Archive number: 1998
Preferred name: Sunny
Date interviewed: 12 July, 2004
You are listening to the interview audio
All right, Sheila, could you give us a brief summary of your life?
Well, to start off with, I was born on the 10th of August 1924 in a little village in Taiping called Assan Kutar [?] . I
started school when I was about seven as a day boarder in Penang Convent. And then later I went to Taiping Convent and finally I ended up at Ipoh Convent. My mother was Malaysian. My father was Australian, he was a mining engineer working for the
Osborne & Chappell Company, I think it is an English company in remote parts of Thailand and Malaya, and we only used to see him once a year and that was in Christmas holidays, so I didn’t know my father terribly well. With my mother, I haven’t got many memories of her, the one that I can remember was when I was about six
years old, living in Penang in an apartment building, going upstairs to the first landing. Turning left in an open door which led into a room, and my mother was on her knees praying because it was the month of the Ramadan, and
she was breaking the fast at six o’clock in the evening, and next to her was a little mat for myself. She brought me up as a Muslim. My next memory of my mother, I suppose, would be about eight, we were still living in Penang, I was still attending day school, in a little room above the Chinese grocery store, I wasn’t allowed
in the shop until after the shop closed. And I remember drilling a hole in the floor of the room so I could look down and see what was going on, and as soon as he closed the shop I would run down with a tin plate and mug and sit outside with a group of other little girls and boys begging for food. I assume we were pretty poor at that
particular time. And it was only then, after that, that my mother disappeared from the scene and my father took over, I saw more of my father then. I used to spend more time with him, mainly in Thailand. A little village of Paktak, I have good memories of that place. As far as my school life goes, well, I was a boarder in a convent, Taiping Convent
and Ipoh Convent, it was a happy and peaceful life, and honestly wonderful. And then, of course, when I finished my education, I was seventeen in November 1941, my father decided he would send me to Melbourne to study engineering and naturally I had other ideas. I wanted to be a writer, and we went up to Cameron Highlands for our holidays, and it
was there, on the 8th of December Singapore was bombed and from then on, of course, the nightmare started, running away from the Japanese as they came down the peninsula, dodging bombs, and finally arriving in Singapore where, of course, we thought we would be safe. It was being bombarded in all directions.
15th of February we surrendered and I was interned with my father and my stepmother, my father married again in 1941. And we went first to Katong House for about eleven days or something like that. And then we marched to Changi prison on the
8th of March, where we spent two years and two months, and finally at Sime Road Camp, the open air camp, for the rest of the term of the war. After the war, my aunt got the Red Cross to find out what had happened to me, she got news that my father had died but there was nothing about me. And she wanted to sponsor me
to come out to Australia and to look after me. In November 1945 I arrived in Australia, went to live with her, started nursing, got married, had two children, my husband, sad to say, passed away in 1996, and now I have got two grandsons and I guess things turned out pretty well for me.
Very good, Sheila, that’s a very nice concise summary, well done.
Have a little sip there, and I will take you back to the beginning again. Do you know much, if anything, about your mum’s heritage, her background?
I know nothing, as a matter of fact,
in 1950, around that time I had a letter from Miss Black to say that my mother had been looking for me right through the war and somehow or other she discovered I was in Australia and I was working, and she found the name of the hospital I was working in and she wrote to me through her and sent
me a photograph of myself when I was about nine. Surly looking female I was, apparently I didn’t like having my photograph taken. And I looked at it and I thought, “That’s me”. And I realised, well, she could be my mother, but at that particular time everybody wanted to come to Australia and I was warned to be very careful, because she wanted
to come over or else for me to go back to Malaya. And so I wrote to ask for more information and she sent me a little statutory declaration saying who I was and where I was born, and that was when I first discovered I had another name which was Zatun, Z-A-T-U-N, I think, Sheila Allan. Which I have never
ever used, I have since by deed poll changed, deleted Zatun as my name and just kept Sheila as my name, it makes it so much easier for everything. Everybody knows me by that name. Most of the people since I am married know me by the name Sheila, and before I was married, when I was nursing,
my nursing friends didn’t like the name Sheila and I didn’t know why until I found out, so they wanted to know if I had a nickname and I said, “Well, at school they used to call me Sunny, for Sunshine Susie”. So I became Sunny with them. So now I have to think, when I write Christmas cards, who knows me as Sunny, who knows me as Sheila?
And so I know very little, there is a photograph of her that she sent me, her in her sixties, and once again I look at that photo and think that’s how I would look now exactly. I did have a photograph of her when she was a young woman and a photograph of my father and myself, which I think my stepmother must have
given to me after the war. But we had lost everything, papers, photographs. Hence all of these photographs here, I have got a phobia about photographing family, my family calls it a mausoleum.
You said you had a couple of sketchy memories of Mum, do you have an impression of what her nature was like as a person?
I would say a bit like me. Quiet, gentle, I am not sure whether I am very gentle but, she didn’t say very much. She was strict, I will admit. I remember the time when
I must have done something I shouldn’t have and she was chasing me with a stick in her hand, I can remember that. And then she caught me, tied me to a tree, went into the house and came out with a bowl of hot soapy water to wipe my mouth out. But that’s about the only time because, as I said, I didn’t know her for very long.
She didn’t say very much, she was quiet and gentle in her manner, very religious. My father was also pretty strict. He was very strict, but in a very quiet way. He was a very quiet man, didn’t say much. Came out with a lot of quotations, of course, which I remember, and more or less formed part of my life.
What sort of quotations?
For instance, if I was doing nothing he would say, “Hard work never killed you but doing nothing will”. Things like that. And one that I always think of, a lot of people would know, “Life is mostly froth and bubbles, two things stand like stone,
kindness and another’s trouble, courage and your own”. And he comes up with a lot of these little things, and he was a great Shakespearean reader and he would come out with a lot of these quotations, and naturally I was brought up to read a lot of his books, mostly classic, because he would go to work at five o’clock in the morning, leave me two pages of the English dictionary. I have got his English dictionary there, a
bit worse for wear at the moment, the family thinks it should go in the bin but it is the only thing I have of my father, sentimental value more than anything else. And I had to learn the spelling and meaning of those two pages and then write sentences with the words. And then telling me to date every page, which of course I remembered, and decided to keep a diary, I suppose he thought he would keep me occupied,
until he got home by five o’clock in the evening, because there was no other children when I was up in the jungle, really. I had pets, of course, monkeys and dogs and cats, birds as pets. But having an imaginative mind I decided I would try and write short stories using those words. Have you ever tried writing short stories using words out of two pages
of the English dictionary beginning with the same letter? It wasn’t easy, but I think if I was to do that now it might make a good science fiction story, a fantasy story. And of course, as I said, I know very little about my mother, I would like to be able to find out a bit more.
Did Dad ever explain how he came to meet Mum?
No, except that one of my cousins after I came out here did mention that he met her father at a Masonic meeting, so maybe that’s how he met her. Whether he met her in Australia or in Malaya I am not sure. He went to Malaya reasonably early, in his early twenties I think, to work.
He would come back home to Melbourne when he had his leave. That’s as far as I know of her, very little. Often worries me sometimes, because I would like to know, and I hope that one day I might be able to go back and find out. The letters that I got from this girl,
I got a couple of letters which I had kept and then when I got married I came up here to Sydney and a lot of it got kept under the house, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that I suddenly was looking through things I found, letters, and so I wrote back but the letters was returned, where I had sent it to,
no known address or something like that. So that line has ended.
So Dad moved over to Malaya at quite a young age and worked there, and also that he would travel around the Asian area for work, can you tell us a bit more about his work and his travels?
Well, all I know is that I used to go to Paktak in a remote part of Thailand during the Christmas holidays. I think I might have got there by boat, and then there was what we called a Halfway House where we had to stay overnight, and then we had to get one of these rowing boats, sampan as they call them, and a fellow would pole
the craft up river to Paktak, my father would meet me there and take me to the house. He would have an old-fashioned trolley truck that he would manually work by hand right up to where the mining place was. And to the house, there were about three houses
for the Europeans, the manager’s was up on top of the hill, my Dad’s house was down near the lake there and another house behind us. The lake was my favourite place, of course, just in front of the house. I used to have a little boat and row there, except for one stage where I forgot to come home and got lost and didn’t get home until late in the evening, and my father was waiting
there for me, never said a word, he just looked at me and I knew I had done something wrong and I was grounded for about a fortnight. But I had a Chinese amah that looked after me. After my mother went, and she decided to teach me Buddhism, so I learnt a little bit about Buddhism.
Can you explain what an amah is?
That’s a little bit like a nanny to look after you, a Chinese nanny.
She worked with me for a long time. I think she was a Hokkien woman, and we had a Chinese cook. It was a big rambling house with a veranda on the front. Lots of snakes, a lot of wildlife, and I spent a lot of time making up stories for myself, climbing trees, imagined I was Tarzan, playing with the monkeys,
making a tent under the table making that I was Robinson Crusoe, things that you make up when you are on your own.
So you were always by yourself?
There was never any other kids around, I always had to make my own entertainment. I spent a lot of time reading and making up short stories, that sort of thing.
So Dad always spoke English to you?
He always spoke English.
I did speak a bit of Malay, but after I came out here not talking to anybody, I am afraid I can understand but I am not sure that I can carry out a conversation. But I never learnt Chinese, unfortunately, I wish that I had.
So what was the nature of his work over there?
He was a mining engineer, dredge master, tin mining. Occasionally he would take me to the dredge.
Very small village, not very many people, there were elephants around, buffaloes, it is peaceful and it was something, I suppose I look back on it, it might seem lonely and solitary to a lot of people but to me
it was something I could connect with. I love trees, I love nature, I can wander around, I have got trees around here, I have got books on trees. I am mad on trees, particularly after I came to Australia and saw a gum tree, I thought that was lovely, beautiful gum tree. Even a dead gum tree, my
daughter, I took a photo and she said, “That is a dead tree, what do you want a picture of that for?” and I said, “It is a tree, there is something about a gum tree”.
Sheila, I just wanted to talk a little more about the time you were with Mum before she moved out of the picture, I know they were early years for you, but what sort of an area were you living with Mum in Penang, was it a poor area?
It was a poor area. It was somewhere in Georgetown, I think it was a very poor area. In those days there wasn’t much work around, I don’t think, and the shop that we had the room above was a grocery shop owned by an old Chinese man. There wasn’t much in it, maybe some
groceries, things like that, but I know every evening I would be out on the street sitting in the gutter with a lot of other kids. So it wasn’t a very influential place at that time. And the first one I remember, once again, we only had a room above the ground floor,
it could have been another shop down below as well. So it is a very hazy sort of memory, whether maybe because, perhaps, I don’t want to think about it, and it is in the back of my mind and my memory doesn’t bring it up. So it is more or less in the back of my mind, a misty sort of image.
So you and the other kids would be begging for food?
Yes, we would be begging for food more than money. Food that we needed more than anything else, sometimes I think there could be some European ladies coming around that might drop some money, which we would probably
go into the shop and buy some food. Or we might have a Chinese woman come along and put a bowl of rice in our bowl. The mug, I don’t think we had anything in it, I think we just had to go and drink water. It was just, not a very happy
memory in a way. And it often makes me wonder what sort of a life it would have been if my mother was still with me and my father hadn’t taken over. I don’t know whether there was a quarrel,
some disagreement or whether, because he had to go to work in the remote sections and he couldn’t have his wife with him, all things that happen these days, people working away from home, and you get disruptions in the family. That could have something to do with it, perhaps she couldn’t cope with it.
I don’t know whether he sent any money to her, he must have in some ways, perhaps when he found out the way we were living he must have, or perhaps she decided she would be happier somewhere else and I would be happier with him.
So did you see anything of Dad in the early years or nothing at all?
Very little, I don’t think I saw him until I was about nine years old.
When my mother disappeared and my father came and took me back with him, and from then on it was him that I spent the holidays and there was nothing more about my mother. He never talked about her. In those days parents don’t talk to their children. They are supposed to be seen and not heard,
too young to worry about things like that, and so of course I was not taught to ask questions and so I didn’t ask them. I am asking them now, but it is a bit late.
Do you have any schooling prior to Dad coming and taking over?
Only as a day scholar to the convent, so I imagine my Dad must have sent money to the
schools for my education.
What are your memories of that school?
Penang convent, all I remember is a lot of girls, all of us wearing white dresses covered up from our neck to our feet. The nuns were in black, all covered up. Big rambling school, I can’t remember much about it except that I was happy there.
Was there a mixture of nationalities there?
Mainly Malaysia, Eurasian Chinese and European children. Children whose fathers worked in the colonial service. A lot of English girls. The nuns, most of them were French, we had a couple of English, Irish and
Malayan nuns but most of them were French. It was essentially a French convent.
Catholic. In those days I think there was only Catholic schools there, and of course the children all had to learn English as their first language. But our exam
papers were set over in England, and so we used to send them over there and get our results from there, the director of education was English. I don’t remember terribly much of Penang Convent. Taiping Convent, I spent a bit more time there.
That’s the one you started from when Dad came along?
So you moved from Penang when Dad came along, where did he settle with you?
No, he still was in Thailand and he sent me there as a boarder, I was a boarder then. It was a nice little convent at the foothills, near the botanical gardens.
Once again a French Catholic convent, and I spent a happy time, my school days have been very happy, pure, comfortable, peaceful, surrounded by loving nuns. And of course the only male I ever saw was a parish priest once a week and the bishop for
special fast days. And, of course, my father, I was always surrounded by women. Routine was more or less the same thing, slept in large dormitories, we had the bathroom, of course, we were all in cubicles, we never got ourselves undressed in front of anybody, we were completely covered up.
