw their butts into a tin can at their feet.

We were all smokers in those days, and after a few weeks in camp, cigarettes were mighty scarce.

Some of the more daring, and perhaps more addicted among us, would risk a beating by dashing in and picking butts out of the can. This was called , "banging the can".

I know that those polite and clever chaps got great satisfaction out of seeing the white man humble himself in front of them.

I never banged the can for a number of reasons, cowardice probably foremost among them.  Secondly, I found it hard, no matter how strong the craving, to give them the satisfaction of laughing at me, and thirdly, perhaps I wasn't hooked on nicotine as badly as some of my comrades. I was only nineteen, and hadn't been smoking for very long.

Blackie's Punk Box

Not only were cigarettes hard to come by, but after a while matches also were not available. Blackie McLeod solved the problem.

Blackie got a small, flat can with a tight cover, one such as ointment  used to come in. In it he put a swatch of cotton, and burned it until it was charred. Then he clapped the cover on it to extinguish the fire. He called it a "punk box".

Then, when he wanted a light for his fag, he would open the punk box, and strike a piece of steel with a piece of stone over it until a spark appeared in the charred cotton.

Then he would blow on the spark until it glowed red. Then it was ready to give a light to a cigarette. Then the cover was replaced, and the punk box was ready for the next time someone wanted a light.

Blackie was very patient with everyone, never refusing to perform. He was a quiet fellow. I don't remember ever hearing him say much. He obviously had been around and had seen much of life before entering the army. In the Royal Rifles, he was one of a kind.

Ron Claricoates

Ron Claricoates was a medical orderly in the diphtheria hospital in ShamShuiPo. He was a quiet, unassuming fellow, and one of the most dedicated and hard-working of the kind and gentle men who risked their lives to provide comfort for those of us who needed it.

As stated elsewhere in this rambling account, I was a patient in the "Dip" hospital. Next door to our room was a fellow who was very sick and wasn't expected to survive.

One night I awoke  with the urge to go to the bathroom down the hall. The hallway was dimly lit, and as I came out of our room I saw a figure lying next to the wall, and covered up over the head.

I assumed that poor old Joe had passed on, said a little prayer over him and continued on to the bathroom.  When I returned, two minutes later, the corpse was gone!

As the Englishman would say, "That shook me rigid!" What had happened? I crept back to my mattress looking over my shoulder.

The next morning I found out. Ron had taken forty winks, lying down on the floor with a blanket over his head. When I was in the bathroom he got a call and left and took his blanket with him! Mystery solved.

Electric Cigarette Lighter

In the Jubilee Building that was used as a diphtheria hospital during the epidemic of 1942, there was still electrical power available.

Tobacco was scarce. When we were lucky enough to get a cigarette, it was carefully broken into four pieces, and the tobacco was rolled into four small fags, using the brown toilet paper that was issued to us.

The toilet paper was a good substitute for the real thing, but even that became scarce in due time.

But this story is about a cigarette lighter. As mentioned in the story about the punk box, even a light was sometimes hard to find, However, mere prison life could not thwart the ingenuity of the dedicated smoker!

Some bright lad had invented a lighter using a tin can full of salt water, a shard of glass with a wire attached to it, and another wire attached to the can.

When the wires were plugged into the wall socket, they  would glow red, providing a light for your cigarette.

Bright lad that I was, I decided to make a cigarette lighter. I got everything ready. One wire attached to the can, one wire attached to the sliver of glass in the can of salt water, both wires plugged into the wall.

Perfect! The wire glowed red, and my experiment was a success! Bright lad that I was, I grabbed the can with my bare hand to set it back out of the way.

POW! I got an electric shock that threw me halfway across the room! That was the end of my cigarette lighter! I was lucky that nothing worse had happened.

I could have been killed, or if the Japs had found out about it, I would have received a royal hammering.

In ShamShuiPo, the Japs used to take a miscreant to the old tennis court to beat him up. This became known as "a tennis courting".

Yeast is Yeast

In the early days at ShamShuiPo, many ideas were tried to stave off the effects of malnutrition. One of the ideas that was tried was the drinking of yeast. Yeast is self-generating as long as flour and water are added to the existing batch.

Every day we lined up and received a dollop of the foul-tasting stuff. At that time we were grasping at straws to find anything that would fend off beri-beri and pellagra.

Over the pot some wag had placed a sign admonishing us not to waste the stuff.  It read, " Yeast is Yeast and Waste is Waste, and never the twain shall meet", paraphrasing a line of Kipling's poem, "The Ballad of East and West."

