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STEP RAILS AND CHANGI


STEP RAILS AND CHANGI

Writing this novel, the author has drawn on his own experience during the war against the Japanese on Malaya and Singapore, and the first months of his P.O.W life in Changi.

He was the youngest of three mates who had trained on a Machine Gun in Australia, which was left behind when they were sent to Malaya with the 8th Division A.I.F. Despite repeated requests, before and after the Japanese invasion, the Army never supplied them with a Machine Gun.

He tells of the fighting during the retreat to Singapore. How he was attached to a jungle patrol, and meets up with a Major attached to intelligence. Here he has his first experience of the brutality of the Japanese. After the surrender and their only food a small ration of rice, their Officers asked for and got permission from the Japanese to catch fish off a nearby beach, for their wounded.

One of the three had experience of fishing in North Queensland so he was selected to oversee the building of a fish trap.

He tells of the arrogance and complacency of the British and how they insisted a lagoon that was producing fish for the Australian wounded be kept for the recreation of British Officers.

To supplement the meagre ration of rice, the three mates went under the wire to get coconuts and fruit. They discover a Chinese mother and daughter who had witnessed the slaughter of their family and neighbours and were hiding. The mates promise to help them escape across the channel to the Malayan mainland.

In Store Price: $29.00 
Online Price:   $28.00

ISBN:1-9210-0516-5
Format: A5 Paperback
Number of pages: 321
Genre: Historical Fiction


Author: A.A. Richards 
Imprint: Poseidon
Publisher: Poseidon Books
Date Published:  2005
Language: English

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About The Author 

A. Richards, known as Peter, was born at Hornsby, N.S.W. He now lives at Bundaberg.  

At the height of the Great Depression, when many families had trouble putting food on the table, he was taken from school and sent to a farm in Queensland, where he remained until enlisting in the A.I. F. in 1940.  

Trained as a machine gunner in the Ammunition Company 27th Brigade 8th Division, he became a prisoner of the Japanese when Singapore surrendered on 15th Feb 1942 and a member of the Changi fishing party, which had permission from the Japanese to catch fish for the Australian wounded who had been hospitalised.   

In April 1943, he was sent by ship to work in factories in Japan. 

Owing to the passage of time and the unreliability of memory, this novel is a fictionalisation of actual events that the author experienced. It is as he remembers. All names are from the author’s imagination.                             

PROLOGUE 

We had become careless. To get the coconuts and anything else we could scrounge to eat, we had to sneak under the wire of the Changi Prisoner of War camp. We had been doing this for a few months and had become quite proficient in climbing the trees with the help of climbing stirrups I had fashioned out of fence mesh.

We were members of an Australian P.O.W. fishing party, which had permission from our Japanese captors to go to the beach and catch fish for our wounded soldiers. We were guarded outside the camp, but the walk to the beach, under Japanese guards and working on the fish trap, gave us first-hand knowledge of the Japanese patrols and the approximate times they went around the camp. The soldiers singing their marching songs as they marched usually warned us of their approach, and we could take evasive action.

Today we had decided to climb the coconut trees beside the path used by the Japanese patrol as they went around the perimeter of the camp. We had avoided these trees because of their open position and the chance that we could be surprised by a patrol.

The Patrol was usually regular, and mostly before lunch, but occasionally there would be an extra patrol. It was my turn to be up the tree, and I was reaching for the last ripe coconut, when suddenly a Jap patrol, out of sight around the bend, burst into song. I froze, remembering how we’d debated the possibility of hiding amongst the palm fronds should a patrol come by. There was no way I could climb down the tree in time, so I was about to put our theory to the test.

 

CHAPTER ONE (sample) 

It was 23:00 hours on January 14th 1942 and the three of us were in the back of our company Ute, leading an ammunition truck up towards the town of Segamat, with ammunition for the artillery. Initially it had been the British and Indian troops that had opposed them. Now it was the turn of the Australians to try and halt their southward march.  

This was our first journey towards what we called ‘the front’. However there was really no such thing. We’d also been told that the Japanese used the road until they struck resistance, and then went around through the paddy fields, jungles, etc.

We were the machine gun section of this ammo company and were supposed to have a machine gun set up in the back of our Ute. Unfortunately the Army had so far refused to supply one. Their excuse was that other soldier’s need was greater than ours. 

The darkness limited our vision, but the moon would rise later making it easy for us to see the road. Recognizing familiar landmarks was not so easy.

“Like shags on a rock! That’s us,” Lazy said.

“Sitting ducks is more like it,” I said. 