So it wasn’t until I went into camp that I realised that there were so many different shapes and sizes in the female form, I thought we were all straight up and down because I had never seen anything else but everyone straight up and down. It was a happy life. The nuns used to take us for walks every evening and we went past the prison, we had a prison not very far away from where the school was,
and she always used to threaten, if we were naughty that’s where we would land, and little did I think I would one day. And then of course I went to Ipoh Convent and that’s when Dad came back to Malaya and settled at Kampar.
How old were you?
I would be about ten, twelve,
and it was then, when I was about fourteen I decided that I would become a Catholic, so I became a Catholic.
What religion was Dad?
He was Presbyterian.
Did you consult him?
I did ask and he said, “Well, that’s up to you”. Because as far as I know he wasn’t a very religious
Presbyterian, he was a strict Presbyterian but not very religious. He never talked about religion to me. And again his quotation, one of his favourite ones, “So many creeds, so many Gods, and all the world needs is the art of being kind”. So he doesn’t believe in going to church or anything like that.
Just be yourself and be kind to people, not hurt them, so I guess I saw him a fair bit more then, but I still would only see him at Christmas time.
Do you remember that being frustrating that you didn’t see your dad?
No, I don’t think so.
I enjoyed being there, but once again there was no children around. I liked the isolation, doing my own thing, but I also enjoyed the company of the nuns and the girls. And somehow or other, perhaps in the back of my mind I was hoping to be a bit more on the religious side,
somehow I had visions of becoming a missionary nun and I was very much into it.
Do you think that’s because of your natural inclination or the nuns were really pushing you that way?
No, I think it was more myself.
Whether subconsciously, having been brought up a Muslim and then learning about Buddhism and then I used to go to the Catholicism classes and perhaps I was the only one that wasn’t a Catholic, somehow at the back of my mind,
the nuns seemed to be so kind and so gentle and so serene and I thought perhaps being a Catholic might make me like that. That’s what I wanted to become, quiet and serene and happy, be content with what I have got, and that’s what I learnt from being in the convent with the nuns. They never forced me to do anything that I didn’t want to. Although always in the back of my mind was that if
you did something wrong you would have to go to confession on Friday and confess your sins, you told a lie and you didn’t do something that you were supposed to do, that was a minor sin and you had to confess to that and you might get five or ten Hail Marys as your penance, but I accepted that, and that has been
right through my life and even now, acceptance of things that happened to me. Learning to accept.
So was that the extent of the discipline that the nuns dished out?
Yes, except in the classroom. I used to sit behind a girl who had a pigtail and I would pull her pigtail, and of course I would get put in the corner for doing that. Or I would talk too much and I would get the palm of my hand
slapped with a ruler and I would have to write five hundred words, “I mustn’t talk in class”, after class. It didn’t worry me, one of the things I learnt was if you do something wrong you have to be punished for it. Therefore it is your fault. You know what is right, you know you shouldn’t do something, and if you do it, well, the onus is on you,
that’s something I felt. And it had helped me quite a lot in a lot of things, because it has made me hold back and realise, “No, I shouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t like that done to me. I am responsible for that.” I guess it is something that
has always been brought up, my father always said to me, “Whatever you do you are responsible for your actions, you are the only one to be blamed”.
It sounds like your values were very much a combination of the wisdom Dad was passing on combined with what you were getting from the nuns and religion?
Yes, very much. But I think subconsciously maybe he was
more inclined to be, he was a passive sort of person an d so were the nuns, very gentle. I always remember my father as being very gentle, very quiet. I always knew when I had done something wrong, because he only had to look at me, without a word. And I must have done something, I think,
I wasn’t allowed to go out somewhere and I went out. And he just looked at me and I knew I had to go to my room, and I got a pen and a piece of paper and I wrote, “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!” Filled the whole page, and I went to bed and when I woke up in the morning and I said, “Can I have another piece of paper?”, and I wrote now, “I love you, I love you”. So, I mean, little things that you do that come back every now and then when I think of my father.
Were you a conscientious student?
Not particularly. I studied because I had to. I don’t think I have got a lot of brain matter to worry about, I excelled at a bit of sport. I was the school champion long-distance runner and swimmer. I did try tennis until I got hit in the
eye and I gave that up. I tried hockey and I got hit in my shin and gave that up. I had to study hard to get my marks, I haven’t got a photographic mind or anything like that. But I suppose I am a diligent student. I sit down to it and I will
study. The only unfortunate part of it is that I am like my father was, a night owl. I do most of my best work, most of my thinking for study at night time. Even now, very seldom I am in bed before two o’clock in the morning, still awake at about half past four in the morning. He only had about three
hours’ sleep that I knew, and I think I do take after him.
What were your favourite subjects?
Reading, writing. Play-acting. But mainly reading, music. I learned to play the piano, not very well, but I could keep myself occupied, to enjoy it,
that’s why I play now to enjoy it. My daughter plays the organ and I tinker a bit with that, but I prefer the piano. Mainly just to amuse, when I am sad or something like that daughter, my daughter, always knows I am at the piano playing Chopin’s Polonaise and she says, “What's upset you today, Mum?”
Or if I am in a pensive mood I will go and play something soft. She always knows when something has upset me. Of course, these days I love my gardening and go for my walks, I still swim. I still listen to a lot of music and read a lot, mainly passive
activities I have learned to enjoy.
End of tape
Interviewee: Sheila Bruhn Archive ID 1998 Tape 02
We were just talking before about you converting to be a Catholic. I believe before that you wanted to take things further and join the sisterhood?
Yes, I did quite seriously, but of course the war came. But I still had in mind when I was nursing that I would like to be a missionary nurse, but then I got
married and that was the end of those ambitions. I am not particularly religious as religion goes, I used to attend church regularly but not any more, because I keep thinking of my father saying, “I don’t think it matters whether
you go to church or not so long as you believe in something and live your life the way it should be lived”.
At what point did your father remarry?
I never knew anything about it until 1941 until I finished and I went back up to Kampar before we went to Cameron Highlands, and he introduced me to
my stepmother. So he might have probably married her early in 1941, perhaps in the back of his mind he thought, “Well I am going to have a teenage daughter in the family, perhaps I need another woman to keep an eye on her”. I didn’t know her very well, she was about ten or twelve years older than me so she was
reasonably young. But we got to know each other better in camp.
Was she a European or an Asian woman?
She was a Thai lady and, but after the war when I said to her, “Would you like to come to Australia?”, because I was determined to come to Australia some way or another, because my father wanted me to come to Australia,
she said to me, no, I was twenty-one, then my life was my own, I don’t need her to look after me anymore, so she said she would go to her home, to her own people.
Before the war what if anything did your father tell you about Australia?
Well, he often talked about Harrietville and Bright, because that’s where he spent most of his youth, I
believe, and that’s where a lot of the family members were. Mainly talking about the beautiful autumn nights in Bright and the cold weather, he loved the cold weather, I don’t know why he ever went to a hot country. Talked a bit about his parents
and a lot about his sister Grace, who is very much like him in a way. Tall and thin. But apart from that there was a very little, as I said, unless I asked questions he wouldn’t volunteer much information and it is the same with me, I guess, unless somebody
asks me questions I just don’t tell them anything. My daughter, unfortunately, is the same way.
We have got plenty of questions for you today.
I know, I don’t mind answering questions.
When you were a teenager, then, was Australia somewhere you dreamed of visiting one day?
No, I never thought about it, it wasn’t until after my father decided he would send me to Melbourne, and he was determined and he always said he
didn’t think I would return to Malaya, he thought I would stay there, because he only had five or six years to go before he retired and so he was going to retire in Melbourne. And so I learned a little bit, but not that much. What I learnt in school was mainly British history and British geography rather than Australian. So I didn’t know terribly much, hence I didn’t know
anything about Tasmania, and then I discovered my fathers father was a Tasmanian.
So what sort of sense of where you were being an outpost of the British Empire, what feelings was there of King and Country in that part of the world?
Well, I thought a lot of England. Because I learned quite a bit about it.
A lot of the Royal Family, I loved the Royal family, I still love the Royal family in spite of everything. It was, we did learn quite a bit about the English history, War of the Roses, and of course we learned Shakespeare. We didn’t only learn Shakespeare, we acted Shakespeare, we took part in it, and of course that
suited me, I loved it. And so England to me was the place to go, more so than Australia, I didn’t know much about Australia.
You would have been about fifteen when the war in Europe began, what did you know of it?
Very little. Knew nothing, we weren’t told anything much about it. It was
something that happened so far away.
Even though it involved Britain?
We didn’t get any news of it and I was in an English school. It seemed as though it wasn’t something that really affected us in the convent anyway. So we knew nothing, very little
So there was a sense of security?
Absolutely, I mean as far as I was concerned, being in the convent, I knew nothing of war or cruelty, people shooting each other or anything like that. It was just, what would you call it? A place where nobody hurts anybody.
Happy, serene and comfortable in every way. My school life, as I said, was happy, very uncomplicated, and of course I grew up being a very naïve, very innocent sort of a young person, because we weren’t exposed to anything outside
the convent walls. It wasn’t a very good way to start, I suppose, these days, when you come to think of it, but then those days were different, weren’t they?
It really sounds as though it was a sanctuary.
Absolutely, a retreat.
So tell us about that fateful holiday that you took that marked the end of the first period of your life?
Well, that was going to be my last holiday in Malaya before leaving for Australia. We always went up to Cameron Highlands when Dad had holidays, we rented a little cottage near the side of the hill, and
it was a cold place. We had a little fire there. A tea plantation not very far from where we were. There was a little creek, or a river as we called it in those days, creek is an Australian word, isn’t it? Running down beside, we spent a lot of time there. There again it
was peaceful, serene quiet, spent a lot of time just wandering around, I suppose and writing short stories and listening to nature. And then the day that Singapore was bombed, when I went back to the cottage and my father told us we were at war, I think
I was stunned, I suppose. War? I mean, I had read about war in books, like the War of the Roses and things like that, and it sounded terrible, but never had any experiences. I thought, “Oh, what is this war like? Why would people want to kill each other?” And of course I wanted to be of service, I wanted to join up.
My father said, “No”. He took me to a convent and the convent wouldn’t accept me because I had parents. Only those that didn’t have any parents could stay in the convent. And then he was recalled back to work to demolish all of the machinery on the mines. And everybody evacuated from place to place until
we arrived in Singapore. I think, looking back, the worst time not so much as being in Changi prison for me, or in Sime Road Camp, but the two months of the war, the sirens blaring, the sound of the aeroplanes coming, getting louder and louder, and
you tense yourself up and try to find a place to hide. You throw yourself on the ground, put your hands over your ears, and you literally hear the whistle of the bomb being dropped, and next thing you hear this loud explosion and shudder and wonder if you’re still alive or not. And that happened practically every day as we moved down the peninsula,
and I think that was more terrifying, I was terrified all of the time. I still don’t like to hear the sound of aeroplanes. And I still don’t like to hear the sound of sirens, I get really tense. But the camp, once I was in Changi it was different, when we surrendered,
it seemed eerie really to think that there was no more sounds of shelling and bombing and sirens and people screaming and dead bodies, blood everywhere. I wouldn’t like to go through that again, I don’t like to even see it, even on TV these days, it does bring back a few bad memories a few bad nights.
Prior to the 8th of December bombing of Singapore did your family have any inkling that the Japanese had ambitions in that respect?
I don’t suppose so, because my father never talked about it and I didn’t hear anything. As I said, I was one of those people that, nobody ever tells you anything. My father might have known, because he listened to the news,
but then he wouldn’t ever say anything.
So what sort of route back to Singapore did you take?
Well, from Cameron Highlands we went to Kampar through to Ipoh down Kuala Lumpur, and straight right down Gemas Way, mainly down
towards the east coast right down to Johor Bahru and Singapore.
And what sort of scenes did you see on the way down?
Devastation, destruction, buildings, dead bodies. I met some of the soldiers. I don’t know whether they might have been our soldiers, they might have been British, all
covered with blood and mud, looking terribly tired. And the civilians, when we heard the sirens, the alert, running away trying to find a place to shelter. Smell of blood,
smoke, dust, it was absolutely devastating. It was something I never would have experienced or thought to have seen in my lifetime before the war started, I couldn’t have imagined anything like that. To me it was horrifying,
the fact that people are killing each other. When I had been brought up to love everybody, I couldn’t understand what had happened to this doctrine of loving each other. It really, sometimes made me doubt God, I suppose.
Why has he done this? Why has he allowed it to happen? I mean, having been brought up with kind, gentle people to suddenly come against something like this was too much for my little mind to work, I couldn’t understand it. I still can’t understand it even now. Why are we fighting each other?
Why are we killing each other? Why can’t we love each other?
How organised would you say that retreat back through Malaysia was?
Very disorganised, because we only moved when, as the Japanese came closer. Towards the end, we were escorted by the police when we got towards the end, but
then we didn’t know where the bombs would be or where the bombs had been so we had to take whatever route we could, and just followed the leader in other words. You didn’t sort of go there and spend a night there and then spend a night somewhere else, we were moving all of the time, even throughout the evening. Sleep when you can, when things are quiet,
which was not very often, so we just kept on moving. All we were doing was going south, going to Singapore. That’s all we were thinking of. We will be safe there. We would be all right once we got to Singapore.
So the general consensus was the Singapore was impregnable?
