Memories Uninvited - Sham ShuiPo

We Move to ShamShuiPo

We were kept in North Point for nine months. In October, 1942, we were moved to ShamShuiPo, the same camp we had occupied on our arrival in Hong Kong in November of the previous year. What a change! Where there had been neatly trimmed grass verges and the odd palm tree, there was filth and broken objects lying about. The huts were without glass in the windows. Most of the iron beds were gone from the huts, no doubt having been taken to Japan to be melted down for the war effort, and, in general, the barracks were in a sad state of disrepair.

Work on the airport continued, but now we had to walk to work every day.  My failing memory puts the distance at three miles. It was probably more. Along the way there was still evidence of the recent battle. There were sometimes corpses of dead Chinese lying in the gutter. The same ones that had been lying there in the morning when we went out, were still in the same place on our return to camp, but now completely naked, having been relieved of their meager clothing by scavengers who needed the rags more than the poor dead coolie in the gutter.

Our footwear was rapidly wearing out. Although we used wooden clogs to move around in the camp, we needed something more substantial to go on work parties. We devised a number of ways to repair the boots, but no help was forthcoming from our captors, nor did they replace any boots that wore out. Some old car tires found their way into camp, and these provided excellent material to replace the soles. The problem was to find a way to attach the rubber, and although I can't recall how this was done, the precious boots, or at least, some of them, were nursed through many trips to Kai Tak and, later, to other work sites.


In the early autumn of 1942 a diphtheria epidemic swept through the camp. Diphtheria is defined in the New Oxford Dictionary as "an acute febrile contagious disease marked by the formation of a false membrane, esp. in the throat and caused by a bacterium which produces a toxin causing inflammation of the heart and nervous system". The effects are dramatic. If an anti-toxin is not administered in the early stages of the disease, the throat will close, and the victim can be choked to death.

The Jubilee Building, a large, multi-storied build on the western edge of the camp, once used as an administration headquarters, was designated the "Dip" hospital, and before long it was crowded with victims of the disease.

In due time, our captors relented and brought in the medicine that would ultimately save the lives of those who would later come down with diphtheria. I was one of those.

The Jubilee Building had once been a well-appointed office building, but now, due to the ruthlessness of the invading forces, and probably due to salvage activity on the part of the local Chinese population, the building was stripped of all furniture and all other materials once used in the administration of ShamShuiPo Barracks.

I shared a room with George Everett, a corporal in the Royal Rifles, and Charlie Cardinal, a private in the Winnipeg Grenadiers.

Charlie had a banjo which I think he had made. At any rate, the body was triangular-shaped, and was probably made out of scraps that he had scrounged in the camp. He used to keep us amused by his singing and strumming. His favourites were, "Mama don't allow no banjo playin' in here and, "Mama don't want no rice, no peas, no coconut oil."

Charlie had a bad case of electric feet along with the discomfort of Diphtheria.  Poor chap, he used to sit all night long on the edge of his mattress with his feet on the cold floor, rocking back and forth and whimpering with pain.

George was a quiet man, calm and unexcitable. He was tough. Although his feet were killing him, and I still have a mental picture of him walking painfully on his heels, I never heard him complain.

To me, George was a tower of strength. His positive attitude helped me to endure my own afflictions and his courage inspired me to fight on. This was another example of how leaning in each other was so important in combating despair,and how comradeship sustained us in the darkest hours.

Life Goes On

I was taken off the draft to Japan by the merest of chances. Who knows how I would have fared working in the coal mines or on the dockyard. As it was, life in ShamShuiPo was no picnic.

From ShamShuiPo we walked to the work site each morning and back at night. For weeks at a time we would not see the camp in daylight hours, barely time to eat a bowl of rice and fall exhausted on our sleeping mats, to be awakened sometimes in the middle of the night for a nose count. Then up before dawn to trudge the long miles to the tunnels we dug, and back again after work. And so the cycle continued.

After I was released from the "Dip" hospital, I returned to the "lines", as we called it, that is, the ordinary or non-hospital huts, which housed the prisoners deemed able to work.

Before long I began having chest pains, and landed in another "hospital". The treatment I received was nothing more than rest. I don't remember feeling ill, but I must have been weak and run down.

At any rate, I soon began feeling better. Soon Major Crawford, CMO, took a number of us under his wing and kept us in the hospital to assist the medical orderlies, whose numbers were severely restricted by Japanese regulations.

The official medical staff, Sgt. Reg Kerr, and Sgt. Ray Squires, were much overworked, and the addition of a few extra hands to empty bedpans, and provide what comfort we could to the sick and dying, was no doubt appreciated. I shudder to think of what might have happened to Dr. Crawford if the Japs had suspected that he was pulling the wool over their eyes.

Medical Orderlies

There were four of us who were kept in the hospital to assist the orderlies: Ken Court, Doc Savage, Walter Thompson, and myself. I am the only one left.

The duty of an assistant orderly consisted mainly of emptying bed pans and aiding in any way we could under the direction of Ray and Reg. We dispensed sodium bicarbonate  wrapped up in small packages, bathed sores with potassium permanganate, and did whatever else we could to alleviate the suffering.

Another misery that dogged us throughout our stay in prison camp was the incidence of scabies. To my understanding, scabies is caused by a micro-organism which insinuates itself under the skin, and if left untreated, festers, and, in time, results in large pustules ulcers.

To a large extent, these sores appeared on the lower limbs, but in severe cases, ulcers appeared also on the body as well. The treatment was draconian. The poor victim was made to strip, and the medical orderly then scrubbed him with a brush that had the bristles clipped off short to make the process more effective.

When all the ulcers were bleeding, a solution of sulphur and God knows what else was rubbed into the open sores. How those poor fellows stood the pain, not to mention the indignity, is beyond my comprehension. If the individual did not take good care of himself and keep his body as clean as possible, in a matter of weeks he had to undergo the same torture again.

