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Bamboo Cage

Bamboo Cage

THE P.O.W. DIARY OF FLIGHT LIEUTENANT ROBERT WYSE, 1942-1943

Edited by Jonathan F. Vance

To Robert N. Wyse,
and to his grandson, Robert J. Doucet,
whose desire to see his grandfather’s diary published has been fulfilled.

Contents

Abbreviations

Introduction

Into Battle

Chapter One

Malang Prison Camp

Chapter Two

Lyceum Camp, Soerabaja

Chapter Three

Darmo Camp

Chapter Four

A Second Year in Java

Conclusion

Acknowledgments

Selected Bibliography

Photo Credits

Index

Abbreviations

A/C Air Commodore
AC1 Aircraftman First Class
AC2 Aircraftman Second Class
A.O.C. Air Officer Commanding
C.B.Z. Centrale Burgerlijke Ziekeninrichting, or central public hospital
C.O. Commanding Officer
F/L Flight Lieutenant
F/O Flying Officer
M and D medicine and duty
M.O. Medical Officer
N.C.O. Non-Commissioned Officer
ORs other ranks
O.T.U. Operational Training Unit
P/O Pilot Officer
P.T. physical training
R.A.F. Royal Air Force
R.A.F.V.R. Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve
S.I.Q. sick in quarters
S/L Squadron Leader
S/M Sergeant Major
S.M.O. Senior Medical Officer
V.D. venereal disease
W/C Wing Commander
W/O Warrant Officer

Introduction

Into Battle

Robert Nicholson Wyse was born on July 23, 1900, in Newcastle, New Brunswick. In 1906, the family moved to Moncton, where his father operated a large and successful store on Main Street. The family was prosperous and well connected, and the Wyse home at 204 Cameron Street was something of a social hub in the city. The six Wyse children attended Wesley Church (their father had chaired the church’s building committee) and went to the local school; one of their classmates was literary scholar Northrop Frye, whose family home was just behind the Wyse house.

When the First World War began, Robert and his older brother Harry were too young to enlist, but, in April 1918, after they had come of age, they both joined the Royal Air Force (R.A.F.). Neither of them saw action, but Robert’s appetite for the military life was whetted. Twenty years later, in part to escape an unhappy marriage, Robert Wyse left New Brunswick for England and, on January 10, 1938, enlisted in the R.A.F. His age made him unsuitable for pilot training, so he trained as an air gunner and flew as a rear gunner on Wellington bombers. After spending almost a year on operations, he was converted to a fighter controller, tracking incoming German air raids and despatching British fighter aircraft to meet them. This safe posting wasn’t to last.

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The Wyse family around 1905: (from left) Harry Ogilvie, Agnes Annie, Robert Nicholson (at rear), James Wilson, Ruth Osborne, Robert Nicholson Sr., Lyle Smith. A sixth child, Elizabeth, was born later to Robert Sr. and his second wife. The family of R.N. Wyse

Wyse’s new unit, 232 Squadron, had been formed at Sumburgh, Scotland, on July 12, 1940, and spent the next fifteen months patrolling the skies over northern England and the North Sea. Re-equipped with Hurricane 2Bs in the summer of 1941, 232 Squadron was considered a fresh unit when the decision was made to dispatch it to another theatre of operations. Four squadrons — 17, 135, 136, and 232 — were assembled into 267 Wing, with orders to proceed around the southern tip of Africa to Iraq. Their ultimate destination was secret, but was rumoured to be either Tunisia or the Caucasus, where they would help shore up Russian defenders against the German invasion. The squadrons were split up, with the commanding officers and experienced pilots posted to one ship and the rest of the pilots, aircraft, and ground staff dispersed among other vessels.

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Robert Wyse, 1918, shortly after enlisting in the Royal Air Force. The family of R.N. Wyse

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Pilots in training, 1918: (left to right) Robert Wyse, unknown, H.A. Henderson, unknown, Harry Wyse. The family of R.N. Wyse

On December 6, 1941, Robert Wyse and the ground staff of 232 Squadron boarded the Warwick Castle, a passenger steamer of the Union Castle line, and joined a thirty-two-vessel convoy that was headed south. Not long after the Warwick Castle left port, the blow fell in the Pacific. On December 8, 1941 (a day earlier in Hawaii, across the International Date Line), Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, Malaya, Hong Kong, and the Philippines, achieving stunning successes everywhere. Within a month, Hong Kong had capitulated, Japanese divisions had captured most of Malaya and threatened Singapore, and Manila had fallen, forcing American units to withdraw to the Bataan Peninsula to await relief.