Absolutely, I mean they couldn’t touch Singapore. Singapore was fine, we would be safe there,
once we got there the Japanese would be pushed back, we would be quite safe. Of course they came in a different direction, they didn’t come from the seaward side, they came from upcountry. And it was, I mean it is something I don’t think I would like to go through
again. And yet, thinking back I am glad I went through it, I grew up, it taught me a lot of things, particularly when I was in camp. I have learned to be tolerant pf people and understand a lot of things. Some things I still can’t understand.
Also, I think within all of us there is a smidgin of goodness. In spite of everything, but why we’re fighting I don’t know.
So when you crossed the causeway into Singapore can you describe the scenes as the Japanese kept coming and coming and Singapore itself
became a trap?
Well, we were, when we got to Singapore and found Singapore had been badly bombed we couldn’t believe our eyes, and trying to find a place to stay. Every building there was bombed, it was not
very easy, it was very difficult. And then, of course, we see a lot more bodies, dead, more, well, I suppose, just where you expect to see a nice clean city, all you were seeing was dead bodies, buildings being torn down.
Sirens going, air raid wardens telling you to get out of the way, take shelter. Ambulances about, crying people, crying children, terrified. We couldn’t believe ourselves that we had landed in Singapore, it was just the same as it was upcountry.
But there was nowhere else to go. My stepmother and I did get a passage to leave, but I didn’t want to leave my father and neither did my stepmother, and then the 12th of February I think it was, or just before then,
we were given a berth on the Vyner Brooke, the (UNCLEAR ‘fighter’) ship. And again, we decided we didn’t want to leave and I am glad, otherwise I wouldn’t have known that my father had died in camp. And it wasn’t until after the war I discovered what had happened to the Vyner Brooke and all the people that were on board. So I don’t think I was meant to be on that,
I have come to the conclusion that, I think I was meant to live in spite of everything that has happened. Of course, when we had that night they were shelling us so bad we had to sleep in the air raid shelter, I went up to my room and there was shrapnel on my pillow, which I still have. The Japanese allowed me to keep it,
they thought it was lovely for a young girl to want to keep something of theirs as a souvenir. If I had been an older person, as a man, they would have taken it as a weapon, I suppose they could have.
I just don’t know, I just can’t describe it, it is something that is pretty horrific.
What sort of sense of panic or desperation was there, amongst the expatriate community in particular?
Towards the end there was panic, everybody was running around trying to get away somehow or other, even trying to get a little boat, a little sampan for themselves. There was a lot of
thieving going on because people were trying to get tins of food to store up for emergencies, it was just chaos. Absolute chaos. Sometimes when you would go out on the street there was nobody around, just dead bodies, they were too scared to come out. And then
there would be an influx of people running around. Businesses were still trying to keep going. Absolute chaos, no order whatsoever, you just had to manage the best way you can. Try and get food whenever you can wherever you can.
Shelter wherever you can, when you hear the alert go and heave a sigh of relief when you hear the all clear and dust yourself off and look around and try and think what's the next step, not being able to find really what the next step is to take.
Did you ever see any Commonwealth soldiers fleeing or looting?
Not that I know of. But then I probably wouldn’t have thought, I would have thought they were like everybody else trying to find shelter somewhere.
How was it that you came to get the passage on the ship out? Was there some sort of organisation where you registered?
Well, you just went to, I think my father might have done that, I don’t know, to go and put our names down, I don’t know, I would imagine. It was a little earlier than when it got worse that we got the okay to get on, but then, of course, we just didn’t want to go, and so I guess somebody else took our place.
The second time, again, it might have been through my father, he might have tried to get us on the Vyner Brooke, but we still didn’t want to go. I am quite sure if we did that I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you.
What sort of efforts were made to keep discipline or order, was there soldiers, police or was it totally out of control?
All I know is that I didn’t see any policemen around, I only saw first aid people and the wardens, the air raid wardens. There might have been police about to control, but when a bomb hits the town
and people have been hit families of those people would come and try to take the bodies away, so I don’t know that there was very much what you call order. Then again, don’t forget I was only seventeen, I don’t know much about these things. My life until then had been serene and peaceful and now it
was all jagged and disruptive, and I probably didn’t take much notice of what was going on except trying to keep yourself alive.
Can you recall, then, what your thoughts were about what your immediate future was going to be?
Well, I thought one was going to hit me at any time. I was quite
sure I wasn’t going to come through it alive. My thoughts of seeing everybody that had been hit had died rather than just be injured, so when a bomb falls I would think, “This is it, this must be it, this has got to be it”, and thankfully you get up and dust yourself and think, “I am still here”. And then the next wave of bombers would come.
So it is just terror right through. I didn’t think, as a matter of fact I thought it was the end of the world, I didn’t think anybody would survive the way it was going. It was too terrifying to think. For me I didn’t think there was any future.
So talk us through what happened when Singapore fell then, what happened to you?
Well, I suppose when we heard the news and that night when everything was so quiet, I am not sure whether any of us got much sleep because it seemed so strange not to hear all of the sirens and the bombing going. It was unreal in a way. And the next day my
father went into town to find out what was happening and he was told we all have to register ourselves because we would all be prisoners. And coming back, of course, because I had an Asian face the Japanese thought I was Chinese and wouldn’t let me pass through,
and my father had to go back to the police station and get the inspector to get word to the sentry and he just said he was doing his job because young girls shouldn’t be out in the street. And we waited to get the order to move, finally when it came we got into, we were told that we would be taken to Changi.
When we arrived there we were told we didn’t have the right permit or something or other, and finally we ended up in Katong House late in the evening and I saw women everywhere. Lying on the floors trying to get sleep, cuddled around trying, we were given a spot,
and then we got moved to another place. The next morning, of course, things got a little bit more clear as to what was happening. We had a bit of order, we had people telling us what we should do, we were given chores, we were only going to be there for ten days.
We were told to pack enough for ten days so some of us did pack a few things, a bit of food and stuff like that. Because having kept a diary right through I had my six exercise books with me, my father’s English dictionary, a book of Shakespeare and a book of poems. And on the
8th of March we were told that we were going to Changi prison, so we marched there. The eight miles in the hot sun. when we arrived there we were pretty tired and dusty, some of the locals cheered and some of the locals jeered and threw things at us. We had dogs following us, and if we didn’t walk we got prodded
with the butt of a rifle and things like that. We were hungry, thirsty and dusty. Children were crying. Pregnant women were tired. It was chaos, but when we got to the, when we saw the gaol, the British women started to sing “There will always be an England”, and the men
that had already been there before us clapped. And we saw them, as we went through the gate we were told to move to the left because that’s where the women’s camp was and the men’s camp was on the right. There was a big courtyard at the back there with a tower clock which divided the two camps. And it was a mad scramble to try and find a cell for ourselves.
There was three in a cell. Third floor for the first one, and then I went to the fourth floor and then the fifth floor. Right up at the top. The first night was confusion, of course, a lot of people running up and down these iron stairs, and you could hear footsteps going up and down. And the next day,
we were told when we went in there, just more or less take care of yourselves. And the women decided we would start a committee.
I might just take you back, because I want to do that in a little while. I will just take you back to when Singapore first fell. You were saying your father had to take you to register somewhere?
Register at city hall. Because they were told that all British men and women had to register, because they were going to be taken as prisoners. The POWs [Prisoners of War] , of course, were taken straight out.
The military personnel?
The military personnel were taken straight out. The day after, we saw them going off and we knew, my father said
they were going out to the Changi area because we knew there were military barracks there.
What did you think of the first Japanese soldiers you saw?
What did I think? I don’t think I had any thoughts about them, just that I was terrified. They looked fearsome even in their
uniforms, and they were making a lot of noise and came down in a file raising their hands up with their guns and shoving and prodding people out of the way with their bayonets. I just wondered, I had heard stories of them
killing and raping women at Nanking. We were told about that, and so there I was terrified there again. I wasn’t sure what they were going to do, and being a young person that was my first thought, “I am a young person, what is going to happen to me?” In those days rape wasn’t a word that I knew, I didn’t know anything about that.
In fact, I knew nothing of that even when I went into camp. So as far as I was concerned I thought I was going to be killed, and of course when we went out and I saw these heads on poles, as a warning if we did anything we would be beheaded and have our heads put on a pole.
I really felt I would like to go underground somewhere. I didn’t, I was quite sure that we were all going to be beheaded, because from stories I had heard the Japanese hated the British and I was considered to be a British subject and it didn’t matter if, in fact it didn’t matter, because they did that to the locals too.
It was a moment of terror seeing them coming down singing and yelling, and I thought that was going to be the end, we were all going to be slaughtered. Taken out and slaughtered.
So you saw evidence of the Japanese being cruel to the local people as well?
Oh, very much so. Much more cruel to them. They sort of just bayoneted them, punched them,
kicked on them, jumped on them, I couldn’t believe a human being could be so cruel, and then seeing a baby be thrown into the air and letting it fall on the point of his blade. That was, really upset me. That was when all of my nightmares started, every time a baby cried I would see that, even now.
I just couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t understand how you could do something like that. In fact I didn’t believe it until 1992, and I went back to look at my fathers grave with a group of ex-POWs on the 50th anniversary of the fall of Singapore, and I heard one of them say one of the worst things he saw a Japanese do was throw this baby up into the air
and let it fall on the point of his blade. I felt a load from my shoulders, I could have hugged him, you know, I said, “Oh, it was true, you did see it?” And he said, “Yes, I saw it”. It was only then I realised that I hadn’t imagined it, because I thought, I mean, you imagine all sorts of things after what you had been through .And with my life mine, I thought, “I
am going to be a writer and write about all of these horrible things the Japanese have done, and I was thinking it must have been something like that”. And I felt guilty about it for quite a long time, until 1992.
What do you think makes a human being bayonet a baby?
I don’t know, I just don’t know.
It can’t be hate. Is it something, is it to enjoy, I don’t think the baby even cried. I can’t remember if it cried. It was crying before it was taken away from its mother,
but when it got thrown in the air and came down. Why? Is it because in every one of us that we have that sense of being able to hurt somebody? Sense of, do we enjoy
having that feeling of power, of being able to do something like that? I just don’t know.
End of tape
Interviewee: Sheila Bruhn Archive ID 1998 Tape 03
What was going through your mind when you approached the archway, the doors to Changi prison, what impression did you get from the place?
Relief. A sense of
safety, because to me those two months of the war were terrifying, frightening. I was scared. Now everything is quiet. There are a lot of
other women. I sort of felt like safety in numbers, like a safe haven being in there. I didn’t think then of being deprived of anything. I thought then, “I am safe”. The women all in there together, we will be there to help each other, we’re in the same boat.
And I sort of felt I was amongst friends or something. I think because there was none of the bombing going on, none of the dying, I felt relief. And also maybe in the back of my mind was the fact, if I was outside
what would happen to me? I could have been killed, I could have been raped. So it was a sense of relief, a sense of safety. Before, of course, we started scrambling around trying to get a place to settle down, trying to get a corner to call our own. But that was as soon as I walked through that.
I suddenly felt completely relieved, I am safe.
At what stage did you realise that you were going to be separated from Dad?
Well, we knew then, because at Katong House the men weren’t with us, so we knew then that we would be separated, that was a sort of an automatic thing. At least in Changi prison, although
we were separated we could still catch sight of each other. We weren’t allowed to make any signs that we knew they were there. I remember looking through the grille and putting my little finger in there as much to say, “I know you’re there”.
So at certain parts of the prison you were quite close to the men?
Yes, we could see each other across the courtyard. The walkways
have got an iron grille on both sides, so you can see through. And then when we were allowed to have the meet, children and fathers were allowed to meet the first time, with a Japanese sentry still present, of course.
It would be about once a month until the October 10th raid, which we called the double tenth, and after that, of course all privileges were taken away from us then.
When you did have those meetings with Dad how long did they allow you?
About half an hour,
that’s all we ever had. Christmas we had an hour.
Were you allowed to exchange anything, could you pass a letter over?
No, you weren’t allowed to do anything like that at all. Christmas we could give a little present, but letters no. Although letters were smuggled by Miss Frost, who was our camp
superintendent, and she was also the garbage bin, she held a garbage bin parade where the women would take the full garbage across to the courtyard and the men would come and pick it up and return it, occasionally there would be the odd letter underneath the bin or something like that. Or she would have it hidden in the sole of a shoe that had to be
mended. We found ways and means of smuggling the few odd things, letters were the main thing that weren’t really censored.
So lets talk about that day when you did arrive, you explained that you and your stepmum scrambled around trying to find a cell, who did you end up sharing that cell with?
Another woman. We drew lots to find out who would sleep on the slab, as we called it, I didn’t, both because I decided by the look of the stone slab I would have more room, wouldn’t have any danger of falling out, and it gave me a bit more space. Most of us had three
in the cell instead of one.
So there was only one slab?
So how much room was there on the slab, enough room for more than one person?
Only wide enough for a sort of a single stretcher really, with our stone pillow attached to it, a little stone block
for a pillow. The sides would be about two feet, I think, on each side. About a foot wide at the back against the wall, and about ten feet up was a little window, barbed window. And in the corner near the door was the Asian toilet, the squatter toilet.
Flushing toilet, and a heavy iron door. Certain places on the floor there would be a water tap. So in a way we were lucky because we were sheltered, although it was overcrowded and when it got humid it was pretty hard to survive in that heat and humidity.
But we had electricity, it got turned off every now and again, but we had electricity. And we had water, although that was turned off every now and again without any warning. We did have a few things that some of the other camps didn’t.
Did they give you any bedding material?
No, you were lucky if you brought any yourself, I didn’t,
and so it was a bare cement floor that I slept on, I had my little case as a pillow, that’s about all. Later on, eventually, as the internees kept being brought in, some of them came in with a lot more things than we did. Our first group, we had very little.