Collecting Salt

Ordinary table salt was a precious commodity during those days in ShamShuiPo. Of course, everything that is taken for granted in normal times became scarce and of value to our starved senses.

Sugar and salt ranked first as agents to make the rice and green horror more palatable. Not much could be done about sugar, although now and then a little filtered into the camp and became available by one means or another.

Someone realized that sea water contains, among other chemicals, a lot of ordinary NaCl, and although the method we used to extract the salt is by no means original, having been practiced from time immemorial.

So, under whose instructions I cannot now recall, we set to work forming "beds" in the dirt of the vacant space to the west of the main camp buildings.

We formed little walls around a "bed" about twenty feet square and swept off as much loose dirt as possible. Then, under Japanese supervision, we bailed water out of the harbour and dumped it in the "beds" and waited for the sun to evaporate it.

That worked well, and a thin coating of salt crystals was left behind. It was pure salt, but there were other objects present as well. When we tried to lift the salt off the ground, little balls of mud came with it. It was bothersome, to say the least, to have to pick the mud out of your meager rations of rice. The project was abandoned.

After all these years I still marvel at the guiding spirit that kept us alive through all the beatings, starvation, mental stress and disease. Eating mud-filled salt off the parade square could have killed us off with dysentery, or worse. Would I do the same thing again? Perhaps, but a little more carefully.

Knitting Sox

After a year or so behind barbed wire, most of our clothes were wearing thin or gone altogether. Somehow or other, I had got hold of a British Army issue wool sweater. Light green in colour, it had been machine knit from the best of wool, but that too was badly worn.

I had no sox at all, so I decided to rip out what was left of the sleeves of the sweater and knit the yarn into a pair of sox. Great idea, but there were a few problems to overcome.

First, the sleeves had a seam from wrist to armpit, with the result that the yarn came out in pieces from six to ten inches long.

Another problem was, what to use for knitting needles. As a boy, I had often watched Mother knit sox and mittens, so I had a faint idea of how to go about it. The needles had to be found.

I solved the problem by getting some pieces of barbed wire (there was lots of that!) twisting the barbs out of it, straightening the wire, cutting four pieces about eight inches long, and sharpening the points on the concrete floor.

The wire had been "galvanized", and in the straightening process, bits of the protective metal flaked off, leaving a rough surface on the needles. That didn't make for smooth knitting.

Then I had to learn how to knit. I got no encouragement from my friends, who thought that I was slightly off kilter. Perhaps I was! Anyway, I persevered, and eventually devised a way to make stitches.

Then I was faced with the problem of the short pieces of yarn. These had to be spliced together every ten or twelve stitches, something else I had learned on my way to becoming master of the craft!

How to turn the heel? That too, I overcame after much head scratching and bad advice from my tormentors. Then, "take off" the toe.

Finally, a pair of wool sox! Wool, no less, a little small, and with legs only about six inches long measuring from the heel. I wish I had them now. I would put them in a frame!

Pork Stew

It was probably in 1943, that somehow the Japs had been conned into giving us a little pig to raise. Where the extra food came from to feed the pig is a question I can't answer, because we had little enough for ourselves.

The plan was to feed him and butcher him at Christmas time and cook him for our Christmas dinner. You can imaging how a little pig could feed about 2000 starving prisoners!

The long-awaited meal finally arrived! I can remember looking down into a glorious stew in my mess tin. It was about one inch deep, no lean meat, but bits of rind with a few bristles, floating in a grayish, oily liquid.

I had saved some salt, and had carefully picked the balls of mud out of it. I fully intended to enjoy this meal!

Well, I did enjoy it. Like everyone else, I sat on the edge of my bed in the hospital ward and silently savoured the delicious stew. Then, like everyone else, I scrubbed out my dish with sand and water, hung it up over my bed and went to sleep.

During the night I awoke with an uneasy, urgent feeling. Before long I realized that a system accustomed for so long to a diet of rice and greens, and not much else, would react violently to a sudden dose of "fat" food.

I got to my feet, slipped on my wooden clogs and my old "khaki drill" jacket, and set out with all muscles clenched.

The latrines were a good distance from our hut, past the morgue, past a sweet potato patch, past the showers, and over by the sea wall.

There was a curfew in the camp, of course. No one was allowed outside after dark, but the Jap quarter  guards recognized certain emergencies, and permitted access to the latrines if necessary.

On this particular Christmas night it was dark: so dark that I couldn't see anything when I stepped outside.  It was also cold. I would guess about forty degrees, which is cold when all one has on is a fandochi and a cotton jacket.