With the situation growing more dire by the day, 267 Wing received a change of orders. A few days before Christmas, it learned that 17, 135, and 136 Squadrons would be sent to assist in the defence of Burma, while 232 Squadron (with a few straggler pilots from 242, 258, and 605 Squadrons) was destined for either Singapore or the Netherlands East Indies. They spent Christmas in Cape Town, South Africa, then headed north into the Indian Ocean. As they approached the Netherlands East Indies, the convoy split, half going to Singapore and half (including Wyse’s vessel) to Java. At the time, Wyse considered himself lucky; his opinion would soon change.

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Robert Wyse, as he looked on his first pilot’s licence. The family of R.N. Wyse

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Area of southeast Asia attacked by the Japanese in December 1941. Mike Bechthold

Japanese forces had leapfrogged from the Philippines to Borneo and Celebes, and their next objective was Sumatra. Wyse and his fellow airmen, after four days as tourists in Batavia, were transported across the Sunda Strait to Oosthaven, Sumatra, where the Allies had cobbled together a mixed bag of British, American, Dutch, and native soldiers to defend the island. Despite its numbers, it was hardly a formidable force. The British anti-aircraft units were well trained, but some had lost their ammunition to Japanese shipping strikes. The Dutch had plenty of small arms and a few tanks, but were also making do with homemade armoured cars. Most of the Allied aircraft available were obsolete, and the best of them, the newly arrived Hurricane 2Bs, had to be uncrated, assembled, and air tested before they could go into action. Most of the modern aircraft available for the defence of Sumatra were concentrated at two locations: P1, once a Dutch civil airport, with two all-weather runways and good dispersal facilities, but no accommodation for air or ground crews; and P2, a huge grass clearing surrounded by a thick jungle of rubber trees that provided excellent natural cover. To Wyse’s frustration, there was almost no early warning system, forcing controllers to rely on information from naval units and the well-meaning but ill-prepared Dutch Civil Observation Corps.

Even with these weaknesses, one must marvel at the inability of the Allied forces to mount a strong defence. Japanese paratroopers landed at P1 and the nearby oil refineries at dawn on February 14, 1942, and within twenty-four hours the Dutch commander had ordered all Allied forces in Sumatra to withdraw to Java. Late on February 15, the Allies began crossing the Sunda Strait, and by the seventeenth, Sumatra had been completely evacuated. The withdrawal was clearly premature — the Japanese paratroopers numbered fewer than five hundred, and even with larger infantry units landing nearby, the Allies enjoyed a significant numerical advantage — but it was entirely typical of the mishandling of the campaign in the Netherlands East Indies.

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The Netherlands East Indies islands of Sumatra and Java. Mike Bechthold

Back on Java, Wyse and the other airmen had two weeks of enforced idleness. It was not until March 1, 1942, that the Japanese resumed their advance, with a number of landings along the north coast of Java. Again, the Allied resistance was pathetically feeble. The pilots of 232 Squadron eventually were amalgamated with the survivors of 242 and 605 Squadrons into a single unit, but the Allied air force was whittled down every day, losing pilots and aircraft that could not be replaced. At noon on March 3, 1942, the composite squadron was ordered to pull back to the airfield at Andir. At the same time, two other groups of British, Australian, and American soldiers and airmen, numbering roughly eight thousand personnel, were concentrating at Poerwokerta and Tasik Malaja. But on March 8, 1942, with Batavia in Japanese hands and the capital city Bandoeng about to fall at any moment, the government of the Netherlands East Indies capitulated. The Allied units were left with no choice but to surrender as well. With that, Robert Wyse joined the roughly one hundred thousand British, Australian, American, Dutch, and native personnel in captivity.

* * *

Robert Wyse’s original typescript diary runs to some sixty thousand words. In editing it, I have deleted passages that were obviously added after the war, as well as repetitious sections. Aside from correcting the spelling of personal and place names and introducing a standard format for dates, times, and ranks, I have left the text just as he wrote it. For example, I have left unchanged terms such as “Japs” that would be considered racist today. To alter them in accordance with modern sensibilities would be to give an inaccurate picture of the world in the 1940s as it was perceived by Robert Wyse and people of his generation. I was also particularly determined to retain Wyse’s more frank assessments. He was a man who didn’t suffer fools gladly, and was sharply critical of some of his fellow officers, whom he accused of being inefficient, coddled, and self-absorbed. He had nothing but praise for others he encountered, especially the pilots he sent up two or three times a day and a number of the doctors who selflessly treated the prisoners. Sadly, it has not been possible to identify all of the individuals he mentions, but I have added explanatory footnotes where information was available. As much as possible, the full names and ranks of individuals appear in the index.

