Memories Uninvited - North Point

From Stanley to North Point

On December 30, behind a truck, on the tailgate of which was mounted two machine guns, and with an officer mounted on a horse, parading up and down past the column of prisoners, we were escorted to North Point Camp. Along the way we passed the signs of the recent conflict, burnt-out vehicles, battered buildings, dead bodies lying where they had fallen and rotting in the sun.

The dead bodies were not unusual for these troops, because they had just been through a long campaign in China and were thoroughly battle-hardened.

From Stanley to North Point is a long way, walking behind two machine guns pointed at your head. As I look back, it seems surprising that no one was shot on the pretext of attempting escape, or for any other reason, by those trigger-happy Nips, remembering that the battle was just over and just days before we had been shooting at them.

There was no furniture except for some double-decker wooden beds, and not many of those. The place was infested with bedbugs, fleas, and lice. There was evidence that the camp had recently been used as a horse corral. We had brought nothing with us except for the clothes on our backs and whatever odds and ends we might have carried.

Four other chaps and I occupied a small cubicle, six feet by eight feet, in the corner of one of the huts. It was a long time before food was brought in for us, and then it was  mouldy rice and a sort of green cabbage. When you're hungry enough you'll eat anything.

At North Point we were herded into some broken-down wooden huts that had recently been used for shelter for refugees fleeing from the Japanese Army as they pushed south from Shanghai and Peking

It wasn't long before the lice got to us. Body lice are huge grey things. When the bite, and they do so continually, you itch and burn unbearably. Frank Bowerbank, a World War I veteran,  identified them for the rest of us, telling us tales of the torture of lice in the trenches in France.

Some enterprising chap built a steam generating device out of an old oil drum, and we scrounged wood to boil water in it. It must have done some good, but as soon as the clothes were put back on, the lice returned. It was winter in Hong Kong, and quite chilly, so it was either suffer the cold or suffer the lice. We were lousy for the rest of the winter, and it was only when the warm weather returned that we were able to control the problem.

Conditions out side of the camp were obviously not much better. The camp was bounded on the south be a busy thoroughfare, and on the north by Hong Kong Harbour.  Flotsam and jetsam of all kinds went floating by, dead animals, and dead humans, bloated like balloons from being in the water, some, no doubt, all the way down the Pearl River from Canton.

I hope that my friend Bob Barter, with whom I shared a six by eight cubicle with Lance Ross and Bill Doull, will not mind me telling this account of a dream he told us about one morning. He said that he saw himself in the kitchen of his ancestral home in Grand Cascapedia, and on the kitchen table lay the Bible, open in the New Testament at the Book of The Acts, Chapter 8, Verse  8. We looked it up in the King James Version and the text read: "And there was great joy in that city." Chapter 8, Verse 8, eight words. What did it mean? I have since tried to understand the meaning of the verse, and what portend it may have held for us. I am not superstitious, or even religious, but the idea intrigues me still.

Our latrine was the harbour, To relieve ones self one had to cantilever his backside over the water and hang on for dear life. My memory fails me here, but there must have been some restraint, more in the interest of keeping prisoners in than in letting prisoners fall into the drink. Some drink.

There was a washroom between the huts and the "latrine" with cold running water. Without any soap available, cleanliness was a problem. For the life of me I can't remember where the cookhouse was. There was a parade square where we were lined up to be counted every night and morning, and sometimes in the middle of the night on any pretext.

Escape Forbidden!

It was on that parade square that we were lined up one day and harangued by a bombastic Japanese officer. His message was translated to the effect that we were to sign a document promising not to Escape.  Now, the first duty of a prisoner of war is to attempt to escape and make his way back to his unit. You can understand that in our situation escape was out of the question, although it was  attempted in at least one instance

Colonel Home, who had taken over responsibilities of the Canadian troops after the death of Brigadier Lawson, addressed us and told us that we should sign the document, because, given the circumstances of our captivity in such an isolated part of the world, and the unprecedented and illegal demands of the Japanese, and because for those reasons the document was meaningless, signing it would not hold us accountable in the eyes of the Canadian Government. So we all signed. Except for L/Cpl Jack Porter.

Jack Porter was an Englishman, a veteran of World War I, who had emigrated to Canada . He came to us in a re-enforcement draft just before we left Canada. He was a stubborn man. If there was a loud argument taking place at the far end of the hut, you could be sure that Jack was Involved.  At any rate, when the Japs realized that they had a rebel on their hands, Jack was whisked unceremoniously out of camp and we all were sure that would be the end of Jack Porter.. However, two weeks later, he was returned to North Point, barely alive. He had been taken to Stanley Prison and starved and beaten. He had signed!