And Mrs Mulvaney was allowed to go out and get necessary things for the women once a month. If you could find them, clothes, some bedding, a few odd food, mainly materials for the women to make garments out
of for themselves and the children, for the husbands. As I said, all of that stopped after the 10th of October.
So you said you arrived with your exercise books, a book of poetry, what book was that?
That was a selection of poetry, mainly, a lot of them were classical English poetry,
collection of poetry.
And the works of Shakespeare?
Yes. Of course those books just went around the camp dozens of times, but I kept the dictionary to myself, I wouldn’t let that out of my hand.
Were you inspected when you arrived to see what you had?
Yes, we were, they allowed me to keep the books. They took away my tin hat and my camera, allowed me to keep the shrapnel.
And that’s about all I had. And a few clothes which they didn’t bother about. Foodstuff I didn’t have any. My stepmother might have. The older women, I think, were more prepared when they came in. The doctors, of course, had
medicines with them, the nurses collected a lot of medicines from the hospitals when they found out they were going to be interned. Of course that supply ran out eventually. But as far as food, I suppose I thought someone would look after us, I didn’t think much about food or that.
So what was the process as far as food was concerned, was there
meals at certain times in certain areas?
Well, yeah, we first, we women had to do our own cooking because we had a kitchen. Eventually the men took over because it was getting too hard for us, and when they took over they would bring barrels of food into the courtyard and we would queue up with our mugs and plates and
receive the rice, which was mainly rice and water with bits of meat or vegetables, could be anything. We did have a meal three times a day. Breakfast, I suppose would be a bun, or a bit of fish. Eventually that went down to two
meals a day and finally one meal a day. But most of it was usually rice and water with odd bits and pieces. Now and then we might get a ration of eggs, the mothers and the nursing mothers were allowed to have some milk given to them, a ration. We had a dietician who worked all of these things out for us.
We had a ration of sugar and salt and we were told to be very careful with the salt, not use it up in one go. If you felt like it just lick your finger and put it in the slat and lick it again. We managed somehow or other when the kids used to have their birthdays,
if we knew there was a birthday coming up the women would save their rations, a teaspoon of this or that, and make a cake, some sort of a cake. So the women were pretty adaptable.
In the beginning when you were getting approximately three meals did you feel like you were getting enough sustenance?
Not really, particularly for the British women, I think it was harder for them, for me who had been brought up on rice it wasn’t too bad, except that it wasn’t tasty.
Sheila, we were talking about whether the meals you were issued in the early days of Changi were sufficient?
It wasn’t, really, and it was worse for the
men because they had to do a lot of hard work. Our hard work mainly was to keep the place clean, a lot of sweeping around. The cooking, to start off, but the men did most of the hard work, bringing wood for us, and as far as laundering goes, of course, there was very little.
Eventually we found we had to wear a slip of material around us to keep us going, because with the climate the way it was the clothes just deteriorated rapidly, with no soap to wash. I had a cake of soap which I kept for special occasions, it lasted three and a half years.
Was that a cake of soap you were issued with?
No, we brought it with us.
We had nothing really issued to us in that respect, we just had what we had with us.
Can you describe the area that you did bathe and shower in?
Well, it was more or less when I say out in the open, exposed area, a row of showerheads because after all the prison was really a men’s prison, there was no cubicles
or anything like that. So we had to shower exposed to the sentries that used to wander around the parapet. I don’t think they ever really stopped to look, just to make sure we didn’t escape I guess, how we were going to do that I am not too sure. That’s all we had, a row, and the shower would get off
once or twice a day without warning, so you had to make sure, usually very early hours of the morning, you might be able to get it before everybody else wakes up. In the evening you would be very lucky to get some water.
So how many showerheads would you say there were?
I would say a dozen.
Relative to the amount of women trying to use them would you say it was often congested?
Yes, quite a bit, and most of us, I didn’t, because I was a very, as I said, very modest sort of person, I used to just have a bucket which I had given to me and I used to fill that with water and top and tail myself in the cell.
Now and again I might get a shower, but I didn’t like being with a group of women, I wasn’t used to that.
It must have been a real shock.
I found it, that’s one of the things I found difficult to cope with in camp, lack of privacy, for me it was, and I really
found it very hard. And my poor stepmother, she was terribly upset because when I did go under the shower I would go under the shower more or less partly clothed, not like the others in their birthday suits. She would get quite upset, “You can’t get yourself clean unless you get everything off”. And I said, “I don’t care”.
And was there hot water available?
Not that I know of. There might have been, I can’t ever remember using hot water, the weather was too hot to use hot water anyway, so I think it was just cold water.
So when you arrived were you given any initial briefing by the Japanese about how the camp was to be run and what you would be doing?
All we were told was that we would have roll call in the morning, well, any time really. The Japanese sentries would patrol the place and we had to feed ourselves, look after ourselves, govern ourselves whichever way possible.
As long as you don’t escape, steal from each other, fight with each other. Of course that went on anyway, but that doesn’t matter in a community, you can’t help that, can you? So the women just decided that they would have a committee, the first one, of course, was to appoint our camp commandant, who would intercede
for us for any medicines that we needed, or extra food, extra milk for the children, the mothers. Or if we wanted someone to go out to get some materials, garments, to make life more comfortable. Not that it was ever granted,
but at least she was there to do those things. And we had a meeting once a month. In fact we had a meeting just about every week, because they are the ones that control the women and if they have an argument about anything, food or about space, whatever, and so they would call a meeting and have the women concerned put their case
forward and resolve it some way or another. Very well maintained in that respect. And then, of course, we had other committees.
Before we talk about other committees, how long after your arrival did choosing this commandant take place?
Within a couple of months, very quickly, because they had to have some
order in the place because we didn’t know what we were up to, what we were supposed to do. They had to have somebody to arrange chores, we all had to be given chores. There had to be some order, and they just went ahead and they did it. Somehow worked things out. A lot of them were British women so they were more or less well used to running
a place, I suppose.
How were those women selected, the commandant for example?
Voting, by the vote. We all had to, if we wanted to get involved in anything in the way of how the camp was going to be run we had to attend the meeting and we had to vote.
How many women were you?
About three hundred to start off with,
and about sixty children, I suppose, when we first went in.
So was it a straightforward process choosing the initial commandant, was it a competitive process?
Oh yes, very much so, we called for applications and it was put before
the crowd and we voted for who we wanted.
Would the women make a speech or convince you in a way that they were the person you wanted?
No, I don’t think we had that, I think the names were put up and we sort of knew who they were, by the time we had been there a couple of months we knew the doctors, the ones who put their names up quite often had been
the ones who had taken it in their heads to organise things before the committee happened. Like in normal circumstances somebody would come and say, “Look, I think you had better do this”. You could see leadership in that person,
I guess. And when their names came up, some of them who thought that they could be a leader put their names up and there were others who didn’t like them, well, they don’t get voted in, that’s all, by this person. It is a vote by show of hands more than anything else.
So what were some of the other leadership positions apart from comp commandant?
Well, we had the camp commandant, and then we had the camp supervisor and then we had floor supervisors, and then we had some, we had to have what they call somebody to do the entertainment side, somebody to do the sports.
And we had somebody who would sort of be someone who goes outside, which is usually Mrs Mulvaney, she was the (UNCLEAR ‘greycos’) representative. And then we had a committee for, well, I suppose that comes into
entertainment, singing and acting and all of that sort of thing, and a committee for education, we had the schools with teachers. So it was really a little world of our own, we had doctors and teachers and nurses and secretaries. A whole bunch of us that had been working, and the children of course.
So at what stage were you assigned a particular role?
Very early, according to age and physical capabilities. They had our names down and take us through, and if you can’t do it well you have got to give a reason why you can’t. So we were assigned our duties very early, as soon as the committee was formed they got a list of the internees and they
just checked through.
So what were you assigned to do?
I was a drain squadder, I was assigned to the drain squad to clean the drains out, and then eventually I did the tea making with the tea lady. And then I started to do a
postmistress job, taking notes to different departments, different people within our camp, not to the men’s camp side. Then, of course, I decided that I would like to do some nursing and I enrolled as a VAD [Voluntary Aid Detachment] , and that’s eventually what I ended up as.
So what did drain duty entail?
Sweeping the drain, making it clean with whatever broom you had. Clearing the drains all around the camp, make sure that they are clean. We didn’t have disinfectant or anything like that. It was just clearing any debris that might have collected, make sure it is running freely.
You were using brooms that you had made yourself?
We had brooms that had already been in the prison until they got to the stage when you couldn’t use them anymore. But at that stage a lot of us were too weak to be doing anything much then. Of course, when we were in Sime Road Camp we all had our little plot of garden
which we had to grow, we grew sweet potatoes mainly, and we cooked every section of it. Whatever we grew had to go into a community bin, and they cooked it. That was one of the harder jobs in Sime Road Camp that we had to do,
to do the digging and the planting and sowing.
Where did you get the seeds from?
The military men that were there, I think they were the RAF [Royal Air Force] people, they had already started the camp before they came into Changi and I think they were remnants there. And I think probably the Japanese had given us some
seeds to grow. I can’t remember growing anything else but growing sweet potatoes in my plot.
What was growing in some of the other plots?
There might have been other vegetables growing. Other Asian vegetables. Occasionally we, one woman had a chook that laid some eggs. Eventually the chook went into the pot.
Occasionally we could barter with the locals when we were allowed to, that was early in the internment. There was a black market going on. After that, when the war progressed things got bad. Food was very scarce. When we asked for more food the Japanese
said that we had to make do with what we had because they had to make do with what they had. So that was the answer we got.
In the early days when you were doing drain duty, could you take us through a typical day as to what time you would get up and how you would spend the day?
Well, for me I would get up in the morning, go and have
a shower if I could. Get the fire going for the kitchen duties, there would be a scramble once the fire is going ,a lot of other people coming in to toast their bit of bread or bun that they had kept overnight with home-made forks. Long toasting forks. Stiffy White, as we called her, she
used to chase them away, because she said the fire was for the water, to be boiled for the tea and the water. And then I would get onto sweeping the kitchen, the drains. And when that’s done I would retire to my cell, do a bit of reading, do a lot of writing. Of course I didn’t let anybody know I was
keeping a diary. They knew I was writing short stories and poetry and things like that which I was doing. Eventually, as time I went on and I found it was difficult to keep my diary, I would just have to do it very early of the hours before anyone got up. And then, of course, the entertainment committee would come along and collect people to do a concert.
Children would go to school, to the classroom with teachers and so we had to practice concerts. And we had lectures from different people. Reading class and singing class. We weren’t allowed to sit around and do nothing, you were dragged into some activity. And of course there was a Red Cross corner there,
a lot of the older women would make things that they can barter with, with you, whatever you wanted. We did a lot of bartering, there was not much money but a lot of bartering going on. I bartered my time looking after a little girl for whatever I wanted extra, things like that.
And what were those extra things?
Mainly it was getting bits of paper when my exercise book ran out. Pieces of yarn for my square. Do a bit of washing for somebody else to get a bit of, perhaps a piece of soap. Not so much food, nobody barters food, because
there isn’t enough for yourself to barter. The mothers are the hardest hit, because they are always thinking about the children before themselves. And particularly the pregnant mothers. The one thing I will say was that the Japanese did give us extra milk for the children and
pregnant women and nursing mothers. In fact, the first camp commandant we had was very kind in a way. He was a little man, I think he was educated in England, spoke good English. And we always knew he was in camp, all of the children would rush up to
him and he would have his pockets bulging with lollies and he would hand out to them. But he didn’t last very long with us. He got replaced by a Korean fellow.
What nationality was he?
He was Japanese and he was replaced by a Korean guard. We knew we were in trouble with him. I guess he was, he would be
six foot looking at both of you, but he was huge. And he was tough. He really, he hated us. He hated a lot of us.
Just to bring you back to your diary, it was common knowledge to everyone that you weren’t meant to keep a diary, is that right?
That’s right. I heard talks about people, well, one woman saying she was keeping a diary so that the world would know what was happening to us, and she was told, “Well, you had better be careful with that. Don’t let anybody, especially Japanese, know that you are writing something like that”, and that made me think of not letting anybody know that I am keeping a diary.
“What are you doing?” “Oh, writing a story.” “Can we look at it?” “You can read it”, so nobody knew, eventually it got difficult to get bits of paper. Lots of little bits of paper, but remembering my father’s advice, date every page, every piece of paper before you make an entry, it wasn’t too hard, and when I had to put them all together.
How much would you write on average each day in your diary?
Oh, some days not much, only just what, usually a day-to-day, more or less what I did in a particular day, when I get in a pensive mood it might take a couple of hours. I had to be careful when I write and where I write, quite often as I said before anyone is up, awake.
And there is nobody about, sit in a corner of the courtyard and I would have my dictionary and my other two books and they would all think I am reading something, reading some poetry or something like that. But it wouldn’t take me, sometimes less than half an hour to write
what I needed to write. Some days there is hardly anything to write about, some days there might be a little bit more. Mostly it is about me being sick, going to the hospital.
When did you get sick?
Well, it started off during the war when I had the dysentery staying in one of the hotels.
And then in camp, it would be three or four months after, it was the malaria which kept recurring. Dysentery which kept recurring. And if the war hadn’t stopped when it did I was just on the verge of having pellagra and beriberi, I was starting to swell up a bit. Fortunately
I recovered from that with a bit of diet, good food. That was most of the things that I suffered from.
So a hospital had been set up?