Chapter One

Malang Prison Camp

Following the Allied surrender, Robert Wyse entered a world of almost unimaginable suffering. Despite Japanese statements that they would observe the spirit, rather than the letter, of international law in dealing with prisoners of war (P.O.W.s), they flagrantly violated the most basic tenets of the Geneva Convention of 1929, established to protect combatants in captivity. Letters to and from prisoners were destroyed or packed in sacks and forgotten. Parcels of food and medicine sent by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which could have saved countless lives in the camps, were left to rot in warehouses, right where Swiss-chartered ships had delivered them. Escape attempts, which were permitted under international law, brought the most brutal punishment. Prisoners were subjected to appalling medical experiments, and were tortured or executed on a whim. There are even documented cases of Japanese officers cannibalizing their prisoners. Wyse would watch, on almost a daily basis, as his captors demonstrated a complete disregard for the lives of their prisoners. The typical guard, it soon became apparent, delighted in inflicting pain on anyone or anything, and seemed to have no moral compass to control his behaviour.

All prisoners, even the officers, were forced to work at jobs that were hard and dangerous, and the Japanese expected a certain number of labourers to be available each day; it didn’t matter whether they were healthy or sick, as long as the right number of prisoners presented themselves. For the unwell, it meant spending time in the makeshift hospital, usually on decreased rations — because the Japanese believed that a P.O.W. who didn’t work didn’t need to eat. The able-bodied faced long days of back-breaking labour in brutal conditions. Thousands of prisoners were, quite literally, worked to death.

But the biggest killers were malnutrition and disease. As Wyse often observes in his diary, the Western digestive system was ill-equipped to cope with an Eastern diet. Rice was a staple in Java, but it was usually accompanied by meat or fish, vegetables, and fruit to provide the necessary nutrients. The P.O.W.s, in contrast, received only small quantities of rice, and precious little else. Occasionally it was raw rice, which was relatively healthy because the vitamin-rich husks were still on the grains, but most of the time it was processed rice, and often of very dubious quality. Wyse, as an officer, had better access to fruits and vegetables to supplement the rice, but even in the best of camps the prisoners were plagued by a host of deficiency diseases that were often grouped together under the term avitaminosis: pellagra, wet and dry beriberi, blindness (caused by a deficiency of fat and animal protein), Singapore foot (in which the soles of the feet became unbearably prickly and tender), and Singapore scrotum (also known as electric balls, it inflamed the scrotum and caused the flesh to peel off). Dysentery and scabies were epidemic, and malaria was a constant threat. It is hardly surprising that Wyse’s diary reveals an obsessive concern for food and physical condition.

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Allied soldiers, probably Dutch, surrendering to the Japanese on Java. Collection of E.P. Smith

March 9, 1942 — One hundred percent parade to start our imprisonment. While lined up, a large formation of Jap bombers and fighters appeared. Although everyone knew the war was definitely over, there was a move in the ranks to take cover.

March 10-30, 1942 — There was no water laid on [in] this camp. We got our supply from two small streams running through the camp, and I mean they were small: one only about a foot across and a few inches deep; the other not much larger. A few clear days and they dwindled to nothing. We constantly prayed for rain so that we could get a fresh shower bath off the roofs of the hangars. The drome had never been finished and most of the buildings had a roof only. Mosquitoes very bad here and nets of great importance. There were no amenities, and before they could be dug, thousands of thoughtless men were littering up the surrounds. Even when there were plenty of holes dug for this purpose, many lazy people would not bother to walk that far. The atmosphere soon became unbearable. This condition as well as never being able to wash properly and the sudden change to a rice diet soon brought on various skin diseases, dysentery, diarrhoea, constipation, etc. Bites or bruises would soon become seething masses of swollen rottenness. Lack of foresight on the part of officers and men was responsible for this in the first instance. We needed a strong man to lay down the orders and we didn’t have one. We have chloride pills for our drinking water, from the two streams previously mentioned, yet I have caught many brainless ninnies urinating in those streams less than a hundred yards above where water was being drawn, to say nothing of erecting a small dam and taking a bath, signs posted everywhere to the contrary. With a bog hole less than 100 feet from the officers’ hangar, I had to move my bed space from the door leading to it, as officers would not go beyond that door to urinate during the night. The smell in a few days was something awful.