“Come on; keep your eyes peeled for that marker,” Curly said. “We must be getting close, forget sitting ducks or shags.” 

Of course, we were not much good without a machine gun. But a bloody sight less useful if we’re not ready.

I agreed with him. All we had were our trusty 303 rifles. We’d been sent because our Sergeant (Sarge) believed I knew the road better than other drivers, because I had driven him up this way a few times before the A.I.F. became involved. But I suspect he also wanted to get us out of his hair, so he wouldn’t have to listen to us whinging about not having a machine gun.

“I think we just passed that culvert you were looking for. They must be around here somewhere,” Lazy said.

Curly thumped on the roof of the Ute, signalling our driver Rowdy, to stop.

“Our boys should be around here somewhere.”

The rubber trees on our right seemed endless, but up ahead there was a break and some kind of clearing or paddy field.

“Turn off your motor,” Curly said to Bill the truck driver. “We should be able to hear something if they’re around here.”

In the sudden silence there was a murmur of voices, and the clink of metal on metal, up ahead on our left.

“That must be them,” Curly said. “Move to the end of the tree line.”

We moved up quietly, and as we passed the last of the trees I could make out the shape of the artillery guns on our left. Don, the Gun-Sergeant, came to meet us.

“Just in time, we’re packing up getting ready to move,” he said.

“Move where? Our Lieut will want to know.”

“You‘ll have to ask Captain Johnson … Who’s the truck driver?” he asked.

“I am,” Bill said.

“Right. I’ll come with you and show the way. You boys stay here; Captain Johnson wants to see you. He’s cranky and really pissed off about something.” He climbed onto the side of the truck, and directed Bill off the road behind the guns.

“I wonder what he wants with us?” Lazy mused. “Maybe he just wants a message delivered. Anyhow, we’ll soon know … I can see someone coming?” Through the gloom I could see a figure approaching. “Yes; it’s Captain Johnson.”

He walked up to us and asked, “You’re the machine gun crew?”

“That’s right, Sir,” Curly replied.

“Good! I want you to set your machine gun up there on the bend in the road. We’ll be pulling back very soon and I want you to be lookout for us. Keep a sharp lookout because … ”

Curly interrupted him. “What bloody machine gun? Have you got one to lend us?”

He looked in the back of the Ute and frowned. “What’s going on? You just said you’re the machine gun crew. Where’s your blasted gun?” 

“We’ve never been issued with one,” Curly said. “Every time we ask, the answers are the same; someone else’s need is greater than ours, or they just haven’t got one.”

“Christ! I don’t believe this! What the hell do they think you three are going to do if you run into the Japs?” He called to his sergeant. “Don; over here!” Don hurried towards us. “Didn’t you tell me you knew one of the crew on this machine gun section, and that they be lookouts for us while we were moving?”

“Sure did,” Don replied, he pointed to me. “Driver Hillyer came from the same district I did. I know he’s a good shot. Why? What’s the problem?”

“The problem is,” Capt. Johnson spluttered, his face turning scarlet with rage. “The bloody Army hasn’t given them a blasted machine gun!” He turned to address Curly. “I suppose you did your training on a gun back in Australia?”

“Yes, Captain, but left that gun behind when we came over. They told us a gun would be supplied when we got here. As you can see, we’re still waiting.”

The Captain looked up the road then back at us. “I’ve lost contact with the boys in front of me. I let H.Q. know my problem and they send me ammo and you three; heavily armed with a rifle each. Talk about stuff ups! But I’ll still have to use you. Go up and keep lookout on the bend. I’ll signal when the last gun pulls out, and remember, I’ve had no contact with the boys in front, so be careful, I’ve heard that the Japs have tanks and our boys may have gone bush, so the first ones you see could be Japs.”

“Yes, Sir,” Curly said. “Just one thing, it’s not our fault that we have no gun. Our Sarge is sick of us whingeing about not having one.”

“Hey, I’m not blaming you boys, it’s the bloody boofheads who got us into this mess. Talk about stuff ups,” he hesitated then said. “This may help you. About two miles back the Sikhs have set up a recovery yard, and you might be able to find a gun there. Don said there is nothing for us, but you might get lucky. Keep a look out for my signal, and when you get back, tell Ron we’re going back about five miles, where there’s a fork in the road.”

We hurried to the Ute. Rowdy drove up and parked, facing the way we’d come.

About twenty feet further on there was a culvert and Curly said, “This’ll do us. We’ll take cover in this drain. Lazy and I will go left, you and Rowdy on the right.”

