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Life as a POW of the Japanese

In 1942, Harry Carver was stationed in Singapore with the Royal Artillery. He was captured by the Japanese and spent three years as their prisoner. He now lives in Dannevirke, New Zealand.

Harry Carver in 2002 An Ormondville man who spent three years in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp says there would be "no New Zealand as we know it today" had the Americans not dropped two atomic bombs on Japan to end the Second World War.

Harry Carver, a member of the British Army stationed in Singapore before WW2, was captured in 1942 and believes he is one of only a few in New Zealand with the experience of a prison camp in Japan.

"When we were captured the Japanese said 'You are the guest of the Japanese. You will be spared, but not your country. We are going to conquer the world, annihilate your people, and every household will have a white slave'," said Mr Carver. "That's basically what I was - a white slave. I worked 12 hours a day on a diet of soya beans and seaweed - and I was lucky! The Japanese policy was 'Asia for the Asiatics. Out with the whites!' Six hundred in my regiment were taken to build an airstrip in New Guinea, and when they were finished they were all shot."

Harry dismisses suggestions that America did not need the bomb to defeat Japan. He said the Japanese were more prepared in defence than anyone thought, and if the Americans had tried a land invasion the Japanese had sufficient forces to go into Australia and New Zealand.

Harry Carver from Nottingham joined the army in 1934 and went to Singapore with the Royal Artillery in 1942. He was captured later that year and feels his officers let him down.

"The British officers were underground at Fort Canning when the Japanese came across from Malaya. The strait was all swamp and they crossed by making stepping stones of one another; committing suicide until they gained a foothold. "Our officers decided to capitulate to save the civilian population. The Japanese couldn't understand it. They had 39,000 men, many suffering from dysentery. We had 90,000 men."

Harry said the front line Japanese soldiers contained a large contingent of former convicts who were very arrogant. "When they reached Singapore they went to the hospital and bayoneted all the wounded and the doctors," he said. The British continued to send troops to Singapore even after it was captured and these men were taken straight off the boats and put into prison camps. "Our officers assured us we would only be in prison three months. We were there three years! During that time we lost 50,000 men. They were shot or bayoneted, or they died of disease, malnutrition or working on the Thai railway." Though he describes himself as one of the lucky ones, being sent to a prison camp in Japan, Harry had many horrific experiences in captivity and was fortunate to survive. He recalls spending three days in a dog kennel on water only and having to kneel on a stick - a torture that paralyses a man's legs for up to a couple of hours afterwards.

Harry spent his first year in a camp in Changi, Singapore, before being transferred to another camp at Aomi near the Japanese Alps in 1943. All young and able-bodied Japanese men were needed for the front line so prisoners of war had to do their work. Harry spent 12 and sometimes 18 hours a day stoking an open-hearth furnace in a steel mill producing steel, carbonettes and carbide to run Japanese cars and trucks. Despite about 4.5 metres of snow in winter the season was more bearable than summer. The mill ran 24 hours a day, every day. There were no smokos. "There is no such thing in Japan - everybody then worked half an hour on and half an hour off. The half hour off felt like 10 minutes and you spent it laying on a board to get over your half hour on."

The prisoners lived in barracks surrounded by a high wooden fence at the end of a village. A mountain stream ran through the camp, but they weren't allowed to drink from it. Cold water was considered bad and prisoners were only allowed to drink hot, salty water to replace the salt lost through sweating. "If you were caught drinking cold water you were made to stand at attention with a mug on your head. You had to stand there for half an hour like that then they would hit you - if the mug fell off, they would put it back and you would have to stand there for another half hour - if it didn't you could go."