The Japs knew there were many of our chaps in the jungle and along the beaches and they took the obvious way to get us into camp. They offered the natives 10 guilders for us alive and 20 guilders dead. The natives would not dare to attack us unless they outnumbered us a hundred to one, but they generally caught up with isolated Britishers and in that way reduced the numbers. The Japs were shooting us on sight by this time to discourage escapes.

At the drome there were many planes, all unguarded, and some of the boys attempted to make them airworthy. The Dutch had been using this drome and I could not believe they would have left them flyable. I was asked by three different escape parties to fly their plane for them and refused. These lads were well-qualified air mechanics and had been working on those engines every night for weeks and they claimed they were OK. A Dutch pilot whom I met on one of my outings and who had been flying from this very drome had told me that nobody would ever fly those planes, and I was much more inclined to listen to him than to our own enthusiasts. Somewhat gratifying though to have the boys seek me out to lead their show. W/C [Wing Commander] Bell1 had a Magister ready to take the air, he claimed, and was going to carry extra fuel in drums. A Glenn Martin was also being groomed by some men. Then the C.O. [commanding officer] W/C Steedman came out with this fantastic statement to all officers: ‘You are not to attempt to escape by aeroplane because if you get away the rest of us will probably be shot,’ thereby spreading consternation among those lads who were trying to fight a war. It was our sworn duty to try to escape and not only that but we had to try to obtain as much information re: enemy movements as possible en route. We carried all kinds of paraphernalia to aid us in that escape. Here, in Eastern Command, don’t escape; something might happen to the rest of us.

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Allied units marched into captivity, Java, 1942. Collection of E.P. Smith

About ninety percent of the officers here have been in the Far East for many years, too long for their brains to be sizzling in the hot sun, and about seventy-five percent of these only joined up in the last few weeks when the trouble started. These fellows are known by all and sundry as ‘tea planters and whiskey swillers.’ One has only to see them and hear them talk for a short time to become completely fed up with them. All they can talk about is the amount of graft they should have collected.

We would be allowed to write a letter here, according to the Japs, one per month. All handed in letters but there is little likelihood of them ever being delivered. Plenty of snakes in this camp. [An] S/L [squadron leader] got away with a 5,000 guilder impress [levy]. Our cooking is atrocious. Nobody knows how to cook rice.

Prices jumped 300 percent right away but soon dropped back to normal. In command of several squadrons at various times. The shifting around, nominal rolls, working parties, etc., very boring. Our own seniors can’t be of the same mind for more than twenty-four hours at a stretch.

March 31, 1942 — Ordered to prepare for a move in the morning. My party was not included in this shift. Then, at 10 p.m., was transferred to another Wing and ordered to take charge of a party of thirty-one vehicles and a hundred men to take off at 7 a.m.

April 1, 1942 — After many delays, with the Japanese proceeded to the Central Hotel, where we picked up an escort of a sergeant-major [S/M] and four soldiers. We had been told the trip would take two days. My C.O. allowed me three days rations for 100 men.

April 2, 1942 — Ran into trouble in the Tjilatjap area. All bridges had been blown by the Dutch. We drove all over the area looking for a crossing without finding one. Finally back to a place on the south coast where a small ferry was operating. Got a few cars over, one at a time. Heavy current. We camped by the riverside for the night. Water bottles empty and no water. Ordered river water boiled for twenty minutes and allowed to settle overnight. The rivers bring down everything from all the towns and villages located on them, but had I not done this the men would have drunk the stuff as it was.

April 3, 1942 — Spent most of day getting rest of vehicles across the river. Had bath in native well. Night [in] another schoolhouse. Oh, on the first night out two of our lads broke camp and went downtown to a pub and had whiskey, of all things. The next morning I caught it from our escort. Told that in future the Jap soldiers would be on guard and anyone caught out would be shot. Looked on as a great joke by most of the lads. I wasn’t quite prepared to believe it was. It was very difficult to get the true inference from our escort as none of them spoke a word of English. We had perpetual troubles over petrol, for instance. They expected us to run without it, I guess. That night all trucks out of gas. Nips wanted to leave early in the morning. Spent hours trying to convince S/M we could not move without fuel. He eventually got a Nip interpreter. Wanted to know how much we needed. I asked [how] far we had to go. Not allowed to see the map. Told we had 300 km to go. I then estimated 300 gals required. Too much! Then told only 200 kms to go. Whereupon I estimated 300 gals. Still too much gas but they eventually found 300 gals for us. We travelled all that day and in the evening I learned we still had 180 kms to Malang. Fortunately we had some spare fuel in one of the trucks, otherwise I think I would have been shot. I just could not make them understand that motors would not go without fuel and there seemed to be little of that left around the country for the Japs.

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