Yes, the doctors and the nurses set up a bit of a hospital in one part of our camp, our building. And they did a very good job.
How many doctors would have been there?
About half a dozen women doctors, more in the men’s section. Lots of nurses, British, Irish, Scottish. I am not sure whether there was any Australians, this is civilians of course, a couple of New Zealanders.
They were kept very busy with what little they had. And they had done very well.
End of tape
Interviewee: Sheila Bruhn Archive ID 1998 Tape 04
We may as well continue on talking about the health aspects of the camp, what sort of medicines were available?
Well, we did have medicine for malaria and dysentery. Some disinfectant. Insulin for the diabetics until that
ran out. We had some sulphur drugs, I think. Not much. And they ran out quickly. And the Japanese just said they didn’t have any. I think the men had a better
chance, because they were taken out to do fatigue duties and of a night occasionally they might have been able to do a bit of black marketing with the locals if they don’t get caught. And some of the internees that came in, we got batches of them that kept coming in every now and again, would have batches of medication with them that they would hand over.
We often had to get supplies, extra supplies, over from the men’s side, because as I said it didn’t last very long. When we got sick, we all got very sick, one after the other, particularly dysentery, it spread like wildfire and there is nothing you can do about it. You can’t starve because
you’re already starving.
What precautions were tried to be taken against dysentery and these other infections?
Well, ones are usually kept away from the others if possible, they had what was called an isolation ward. Then, of course, we had to have a ward for the
elderly, because there was a lot of old women that were interned with us and of course they were the first to go down. And when we did lose any it was usually a lot of the older ones. As I said, the babies, younger children we did look after them, we did try and see that they
were as well fed as possible and kept busy and entertained. Apart from that there is very little, always had a lot of boiling water on the go to disinfect things, there was nothing else much.
What sort of improvisations
did the medical staff have to work with?
Well, that I know very little about. The men, I believe, did a lot of improvisations, but for the women I don’t think there was that much, mainly the nursing care more than anything else.
I would like to talk a bit more about the Japanese military guards and the Koreans, what sort of
etiquette was there when you had to deal with them?
Well, when you see them you have to bow, and there is a special way of bowing, if you didn’t, sometimes you may not see them because you would be busy doing some work and had their back towards them. And the first thing you knew he was there was the prick in your back of the bayonet
You turn around and get your faced slapped and you bow, and sometimes it is okay, and sometimes it is not okay and you get the butt of his rifle in your stomach to make you bow lower. Of course, all this time I keep thinking a sword was going to be above my head. That was what we were supposed to do, and there had been occasions where some of the women went
against this and were punished. One of the women, actually it’s “Winky” Kirwan’s mother, who didn’t want to bow and got punished by her hands held up in the air and got swung from side to side with the butt
of a bayonet and the one at the back would kick her back towards the front, eventually the camp commandant had to tell her, “You had better do what they suggest”, because not only her but the whole camp would be in trouble. She did, not in the way she should but she did. I believe
after the war when they had the crime trials she did give evidence of this and so. And of course it didn’t matter where you were, if you were in bed, sometimes they would come around at night time. But we always had the camp commandant following him,
and a whole lot of other women, which they didn’t think much of. But if you were in bed you had to get up and bow, when I say in bed, if you were asleep you still had to get up and bow. We had our roll calls in the mornings and if they felt like it they would come and do it in the afternoon or the evening, but not as often, I think, as in some of the other camps
that you read about. We were more or less left to live or die whichever way we could manage it. They were not interested in treating us or seeing we were okay, so long as you didn’t escape, to them that was the most important thing.
Was it common, then, for guards to beat and slap female prisoners?
We didn’t get very many instances but it did happen. Of course the men used to get worse than that, naturally, we would hear that through the grapevine that’s what has happened. Occasionally the women might get put in isolation, the men would get put in isolation in a tower, I don’t know what that is.
But that’s what I would hear people talking. I could not get much information from anybody that I was in camp with. I had to keep my ears open to hear things and to see things. Because when I asked anybody they would say, “Oh, don’t worry about it. You’re too young to worry about these things. We older ones will cope.”
So they looked after you and more or less protected you from any unpleasantness if possible. So it wasn’t until after the war that I discovered a lot of things that had happened that had happened when I was in the camp. What I wrote in the diary is what I heard and what I saw, and nobody tells me anything.
How did you deal with the language barrier with the Japanese guards?
Well, with sign language, not that they ever talked to us much, the camp commandant only they ever talked to. And there was sometimes, I think some of the guards know English better than we thought they did. I am quite sure of that. So you had to be careful if you talked when we are in groups or things like that when they are passing by. I don’t think they are as stupid
as we would like to think. Some of them did have smatterings of English, they could understand it even if they couldn’t speak it, they knew what it was all about.
You said that there was a change in regime when the Korean commander came?
He was pretty tough, made sure that everything was done according to the way he wanted it.
Where at one stage we could sort of slip a few things to the men’s side we had to be very careful with him, he was on guard all of the time. And he was such an imposing person, really big and brawny, and he looked
cruel. He never smiled and we always felt that, we made sure that we all bowed. The feeling I had was that if we upset or annoyed him it wouldn’t take him much to draw out his sword and draw blood from you. That’s the feeling I had, so you had to be very careful. He was pretty tough.
And he was very gruff when he spoke too, a very gruff voice, more a growl than anything else. I didn’t like him very much, I don’t think any of us did. One of, in my innocence he would be the fiercest person I had ever met in
my life, he really looked dangerous, and you had to be careful.
Did you hate your captors?
Well, hate is not a word that I was brought up with. Thinking back I was terrified of them rather than hate, I think. I was scared, I didn’t like them,
but the word hate is such an explosive word. I don’t like to use the word hate. I can’t hate anybody, even now I don’t hate the Japanese, I hate what they have done. I hate the cruel things that happened.
But it is the war, and what it does to people, that I don’t like. For myself I don’t know that I could use the word hate. I detested, I was angry, I was very angry with God really, I just couldn’t understand.
With the way I was brought up I wasn’t told about these terrible things that could happen to you, that people could do such things, but hate is not a word that I could use lightly.
Was there any sexual exploitation of the women prisoners by the guards?
Not in our camp. That is something I have to say, because from all of the stories I heard after the war that happened in other camps.
Women were raped and taken out as comfort women, we had none of that. Not that I know of, I mean I didn’t see any evidence of it. When we were in Sime Road Camp there were some women that did fraternise with the Japanese, but then quite a lot of those cases was to do with mothers of children,
who am I to say that I wouldn’t do the same thing? When you see your child starving, but as to actual raping and being taken away I don’t think that happened in our camp. And I think that could have something to do with the women running the camp, they were so protective of us. I think they did look after us. So I have
got some good memories of some of those women. In fact there are good memories that I have of camp, some bad ones but there are some good ones. People that I have met. But I still can’t believe that people can be so cruel.
I guess in that situation you would see the best and the worst of human behaviour?
You do. It was a miserable life, but it was the only life we had at that time and I have to admit that we did make the best out of it. And there was some good things that came out of it.
You do learn, because there was not just British people, we had a whole lot of other nationalities in there, young ones, old ones, babies. Different professions, and somehow or other we all seemed to know that we were in a position where we had to do something to keep the morale up. Otherwise,
we had to make sure that if somebody wasn’t feeling well that they were looked after, eventually like eating, we would make sure that they would eat. I know one girl said to me, “I can’t eat this, look at what's in it. There is bugs and dead cockroaches and rats’ tails and all sorts of things in there, I can’t eat it.” I said,
“Close your eyes and eat it, because if you don’t see you don’t know”. And she did. But it is a matter of necessity, and I have great admiration for those women, they taught me a lot of things, some of them, the way they carried on. We had a few hiccups, of course, like anything else. But as a majority
I think we coped very well, better than some of the other camps.
The British Empire being what it was, was there an issue with you being a child of mixed race?
Now you’re talking about in camp and in normal life?
Well, let’s start with normal life prior to the war.
a lot, because I am a Eurasian by birth, as we say over there, we weren’t accepted by the Asian people and we weren’t accepted by the European so we called ourselves Eurasians and we formed our own community. That, of
course, speaks for all of us from mixed parentage. But fortunately, as I said in school and in the convent I was no different .We were just students learning, and so I had a lot of problems with that, but I had more problems with that when I came to Australia at that particular
time. The White Australia Policy was still in force, and it was just after the war with a face like mine. I was told I didn’t belong here, “Go back to Japan”. And I kept saying, “But I am not Japanese.” “It doesn’t matter, you belong up there.” I had a lot of problems, even when I was nursing I did have problems. But I weathered it all. It
is a matter of accepting what people and making the best of it. I know some people have that attitude and it is their problem, not mine, I can’t do anything about it so I accept it.
In the camp was there any discrimination?
No, there was no discrimination in camp. Only the people who wouldn’t work
or tried to get out of work. On the whole we were more or less treated like another internee, and if you pull your weight that’s fine and if you don’t pull your weight then they would come down on you.
Ironic, then, that your internment made you the most equal you had been at that time?
although I never thought about it in that respect, it never dawned on me. All I know, we were in the same boat and we were all helping each other. We had our quarrels, yeah. I had arguments, of course we did. Mainly about space, as a rule, you have taken a bit more space then you should, or you had taken something on the line that didn’t belong to you,
words to that effect. But on the whole we were accepted as a human being, as somebody who needed help and as somebody who can help.
So there were, where there were squabbles how were they sorted out?
We would have a committee meeting and get them to find out what the problem is and why and try and sort it out.
So the committee usually manages to sort that out, unless it goes to the Japanese guards, which didn’t happen very often, and when it did go to the Japanese commandant all we were told was, “Your own commandant can deal with it”.
What nationalities were represented?
I suppose the majority would be British and then would come the Eurasians, and then later on we would get an influx of some of the locals. A few Dutch,
Norwegians, Americans. Tamils, a large group of the Jewish community did come into us towards the end. So it was quite a League of Nations actually. Anybody that the Japanese considered not Japanese was interned,
they were all alien. And if they could have interned the local population I think they would have done so, except they needed them. We had a few Malays, we had one Japanese woman who was married to an Englishman interned and a Japanese man who was married to an American woman interned. So
you can’t work out the way they think.
How did the relationship with your stepmother during the years of your captivity…?
I figured of understanding, we needed each other to be together to support each other. I don’t know that you would call it a loving relationship, it was more an affectionate sort of thing,
because we were in it together and we had to help each other. And we understood what we had to go through, so she didn’t speak much English and there was a bit of a barrier there.
What about was there any possibility of communication with your father?
Only that first time I saw him when we were allowed to meet. That’s about all. Otherwise it was only a matter of looking at each other through the grille in the courtyard. You would get news, of course, through the grapevine, when he was sick, how he was progressing. And there was a couple of times when we
were allowed to see him. When I was sick I think he was allowed to see me once when I was in the hospital. But that’s all the communication we had. Just the meetings once a month.
How well developed was that grapevine around the prison?
Very well, I don’t know how but they seemed to be able to
work something out. It is not for me to figure it out because I couldn’t tell you how. I don’t know. You had to be very careful too. When you were in a group, in fact you had to be very careful when you would talk to anybody, you could never know who was a friend and who was not sometimes.
There is always that element of suspicion in some cases. But as a rule the majority in prison were, of us I think and I think the women probably have an indication of who to trust.
So there were turncoats amongst the population?
I think so. Probably for a bit of extra food, extra favours. Somebody who is, perhaps, has a fear of getting hurt,
there are so many angles to it. Mostly I would imagine it would be for more food. But not, I don’t think there was that many of us, most of us were pretty pro-British rather than pro-Japanese. I don’t know, I have heard cases
where an informer has been put in especially. I mean, you wouldn’t know. So that meant that all of us when we were in a group we had to be careful unless you happened to know who the group happened to be. If you had a special group and somebody you didn’t know happened to be nearby then you would go
about your business and do whatever you had to do.
Do you recall instances of women being ostracised because they were under suspicion?
Not that I know of. I can’t think. I know there was instances where there would be a big argument. I would hear
voices being raised, I don’t think so, I can’t recall.
That’s all right, and I appreciate that you might have been sheltered from that sort of thing as well.
Yeah, I don’t think, I would have difficulty in trying to remember anything like that now, because if I did I would have written it down. I used to write everything down. I often think diaries are pretty boring reading sometimes.
How did you hide your diary, then?
Amongst a lot of schoolbooks that I had, and when we had that October 10th raid and the whole camp was put out in the yard and they went through every cell and looked at everything. They didn’t bother to look at the books at all, I had a pile of books. All they wanted to look for was wirelesses and radios and
anything steel, so I was lucky. Maybe because they thought she is only a teenager, young girls. Schoolbooks, they probably didn’t think anything about it. I was very lucky, so I was meant to keep the diary.
From where did you obtain that paper?
Well, I brought six exercise books to start off with. When I finished that I would go around collecting the prison papers that they had around and any of the newsletters that we had, any borders or space I would write, put the date down and the entry of each day.
Eventually the Japanese newspapers that they used to send in, and I used to write at the edges of that., whatever I could find. And the writing got smaller and smaller, you might see some of my short stories that I wrote on the prison paper, my writing got smaller and smaller and smaller, even I can’t read it now.
What were you using to write with?
To start off with I brought a box full of pens, one of those the ink and pen, and then I had lots of pencils. At least I was a bit more forward in thinking it might take me some difficulty to find pens and pencils.
The double ten raid that you mentioned,
had you heard anything of the commando raid that preceded that?
No, not a thing. In fact it wasn’t until after the war that I heard from different sources and different historians that the double raid was due to a group of Australians that had submarines at Keppel Harbour and put some
sort of, what do you call it? A type of bomb or something.