“Hang on,” I said, “we won’t be able to see Jonno’s signal from here!”

The sky was lightening up a bit, and visibility had improved. Curly gazed up and down the road.  “Bloody hell, okay. This is what we’ll do; Rowdy can go back to the bend and give us the drum when Jonno signals. Us three will stay here. If there’s any shooting, we’ll be hidden in the drain, and it’s not far to the bend.”   

Rowdy moved back to watch for the signal. We’d nicknamed him Rowdy because he was so quiet we often forgot he was there. We should have named him Bottle-O or Miracle-man because no matter where we were, he could always find a bottle of grog.

I was pleasantly surprised when there was only about six inches in the bottom. We had been told they had a rainy season but so far every week was the same. It rained. Lazy said the rainy season was every day after lunch.

I could hear Curly and Lazy talking quietly. I didn’t need to hear the words, because I knew Lazy would be going on about his pet subject, Politicians, the Army, and some unnamed professor, who wanted five thousand planes for the defence of Australia.

Lazy had worked for a wholesale grocery firm before joining up in Townsville. I assumed that he was a prolific reader, because he had an opinion on everything, especially Politics and was obviously better educated than Curly or myself.

We had been crouching in the drain for about thirty minutes when Curly whispered, “What’s holding up Jonno’s mob? The light’s getting better, and the moon’ll be up soon.”

I didn’t reply. I could see something about one hundred yards up the road. Close-up, the trees were now in focus, but further along it was still hazy.

Suddenly everything happened at once.

Rowdy yelled, “Righto!”

I glanced behind, and saw him stand up. I looked back to the front again, and saw that the shadow I had been watching had moved. Before I could call out, shots came from in front of us. Rowdy screamed in agony and the three of us returned fire.

The firing ended as abruptly as it began. After the initial shots, silence engulfed us. I carefully climbed from the drain, my boots full of water.

“Keep watching! I’ll see how bad Rowdy is, and get him up to the Ute.”

As I crawled up to the corner, Curly called to me. “There’s no more bloody movement up there. I reckon they’ve taken to the bush to go around us. We’ll give them a burst when we leave.”

I called back. “I don’t think you should, we returned their fire quickly but with only three rifles, if you fire again they might wake up that there’s not many of us. They probably think we’re in force around the corner.”

Rowdy had copped two bullets in his shoulder. He was not a big man so I managed to carry him up to the Ute. I laid him on the ground, put down the tailgate and turned around to call the others, but both were already beside me, and together we placed him on the floor of the Ute. Curly and I got in while Lazy jumped behind the wheel and we took off.

I examined the wounds as best I could. “He’s hit high up on his shoulder. I think I can stop the bleeding. Pass me some bandages.” The night sky was starting to lighten up, and we could now see reasonably well.

“Tell Lazy to keep a sharp lookout for that recovery yard,” I suggested.

“Hey! Don’t you think we should get Rowdy to the medics as quick as we can?”

I looked at him. “As I said back there, we’re sitting ducks, standing in the back of this Ute with only a bloody rifle. Now if there’s a chance of getting a machine gun, I reckon we should take it. Rowdy’s wounds are not that bad. A few minutes won’t matter.”

Lazy suddenly gave a shout, and stamped on the brakes. “There it is!”

Curly jumped from the Ute, and joined Lazy as he ran over to where we could see a heap of broken weapons.  I kept working on Rowdy’s shoulder, doing the best I could do with what few bandages we had.  

The boys returned to the Ute within minutes. “Bloody hell we’ve struck the jackpot!” Curly yelled. “There were two, and there’s grenades there as well.”

“Any magazines?” I asked.

“ Yea, we’ll go back and get them now. How’s Rowdy?”

“Not too bad, I’ve managed to stop the bleeding. The bullets went through the fleshy part and I think missed the bone.”

Rowdy let out a moan as he regained consciousness. “Bloody bastard, hell! Jesus Christ! What happened?”

“You’ve been shot in the shoulder, but hang in there, we’re taking you back to the medics. How’s the pain?”

“Bloody awful! I could do with a drink.” I reached for my water bottle. “Not that bloody stuff! I’ve got a bottle under the seat.”

“Christ!” I said. “The Sarge warned you about having grog in the Ute. The boys are coming back now, Lazy will get it for you, okay?”

“We got seven mags and a box of grenades with primers. Some of the mags don’t look so hot, but we should get three or four good ones.” Curly was putting them into the Ute.  “Also found a bag of spare parts. I don’t know if they’re any good.”              