At the far end of the parade square stood the hospital. Like all the other so-called hospitals in the Japanese POW camps, that one was also a dilapidated hut with nothing in the way of furnishings. It was only a place that separated the sick from the sicker. Because of the grossly unsanitary conditions in the camp, dysentery was rampant. I came down with the disease and was put in the "hospital" to recover or die.

The only treatment available for dysentery was Epsom Salts. Massive doses of the salts only aggravated the output, but,in general, it flushed out the system, and in my case, it overcame the problem. The first night in the place I spent on the toilet seat, a rough, square, wooden hole. I thought the night and my misery, would never end. In all of my trials in the camps, that was the only time that I prayed that I would die.

Kai Tak

During the nine months we spent at North Point, nothing much took place until the summer of 1942. Then we were transported by barge across the harbour to work on the Kai Tak Airport Kai Tak Airport in 1942 consisted of only one runway. At one end of the runway was a hill of considerable height. The Japanese set us to work tearing down the hill and spreading the ground over the level space below so that the runway could be lengthened.

Under the supervision of the Japanese "engineers" we laid wooden rails about four feet apart on which we place a primitive type of trolley. The trolley was a simple platform on four wheels; on the platform was placed a wooden box, built in the shape of a pyramid with the top cut off.  The box had two handles on each end to be used in lifting the box. The trolley was pushed up the hill, loaded with dirt, and allowed to run by the force of gravity down the hill with a rider standing on the back end.

The trolleys were equipped with a crude brake, a friction piece that could be jammed against the wheel to slow the car on its decent. When the car reached the bottom of the hill, it was brought to a halt, and two or more men lifted off the bottomless box by means of the handles fixed to the sides. The platform was then upended over the side, then turned upright, the box was replaced and the car was pushed back up for another load.

Needless to say, we arranged as many "accidents" as possible. For example, we found that if we went into a curve a little too fast, the tracks would gradually shift to the outside of the curve. When everything looked just right, the "conductor" would hit the curve with a little extra speed, and the whole thing, trolley, load, tracks, and all, would go over the side. The "conductor" if he was agile enough, would follow the car down over the bank to make the accident look authentic.

Then the repairs would begin, and we always found subtle ways to slow the process, amid cries of "dommy, dommy" and "speedo, speedo" from our Japanese bosses. There were few real accidents as a result of our scheming, and as far as I can remember there was only one serious injury, Frank Methot got a broken ankle, probably in one of the episodes described above. There were also few beatings when such an "accident" occurred. A tribute to the acting ability of the "conductors" and the gullibility of the railway "supervisors".

Electric Feet

By the time six months had passed, the effects of existing on a sub-standard diet began to show on our bodies. We developed cankerous sores in the mouth, and skin irritations and discomforts of many kinds. The worst of these was what became known as "electric feet".Apparently the extremities of the body are the first to feel the effects of malnutrition. Terrible pain , starting in the toes and working towards the heel led to depression, irritability, and lack of sleep. In later years I have suffered from gout, and the pains of this affliction do not come near the severity of those of electric feet.

Cold seemed to provide most relief, and especially cold water. One of the horror pictures in my mind is that of a group of five or six blanket-enshrouded figures sitting around a tub of cold water all night long.  Probably imagination had something to do with it, but the pain was more severe in the long, dark,nights. The doctors frowned on the practice of soaking the feet, because too much soaking produced another problem, that of ulcers forming on the feet and lower legs. I tried not to soak my feet, although the pain sometimes became unbearable. I found some relief by placing my bare feet on the cold concrete floor.

In more severe cases of malnutrition the hands also suffered from the effects of deprivation, resulting in the same type of pain as that of the feet. In my case, the skin of my hands came off in large flakes, leaving the second layer red and tender. When we worked at Kai Tak Airport under the blazing sun my red-raw hands became very painful and it is a wonder that I did not suffer any lasting ill-effects.

Another affliction that added to our misery was a cankerous condition of the mouth. The corners of the mouth would crack and it would be very painful to open up more than a narrow slit. The tongue became raw and burning. At that time I smoked when I could find some tobacco, but drawing the hot smoke into the mouth only made the burning sensation worse. Addicted as I was, I found a way to relieve the burning by placing a piece of paper on my tongue  when I inhaled the smoke.

Still another misery brought on by lack of proper nutrition, bedevilled us almost all the way through prison camp, a condition which soon earned the name of "strawberry balls" and "Hong Kong bag". The scrotum became inflamed and red and unbearably itchy. The natural reaction was to scratch, but, as in other similar cases, this only worsened the problem. The skin of the scrotum secreted a watery substance which dried, and if left for a short period, a flaky covering formed, and the cycle of itching, scratching, weeping, hardening, flaking off, began again. A few years after I returned home I developed an infected ear, and was given a shot of penicillin, then a novel treatment for infection, and the result was the return of "strawberry balls". I paced the floor all night long and until the effects of the penicillin wore off. Since then I dare not take any medication that is related to penicillin.