A mine, and blew up a ship, and they thought one of the men might have sent secret messages to these men and that’s why they were intent on looking for radios and wirelesses and things like than when they came to the camp.
What did that mean for you, what sort of reign of terror or what sort of raid occurred on your camp?
Well, we were just hustled out into the courtyard in the morning until late in the evening and they just left us there and went through the whole camp floor by floor, cell by cell. And I
was a bit worried because of my diary and I didn’t know what they were looking for, they said they were looking for something. And so we, that was all, they didn’t say anything to us, a whole group of them went through and went right around and then they left. And as I said, it wasn’t until after the war that, oh, they took three women away.
Fifty-eight men, I think. Majority of them came back to the camp to literally die. The women were okay, although Freddy Bloom was pretty sick when she came back, she suffered two heart attacks.
From beriberi, she was in a cell with about four or five other men in the outside, Singapore city itself. She wasn’t tortured, but she could hear all of the screams from the men when they were taken out to be tortured and brought back bleeding and she had to sort of try and help them. And when she was sick
somebody had an aspirin and they divided it and gave it to her. A lot of men came back and were in a pretty bad state and it was only a matter of days before they had died.
So you were under the impression that these men had been tortured?
Oh yes, we knew they had been tortured. We knew that they were going to be tortured if they were taken away.
Once somebody was taken out of the camp, that’s it, they would be tortured for whatever reason, or no reason for that matter.
Are you aware of what sort of tortures took place?
I have heard through the grapevine what tortures they went through.
And I knew that they were brutal, because there was an instance there where one of the fathers of a girl that had been discovered stealing some food, and they punished him, beat him to the ground, punched him to the ground and then they stomped on him. It really made me quite sick to see that. So we knew
that they could be cruel. But the cruelty, of course, not relayed to me for some of the things that were done, only some of the things I had seen. And of course after what I had seen with the baby they couldn’t be any more cruel than that, as far as I was concerned.
The girl whose father was punished, was she stealing from the
prisoners or from the Japanese?
Oh, she was stealing from some prisoners. Food. I don’t know what it was, we were all pleading and asked them to stop but, it was in the courtyard where everybody could see. It wasn’t a very pretty sight.
So sometimes prisoners did steal from each other?
How was that dealt with?
Usually they would, mainly having to give up their rations, I suppose, usually to do with extra food. As I said, not very many, they would have to be desperately hungry that particular time. I was always thirsty, that was my problem. Always drinking,
and always when we flushed the toilet I had a little bucket filled with water just in case I ran out of water, if I couldn’t get to a tap or the tap was turned off when I was thirsty. For some reason I am always thirsty, I am still thirsty, I always have water with me.
So if one prisoner stole from another prisoner would the discipline be handled by the prisoners or by the Japanese?
By the committee. Or in some cases personally by the person who had the thing pinched, and that’s when the committee had to intervene.
I guess hunger can make people do things that they wouldn’t ordinarily do?
I can vouch for that. I can tell you that. I don’t know whether you read what I had written about eating my mouse?
No? First of all I found a worm. I found a worm, it was such a nice fat worm, and so I thought, “I wonder what it will taste like”. And then I found another worm, and then I found a clot of soil with lots of worms, and so I gathered them all up
and I cooked it, of course being worms when you cook it there is nothing left but skinny bits. But as I said in my diary, a little bit of salt on it and it was quite tasty. Then I found a nest of baby mice, and once again hunger overrides everything and I looked at it,
they were only that big, tiny little things. Nice and pink, and I thought, “I wonder what that tastes like”, and before I knew it I had opened my mouth and swallowed the thing. I was very disgusted with myself, I will admit and I tried to make myself sick but I couldn’t do anything about it. I was ashamed of myself too, to think that I had gone down that low, to eat a poor little mouse.
I apologise to the worms that I see these days, but not to the mice though.
You felt disgusted for hurting the animal or you felt that your humanity had been reduced?
I felt I had been reduced down to nothing. To think I could swallow an innocent mouse to start off with,
but mainly how could I have gotten down that low? To eat something like that, but then of course I have realised that we had been eating all of those sorts of things anyway given to us in our food. But that was unconscious. But this was terrible, it really was disgusting. Absolutely.
I was disgusted with myself, how could I get down so low as to do something like that?
End of tape
Interviewee: Sheila Bruhn Archive ID 1998 Tape 05
That’s the way. Sheila, earlier you were talking to Mat [interviewer] about the October 10 raid, can you take us through some of the implications afterwards, after the raid, how
your routine changed and how the situation became tougher?
Well, first of all I guess we weren’t allowed to have any more meetings with our relatives, food was a bit short, shorter still. We were not allowed to have any, our schools had to be closed. Any activities
like group activities we weren’t allowed, although we did try to have a few odd concerts. Everything was more or less shut down if there was going to be more than two or three people together. We had more guards coming in.
Was there a change in their attitude towards you?
Not that you would notice, except their attitude had always been to ignore us, so we didn’t notice that much difference, except we had more guards come through the camp more often then they used to. And at night time.
We were told to be very careful not to whisper in corridors or anything like that. Not to send any secret messages by tapping the walls or things like that, to men next door, not that we could do it that much because the courtyard separated us. But even to our own
women, any sort of sound like tapping they would be suspicious of, I would say. On the whole there was not that much difference, except that the guards were around a lot more than they used to be. They were stricter in making sure we bowed correctly. The lights were turned off more
frequently, the water tap was turned off. They just sort of left us. About the only thing I could say was they more or less forgot about us except to make sure that we didn’t run away.
Did those changes have an impact on morale?
Only in the
fact that we knew our men and the three women had been taken away, that worried us. We knew they would be harshly treated but we didn’t know how badly until they got back. We kept asking, “When are they back? When will they be back?” We were more worried about the women, because we knew that they would be confined with the men rather than on their
own, and it would have quite a devastating effect on them seeing men come back from their punishment. And I think that worried us quite a bit, and we had to be extra careful not to anger the guards in any way.
You said at one stage you had a commandant who
was quite friendly towards the children particularly, did you find any of the guards to be more friendly than the others?
Not after that one.
Prior to that?
No, he was our first one that we had. They weren’t actually brutal
all of the time, except for the smacking of the faces. And that didn’t change, except that we were a lot more careful and we would bow and pass the message along that the sentries were coming, and so we would do more or less what we were supposed to do.
I suppose we should be grateful that they didn’t bother us more than anything else. As long as we did what we were told they just left us alone.
Were any or many of the guards Korean?
I think we had about,
he is the only Korean I can remember, because he had such an imposing figure, he looked cruel. I think the others were all Japanese, because they didn’t seem to be as big as him. I assumed that the Koreans were bigger than the Japanese. No, I think he was the only Korean we had.
You mentioned things like entertainment that was reduced or cracked down on after the raid, but prior to the raid can you give us an idea of the forms that the entertainment would take place, when you would have entertainment? What it would consist of?
Well, concerts usually consisted of a
variety of items. There would be a singer, a comedy act. A couple of dancing acts, a sort of a fashion parade, chorus singing, chorus dancing, acrobatics. We even put on a circus,
which was quite extraordinary considered that we didn’t have much in the way of costumes, the things they done. A fat lady and a boxing kangaroo, performing seal, trapeze artist. It is quite amazing what talent there was when you started looking around. Then you would have a singing
competition and acting competition. Writing competition. We would have a sports competition. There was a ladies’ bridge party, card games. You name it, we did it. It is extraordinary how we managed to find things to do. Of course there is a craft section and
language classes. And we would occasionally get men from next door to give us lectures.
What sort of thing would they lecture on?
Mainly their experiences before the war. Someone who has been in Algeria
or some other country, mainly experiences of what they have done. And even the women also had lectures on their experience before the war, where they had been. And then of course we started a sort of a nursing group, I happened to be one of the members. One of the
doctors would teach us, give us lessons on first aid and VAD work. Different languages. We had an old gramophone, dancing classes. I asked “Winky” Kirwan did he remember of camp life and he said, “Not much, except that we had a lot of fun”.
The only thing he vaguely remembers, very well I should say is this tune that we played on and on whenever we had this dancing class. I said, “It would be the La Compacita, would it?” and he said, “Yes.” He hated it. Well, I said, “It might be terrible for you but it was heaven for us, because it was the only record that played the tango that
we had”. And so every time we learned to dance the tango we had this La Compacita. We had poetry reading, Shakespeare reading, people taking part. It was pretty widespread for a lot of things.
What time of day would you have these things?
Rehearsal sometimes would be in the morning or the afternoon. Usually the concert would be given some time in the early evening unless we were giving the concert to the men, and then it would be in the day in the courtyard. Men would give us concerts too, but being so close we could always hear them
practising and hear them singing. And of course we had Sunday services eventually.
Did you participate much in the entertaining?
I did quite a bit in Shakespearean plays and dancing in the concerts, poetry reading, that’s about it,
I think. I had a couple of dancing acts.
Did you ever recite your own writing or poetry?
No, they weren’t good enough, they were only childish young, I think my poetry was part verse part prose, I think, not, a true
purist would probably put their hands up in horror. As one of my critics said, there was no prose in it, there was no rhyme, the metre wasn’t correct or something. But a lot of those verses that I wrote relate to an incident that happened.
Or are about somebody who I got to know well, they had more than actual perfect poetry writing, I could have put it in prose, put it that way, but I wanted to put it into verse and it didn’t quite work out, but still, it’s there.
What sort of function did that writing serve for you personally?
Well, because as a child I always wrote, I didn’t have anybody to talk to in the way of a father, mother, brother or sister if I wanted to talk about something or ask something. So that blank piece of paper was more like a father confessor to me, something I could talk to, if I was upset or angry or something good had happened and I wanted to tell somebody,
but instead of telling somebody I would tell it on a bit of paper. It is an outlet for me, and I think it helped me a lot, to get a lot of tension out of my system. It still does, I still write. Not as extensively and perhaps not as spontaneously as I did, because I would hate to think in another forty, fifty-odd years, after I am gone
my grandson will discover my diary and think, “Oh gee, I didn’t know Nana thought that of me”. So I have been a little bit more discreet, not quite as spontaneous. Maybe more mundane and dull. But I might break out every now and again when something really has happened.
When my husband died I wrote quite a bit. When my first grandson was born I wrote quite a bit about it. Things like that. Not as extensively as I used to.
Do you still keep a daily diary?
More or less, yes, most of it is to do with shopping. I am starting to forget things when I go out shopping, so I have to write them down,
make a list of them, or appointment with the doctor or dentist, things like that. At the moment, of course, it is filled with booking for my talk, which is right up until 2006, so I am stuck, I can’t do anything else. For this month I had to cancel everything, the only one I couldn’t cancel was this, all of the other talks and appointments
I had to cancel for the trip to Singapore but this one I couldn’t.
Well, we are very happy that you couldn’t cancel us anyway, and we are very happy to be here.
Could you tell us about the library you had in Changi?
I didn’t see the library, but I know
there was one. Some of the books were already in the prison. A lot of them were brought in by the internees, not the first batch so much but the later ones they brought in, and the men brought in quite a lot of books from the library outside, and when Mrs Mulvaney used to go out she used to bring books
in, which included exercise books for the children and some schoolbooks. But I know there was a library, but I don’t think I ever went. I seemed to be more occupied with my own writing and the two books that I have got. Because it wasn’t a big library, and I think
it wouldn’t have been very easy to borrow one, it would take an awful long time to get one.
You mentioned services on Sunday, was there services for different denominations or one for all?
What was available?
Well, we had a Church of England and the Catholic ones I
knew of. The others I am not too sure, because I didn’t attend the others. Mainly the Church of England and the Catholic, because we had our ministers there next door.
Did you attend both of those or just the Catholic?
No. Whichever was on, I think it was usually on every second, every alternate week whichever was on, I think most of us went, even the ones that weren’t Christians, just
something, I think. A peaceful activity, really. Time of reflection.
And were you able to partake, was there holy bread to be
used in the ceremonies and that sort of thing?
Not that I know of, no. On the men’s side they might have, but not on the women’s, because I don’t think the Japanese would allow that sort of contact between a man and a woman.
And was there Sunday school for the kids?
I suppose so, I couldn’t tell you about that.
I would imagine so.
Now, your first job was with the drains, what was the second job?
Making tea of a morning for the whole camp.
So what was the procedure each day preparing the tea?
Well, I would get up in the morning and gather the wood and start the fire, make sure that the big barrels were
filled with water and just wait for the water to boil, and Stiffy White comes and puts the tea in and then she calls out in a booming voice, “If anyone wants a cup of tea”, that’s it.
And where did the tea come from?
From the stores, I would imagine, food stores, most of it may have come from the men because we didn’t have a
big kitchen. I don’t think we even had a pantry, I think it was just an area with a great big fireplace. And so the larder would have been from next door, it would have been brought in. But that didn’t last very long because the men decided to take over the cooking for us, which helped quite a bit.
Because of the sheer numbers that were being
And also the fact that those barrels were pretty heavy to move, so the men took that over and they did a very good job, too. Occasionally you might get a nice bun, the only trouble was if you leave it overnight it will be as hard as a rock the next day.
So approximately how long were you assisting with the tea?
About two or three months, and then I went back to my drain job and collecting bits of paper with different information for the different members, from the camp commandant to the rest of the camp.
And helping look after the younger children, see that they are occupied and doing things.
And when did you start to be interested in involving yourself with the health side of things?