“There’s a bottle of grog under the seat, pass it up, he sure needs a drink now.”

We caught up with Capt Johnson about a mile down the road. They were setting up two of their guns on the road itself. Lazy pulled up alongside the Captain.

“Rowdy’s been shot, we’re taking him back to the medics. We’ll let our Lieut know your new position.”

“We heard you, but it didn’t last, so didn’t think you were involved. Bad luck about Rowdy. Harry Purcell and his boys must have gone bush.”

As we moved off, I called back. “Thanks for the tip about the arms dump, we found one gun we can probably use.” Curly was using the time going back to examine the magazines. “And what about covering the lot with our groundsheet. Now that we’ve got a gun, we don’t want to lose it.”

“Why would we lose it?” he asked.

“Jesus, mate, they reckon they haven’t got a gun for us. There must be others who should have a bloody gun, whose need, they’ll say, is greater than ours. That’s what they say every time we ask for one. Let’s wait until we’ve checked them out, then if both are okay, we could make big fellows of ourselves and hand one over.”   

Rowdy’s wounding was the first time anyone in our mob had been injured. I had often wondered how I would feel when the bullets were flying and it was not as I’d imagined. There had only been a short burst of gunfire, then nothing. Even crawling up to Rowdy and carrying him to the Ute, there had been no thought of danger. Everything happened so quickly; it was over before I had time to be scared.

Rowdy gave an occasional moan as the Ute bumped along the track. The bandages and pad were doing the job; no more bleeding that I could see. He opened his eyes, as I reached over and took the bottle out of his hand.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m just making sure you don’t drop it.” He settled back again.

“Get a look at that,” Curly said from behind me. “Bloody hell, he’s downed half a bottle, let him have the rest, it should dull the pain.”

We drove into our camp and Sarge hurried over. We told him about Rowdy.

“Oh, Christ! Is he bad?”

“Bad enough. We only pulled in to let the Lieutenant know that Capt Johnson has pulled his mob back about five miles, where the road forks. He reckons they won’t be there long, and to tell you he’s lost contact with Purcell’s boys.”

The Sarge had resigned look on his face. “Okay, we’re pulling back as well. After you drop Rowdy off, go back to our old camp.”

We made good time to the medics, and after handing Rowdy over we were held up by some stupid Corporal wanting to know how Rowdy had been hit.

On our way back Curly said, “We better decide about these guns. Get Lazy to pull over and we’ll check them and decide what we’ll do.”    

Lazy pulled the Ute up under a tree and we hurriedly checked the guns and bag of tools “Well, there’s two main springs in this bag; everything else we have.”

Curly looked up. “We should get one gun out of them. The main spring is buggered in both. If those springs in the bag are okay, we’ll at least have one, but if we have to requisition a replacement spring, everyone will know we’ve got a bloody machine gun, and if you’re right, Snow, they’re sure to confiscate it.”

“Perhaps not. Look at them; they both looked stuffed. I…I… haven’t examined them yet, but just looking, I’d say the mag holder in that one’s bent out of shape, and the other one looks as though it was run over by a tank. In other words, to our Sarge and Lieut, they’re scrap. All we have to do is report that we found them, and what bad luck that they’re both buggered. There’s no way they’ll be reporting that we have a machine gun in that condition. Don’t forget, I…I…I already have a reputation for fixing things, so I’ll ask permission to try and repair one.”

“And what about the spring?” Lazy asked. “I don’t think we should depend on the two you found in the bag, they look as though they’ve been bent and straightened.”

“I think Snow’s right, let him show them to the Sarge when we get back, and tell him they’re both rat-shit, but we’d like the chance to try and fix one of them.”

We reported to Sarge and showed him the broken guns. He barely glanced at them, as he asked us how Rowdy happened to get hit. Curly related the episode with Capt Johnson. When he finished the report the Sarge said, “Okay. Go up and get something to eat, and park over there near the cook’s truck. And what’s the condition of those guns you found?”

Curly told him the story we’d prepared, finishing up with, “So Snow reckons he might make one usable, but it’ll depend on getting one or two parts.”

Sarge shook his head. “I’ll send it back. There must be a repair depot on Sing?”         

“Come on, Sarge, they’ve already been thrown away. The same thing will hap…happen again if we send it back. They’ll take one look and dump it. Why not give me a chance to fix it? If I can, we’ll have a machine gun. I…I reckon it’s the only way we’ll get one.”

He gave a grin. “Yeah, why not? At least it’ll get you off my back. Okay, go ahead and see what you can do. I will find out if there are parts available.”                                            

 

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