Now and again, all, or most all of us, meet some one in life, apart from wives, husbands, lovers etc, who remains in ones memory for many years.
0ne person to affect me like that was a Scot by the name of Micky Myles. I cannot say whether Micky is incidental to this story or vice-versa, but the tale I have to tell is so interwoven with Mick, his character, guile - so many sides to his make up – bravery, balls---and cunning. His will to live, and his endurance. When we were adrift on a cork raft, somewhere off the east china coast (I think), his morale, which helped me to survive during those awful forty eight hours, when were buffeted about by the wild sea with little prospect of survival, and when so many hundreds of our fellow prisoners of war were drowned, which appeared to be the intention of the Japanese.
After the prison ship that was transporting us to, I believe, Japan, was torpedoed by an American submarine (the prison ship was not identified as carrying P.O.Ws) Micky saved my life by holding my face above the water, until a passing Chinese fishing boat hauled us aboard.
I was unconscious during this time and for sometime after. No doubt about it, I owe my survival to Mick, so it may seem ungrateful to state this, but with me knowing Mick from way back, I am in no doubt whatsoever that Micky would have had me overboard if my presence had threatened his own life , but then so many of us would have done the same – it’s called survival - but most would show some other emotion, regret , guilty conscience , not so Mick, he was the original survivor.
I am now 83 years of age, the time September, year 2000 ad. The tale begins in May 1934, the events are as true as one can remember after the lapse 66 years (approx). chronological time has no significance, when the means of measuring it are absent, as was the condition during our years of being Japanese prisoners of war.
I think that this is the true measure of events.
I relate these tales partly about Micky Myles, his character, his many facets, so I have called it……
Micky Myles Had Many Faces.
Micky was all things to all men, especially when he was on the make. He was unscrupulous, but one could not help liking the bugger, even if you were one of his victims, even when he had pulled a fast one on you, you still could not help liking the bloke. He was so convincing as to his innocence, against all the evidence to the contrary. He would look one straight in the eye and protest that he had done nothing wrong, although he was as guilty as hell. " What me Spooz? How could you, of all people, believe that I would do something like that?”
That hurt, painful, unbelieving look, to think that I of all people, his mate, would think that he, so sincere, so honest, so innocent looking Mickey…. so much, that you began to doubt and regret your accusations. That he could be capable of any wrongdoing, the firm denials! Do not get me wrong, Micky was a likeable, even lovable bloke, great sense of humour. He had the habit of abbreviating ones surname. The reborn or re-christened individuals did not resent it; in fact they seemed to enjoy it.
For instance, my name, Spooner. Micky abbreviated it to"Spooz". No longer was I called "utensil, forker, knifer”, but just plain "Spooz". So, thanks to Mr. Michael Myles, for the remainder of my stay in the army, it was Spooz, and of course my army number (3054167).
You’re in the army now!
Despite my mothers pleading, at the tender age of sixteen and a half, I decided to enlist in his majesty’s armed forces. My father had fought in the Boer war, serving in the Queen Victoria rifles. I could not enlist in that regiment, it having been disbanded just after the Boer war.
I was not around at that time, having been born seventeen years later. My brother had served some time in the Royal Corps of Signals, so I plumped for that, to be told that there were no vacancies, but “we do have vacancies in a famous old Scottish regiment. At that time of the century, I had only vaguely heard of Scotland, (apologies to the S.N.P. of course) except when the Scots came to Wembley to out-play and out-drink the sassenachs, then we heard of them. So, one day in may 1934, a group of London lads, most of whom had never been much farther than Southend pronounced, “Sarfend” entrained for bonnie Scotland, to a place named Achendinny in, or near a place named Penicuick, thence to the Royal Scots training depot. Imagine the various pronunciations we applied to those names our “inglish" was not too brilliant, let alone our Scottish! Of course the Scots fell head over buttocks with laughter over our attempts at the pronunciations "0ch laddies, ye dinna pronuunce the wairds like yon", the cairrect pronuunciation, is, 0ocheendinny and Pinnycook. D’ye no ken the kings English?” Of course we all knew that the king was English, with a little German thrown in, but what had that to do with the Scots dialect?
Training as Soldiers
We were thrown in at the deep end from the word go, our civvy clothes taken from us, uniforms and equipment issued, short hair cut by the regimental barber, (Sweeney Todd).