As an orderly, I had to administer this treatment to a number of my comrades, and believe me, the task was not a pleasant one. I understood the cause of the problem, and was scrupulously clean about myself. Every indication of a scabies pustule was vigorously scrubbed, and whatever disinfectant I could find was carefully rubbed into the wound. As a result, I don't bear any ulcer scars on my body.

Here I must pay tribute to the ingenuity of our medical staff. With very little to work with, it must have been maddening for these scientifically minded men to know the cause, and be certain of the cure, yet be unable because of lack of medicine and the tools to administer it the treatment.

If I recall correctly, the only medicine availably  was potassium permanganate as a disinfectant, sodium bicarbonate for stomach ache, sulphur lotion for the treatment of scabies, and, of course, anti-toxin for the treatment of diphtheria when the epidemic was at its worst.

Back to the Lines

For whatever reason, I was released from the hospital and sent back to the "lines". I was deemed fit to work, and so joined the group of tunnellers who went out daily to dig in the side of the mountain.

We left ShamShuiPo in the morning in darkness and marched to work, some two or threes miles, there to dig tunnels in the side of the hills. From what information we could get out of the Japs, the purpose of the tunnels was to store food supplies, and to act as defence positions in the event of an American invasion.


The work site was a very dangerous place to be. The ground was soft and easy to dig, but for that reason the tunnels were very unstable. A cave-in could happen at any time. Fortunately only one serious accident happened when Harry Irvine's leg was broken when the roof caved in on him.

Some of us were sent out to cut trees for props to shore up the tunnels. On the grounds of the University of Hong Kong, with primitive Japanese saws that cut on the pull stroke, we cut some beautiful ornamental trees and hauled them back to the work site.

The logs were bound together and erected at the mouth of the tunnel in a ramshackle frame. It didn't look very professional and no doubt would not have been very effective in the event of a cave-in.

The tunnels went straight into the hill for about thirty feet, then drifted to one side at ninety degrees for another twenty or so feet, then straight in again.

The purpose of this zig-zag pattern was probably meant to confuse any intruder, but the effect on us diggers was nothing less than uncomfortable and very dangerous.

Conditions at the end of the tunnel were bad. It was hot and there was very little air. Five minutes there was the most a man could take.

It is well documented that orders from Japanese High Command were issued that in the event of an American invasion of homeland Japan, all prisoners-of-war were to be exterminated.

Although we were given to understand at the time that the tunnels were for a practical use, there is no doubt in my mind that they were to be used to get rid of all of us who were interned at Sham Shui Po. What easier way to do it than to herd us into the tunnels and detonate a small bomb at the mouth.. The soft earth would slide down and seal the tunnel. A simple solution to a huge problem. Our bodies would probably never be found.


The lighting system was primitive, but enough to cast a dim glow at the end of the five-foot-high hole.

A mirror was set up at the mouth of the tunnel, reflecting light in to the first corner, where a second mirror caught the reflected light from outside.

At the next corner, a third mirror caught whatever light was reflected from the second one, and directed it to the work face. On a bright, sunny day, it was somewhat effective, but on a dull day you can understand that it left a lot to be desired.

Using a pick to scratch down the earth was backbreaking in that low hole, and wearing only a fandochi, the heat was intolerable. The loose earth was carried out in baskets, coolie style, to be dumped out side the cave.

I could never understand how a "coolie" with a bamboo pole  across his or her shoulders, with a basket at each end of the pole, could carry as much as two of us. I found that, in my weakened condition, one basket of earth, filled to the brim on a pole between me and another POW, was all that I could take.

You'll get used to it!

Things in the "lines" had more or less stabilized by this time. Perhaps we were getting "acclimatized" to conditions, but hunger and disease in the form of beri beri and pellagra still persisted.

Roll call was still taken regularly twice a day, but on top of that we were frequently called out in the middle of the night, sometimes in pouring rain, on some pretext or other.

Usually it was because our captors suspected that there was a radio in the camp, or that someone had concealed a pair of wire-cutters. The sick, the halt, and the blind were not excused these parades, but that provided us with an excuse for the sick person carry a small stool to sit on while roll call was being taken. Strangely enough, the Japs permitted this.

News from the Real World

We  had in our camp, some survivors of a Dutch submarine that had been captured in the vicinity of Java. Some of these men were geniuses. They always seemed to have a radio which they had built in the camp.

They were able to make a radio out of the merest bits of junk they were able to find or something they were able to make to substitute for radio parts.

Sometimes they were found out, and I remember specifically, a huge Dutchman who was severely bloodied because he had been found in possession of that most illegal of objects, a radio.

The Dutchmen discretely shared the news they managed to pick up on the air waves, with a select number of fellow-POWs, because to broadcast it in camp would probably have resulted in a surprise search, always a dangerous situation.


Many ingenuous ways were devised to conceal a radio. One of them was to build it inside a wooden stool. If a nose-count was called in the middle of the night, or at any other time, a designated "sick" man would carry the stool to the parade square.

It gave us great satisfaction to know that while the Japs were scouring the huts in search of a radio, it would be on the parade square inside a wooden stool where they least suspected it would be.

Sometimes the object of a search was a pair of wire cutters or a pair of pliers. We used to think that the searchers had a one track mind, in that, if looking for a radio, a pair of wire cutters would go unnoticed, and vice versa.

And so it went. Day after weary day, marching out to the work site in the morning and back at night; two weeks at a time, with no time off to wash our clothes or to recharge whatever batteries our frail and emaciated bodies still possessed.

Getting on in 1945, probably after the collapse of Germany, we began to get better food. Some water buffalo meat was brought in with the rations. Heavenly flavour!