Harry was already suffering from beri-beri (a vitamin B1 deficiency) when he was transferred to Aomi. His condition didn't improve. A report to the Ministry of War Pensions after the war says: "By August 1945 I was five stone and full of beri-beri. As I slept at night I would fill with water, when I awoke in the morning I was too heavy to walk and had to be assisted along the passage." Earlier, at the end of 1943, he had developed eye trouble from working on the furnace with no eye shields. "I also had beri-beri in the legs, body and head. I still worked and received no treatment as there were no doctors, only two medical orderlies and a Japanese witch-doctor. Treatment by the witch-doctor consisted of a small piece of cork stuck onto the skin between the shoulder blades, on the stomach and on each big toe. These were set alight and left to smoulder until it burnt into the skin and formed an ulcer." The theory was the ulcer would reduce swelling by allowing fluid to escape from the body. The treatment was given daily for about a month and then stopped because men were dying.

And plenty did die. By the time American prisoners were brought into the camp in 1944, only about 70 of the original 200 men survived. Harry was still spending long hours working on the furnace.

"At the beginning of 1945 I lost my memory, my weight was then about five-and-a-half stone. I was told by my mates that I threw my shovel and tripod on the furnace. My sight went altogether and I had a pain in my side were a Jap had kicked me in the ribs." He regained some sight in about April thanks to men and officers in the camp who gave him their vitamins. " I then received my punishment, three days in the dog kennel." Still sick, he was taken off stoking and confined to camp making rope on half rations. "They worked you to death. A sick man is no use to the Japanese so instead of killing you they starved you until you died. The officers and men gave as much of their food to the sick as they could but I had seen many of my comrades die in this fashion. One knew one's fate when confined to camp." He remembers one man with dysentery, whose job it was to carry coal slag in a box on his back. He died walking up the plank for another load. "Death became just one of those things."

The biggest problem in camp was never enough food. "Only the cooks got fat - they never got anything wrong with them. Food was barley, green stew, meat or fish once a month and seaweed stew. We had snakes when we were lucky enough to catch them. There was no rice, but the prisoners did have soya beans to provide some protein. When we got our first soya beans we used to boil them and they would go straight through you like peas." The British cooks learned to crush them and make them first into a dough ball, which they steamed. Each one was weighed exactly to avoid fights.

During his years in the camp Harry saw Red Cross parcels only twice. "The first time, parcels meant for one man were divided between seven. One of the seven was Japanese and he ended up with the pick of the provisions." The next time the odds were a little better - the Japs kept half the parcels and gave the rest to the men to share between two. Only one guard spoke English and all commands were in Japanese. "With a few bashes around the ear we soon learnt what they all meant." Tenko - meaning number - was the early morning assembly call where every man was required to stand and number off. Sick patients were not exempt. There was only one New Zealander in camp. The first doctor arrived with about 300 US prisoners in 1944. "We just couldn't carry on all the work, that's why we got the Yanks", he said. "When they arrived it took the heat off us a bit, the Japs got stuck into them instead of getting stuck into us. There were a lot of fights between us and the Yanks. They criticised us, said we were conditioned to work and they weren't going to work for the Japanese. Didn't they get conditioned pretty quick. It took about a week." Harry remembers the doctor used to walk around camp carrying a steel flex rod. He receive his first treatment for ear trouble from him. A report after the war says: "The doctor took the steel rod, placed cotton wool on the end and pushed it up the nose until it felt as though it was in the ear. He'd pull it out then and ask if I could hear any better. In some cases, I could, in others I couldn't because the pain was too much."

The men lived in two-storied barracks and slept on matting. Toilets were outside except in the dysentery block where Harry was in charge. Buckets were placed at each end of the room and the smell was so unbearable the Japanese were loath to come in.

Time was on his side. The British arrived in August 1945 and parcels containing food, clothing and medical supplies were dropped from US air force planes the same month and in September." The nightmare was over, but it had left me a bag of bones and hanging flesh." Harry left Aomi in October. He went from there to Tokyo to Okinawa to Manila, where he was put in a US hospital for two months with jaundice. From Manila he went to the States and then home to England. He came to New Zealand in 1953 after three years in Australia.

This article first appeared in the "Evening News" newspaper, 15 August 1995, and is reproduced here with permission of Mr Carver.

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