Deloused, fumigated, short arm inspection (that is the little one between the left and right legs) showered inspected for (pedicula pubis) crabs. After that, everything was done at the double, the shower was the worst… get on with the story!…(most of us , in the poorer class, at that time, if they were lucky, bathed in a large tin bath on Friday nights. It depended on how many in the family, and your age, whose turn it was to bathe, and how clean the water would be - and how free from urine, (Eliza Doolittle did not know how lucky she was) that’s how it was for the poor in the twenties and the thirties. Great empire, hungry Britains, ragged, semi- educated kids. Nowadays, I, at 83 years of age, am amazed at the amount and variety of different food, from all over the world, but where was it when great Britain had the biggest empire the world had ever known, and how is it that, after a great war, there is an abundance of food, but not in every country of the world?….still, I must get on with my story…
After all the delousing etc, we were formed into squads, our squad was named," Bell Squad", mainly composed of Londoners and a few northern chaps, but no Scots. All the other squads were solely composed of Scots. The following day our training commenced in earnest. First of all, after forming ranks we were inspected by our Squad Commander, also a Londoner. Sergeant Stamford, (Sammy for short. of course, we recruits were obliged to address him as Sgt. (to his face.) he walked down the ranks tearing all of us to pieces, verbally. He came to me and said, "when did you last shave?" I so far had only grown “ bum fluff” so I proudly said “ this morning sergeant," “well stand nearer the f--------ing razor next time!” so he went along the line, castigating everyone, he looked at one bloke and said
“ which is the best squad in the depot?” reply: - “ I dunno Sergeant”, "Bell Squad!” Sammy roared, "this f---------ng squad! Don’t you ever forget that! From now on everything will be done at the double, or even faster" (phew). We ran, we trained, we doubled and then we trebled, from reveille until dusk. Full battle kit, route marches, three mile runs, musketry training, you name it we did it, but by God we got fit, and our Scottish was improving so much so that when I went on leave to London, my family could barely understand me.
After some leave, we were posted to the Royal Scots first battalion stationed at Dover, a long way from " sarfend" or, rather, “Southend ". Micky and I met for the first time when we attended the same army educational course, at a place named Shorncliff, near Dover. During the course, we were given a book to read and digest, with a view to us all being examined on it in due course. As to the story, it was (still is) called "the tale of two cities", by Charles Dickens. Micky was the first examinee. He was well prepared. He mentioned Lucy Mannette’s old nurse, who, I think, was Mrs. Prosser, whom Lucy addressed as "0ld Prossy” – mistake, Mick.
With the most innocent of expressions on his face, (where else) he rose to his feet and said in the most straightforward of tones," this old Prossy, She was not really not, er, not a woman of ill repute, Sir?" A prossy was In those days, an abbreviation of prostitute" .our innocent instructor looked puzzled " of course not Myles, to Miss Mannette, it was merely a term of endearment to her old governess.” Those that knew Micky guessed that this was not the end, and looked forward to more. More was forthcoming. " But sir, I would na ca ma Mither 0ld Prossy, would you sir? Sir replied, “ I do not know your mother, Myles " (one up to sir) but sir had lost all control “ carry on reading", said sir to Mick, Micky carried on reading, but every time that he had to mention “ Old Prossy” he did it in a manner which I cannot describe, but every time that "0ld Prossy", popped up it was to loud chuckles from all except “ Sir”.
Micky Goes To India
In or about May 1936, a batch of us embarked for a town named Lahore in what was then India. Lahore is now the capital of Pakistan. Myself and Micky were drafted. I had not seen Micky for some time, and did not see him for a long time after, even though we were in the same company, but I heard plenty about him, not all to his credit. Our prospects of coming home to England for about seven years were pretty remote
But W.W. II intervened in September 1939, so it was about nine years before the survivors of our regiment in the Japanese prison camps saw 'Blighty' again. There were not many left alive after our captors’ hospitality. Those that did survive were in a sorry condition physically and mentally.
