When I was a boy: Part two (My father's memories as a boy living through World War Two)
The young soldier rammed the blade of his shovel into the ground, placed his hands on the small of his back, stood erect and stretched, arching his back and rolling his shoulders groaning loudly. Sweat poured off his shirtless torso and brow and his pale English skin had taken on a reddish colour. The sun in this part of the world was brutal. Water, where was his water? He cast about and then he found it...
...The young boy sat at the edge of the hole the soldier was digging watching him toil. These British were crazy, he thought, always digging; They'd no sooner dig one big hole and then start on another. He was sure they didn't like it, but they kept doing it. They looked funny too. White at first, then pink and eventually red with sunburn. He liked watching them work; In between digging they would talk with him sometimes, a little at first and then more. The boy's father forbade him and his brothers from speaking anything but English at home and so he could speak with the soldiers a little. source
His English was getting good for a 5 year old. The soldiers were teaching him some new words too, but they told him only to use them around the soldiers and not at home. He once used one of them in front of his father and got a thrashing so hard that he couldn't sit for the rest of the day so he decided not to use them at all. The boy was a quick learner.
He jumped up when he saw the soldier stop and stretch and waited knowing he'd want some water. The soldier turned to him and smiled, "you got that water little Mowgli?" He said. The boy knelt and pulled aside a couple of large jungle leaves revealing a bucket of water and ladle. The bucket was heavy and the rope handle hurt his hands but he picked it up and struggled down into the hole the soldier was digging, half falling most of the way. The soldier grabbed the ladle and started scooping mouthfuls of water. After he was sated he dropped the ladle into the bucket and ruffled the boys' hair, "that's a good lad, nice and cool, you put the leaves over to keep the sun off again?"
The boy grinned, *"yes boss."
When the soldiers first came the boy was wide-eyed with wonder. They marched in lines on the dusty road and he yelped with joy and ran along beside them with his friends. Some of them handed out sweets, dry biscuits and chocolate. They made camp in the fields and over the next few weeks became less of a spectacle. Most of the boy's friends were shy, probably because they didn't speak English as well, but he wasn't. He walked right up to them and introduced himself. Soon he was running errands for them, cleaning their boots, bringing them bananas... and learning bad words. He had become the official water carrier for a small group and he was proud of his job. source
The young boy knew there was a war; His father told him that there might be trouble but the British were there to protect him. The boys' father was the Postmaster for the British postal service, a respected and valued position in the town, so he should know the boy thought. The Japanese wanted to get to Singapore and his town stood right in their path but the boy wasn't worried. These soldiers would stop them. His dad said so...
The young boy in this story is my father and the year is 1941. The place is Malacca, in Malaya, now Malaysia. The Japanese were working their way down the Malayan Peninsular slaughtering any who opposed them. They waged a brutal sort of war. The British (and allies) were desperately trying to dig in and fortify with the goal of slowing the enemy advance on Singapore, their ultimate goal.
My father was a boy of five years old and was not only an intelligent fellow but had a social streak in him a mile wide! He quickly became a favourite of the British soldiers and could often be found helping to dig, or carry, or clean and when not at school or studying (he was incredibly studious) he was with the soldiers. They thought of him as a little brother or cousin calling him things like, *little mate, little bruv (brother), Tarzan, Mowgli, old mate, and just about everything but his actual name. The name Mowgli referred to the little boy in the Rudyard Kipling book, The Jungle Book written in 1892 and was the most popular with the soldiers. They loved him though, his spirit and kindness, his unceasing work-ethic and the little bugger could draw too! My father would draw pictures for the soldiers that they'd pin up or send home to their children or families, palm trees, jungle, tigers, snakes, the beach. Just about anything.
In exchange for the work he did they fed him, sent rations home with him for his family, much needed rations as there wasn't much to go around. They helped him with his English language skills which assisted him to excel later in his young life. (More about that some other time). My grandfather, as one of the town's influential people would have British officers home for tea or dinner and my grandmother, an outstanding cook, would create dinners as best she could with the limited supplies. Even the officers knew my dad; The little boy who was always running this way and that with his soldiers carrying a bucket, a shovel or sometimes a rifle. He was a little celebrity with the British and allies. source
Of course, it was a difficult time for everyone. The soldiers my father was carrying water for were digging gun emplacements, defensive trenches, weapon pits, rigging communications and fortifying the town against the marauding Japanese.
It wasn't long after my five year old father carried that water down into the hole for that soldier that the town would fall. Most of the soldiers would be killed or captured and my father and his family would be living under Japanese Occupation. It was a brutal time. My father saw atrocities galore, British officers summarily beheaded by Japanese officers, the captured enlisted men often used for bayonet practice in strange bravery ceremonies by the Japanese soldiers. Beatings, both soldiers and the locals, rapes of the women and of course the abduction of many women to be used for comfort women by the Japanese military. There were privations too; Food and water restrictions. Punishments for unacceptable behaviour. It was a brutal and precarious few years for my father and his family but they survived.
It's funny...With the Japanese in occupation my father was every bit as popular with the soldiers and officers. He was the same convivial little boy he always was; It was simply his nature. The Japanese respected him for the same reasons the British did. He was their little brother or cousin all over again. The dichotomy of war; Two opposing forces but the same really.
My father is now almost 82 years old and suffers dementia so the stories are all but lost to me; But I remember. I've had conversations in which he's been brought to tears remembering particular people, soldiers of the British, Australian and allied armies who were killed or worse, captured and tortured publicly then killed. I would listen as he recalled, talking randomly, in tears one moment, smiling the next at some memory of the good days. In every story I could see, in my mind's eye, the little guy running errands, selflessly giving without expectation. Working hard, not complaining about lack of food, the cuts received running through the forest to escape the bombs (now coming from allied bombers). He helped provide for his family with his efforts, just as he did for us when we were growing up...
With these snippets of his memories written in my poor way, I hope to record this part of my father's life. In his formative years he suffered hardships we could never imagine and still managed to excel, becoming a fully qualified high school teacher at 19 years old, an accomplished artist, an immigrant to Australia in 1965, a husband to my Australian mum and father to me and my 4 siblings.
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