Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

Outram Road Prison, Singapore

Prisoners of the Japanese (from Prisoners of the Japanese by Gavin Daws -- click on the link for the book at

"At Tha Makhan the Japanese caught some Americans smuggling Thai newspapers into camp. Mel Forsman off the Houston was one. The Japanese shipped him away to serve a sentence at Outram Road jail in Singapore.

"The Japanese threw prisoners in Outram Road by the hundred: men captured escaping, the ones the they did not kill on the spot; downed bomber crews (the Japanese classed them not as POWs but war criminals, and at Outram Road they gave some of them to Japanese airmen to kill); three officers from the Kanchanaburi radio atrocity, including the lieutenant with the broken arms [these prisoners had been caught with homemade radio sets]; Australians from another radio disaster at Sandakan on Borneo, badly knocked about, one of them with a kempeitai [military police] skewer driven through his eardrum; white civilian internees supposed to be involved in resistance work (some were, most were not); Malays; and Singapore Chinese in droves, their crimes unknown to the POWs.

"Before Outram Road got overcrowded, the prisoners were mostly in solitary. They could tap on the wall with a stone or a button, talking in Morse code to whoever was in the next cell, hoping the guards would not hear. The only times they saw each other were at taiso, and when they were taken for their once-a-week twenty-second wash. Anyone with scabies--and that was everyone--was run through a disinfectant bath. The smart money tried to line up ahead of the Indian syphlitics. One man balked at going in after them, and a guard kicked him in the crotch. That was Outram Road hygiene.

"Someone somewhere was always screaming under torture, or deathly ill and in agony, or going insane. The prisoners could try to stop their ears against the noise and blank out what it meant. They could spend their days figuring endless mathematical problems to keep their brain turning over, or try to recall everything that ever happened to everyone in their family.... Time passed unbearably slowly and yet they had no memory of it. They were as caged carcasses, nothing more. They chewed their fingernails off and ate them. They squashed cockroaches and bedbugs, then squashed some more, or made friends with a mouse and then stamped it to death, or pulled the wings off a fly to keep it with them for company, or fed their body lice to a spider, and watched the spider fattening up while they wasted away.

"Their food came to them through a slot in the door--hardly anything to eat and hardly any time to eat it, ten seconds in the morning, other feeding times twenty seconds. Every so often the guards ordered them out to empty the Japanese honey buckets, and that was a sight, white men panning Japanese shit, prospecting for an undigested black bean to salvage and eat."

-- Gavan Daws, Prisoners of the Japanese: POWs of World War II in the Pacific (Morrow 1994), pp. 253-254

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