On our arrival at Lahore, we were assigned to our respective
companies, Micky, to "C" company, me to "B" company. I had no contact with Micky for quite a time after that. Mick, no doubt, with all his charm, and what the Americans call "bull excrement" had wangled a cushy number, dodging, parades, guard duties, fatigues - all those things that makes the army so worthwhile! How right I was, Micky had landed a job in the military hospital, as a regimental nurse, to complement the Royal Army Medical Staff. Coincidentally, I was given a job in the same hospital on the same ward as Micky, who was very efficient and well liked by all the patients and staff.
He had a great sense of humour and made the job, which was very demanding, more tolerable, oh, of course the female nurses all loved him, but Micky, despite his humour and his geniality, could bear a grudge, especially when his pride had been hurt. On one such occasion, the Senior Matron reprimanded Micky, who took great umbrage. She had upbraided him in front of most of the staff. The Hospital stood in fairly arid ground, big toads or frogs were prolific,
Their constant croaking at night disturbed the hospital staff and patients. The Matron usually had a nap when she was on the night shift. Micky and I were also on the night shift at the time of his reprimand.
At about two a.m. Micky grabbed a wicker work waste paper basket, and said, “ come with me Spooz". He gave the basket to me. I was puzzled. Then he started to collect some of the frogs, and, putting them into the basket, said "follow me Spooz”, still very puzzled, I followed him into the hospital building obediently. He made his way to the matron’s office, took the basket from me said "open the door Spooz". I did, the Matron was well asleep, head on her desk. Micky threw the contents of the basket into the room, then we both legged it to our desk along the corridor. About half an hour later, there was a loud scream, you have guessed right! It was matron. “Myles! Spooner! " she screamed. Micky was the first away followed by yours truly.. Micky, who pretended to be short sighted, (when the occasion suited him) said, “ what’s wrong matron?"
Matron stood on top of the desk, screaming "look at all these frogs Myles". The “shortsighted” Micky took over! “ Frogs matron? ah canny se onny, frogs" He peered about quizzically, "ah"ll need to get ma specs". Mick returned very much later complete with specs balanced on the end of his nose, said "Och matron, I can see the wee bastards”.
Micky out-jumped the frogs, knocking the table over, scattering papers over the floor. Eventually we rounded up the frogs (toads?) I think that a few mavericks got away, so what the hell, perhaps their great great, etc, grand children are still kicking about there now (62) years on, unless Macdonald’s have built on their habitat (fancy a frogburger?)
Micky was a dramatic person, prone to exaggerate somewhat. I remember soon after the frog incident, Mick rushed to me and said that he had caught the most enormous snake; it was caught by Mick in a dimly lit corridor, running alongside the ward in which we were working, Mick's story: - "I was walking along the corridor when I heard a hissing noise, I knelt down and extended my hand, and said “here, pussy, wussy, come on pussy, wussy. Just then the moon came from behind a cloud, lighting the place up. To my horror I was confronted by a gigantic hooded cobra, I grabbed a wee stick that was lying near by, and fended off the snake, which was preparing to strike. There was a lidded enamel bucket nearby. I quickly grabbed the bucket, threw it over the snake., then slammed the lid on. Afterwards, I managed to put some chloroform into the bucket".
By this time, Mick and I were joined by other members of the staff. We all trooped into the corridor and looked into the bucket. In it there was a very tiny snake (it may have been venomous). The stick far from being "wee", was as long as a clothes line prop, and very thick.
I cannot vouch for the truth of this next story that involved Michael, but I suspect a large part was true. Soldiers in India in the year 1936, were mostly fit, in the prime of life, their chance of having sex was rare, and the pay was low. The unlicensed brothel in the area was out of bounds to troops, and an extremely harsh punishment meted out to anybody caught on the premises. The punishment was even harsher if any soldier contracted venereal disease, which some did. There were a few enlightened members of the colonial administration, mainly medical officers, army mostly, who advocated licensed brothels, but the civilian administration was dead against the idea. There were no antibiotics at that time and very little prophylactic treatment available; so clean sex was denied to men in their prime and they went for the illegal option. Of course, the nation was in the post Victorian era, where morals were high, but in secret, conduct was loose. Today we are at the other end of the spectrum, but it is more in line with our nature. However, I digress.
