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Private GBW (Glen) Skewes

 Glen Skewes Changi Diary


'Courage' and 'God' symbols

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After training as a medical orderly for twelve months at the Royal Park Camp Hospital and attaining the rank of Nursing Corporal, I was offered a position in a Hospital to be established somewhere overseas. I accepted. Then followed a journey on the Hospital Ship "Wanganella" from Melbourne and, after farewelling Australia at Fremantle, Western Australia, we headed for our destination - Singapore. We arrived at Singapore on the 15th of September 1941 about fourteen days out from Melbourne.

My first Impression of 'The Gateway to the East' was of a harbour scattered with Natives' boats, gangs of Natives unloading boats, and Native fruit-sellers In their canoes trying to sell to us even before we disembarked. Our first job on landing was to change our Auntrallan money into currency of the Malay Federated States. Then we were loaded in trucks to be taken to our barracks and passed through streets teeming with native people - Chinese. Malays and Tamils. The nauseating smell of their cooking in palm and peanut oil filled the air. It was a long time before we got used to the smells. Rickshaws and electric trolley buses added to the confusion. Chinese children greeted us with welcoming shouts of "Hello Joe!". Later, when the Japs were Masters, there remained none of this outward friendliness; but many proved to be friends by secretly doing acts of kindliness - even at the risk of their lives.

We had been warned on our way from home that we were to go to a place which was very hot and humid with no wind. This description fitted Singapore perfectly, Our barracks were In St. Patrick's College, Katong, four miles out of Singapore where we were to remain for two months. This two months. mainly filling in time. became very monotonous. During this period we were lulled into a false sense of security when the sky seemed to be full of planes of our Air Force. Later we were to discover that this was only a show put up with comparatively few, mainly obsolete planes. It was during this time also that eight or nine of us became friendly with two Chinese Christians - Mr. Tam and his son-in-law, Mr Young, who was a Methodist Minister. Our many visits to their homes were made beautiful by the Christian Fellowship, and many a time I have wondered what was their fate under Japanese domination.

Quite a lot of time was filled in by visits to Singapore on leave. One of our favourite pastimes was to make shopping excursions to Change Alley and other shopping centres. As in most Eastern countries, trade between shopkeeper and purchaser was done on the bargaining system, the former demanding first a high price for the article in question whilst the latter offered a price much lower than he was prepared to pay. As much as fifteen minutes of bargaining would follow until a price mutually acceptable to both was arrived at. Some of the shopkeepers looked very funny sitting cross-legged amongst their wares - like spiders waiting for their prey. Quite often a seller would be found sleeping on his bed (sharpoy) covered with a mosquito net, waiting for a customer. I found that most local people did very little work nor carried on much business between the hours of 10 am. and 4 pm., this period of greatest heat was a time of siesta. Then, all would come to life in the evening and later the night life of Singapore - business and entertainment being carried on well into the night. Because Singapore is a free port, silks and other fabrics and articles of Eastern apparel may be bought at much less cost - and of course a greater variety than available in Australia. I had never seen such shop displays of silks and silken garments, Chinese hand-knitted tablecloths, etc, designs marvellously worked.

Many chaps sent such silks home before Japan hit us in the back. Well shall I remember visiting Anzac House for the evening meal when on leave, and the beautiful service of catering which they gave. A scrumptious two or three course dinner with the most appetising desserts or Malayan or European fruit salad with generous ice cream. The management and staff did a magnificent job for the A.I.F. The Chinese and other natives of Singapore and Malaya have an interesting and remarkably different mode of transport for their market garden produce. For example, the majority of small farmers set off to market carrying two pigs. Now, these pigs are not as large as those we have in Australia - possibly the breed, but perhaps the tropical climate and diet are factors contributing to this smaller size. Being or this dwarf variety, they are the more easily carried in the manner I described.

The Chinese purchases two pig baskets and straps one on each side of the back wheel of his bicycle - head up, of course! The top, or lid of the basket is dome-shaped in case the pig is a little taller than the average. Along with the pigs there is a basket between the handle-bar containing either vegetables or fruit. Coming home the farmer will possibly have in his baskets some tiny pigs or fowls which he has bought at the market. A few used two-wheeled carts after the rickshaw style, but very seldom one saw utility trucks such as Australian market gardeners have. While speaking of fowl and pigs, it seemed so strange to us chaps when passing through small villages to see pigs and fowls popping in and out of some of the houses. Later on, when we were 'Prisoners of War' of the Japanese we were out with a party under a Jap Guard obtaining some palm leaves for broom making, etc, and were cutting branches from palms near a house. A fowl cackled inside the house and as the Chinese or Malayan resident was not at home, an Australian Prisoner of War (POW) peeped through a crack in the upright weatherboards and behold! the fowl hopped down from a settee where she had deposited an egg.

It was during our early stay at Katong that we first saw a funeral file past. This was an instance of different customs, as well as different standards of living. Many undertakers do not use their truck for the one purpose. The hearse we saw was really a.30 cwt. or 2 ton truck converted to a hearse for the funeral. Afterwards, the versatile undertaker would back his vehicle into his shed and with ropes and pulleys employed, would pull the canopy with its plumes up to the rafters. When there were no funerals the truck would be used an a licenced carrier.

Later on as a POW, I saw a Malayan funeral and the vehicle employed an a hearse was a side-car attached to a bicycle. At this time, push bicycle sidecars were quite numerous among the Malays and Indians for use as taxis. One could see a man peddling along with one or two passengers in his sidecar with hood over them to keep the sun off. Could you imagine a taximan in Australia puffing along developing his leg-muscles, with one or two passengers sitting calmly in his sidecar, and whisking fans in hands to break the humid atmosphere. I found It very interesting when on leave in Singapore to watch a Chinese snack cart in a side street serving cooked meats, fowl mainly,and rice and vegetables. Chinese customers would come up anyway, the smell was enough advertisement! - purchase a bowl or rice, and.then take his choice of portion of fowl - mainly breast, leg, or giblets (well-cooked intestines), Chopsticks supplied, the customer soon began to make short work of the rice and condiments with the portion of fowl. The first ice cream I purchased in Singapore, at Katong.

was very nice - a pink colour and costing 5 cents. Igave the vendor a dollar and from his money bag he produced a bundle or notes and some silver and copper. The approximate Australian value of the Malay dollar In 2/11d. 1 was amazed at the change I received - I got 95 cents. A large ice cream at 5 cents is some difference to the Australian price. At about the middle of November, 1941, we received word to go and start the 2/13th A.G.H. in a vacated mental hospital at Tampoi In the State of Johore, Malaya. This was only a few miles from Singapore Island.

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