Saved by the Rats Part II

Our Contributing Editor Gareth Rees concludes the harrowing story of a World War II serviceman from Portsmouth who was taken POW by the Japanese. Find Part I here if you missed it.

I crawled through the mud down the sides of the prisoners’ huts but then had to cross about fifty yards of exposed ground to get to the kitchen where I worked. Rain and mud got into my eyes. I had to find strength I didn’t have. Maybe I got it through the thought I was doing something for us and not just for me.

At first I thought the meat was gone. It had nearly disappeared in the mud and I was like a blind man as I pushed my hands back and forth threw the mire. But I found it.

I was nearly back to my hut but, as I tried to crawl up the slope to reach it, I realised I needed both hands to get some kind of hold in the mud to keep me going up instead of sliding backwards. But one hand was needed to hold the meat and I wasn’t going to let go of the prize. My body began to feel heavier and heavier. I was weakening and I started to slip. And I kept slipping. And then I was choking in stench and nearly drowning in mud.

I’d forgotten about the latrine trench and I hadn’t seen it. It wasn’t surprising. It was flooded by the monsoon rain. I saw the support pole for the horizontal one which ran along the length of the ditch and I started wading through the chest-deep slime towards it. I used the support pole to haul myself from the ditch but the effort, using just one arm whilst the other still held onto the meat, so exhausted me that I lost consciousness.

Back in the hut, the men had worried about the amount of time I’d been gone and two of them had volunteered to go and try and find me. They were motivated by hunger as much as wanting my safety. That was how it was.

I wasn’t far away. They found me and dragged me back to the hut, hauled me through the hole, and then threw a bucket of water over me to clean me and to bring me back to consciousness. And the meat of course was washed as well and, after it was divided into fourteen portions, we ate.

There wasn’t much in the way of after-dinner repose. The guards crashed rifle butts and bamboo sticks into the wooden walls of the hut first and then entered, screaming abuse and commands. I was dragged out into the rain and kicked into the mud. Then two men hauled me up. I slipped out of their grasp and fell back in the mud. I was kicked again and it was a relief when a kick to the head sent me swimming to another place where I didn’t feel the blows anymore.

Why didn’t they kill me? They hardly needed an excuse. Why is it you swat a fly one moment and then in another moment you don’t? Maybe it costs a bit of energy to kill and sometimes you’re feeling just too lazy. Maybe when you’ve killed your prey, you’ve nothing left to do. Maybe you desist from killing because you don’t want the boredom that follows the end of the game.

It was the cold that brought me round. I could see nothing when I opened my eyes. It was black. I tried to stand up but hit my head. I tried to stretch my legs but they were obstructed. And then, breaking the blackness, I saw two red eyes advancing towards me. It became for me an ever-enlarging demon that I had to destroy. My hand went for my weapon.

We all tried to keep some kind of weapon, to kill a guard perhaps or to deter a fellow prisoner trying to steal your rice ration. It was difficult to conceal a weapon when you’re only wearing rags. I had a little shard of green glass which I’d attached to the underside of the tongue of my shoe. I retrieved it and I stabbed and stabbed again at the demon until my own hand was a bloody mess.

Some sanity returned when light showed through the bamboo slats of the punishment cage. As the sun rose, the cold of the night was replaced by fierce heat.

Days passed in the heat of hell. I lived in my own filth. The cold at night was as extreme as the heat of the day. And for company, I had the throbbing of old wounds. When my plane was hit and set on fire, a burning glove had embedded itself in one of my hands. Part of it was still there.

The company of old wounds wasn’t enough though. Isolation became a form of starvation as dangerous to my mental health as physical starvation was to my body. Insanity was stalking me all the time.

Is there power in prayer? Was someone from home praying for me? At the very edge of madness, I was drawn back. A rat had found an entry into my world. It hopped onto my chest and looked at me. It wasn’t afraid and neither was I. It wasn’t like before when my fear turned the large insect or spider into a mighty red-eyed demon.

Suddenly there was blinding light as the cage door was thrown open. My daily ration was more thrown rather handed to me in and the contents of the bowl spilled. The door was slammed shut and, with the sound of cruel laughter receding, I retrieved the golf-ball–size, scoop of rice. The soup though was gone, soaked into the earth floor.

Of course, the rat had disappeared during this interruption. But a few days later she came back. I think it was the same one. She wasn’t alone. She had three babies.

I don’t know how long I spent in the punishment cage. I don’t know how I survived. Well, the company of that rat family certainly helped. It seems strange that when you share food, you can sometimes feel just as satisfied as you would if you’d eaten it all yourself. Despite the hopelessly meagre daily ration of rice, I was happy to let the rats take single grains from the corner of my mouth. They were very sensitive, maybe wise too, in the way they carefully avoided walking over my open sores.

One day I was woken by more light than usual. Why was the door open? Where were the guards? I was incredulous when, next to a bucket of water, I saw a bar of soap. Wary of a trick, I slowly crawled out of the cage, my eyes blinking from the sunlight I wasn’t used to. I rested a while on all-fours. I couldn’t of course stand up. I looked up and noticed the camp gates were open. What was going on? Why no screaming guards? Why the stillness?

The stillness was broken when an army lorry roared through the gates. The soldiers who jumped from the back wore uniforms I didn’t recognise. I watched. It seemed in slow motion. I saw a soldier with a brown leather jacket with the word ‘Colorado’ sewn in silver on his back. I saw two growling dogs. They hardly had coats. Their skin was covered in scabs and open sores. Their ribs showed. Colorado cocked his gun and shot them.

You ask, was this the moment the war ended? Was this peace? Was this liberation? That word meant nothing. I was more an animal, more like those shot dogs than a literate human being. I was more mad than sane. I was more dead than alive. How does someone walk away from degradation and into the rest of his life. The dead, the tortured, the maimed, the starved, they still stand at the end of my soft, peace-time bed. I have no peace-time bed. I have no peace.

Photography by Moshe Tasky.

  • Janice Skilton

    Dad Eric Barnes, an Argyll, was kept in a cage after being caught stealing rice to share….
    Probably a similar experience….
    We will remember them.