One of the most progressive army medical officers was one Major Scrivens. rumor had it that he used to bribe some of the Indian local males to have their appendixes, (appendices? appendi?) removed by him, so that he could perfect his surgical techniques. There is an affliction of the penis called balinitis which affects the penis glands making them itch. It was common in India and affected some of the soldiers. The only sure preventative is circumcision. Major Scrivens, one of the forward-looking officers took every opportunity in urging all of us, as to the sure way to prevent contracting said ballinitis by being circumcised. We soon had ward full of the post-operation circumcision patients.
There was in the ward a lovely, shapely, well-endowed (female!) army nurse, who wore short skirts, as was the current fashion of the day. A rumour spread around the ward that the lovely nurse wore scanty, or no knickers at all, beneath that short skirt. With circumcision, after the loss of the foreskin, the shortened end of the skin is stitched to the glands penis. Major Scrivens was perplexed when some of the patients had burst their stitches despite them taking an anti -aphrodisiac to prevent an erection (potassium bromide was given the patients). The ruptured stitches apparently occurred when the nurse was at the opposite end of the ward;the chaps at the intact- stitching end of the ward felt cheated when a different nurse was put on duty. The following day, in fact, they got quite cocky! But Major Scrivens was very annoyed. I later heard that he and the lovely nurse married, resigned from the army, went home to England and started up in the medical business; Mick suggested that their business was named " Stitchum and Bustem Unlimited "
1938 – To Hong Kong
In 1938 the battalion set sail for Hong Kong on board the troop ship "Dunera", or was it the "Dilwara", I forget. It was so many years ago.
Hong Kong was such a contrast to Lahore, with its arid plains, the hot climate the mosquitoes, the barracks, the food, everything. Hong Kong had it all -people, beerbars, clubs, good sports acilities, cinemas, beaches, swimming, a comparative "utopia". To quote Mr. Macmillan: - "We never had it so good" and we made the most of it. I had not seen not seen much of Micky, but I heard a lot about him. He had become a household word; I do know that he married a Chinese girl, who turned up trumps when we surrendered to the Japs. The war in Europe started in September 1939. Great Britain declared war on Germany on the third of that month. America was not so far involved in the actual hostilities, but our Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had made a treaty with the U.S.A. to effect that if one of the three countries Germany, Italy or Japan, who had allied together, attacked either Britain or the U.S.A. then the other country would declare war on the aggressor (seems complicated) It was between the first world and the second that the U.S.A. had turned isolationist and did not wish to be involved in war outside their own continent. At this time Britain had its back to the wall fighting its for its existence. The U.S.A. had to get involved or be surrounded by potential enemies. the pact between Britain was a ploy, I think, to get the U.S.A. into the war. the ruse succeeded. The Japanese, who had been at war with, and virtually overran china, scented further victories and spoils of war in the shape of colonies of U.S. and Britain, and dominance of the Far and (possibly) the Near East; the Japanese, opportunistically taking advantage of the war in Europe, on the 8th of December attacked the U.S.A. naval base at Pearl Harbour, so Britain declared war on Japan, which automatically brought the U.S. into the European conflict, which both Britain and the U.S.A. had fiddled, (it is complicated, innit)?
After all that, back to Hong Kong, where the troops of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Scots were having a whale of a time - playing cricket, swimming and participating in many other sports, and in their spare time, the occasional drink, copulating and training for war, which, was always imminent. But all this time the Battle of Britain was raging. the civilian population was enduring the nazi bombing from the air; food and clothing rationing, the cruel killing of a loved one, or loved ones, the moral uplifting rallying, and inspiring, speeches of Winston S. Churchill, and the heroism of "The Few” who despite being outnumbered in the air by the Luftwaffe, fought heroically, and beat the nazi threat to our island. At first discreet aid from the U.S.A. came slowly, then with ever increasing speed, surely turning the war in favour of the democracies. Britain, with so much to do in Europe, could not do a lot in the Far East, so they decided to concentrate on the war in Europe. At first Japan had it all their own way.
Now let’s get back to the lads in Hong Kong, who, you remember, was having a whale of a time. The first intimation we had that war was pending for us, was the fact that we started to dig trenches on the leased territories from China on the mainland, and the manning of the pillboxes on Hong Kong island.
At ( approx.) 7.a.m.december 8th 1941, the Japs simultaneously attacked Hong Kong and Pearl Harbour as well as Thailand and Malaya. The attack on Pearl Harbour caused the U.S.A. to enter the war, so under the terms of the British/ U.S.A. treaty, Britain declared war on Japan, thus involving the U.S.A. in the war in Europe (I told you that it was complicated!)
