This article is based on extracts from Healing in Hell: The Memoirs of a Far Eastern POW Medic by Ken Adams. It covers the period from the fall of Singapore to the painful difficulties of resettling back into family life and civil society.
Healing in Hell - Memoirs of a Far Eastern POW MedicPosted on Wednesday 6th August 2014
The march to Changi revealed the catastrophe that had overwhelmed Singapore. The place was a shambles. There were smouldering ruins, collapsed buildings, roads blocked with masonry, tangled masses of electricity cables, and smashed vehicles. In some areas bodies from the recent fighting still littered the streets: some were badly burnt; some shapeless, sticky messes covered with flies; some bloated and rotten and starting to smell badly. I remember passing one burnt-out car: the driver had been on fire and was lying in the road ‘peering’ out through a faceless head – the face had literally melted away... In some places, you smelt rather than saw the carnage and knew there were unburied bodies close by. The smell of decomposition and corruption was atrocious.
There was a lot of death at Changi and much hard work, but there was no strong continuing sense of oppression like on the railway. Changi was so vast that, after a while, you didn’t notice the wire around the perimeter or separating the hospital from the other camps unless you purposely looked for it or wanted to go to another area. Far more obvious was the physical beauty of this corner of Singapore Island.
The arrival of ulcer patients from mid-1943 taxed the resources of the hospital camp and the surgery ward in particular. They arrived bent double, clutching rotting legs and feet and begrimed in their own muck. Cleaning them up was the easy stage. Using chloroform to straighten their legs often came next: it was a gruesome procedure involving one medic sitting on a knee while another placed splints on the leg. Gangrenous tissue was removed and the wound treated with phenol or Lysol and a sprinkling of iodoform powder. In bad cases, amputation was the only option. Sometimes this was done right away, but usually only after other avenues had been exhausted.
It was terrifying to see planes dropping objects that looked like sacks of coal, watch them grow larger and larger and then have every sense assaulted by massive explosive forces. I remember the sharp image of a British prisoner, who’d been working at the Japanese camp, illuminated against a background of exploding bombs. He was running desperately along the bamboo perimeter fence of our camp seeking sanctuary within a prison that was a stone’s throw away from chaos. ‘How do I get in?’ he kept shouting, forgetting in his anxiety the whereabouts of the camp’s entrance, though he must have passed through it many times.
Food had always been an obsession for us in Changi and Kanchanaburi but this was something quite different. It was a gnawing emptiness that filled every moment and made you desperate to look for anything that might be edible, which would then be scrutinised meticulously… By August 1945 I hadn’t the slightest inkling the war was almost over and was convinced I’d never be free. Most of my mates were resigned to the same fate. We were so very isolated. For all we knew, the march and the war would drag on forever.
It’s amazing how focused your thinking becomes when the margin of subsistence starts to thin. You focus on the moment – you are hot, exceptionally hungry, very tired; your foot is a mass of pain; you are thirsty and can’t get boiled water for tea. You don’t care about what’s around you – the colours of the jungle, the sky if you can see it. You are consumed by getting through the moment and then the day. You endure. You think about food, keeping ‘healthy’, staying alive. Mates help you. You help them. You do your job by instinct. The future barely exists.
Hearing belatedly and unexpectedly that Japan had surrendered, and knowing it was true, was the single most exquisite moment of happiness in my life. It was an amazing moment of pure joy when I literally felt a warming of my inner being and when all things seemed possible.
Food, once at the centre of our thinking, was banished to the periphery amid plenty and variety... Having toothpaste was a novelty and so much better than using coconut husks but it was special only the first time… Having a decent haircut rated well above toothpaste... I was issued full tropical kit. It was strange at first being in a smart uniform and I kept looking at myself in any mirror that was handy. I was a human being again. I wasn’t an animal wearing rags. Wearing decent clothes gave me a huge psychological lift. Using a knife and fork was the single most thrilling and important trapping of western civilization for me. I’d always hoped to use them again from my days at Changi. Then the association was with eating solid food because I was very hungry. Now the association was with going home.
I was back in England but it felt foreign. I saw no familiar faces. I felt neither joy nor relief. I just felt strange… I should have been over the moon with happiness. I can’t fully explain my reaction. Maybe it was coming face to face with an uncertain future. Fantasy had been part of surviving. Now it was going to be tested.
Steering a course through the family crosscurrents was taxing for all concerned. For me, the journey underlines that experience shouldn’t be confused with maturity. Marion and I now had plenty of life experience, but none of it really helped to handle the pitfalls of day-to-day family life. In my case, I’d broadened my experience beyond anything I could have anticipated a few years earlier. But what had that experience taught me: it had taught how to survive as a slave worker among mates who provided mutual support. It hadn’t taught how to fit more comfortably into ‘normal’ society or how to establish an easy and comfortable relationship within the family. That side of me hadn’t matured at all. If any thing, it had just been snap frozen while society at large and the family had changed and evolved. I think Marion was in broadly the same situation. She had grown immeasurably during the war, but not necessarily as a mother or homemaker.
I’d lived by certain rules in the camps: veil your emotions, keep yourself under control, respond to circumstances you can’t change, draw on the strength and support of close mates. I stepped onto a train in north central Thailand that brought me to the Dakota Camp, took a plane to Rangoon and then boarded a ship bound for England to live by another set of rules: be open, engaging and comfortable with a range of people, including those you hardly know. That transition is hard for anyone. For me, the security of belonging to a tight group, even under dire conditions, was replaced by a sense of exclusion from post-war life. The worst effects persisted for at least a year. Problems with reintegrating into the workplace persisted for years.
I lived in very close proximity to a wide cross-section of people, knowing them under stressful conditions that stripped away social graces and revealed true character. The standout impression for me is that people are both very fragile and very resilient. Lives can be snuffed out so easily but, for the most part, blokes hung on tenaciously to life without any pretence of bravery. What could be endured month after month, year after year, was amazing: battered and shrunken men struggled on with a little food, occasional repairs from doctors and support from mates. This triumph, both for those who survived and those who had the bad luck ultimately to succumb, deserves the highest respect and, for me, is the principal reason for perpetuating the memory of Far Eastern Prisoners of War.
Healing in Hell
(Hardback - 180 pages)
by Ken Adams
Like many thousands of other unsuspecting young soldiers, Ken Adams was sent out to the Far East during the Second World War. He immediately saw action on the Malay Peninsula before being captured at Singapore. As a trained medic he was initially assigned to work at Changi Hospital, where conditions were bad enough. However, this was only the start of the three-year ordeal and many moves and far worse camps in Thailand were to follow.
In Healing in Hell, Ken describes his life, work and the terrible…
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