After being in hospital that many times I suddenly
decided I would like to do a bit of nursing, and I asked one of the doctors if she would be interested in giving us some lessons in first aid, she said yes and if I could get a group of about half a dozen girls, which I did. And from then on when they needed an extra helping hand in the hospital we would be called on to help out.
Because that’s all it is really, isn’t it? A nursing aid, feeding the sick, bathing them, changing them, making them comfortable, taking their temperatures. Just more or less nursing aid.
And how did you take to that sort of work?
I liked it very much, I enjoyed doing it.
I suppose because I thought I was easing somebodies pain, I was making them comfortable when they were uncomfortable. And the interaction with another person, I think, instead of just thinking of yourself you were thinking of someone else. I really enjoyed it, and that’s one of the reasons I decided to take up nursing. The other is that when I came out here, I was told in those days
when you trained you were able to earn your pay for training. It was hard work, but I didn’t have any money when I came out and I didn’t want to live on my aunt for the rest of my life. So I decided to take up nursing. I still think I should have taken up carpentry, of all the jobs that I could do around this place.
Did you get much news of how the war was developing when you were in Changi?
Well, I didn’t, I think the men may have, they could have passed it on to some of the older women. I knew nothing. It wasn’t until we heard the plane flew over and somebody said that it wasn’t a Japanese plane and we
saw black smoke from the harbour and we knew that something was going on. And then rules were relaxed a bit, food got a little bit better, and in fact the men that were working in the tunnel outside Sime Road Camp, they were told that we could go in there more like an air raid
shelter if we started to get bombed. But I found out later it was to put us in there and gas us. That was stopped, and the men were brought back, so we had an idea that there was something going on. There was more frequent planes flying, and we gradually got to realise that a lot of them were American planes.
Prior to that development what was your sense of how long you were going to be stuck in that predicament?
Well, I think I was optimistic, I suppose, except when I was sick. We were going to be out the next day, it won’t be long, it can’t go on. We have to get out of here or else we will all be dead,
and I was sure they didn’t want anyone to die on their hands. That’s the way I worked it out. And I was always thinking, “Tomorrow we’ll be out, the war will end tomorrow”.
Was that a common sense of optimism around the place?
Yes, most of them thought it can’t last, it won’t be long. And of course we would have POWs themselves, when we used to see them, when they happened to be out, they were
always saying, “Chin up, don’t worry, it won’t be long”. And of course the day it happened none of us really believed it. We just thought they were cheering us up until we heard the news that night. It was all over.
Just before we go into that part of the story,
you mentioned the fact that crafts were available for the women, can you explain to us what sort of crafts?
We had sewing classes. A lot of the women had brought in some of their work baskets with them that they had been probably working on before the war. They had, some of them had tapestry,
some of them were doing crocheting and knitting, embroidery. So he had a lot of those threads and oddments and patterns and things, and we had sewing classes to sew a few things to make things that we could barter with. And when we had a craft show with prizes being given,
we did a lot of odd things, different things. Toys, baby clothes, mittens, and a lot of the women did booties and things, bonnets, coming from the cold country. Dresses, children’s clothes. Whatever they could lay their hands on to keep themselves occupied. It was quite a big
It was quite a popular recreation?
It was, yes. Much popular. And that’s how we got involved when we had to make the quilts.
Did you have many of those skills prior to going into the prison?
Yes, I did, because I lean crocheting and tacking, the only thing I didn’t learn was knitting I learned that when I came out here.
I did a lot of embroidery. Didn’t do any tapestry until I came out here, did a lot of sewing, sewed a lot of my own clothes. That was taught in the convent, we all had to learn that. So I did know how to use a needle and thread, that was something that kept me occupied.
And there was no shortage of needles or…?
No, plenty of needles, scissors weren’t plentiful,
we had to borrow them and return them, of course. Strange when you think back how the Japanese didn’t take the scissors away, but then of course they probably thought women wouldn’t think of using these things as a weapon as a man would. So they were only embroidery scissors,
which are only a small narrow thing. So we had quite a bit of those, enough thread, what thread we couldn’t get we would unstitch our clothes and use the thread from those. Because eventually we found that all we had to wear was a pair of pants and a little top for the rest of the time, there was nothing else. So we cut up all of these things for the children and patched them up.
So you were never issued any clothing by the Japanese?
Not issued clothing, no.
It was a matter of bartering or making requests?
The only request we made, I think, would be for materials so we could make things up for the children.
Eventually, of course, that was hard to get too outside. Everything had been looted, bought, taken away and sold, but not to us. So all we had was what we brought in, and as I said the internees that came much much later came in with everything but the kitchen sink.
And they were able to do a lot of bartering with those things too for extra food or what they would like, but as I said, getting extra food wasn’t very easy.
So how did the quilts come about?
Well, Elizabeth Ennis, she was a Scottish lady in the British army, and
she was the only military person who was interned with us. There were no army nurses, all went on the Vyner Brooke and all got interned elsewhere, and so we only had civilian nurses and she was the only military one. Her husband was a doctor pathologist
and he was a prisoner of war, he was in the army too. And she had been in guiding all of her young life and she decided that she would start a girl guide group, and she got about twenty girls between the ages of eight and thirteen and taught them as much as possible about guiding, and the girls decided when it was her
birthday to give her the gift of a special quilt that they made with the name of each girl in a little square that they had created. And Mrs Mulvaney, when she saw the quilt, it gave her the idea that perhaps the women might like to do the same thing. Not only to occupy their time,
but also if they could ask or request the Japanese officials that it could be sent over to the military camp. Because quite a few of the women had husbands in the military and when we surrendered their husbands were taken away from them without having the chance to say goodbye, them being in the army
and they wouldn’t have known what had happened to their women folk. The women knew where they were, but the husbands didn’t. So they felt they might be worried to know what had happened to them and this way they felt they could let them know they were in Changi prison and that they were still alive and reasonably well. So it was done in the first three or four months of our internment. I
had mine dated the 1st of May. Most of it, I think, would be finished by June, and they were all collected, and she suggested that they make one for the British soldiers from the British women, one for the Australian soldiers. Of course there weren’t that many Australian women in camp, but at least it was a way of letting the Aussies know that we were thinking of them.
That’s why I had Australia there, so that they won’t forget their country. It is still there. And another one for the Japanese, which wasn’t very well received at first. Quite a lot of women didn’t want to contribute to that, but as Mulvaney explained, that if we only did for the British and Australians
it wouldn’t get past, because they would query all of the messages on the squares, they would wonder if they were secret codes. And so reluctantly they agreed and they did one. And of course I always think, I would like to think that’s my personal opinion of course, that Mrs Mulvaney would have presented the Japanese quilt to them first.
And it is a very beautiful quilt, beautifully done. And the Japanese do appreciate beautiful things, because they have some beautiful silk paintings and things like that. Well, they did accept it, and then she would say perhaps they would like
to deliver these others to the military camps. They probably wouldn’t have even thought of looking at it, probably think it is more or less the same as theirs and pass it over. So that’s why when I talk about the quilt I mention that particularly, so that they could all be together. And this girl guide group started it, the Japanese quilt, which allowed the other quilts to be sent over.
Of course we are lucky to have our two, the Japanese and Australian, and I have got the third here, which I hope, as I said, the War Memorial will accept, because the British have got theirs in London. I know very well that if the Australian War Memorial don’t feel that they would like to have this girl guide quilt
Changi Museum in Singapore would gladly love to have it and so would the British Red Cross, but I am a little bit selfish, I want it to stay here. Am I being too selfish? We have got two already. We’ll see.
So you made a contribution to the Australian one, did you make a contribution to the other two?
No, I was only interested in the Australian one.
Were you told how big your square should be?
We were given an eight inch square, all of us, especially cut out from the sacking that had the rice flour and sugar and so, that was unpicked and washed and carefully
cut out and given to each of us that were interested in having one.
Can you explain to us what you embroidered on your one?
I did a map of Australia with a kangaroo in the centre, an aeroplane at the top and a sailing boat on the bottom to signify that I was going to get to Australia by hook or by crook, somehow or other. But unfortunately I forgot the island of Tasmania. Which I didn’t know existed,
my father never told me anything about Tasmania, he only told me about Australia. So that is something that I still have to apologise for when I have got Tasmanians in my group that I talk to. I know one gentleman said to me after one of my talks, “Did you know Tasmania was part of Australia?” I didn’t like to tell him that my father didn’t talk about Tasmania
when he talked about Australia. But I did say that if I had wanted to go to Tasmania, Tasmania would be on my square and Australia would be nowhere in sight. I think he accepted my apology.
End of tape
Interviewee: Sheila Bruhn Archive ID 1998 Tape 06
Sheila, what was life like for the younger children in the camp?
Well, from what I can remember I think they were a happy lot, really. We did try to make it as easy as possible.
And I guess every young child, when you’re young, not knowing any other life you cope very well. And the mothers, the doctors did a lot to help them with their diets and things, as best as they could. They all seemed to be a happy lot, all seemed to be able to cope,
probably better than the older ones. They didn’t have the worry, they didn’t have any jobs to do, all they had to do was behave themselves. And they had lots of activities, we older ones try and give games for them and things like that. So as far as I can make out, I don’t think they probably
worried that much, they were always able to get something to eat from their parents, because their parents would give them extra from their own. And children, being children, seem to cope very well in whatever circumstances, especially when everyone else is in the same boat. There is no, “You have got
more than I have”, and this, so I think they accepted the situation.
Were there babies that were born in the camp?
We had six babies born in camp, no, twenty babies were born in camp. As the doctor, Dr Cecily Williams reported, twenty babies were
born in camp, twenty babies were breastfed and twenty survived, that’s a record she was very proud of. A lot of the women were pregnant when they went into camp. One of them who rang me a couple of years ago to say that she was reading my book and discovered that I had recorded her birth,
being the first baby girl being born in Changi Prison. That was astounding, really. And of course when I went to England in 2002 I met up with her. She didn’t know anything, because when she was born, I think a few weeks after, she was taken out of Changi prison
by her father. Mother was still in prison. I don’t know what the circumstances are, but all she knew was that she was born in Changi Prison. That’s all she knew, but there it was, the date of her birth.
How were the younger children supervised and looked after?
they had their classes in the morning, and later the older ones like myself would have a couple, two or three in a group to see that we had games to keep them occupied and to see that they were there for meal times. Then the parents take over.
We would read to them, I mostly did a lot of reading more than anything else. And then, of course, some of the more enterprising ones would start a little concert of their own and present it to us. Very funny too, they are real copycats. No, we kept them occupied
as much as possible. Got a few rowdy ones, but as a rule they were as well mannered in the situation that we could possibly be in the situation we were in. We can’t exactly be too strict with them. We have got to try and keep them as happy as possible without any problems. So as “Winky” Kirwan said he thought it wasn’t too bad.
From a dietary point of view the children were looked after, or were sacrifices made by the adults?
I think sacrifices were made by the adults. I am quite sure of that. And particularly with the very young ones. If they are hungry I think their mother would probably give
their ration to them. I know I would if I had a child. What would you do? Your child is crying for food, it is hungry and starving.
As the war went on can I am trying to get a sense of how
debilitated you women were from the work and shortages and the illness?
Well, a lot of us got sicker, some of us died. Some of us went mental. The men committed suicide. The older ones are the ones, I think, suffered most. We younger ones seemed to have
youth on our side, even though we lost a lot of weight, I lost a lot of weight. But I think the older ones, ones that were in their 40s and 50s, it seemed to be the end of everything. After the war what have they got to go back to, they have to start again, and it would be pretty difficult. I think mental, there was quite
a lot of strain there, a lot of distress. And then those that had husbands, then they died, that was more upsetting than anything else, we did have a couple of babies that died. One of them was stillborn. So it’s, as time went on food was scarce, we were getting weaker
and couldn’t do a lot of our jobs. And we got sick more often. So it was a matter of trying to keep our spirits up more than keeping our body up. Trying to be optimistic and think it can’t last, something will break, something will happen. And that’s the only thing that kept us
going. They say hope springs eternal, and I think it did in our case. Because we always believed we would be free. Whether it was to be free, be ruled by the Japanese or not. To be free out of this condition, camp, to be able to eat properly, to be able to clothe ourselves properly, to be able to look
after ourselves, that was always in front of us.
I guess most Australians would be familiar with pictures of the male POWs from the Burma Railway, were you in that sort of condition?
No, I knew nothing. And I don’t think the men knew terribly much, I can’t vouch for that.
But I knew nothing of the Burma Railway or whatever. I knew the men were on the other side and I knew nothing about the Selerang outbreak, it wasn’t until, as I said, after the war when I heard about things and I read about things. When I came out here, even after the war in Singapore when I applied to work as a VAD in the general army hospital
when they were bringing in a lot of the POWs, I just couldn’t believe that such things had occurred. And of course when I came out here and read about the Burma Railway, who am I to complain about what I had been through?
So you weren’t in the same physical state
No, we were not in that physical state, we were starving, we were thin. But see, we didn’t have the brutality that the men did. Occasional, yes, but not all of the time like the men did. They had that hard labour. Now the women in our camp didn’t have the hard labour that women in other camps did. We weren’t taken
out to be raped, we weren’t take out to be comfort ladies. We were just left to our own devices. In that respect I am thankful for having been in Changi prison. I mean, people think I am silly to say that. When I think back how lucky am I to have been in Changi prison. To have been interned, because I doubt
whether I would have survived if I had lived out.
You mentioned that some prisoners died during their captivity, what were the arrangements in looking after a dead body and commemorating?