There were only three battalions of British troops, with no air or artillery support, facing an enemy three divisions strong. Well supported troops, with about ten years experience in the war against China. We faced impossible odds, so our lines soon crumpled and we faced a "Dunkirk". Thousands of miles from Britain we fled to the Island of Hong Kong which was well fortified, but was soon over whelmed, so that the governor of the island was forced to surrender.
We were inevitably captured, then beaten, punched, kicked, humiliated and eventually, semi- starved which resulted in the cruel death of hundreds of prisoners by hunger and disease. The Japs had not signed the Geneva Convention, which stated that all P.O.W’s be treated humanely. We were made to bow to the lowliest of the Jap forces, every time that we saw one. failure to bow meant slapping, beating or kicking. The prison camp we were in was an old British army barracks named Shamshuipo, on the mainland of China. The Japs were brutal, inhumane. They did not subscribe to the international agreements. it was not long before the lack of food , the lack of hygiene, despite all attempts by The British medical officers, to alleviate our plight, resulted in most of the prisoners suffering from either, one, two, three or all of the following: - beri - beri, dysentery, pellagra and another complaint, which we named (for obvious reasons) strawberry balls. Micky and I worked in the camp hospital (slaughterhouse?). Most of us had lost pounds of flesh, reduced to skeletons, some more than others. The chaps in the “hospital” ?!! were hanging on to life by a thread, a very fine one. It was so pitiful a sight to see. Once strong healthy men in their prime, reduced to wrecks, shambling about the camp in rags, blood and mucous running down their legs. despair, pain, sometimes resignation on their faces, until they inevitably joined the ranks of those who had lost all expression. But most were walking , trying to get rid of the persistent nagging pain in their feet, sponsored by the beri- beri, and by lack of vitamins, and lack of food caused by the callousness, cruelty, inhumanity and vindictive treatment of the Japanese. 0n top of all the foregoing diseases, we had an outbreak of diphtheria. 0utbreak is a very mild term to apply to a disease that choked, or stopped the hearts of 90% of those that caught it. Diphtheria is rarely heard of in the western world nowadays, but was a killer in the past, until a serum was discovered for it. that was what we needed for our chaps, it may have given them a chance, despite the starvation diet and sundry other diseases. I heard that a Medical 0fficer, Captain Coombes, shouted at a Japanese officer, "bring me a f------g horse and I will make some serum!” I do not know if that was possible but that’s the story. Diphtheria is a very contagious disease, it affects the throat, which can choke one, and also produces a serum that can affect the heart and stop it. The fear of the infection was so great, that even firm friends would avoid each other if one of them had a bad throat. They lay in the "hospital” on the floor, blankets old army beds. We tried to make them lie flat in order to keep the serum from going to the heart, but with little success. Worse was the realisation by them that they were slowly but surely choking to death. Those could, fought against it, swore at it, but death claimed most. Men walked about the camp in dread. to make matters worse they were buried to the "last post". Bugles were silenced when the effect on morale was realised. I think that the least number we buried on one single day was five. To add to all that water was scarce, so were fags (pardon cigarettes) soap, and hope too. Lice, bugs, rodents were few (I suppose that they kept clear for fear of being eaten).
That was Shamshuipo prison camp. Worse was to follow - drowning and fear of drowning.
The "Lisbon Maru"
After the atrocities of the camp at Shamshuipo, we all thought that we had reached bedrock, but no, there was worse to follow.
We were told to gather our meagre possessions together, embark by ship, to a "much gooder prison camp" (Japanese version). We looked forward to it with mixed feelings, knowing, and not trusting, the Japs, but we thought nothing could be worse than Shamshuipo. How wrong we were. Instead, for thousands of P.O.Ws, there was a quick death by drowning after a night in the hold of the slowly sinking ship battened down, with no water, no food and very little air, it was a living nightmare, but a kindly Jap lowered a bucket of liquid - urine!
We naturally drank.
On or about the twenty- ninth of September, 1942, a draft of approximately 1820 British P.O.W’s, embarked on the ‘bad ‘ ship, the Lisbon Maru, bound for Japan (I think). We were unceremoniously herded below decks, a few slaps and kicks here and there for good measure.
