Saved by the Rats: Stories of a POW Part I

In the 1980s, Gareth Rees advertised for a good personal story in The News. A man rang him and said he’d been a prisoner of the Japanese in World War II. When Gareth went to Waterlooville to meet the man he wasn’t sure whether to let Gareth into his flat because he noticed Gareth had arrived in a Japanese car. ‘Blimey,’ Gareth thought, ‘this bloke’s hatred is still fresh.’ Anyway, here is the first in a series of two relating a story the man shared

An early childhood memory has stayed with me. Maybe it’s a metaphor for my life. Two worlds. One fragrant, dreamily beautiful. Well-being. Life a gift. The other world is shocking, too shocking and a reality too hard to bear.

I’m in a room alone. Someone has left on the radio. The windows are open and the lilac-scented breeze coming from the garden ruffles the curtains. I catch the story on the radio. It isn’t ‘Listen With Mother’. It isn’t for children. But why not? Pretty tunes and rhymes don’t hide the horror of babies falling from tree-tops or murderers cutting off heads with an axe. Parents sing bed-time songs with grim lyrics.

The war is over, a soldier is released from a prisoner-of-war camp in a place called Burma and returns home to his family farm. There is joy in the family but it doesn’t last long. The exuberant boy who left home has returned alive but inside he seems dead. He hardly speaks.

One day, the brother who went to war is working with his younger brother who’d stayed at home, too young to join the army. They are making logs using a big circular saw powered by a tractor engine. The former prisoner’s mind is elsewhere and he’s not concentrating. He’s in danger of losing his fingers in the teeth of the whirring saw. Seeing the danger, his brother suddenly shouts a warning.

The shout ignites something in the former prisoner, perhaps a memory of the shout of a guard as he attacks a prisoner with a rifle butt. His customary, spiritless demeanour becomes instead an explosion of rage. He picks up a metal starting handle and is about to strike his brother when there is an explosion and the former prisoner drops dead, shot by his father who is standing behind him, the barrels of a shotgun smoking.

When I was grown up, I met a man who said he too had been a prisoner in Burma during the Second World War. As he talked, I noticed the way he gathered from his plate every crumb of his biscuit. It was almost as though each crumb was a meal.

‘We’d been forced,’ he said, ‘to watch a prisoner slowly die.’ He was laid flat on the ground and tied down. A cage with a pair of rats was tied down on his stomach. The floor of the cage was removed and the rats who, like us had been captured and starved, began to graw at the prisoner’s belly.

It wasn’t just the agony of watching the prisoner’s agony and hearing his screams. It was agony being forced to stand in the jungle heat for what seemed like hours. Thirst, starvation, incontinence, all sorts of illness, made us want to collapse. But that would have meant being beaten with bamboo sticks, rifle butts and being kicked. And maybe you died or were thrown into the bamboo punishment cage which was too small to stand up in or to lay down.

The rats continued to eat through the prisoner’s stomach. The prisoner continued to scream. But eventually the screaming died. The prisoner died and we returned to our huts where the rat of starvation was steadily killing us as well.

It wasn’t just physical agony. Insanity was threatening to engulf me all the time. Maybe it was delirium, maybe malaria. Strangely though, there was relief in this because I felt detached from my body. At least I didn’t feel my body’s pain and it was like a holiday from fear.

I got relief as well when I was taken away from the tropical heat and breaking rocks to make gravel. My new job was cleaning the kitchen of the prison guards’ officers’ mess. There was plenty of good food around there but it wasn’t for me of course. The guards knew how tempted I’d be to steal. They waited for you to weaken. They were cats taunting their wounded prey.

One day, a leg of pork had just been cooked and was cooling down on a slab of stone behind the wire gauze door to a pantry. It was crazy. I was crazy. I knew I’d almost certainly be found out. But I knew I was going to steal it. Maybe I was in one of those fits of delirium when I was beyond caring. Maybe I felt plain old defiance. It raises the spirit even though it might result in the lowering of your dead, bayoneted body into the ground.

I checked the whereabouts of the guards. I looked in the dining room. It was empty but there was a wooden partition separating the dining room from an office. They were in the office. I could hear them laughing which meant they were probably drunk. That was good. They’d be less vigilant.

I went into the pantry and found it easy to detach the wire gauze from a window. I picked up the meat and dropped it into the mud outside. It had grown dark so there was a good chance it wouldn’t be seen and I’d be able to collect it later.

When I finished work, three guards escorted me back to my hut. The guards never acted in less than a group of three. They were afraid of the prisoners. Yes, we were beaten men. But beaten dogs will sometimes madden and jump at your throat. It was always a thought at the back of our minds, to murder the guards.

The hut was no pleasant sanctuary. It wasn’t a recreation room where you could blow a harmonica, flick through a magazine or share gossip and a joke at the expense of the guards. It was the lair of desperate men. It was a place of weeping and groaning from a thousand untreated wounds and illnesses. There was no energy. And yet when I started to whisper to Winger about the meat, the men sat up, ears pricked up like wild animals.

I’d whispered because any word about the possibility of food in the presence of starving men could result in a lawless reaction. Just about the only law remaining to us was savage self-survival. Morality and fellowship had worn away, a fantasy from another world.

Winger was the senior man in the hut but that seniority was from the other world. In the hut, his authority remained because, better than most of us, he’d held on to the old ideas of fairness and humanity. With Winger, the men were just about men rather than a collection of wild and diseased dogs.

It was agreed that I’d try and fetch the meat. The hut was locked of course but it was easy to get out. The floor was raised about two feet from the ground. All we had to do was to prize up some floorboards and I could crawl out underneath the building.

The guards obviously knew we could do this but they also knew we were far too weak and diseased to make a real escape into the jungle and to survive a journey of hundreds of miles to a friendly country. Despite this, they nevertheless patrolled the camp at night. However, on the night of the meat foray, heavy monsoon rain was falling and we hoped the guards would stay in shelter.

Part two next week.

Photography by Moshe Tasky.