The darkness didn't bother me. I knew the way to the latrine, about two hundred fifty paces away, and knew I had to cross the floor of a burnt-out building. .Fifty paces beyond the showers lay the object of my journey.

I had hardly taken ten steps when something cold and hard caught me across the throat, accompanied with a loud "KURA"! Those Japs moved as silently as mice on their rubber soled sneakers.

My clenched muscles faltered a little, but I recovered before much was lost, and answered, "BENJO,BENJO, BIOKI".  Toilet, toilet, sick!

After a few more "kuras" from the guard, and  a few "benjo, benjo"s dommy, dommy, bioki, from me, I was allowed to move on. I crossed the old cement floor and headed for the potato patch, a little faster now, because I had lost precious time with the guard, and my needs were becoming more urgent.

Suddenly my wooden clogs struck something unfamiliar, and I realized that  the owner of the potatoes had chosen that day to dig them up.

My muscles failed me again, but again I was able to recover enough to make the rest of the trip worthwhile. I decided that the best thing to do was to detour around the potato patch, rather than to risk stumbling through the middle.

I went past the showers at a fast clip, and headed into the home stretch. Only forty or fifty yards to go! By the time I reached the door of the latrine, I was breathing a sigh of relief.

The Latrine

The latrine was a long narrow building, with about twelve or fifteen stalls, each about three feet wide, on each side of an aisle that ran the full length. Each stall had a supporting bar, and under the bar was placed the "honey bucket".

All of the stalls were not in use, and the practice was to remove the buckets daily, dump them and wash them out, wash the floor and place the buckets on the other side of the aisle.

The next day the latrine detail would reverse the process. The vacant stalls would be barred off with a strand of barbed wire, leaving only the operating stalls open.

This arrangement was further complicated by the fact that not all of the stalls were in use, only about six of them. Three or four stalls on each end of each side were permanently barred off, so that only five or six on each side were in regular use.

In my anxiety, as I turned into the pitch-black interior of the latrine, I bolted immediately for what I thought was the side in use for that day. I ran into a strand of barbed wire and realized my mistake, but not before suffering another minor mishap in my fandochi.

I turned to the other side, sure at last, that I would be able to enjoy a release from my torture. To my consternation, I ran into another strand of barbed wire.

My weakened muscles were no longer able to cope, and I soon had evidence that I might just as well have given up in the first place, and saved myself a long and harrowing trip.

Only then did I begin to understand why I hadn't been able to find an open stall. I just hadn't gone far enough into the latrine, and had bounced back and forth between  the stalls that were permanently barred off.

At any rate, the job was done, and there was no use sitting down in the dark to think about what might have been.

I still had a problem, of course. I couldn't go back to bed in that condition, so I started the uncomfortable walk back to the showers.

Showering in cold water in the dark, in 40-degree temperature. in a building with no windows, is even less comfortable. In the interest of conserving body heat I showered only the parts where the need was greatest, no mean feat, with no soap, and only an old army jacket to dry myself with.

The Nullah

What better name for a ditch? The Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines "nullah" as a Hindi word meaning "Gully or ravine".

In ShamShuiPo Camp we had nullahs. The camp was built on land reclaimed from Hong Kong Harbour, and was as flat as the Winnipeg Airport.

When the monsoon rains came, there had to be a way to drain the water off. The British, who had built the camp, had installed nullahs, drains lined with concrete, shallow at the top end, but getting progressively deeper until they emptied into the harbour.

There was a water tap on the nullah, where we used to get water for cooking or to wash our clothes.

Of course, with so many men in the camp and with so few ways to maintain sanitary conditions, the nullah had to be swabbed out every day.

Those of us who were able, were detailed to carry water and flush out the drain with help of a home-made mop, a long pole with a rag tied on the end.

We had to be careful at the bottom end, because the electric fence was adjusted in such a way that nobody could escape from the camp by crawling out the nullah.

Arguments used to rage back and forth as to the amount of electricity that flowed through the fence, from zero to a lethal amount. We soon found out.

One of the  English prisoners, taking his turn on the swabbing chore, came too close to the wire, and was electrocuted. We were very careful after that!


I learned to play bridge in the prison camp. In the hospital where I was sent after I had developed a heart ailment as a result of the diphtheria, a number of older fellows were also patients.

Among them was a chap named Mac MacKernzie. Mac was a World War I veteran who had been wounded in the upper left arm. As fate would have it, Mac had been too close to an exploding Japanese grenade and had the same arm taken off in the battle.