The bulk of the POWs were comprised of the following: -
Royal Scots, the Middlesex Regiment and the Royal Artillery.
On the first of October, another chap and myself were walking along the deck carrying a wooden bucket of rice and what we named slum, a horrible looking, evil smelling, concoction of some vegetables, thin and watery, when there sounded a dull thud from one side of the ship.
Then the Japs went berserk, slapping and pushing us into the hold again. An American submarine had torpedoed the ship. When we were in the hold, we were battened down, and the ship started to sink. The Jap ships in the area picked up all the Japanese troops that were on board our ship, leaving us to drown locked in the hold. As I have stated previously, chronological time had no relevance in certain conditions.
This was such a condition. so the period that we spent in the locked hold, fearing the prospect of certain death by drowning (in fact some men had already died in the hold owing to their physical condition ) was truly, to put it mildly , a living nightmare. Men were crying out through the night, begging for food, water, pleading for god to help them, but he must have been busy that day. All that they received was a bucket of urine, not our daily bread, even in these circumstances, there is always a humorist. Imagine the ship sinking, swaying from side to side, a voice shouting, "I’m bleedin’ ‘ungry".
Humorist - "Right, lay dahn and ‘ave a bleedin’ roll”. It was pitch dark, there was a wooden gallery above the floor of the ship on which the bulk of the men were lying, the men on the gallery could not retain their urine or their faeces any longer so we below received them with shouts of “you dirty bastards". Then, as the saying goes "came the dawn", with a salvation of sorts. Someone, (not the Japanese) organised a break-out.
The battens were quickly lifted. A shaft of light shone into the hold. Men rushed to a flight of flimsy wooden stairs leading to the top deck. The staircase broke under their weight and men came hurtling down crashing to the floor of the hold or the men underneath. I managed to climb up an iron ladder attached to one of the deck support pillars. When I reached the deck, it was half -submerged by the sea. The ship kept lurching to one side as the weight of the men from the other holds increased the weight on that side of the ship. Men were jumping into the sea, and looking for a piece of hatch cover, a plank of wood , anything that would float, to save themselves from drowning.
There were a few Jap naval ships in the area and they threw life lines over the side. Some of the drowning men climbed up them.
As they climbed the Japs gradually lowered the lines to the sea again. If any of the P.O.W’s managed to reach the deck rails, a shot would ring out, and a body would fall into the water. After this, we kept clear of the Jap ships.
The currents were so strong that the makeshift rafts our chaps were on kept going out to sea then back towards the far distant coast line again. I had managed to get onto a small, square cork raft, after swimming for about an hour (I think). At first I was the only occupant. Later I was joined by two exhausted chaps, on their last gasp. I helped them onto the raft as best as I could, and the raft carried us out to sea, in again, out again, in again. It was a bright sunny day (weatherwise). The chaps on the make shift rafts, were passing us in opposite directions.
Our spirits were comparatively high after our experience in the hold. To most, in the sunshine, it was like a day at (sarfend). 0n one of the journeys, I passed a raft partially submerged, owing to the weight of men on it. I saw one chap from this raft hailing me, "Hi Spooz, room for one more?”
Guess who? You are right, it was Micky, he had turned up like a good penny. He swam to us, making a group of four. The rest of the time that we were on the raft is hazy. We were all in poor condition, exposure and fear was added to everything else that we had suffered.
Hallucination went hand in hand with reality, hope and desperate optimism, plus the instinct to survive blinded us to the desperate plight that we were in. From far distant land a lighthouse was flashing.
Mick and I made several attempts to guide the raft by getting into the water and pushing it towards the lighthouse, but it was an impossible task, the current was too strong and of course the land was too far distant. The two other chaps were just about finished. The ironic part was that we were in a shipping lane, ships were passing by in full view, but they did not pick us up, no doubt that they had been warned off by our friends, the Japs. So there we were the four of us, adrift on the pacific, somewhere of f the east china coast, being carried farther out to sea, then in again, at the mercy of the currents: thirsty, hungry, weak from exposure and the starvation by the kindly Japanese army in that hellhole of a prison camp, Shamshuipo. The other chaps were in a really bad way, on the brink of death. Mick and I could not help them, only watch, wait and hope for a miracle.