Mac was an expert bridge player, and along with Cecil MacAulay, Doc Savage, Hughie Anderson, and Ken Court, I learned the hard way. Mac would tolerate no mistakes. If his partner, and I am grateful that I sometimes was one, made a mistake in bidding or in play, Mac's comments would make one feel like something less than human.

Ken Court was often my partner. We became so used to each other that we would know from the bidding almost to a certainty, what cards the other held.

Unfortunately Ken and I drifted apart after the war, and he once told me that he hadn't played bridge since then. Ken is gone, now.

Cecil MacAulay was tall, and at that time, very thin. He was an excellent bridge player, a partner to be sought after in any competition. He had a few salty expressions which I can't repeat on these pages. I don't play much bridge now.

Frank Bowerbank

Frank came to us on a re-enforcement draft from an Ontario regiment. He was a  World War I veteran. He had evidently spent a lot of time between the wars travelling between Toronto and Chicago.

As a nineteen-year-old, just a year away from the farm when Frank joined us, I found him interesting. He had plenty of stories to tell, some of them probably true.

The only relative he ever mentioned was his mother, and that in terms most respectful and loving.

He used to brag about his escapades in the night life in Chicago. He used to say jokingly that when he got in a fight he would gouge out his opponent's eyeballs with his thumb.

He said that he awoke one morning and found only one eye in his pocket. He said to himself, "Frankie, old boy, you are slipping. Where is the other eye?"

I vividly remember the long, hot, nights in the hospital in ShamShuiPo, with the moonlight streaming in through the holes that once framed windows, Bower, as we called him, pacing up and down the concrete floor, complaining about his sore feet, and regaling us with stories of his adventures, and sometimes reciting the poems of Robert Service.

He knew a number of Robert Service poems. Another one that he used to recite, he called "The Shack by the Yukon Trail". The poem does not appear in the complete works of Robert Service. I have toyed with the idea that the old character composed it himself.

I can still remember the words as he recited them so long ago. I'll put them down here, and I would appreciate it if anyone could enlighten me as to its origin. The poem has the same meter as many of Service's poems, and the story line is also one that he might have used.

The Shack by the Yukon Trail


There's a lonely shack by a northern track where the snows of Alaska fall,
There are dead men's bones, and the cold wind moans, and the howl of the wolf in counter tones,
And God's hand over all.

A lonely man staked out a claim, which never seemed to pay,
And late one night a stranger came, who chanced to lose his way.

They supped, they smoked, they talked a while, and then a silence fell,
And each man dreamt of a woman's face, and a woman's last farewell.

That silence touched the hearts of both, and each man told his tale,
How he longed and pined for a lucky find, For the sake of a girl he had left behind, in a far-off  English vale.

Then each man showed a photograph, signed by the loved one's name.
As they gazed on there, by the candle's flare, They discovered the pictures a perfect pair, and the signatures the same.

Dark hate flashed out from both men's eyes,
They fought, one failed to rise, For death had come to claim a prize, In that shack by the Yukon Trail

One man dug deep, and deeper still, to hide the dead thing there
Those dreadful words, "Thou shalt not kill" seemed thundered through the air.

At last in frenzied hate and dread, he crossed the cabin floor
He kicked the dead outside the shed, and locked and barred the door. 

He dug and toiled with pick and spade, by the light that the candle gave
ill suddenly a seam showed gold, that came like a hell-sent dream,
From the heart of the dead man's grave.

He heard the howl of the wolf outside, and he shook in every limb
As they ripped and tore by the cabin door at the thing that had breathed but a while before, Then madness came to him.

A loaded gun, a broken prayer, a shot that rent the startled air,
Then dawn cam up to peep in there, In that shack by the Yukon Trail.

Yes, there are dead men's bones, where the cold wind moans
By that shack by the Yukon Trail. There are two lives paid for the love betrayed,
for the broken vows that a woman made, In a far-off English vale.


Did Robert Service write the poem? Was it perhaps something he wrote and discarded as being unworthy to include in his "Complete Works of Robert Service"?

I don't think Frank Bowerbank wrote it although he was expert at reciting it.I certainly didn't write it although it impressed me enough to remember the words, just from listening to Frank.

Whatever the case, I don't claim any rights to the piece. If the author can be found it would please me greatly, and put an end to one of the questions that have been sometimes in my thoughts "when on my couch I lie, in vacant or in pensive mood", although this tale is certainly not about Wordsworth's daffodils.