I don’t know much,
but I think when they informed the officials we did have a service for them. They were taken out to be buried, most of them at the Diaryhost [Bididari] Cemetery, I found out later. And the other thing I knew was that we had a coffin that had a false bottom that they would open up to let the body into the plot.
But when I went to have my father’s remains exhumed and cremated to bring his ashes home they found, I was given a little metal tag with his name and his date of death on it and there were two holes on the end of this metal
tag, which made me realise he did have a coffin, it looked as if those tags went onto the coffin. And it is true that in the later parts of the war they did have a false bottom, he died in June so it could have been the very last coffin that he had. We had services,
we did have services. If there was someone that was higher up in government, for instance, they did have a bit of a bodyguard with them. And if they were sick I think their wives were allowed to see them. I didn’t get a chance to see my father. The day that he died we were sent to
to go over, but he died just as we got there and we weren’t allowed to see the body. Of course I didn’t know where he was buried. And being the sort of person, as I said, I wasn’t taught to ask questions, I wasn’t game to ask questions, so I didn’t ask questions, I didn’t know what questions to ask. And for fifty years I worried about it, wanting to know
where he was buried, and when I went to Singapore in 1992 to find out about the grave. And I found out and he only had a number on it without a name and I wasn’t sure whether it was his grave because there was three other Allans buried next to him, numbers on their grave, but I took it as it
was until I got this metal tag, and now he is back home. I thought it was time he came home. I would have liked him to be in Melbourne, of course, but then I live in Sydney, I wouldn’t be able to get to see him.
So how were you informed that your father was gravely ill?
knew that he was sick, the doctor came and told me, and when he was ill, dying, the doctor came and told me to go over next door with my stepmother, and I realised then that it was pretty serious. But I could see that he was gradually getting downhill as time went by.
He was just all skin and bone. I think the only reason we were all skin and bone was not from torture or anything like that, just lack of food.
So you were aware he was ill and had seen him a couple of times before his death?
Yes, I had seen him a couple of times when he was
well enough to come to the meeting. But to get over to the men’s side, I didn’t get a chance to see him there, only at the meetings.
But on the day he died you didn’t get to see him?
No, we were stopped, I would have liked to have seen him but the screen was put around and the priest was with him and he came out and said he was gone.
But before he went he wanted to become a Catholic and he was baptised.
What comfort did that give you?
A lot of comfort. Because having become a Catholic I wanted him to be one too, but it wasn’t for me to say anything.
I was a good daughter that doesn’t ask questions. But I think he knew. And that gave me a lot of comfort when the priest told me that.
And how did the other prisoners try to comfort you with your loss?
Sent letters, both from
the men’s and women’s side. Letters of sympathy, anything they could do for us. If we wanted to talk. They were very comforting. All I wanted to do was to go into a corner and quietly grieve, I suppose. I didn’t want to talk about it, I just wanted to be left alone
to work it out myself.
Was it possible to get that private space to do that sort of thing?
No, only in your mind, to blank it out. There was no way you could be on your own, although in Sime Road Camp, I suppose in my little spot on the veranda there I was able to go there and hide, I suppose, could go in through the garden. But I think mostly
you have space in your mind and block everything else out. Just think inwards. Take comfort that way, and prayer. I did a lot of praying. And a lot of whys. And a lot of anger. I was angry at my father for dying and leaving me on my own,
and a lot of anger at myself to for feeling the way that I did and not being able to accept it in a way.
How did your father’s death affect your stepmother?
She was devastated, well, to her it means she had lost her husband, she has
got no one to turn to. She was alone, I guess, more or less in a foreign place. I didn’t know much about her previous life. So she needed more physical comforting than I did. I didn’t want any physical comfort, I just wanted mentally more than anything else, I just felt that I wanted to go and hide and lick
my own wounds, so to speak. Get over it that way.
I guess the only reason that your stepmother was in prison in the first place was because of her marriage to your father?
Yes, that’s right, it was. Then again, she may have had a bad time too, she was still a young woman, she was attractive,
and she probably would have had a bad time in Thailand as well. From what I can gather no young people or no women were safe outside. So, as I said, I have been lucky to have survived.
I am lucky, I am so happy to be alive. I appreciate being alive, to be able to enjoy what I have now. To be able to see the flowers and the trees and work in the garden. I am happy.
How did the Changi camp start to get overpopulated, and what effect did it have on your lifestyles and on your space?
Space was pretty bad. Food, as far as food went, well, we knew each day we would get less. But I think space, the overcrowding, the noise, little irritations.
Being hot didn’t help matters, the climate didn’t help matters. We had to be careful with what we had, because thins did go missing every now and again.
We had to watch what we say to people, because situations like that, we get over, hypersensitive about things, we might get things in the wrong way that normally we wouldn’t think about it. It wasn’t easy, I think the overcrowding really got us. And of course when we had dysentery it didn’t help matters at all. Toilets
would be overworked and the smell would be overpowering. As I said, the breathing space, less breathing space.
You said when you first went into Changi there was three women to a cell, did that change as time went by?
No, it didn’t really, I don’t think there was any more than three.
Most of us eventually graduating to sleeping, we just kept the cell for our personal things, we would sleep in the corridors outside, out in the yard. Just to get away from the heat and smell of perspiring bodies more than anything else, and noise of course.
Then how did the move to Sime Road Camp came about?
Well, according to what I heard was that as the war was getting bad from the Japanese and they were getting a little bit worried about the military that was still outside the camp, the ones that were in Sime Road, they felt that maybe it would be better for them to be confined in one area,
Changi prison, and let us civilians out in the open air camp where they would think we wouldn’t know how to do any damage, we wouldn’t know how to sabotage. So that’s what happened, they moved in and we moved out.
So the military personnel would be concentrated in a more secure establishment?
So how was life in Sime Road different to life in Changi?
A lot different. It was open air, more room to move around. The accommodation wasn’t that extra good because all of those huts were flea infested, not that the prison wasn’t. But there was holes in the roof, and when it rained it would be
leaking, at least in the prison we were sheltered. It can be pretty drenching when it rained, but for me it was heaven. I could see the sky, the green grass, the trees. Where in Changi prison it was all grey walls around you, a little bit of sky through that window.
Nothing else. Stiflingly hot. Out of Changi prison it was hot, but not stifling. And to be able to work in the garden, play with the soil instead of just looking at concrete. That was heaven to me. I just loved it. To be able to run from hut to hut and be,
almost be free in a way from the stifling grey walls. And I think a lot of us felt that way. And we had more chance, we were fenced off by this long grass, Lalang fence, we could still see our men regularly and we were
allowed more meetings. But I think it was the freshness of the air and the greenness of the grass and the trees.
Like a holiday?
It was lovely. It took me all of my time not to burst out from the ranks and go and hug a tree when I first saw a tree. And to feel it, maybe that’s why I love trees so much. I can go
and hug the trunk and feel the smoothness of the tree and the roughness of some of the tree.
I guess this is a philosophical kind of question, but what kept the women going?
The ones that did survive. I don’t know, the fact, maybe
the thought of being able to see their husbands again, the companionship, helping hands of each other. The fact that we boosted each other’s hopes up. We were always talking about what we would do when we got out.
And I think it just knew that we would be out one day. Perhaps the idea that nothing really lasts whatever, it has to end somewhere along the line and,
well, I think, probably think of being able to see our loved ones again. To be able to live like a normal human being. And to be able to share, I suppose, the things that we had been through and talk about it amongst ourselves.
And we were also able to laugh at some of the things, I think it is a hope that we all have, I am sure that we all have a hope that one days things would turn out right.
You said also that you thought age had something to do with the way people dealt with their captivity, the young ones being more resilient than the older ones?
Well, simply because
they have no idea, well, we tried to make it easy for them. To them it is just another part of life, a period that they go through. The older ones still have got something to look forward to, like myself, hadn’t started to live yet, the teenagers. The older ones, I think,
I don’t know what they think because I am not that age then. I would imagine that they hoped to be free again to be with their family, to see their family, if they had children and sent their children away to live to see them again. And to look forward to that. I think looking forward to seeing their loved ones again probably has got a lot to do with it.
Do you think there is a certain personality type that fared better or worse?
I definitely do, yes, because we all, we’re not all the same are we, we are different individuals, we have different thoughts and feelings and look at things differently. I know one of the girls that I knew very well, she was a lot younger than me,
she didn’t cope very well, and yet I thought she would be one of the girls that could cope because she was always smiling, always laughing, and I wrote a poem about her called “Mary of the Laughing Eyes”, because she had beautiful laughing eyes. And yet after the war she just couldn’t cope. She went mad and ended her life in an asylum.
Every time she saw a lamp in the wintertime in the fog in London, that fog light that they had, she would think that it was a Japanese sentry. And one of the days she had knocked herself out and when she came to she just kept telling them to keep the yellow
so and so away, and she never recovered from that. There are others that find it very difficult to cope with what had happened, what they had lost, and they felt that the world owed them something. That they shouldn’t have been where they were. I shouldn’t have been where I was, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But no, I think personality in the way you look at life, I think, had a lot to do with how you cope with things, I have always been an optimistic person, I have always been a happy person, and the war in fact has taught me to cope with a lot of things. If you can’t do anything about it, forget it.
Try and think of something else, a different way of doing it, because you will only make yourself sick, why, why. So I have never been that sort of a worrier, I think, well, I can’t do it this way, I will try and do it another way. If I can’t overcome it this way then I will overcome it another way, and if I can’t do it so be it.
So you think someone who is more fatalistic survives better in that situation?
I think sure, I am quite sure. And then, of course, there are others who believe in God and religion who have a lot of faith. I don’t know if I have that much faith now. I believe what is meant to be will be. I am certain now that if I was meant to die I would have died early in the war. And
that you have got a purpose in life for some reason or other. Maybe my purpose is to go around and talk about the Changi quilt, let people know about the women in camp.
When I speak to male prisoners of war they often talk about the significance to them of what Australians call mateship, having a best friend or something. How important was that to the women?
Very important. We all made friendships and we all, because in those days mateship didn’t mean what it meant to the Australians because we called our friends companions, pals. We didn’t use the word mate, mate was something to do with marriage. I didn’t
associate with that. It wasn’t until after the war that I joined the association and heard about this mateship that I realise that’s we did have. We all had a special friend and we stayed with this special friend, and we more or less helped each other in that respect. We talked more freely to that friend than anybody else. And that’s true, having
somebody you can always depend on no matter what sort of person you are, they still accept you, it does mean a lot in life. To be able to rely on somebody like that, particularly when it is a matter of life and death. And you know that it didn’t matter what you did, you have got somebody there who will help you and
try and understand. And you miss that person when they go. Feel as if you have missed somebody almost like a partner, a part of you, because you have been through the same things and shared feelings and shared some terrible thoughts with each other. Some good thoughts.
So it is important, I think, and I have learned to appreciate the word mate and mateship. It is truly Australian, the word mateship.
Who was your friend then?
I had Ginny Summers and I had Joyce Edwards. I shouldn’t mention their names, I suppose, had better cut that out.
Why should we?
Well, Ginny, of course I was supposed to meet her when I went to England.
She died at five thirty in the morning, I landed at Heathrow five thirty that day. But I got in touch with her sister, who was one of the girls who had a patch on that quilt, she was a girl guide, which she had forgotten about, so she was thrilled to see the quilt and her name on it.
And Anna Silverman, who was a much older person than me, but somehow we got on terribly well .she got in touch with me when I was nursing, I don’t know how she got my address. And I met her when I went to England and she would be ninety-two now. Very frail, but still going strong. She was what we called
the postmistress and I was her deputy, and she would hand me some of the notes I was supposed to hand out through the camp. That was more of a job when we were in Sime Road Camp, because huts were separated with a part between each one, so there was always quite a lot of running around to do. It is something that I have learned to live with.
I have forgiven the Japanese, I don’t hate them, and yet recently I was given a book to read about the experiences of some of the prisoners had been interned and POWs, they have learned to forgive,
and after I realised, although I said I have forgiven them, maybe I have not forgiven them a hundred per cent, maybe eighty per cent, because I still find difficulty in having any trust. I worry, I
have got a phobia of walking in front of a Japanese person. I keep thinking of this little prick in my back with their bayonet, and it worries me, in fact I have quite a phobia of walking in front of a lot of people or sitting in front of a lot of people.
I always want to sit right at the back where I can see what's going on in front of me.
End of tape
Interviewee: Sheila Bruhn Archive ID 1998 Tape 07
All right, Sheila, you have been kind enough to dig out your collection of prose and poetry you wrote in Changi, and you have found a little something to read for us, whenever you’re ready, if you can give us the title and…?
“‘Presents’, 8th of April 1943.
For my birthday Dad sent, it wasn’t what I used to get, but it was well meant.
T’was the envy of my friends, and yet it wasn’t much, that old tin pail, my birthday gift in Changi gaol.
And when his time came I bought it with tears, it wasn’t the same, it wasn’t like those I gave in former years
But it was better than gold or silk,
sent it through the parcel post, a rusty tin of milk.
Now I clean out my cell in peace and quiet with a pail I love so well
And I know Dad will certainly think of me when he mingles drops of milk with old black tea.”
Well read. And perhaps a little something
from your daily diary?
That is not going to be easy. “Wednesday, the 25th of November 1942. The Men’s Concert. We were allowed to see the men’s concert – permission given by Nakajima and Mr Chuchitana. The concert was held in the courtyard with sentries keeping an eye on proceedings!
Took our places in the main courtyard at 7.15 p.m. Stage looked great though somewhat small. The actors were all out in the yard (other prisoners were behind the grills – saw Dad and waved to him). At 7.45 p.m. the show started with a march ‘Under Freedom’s Flag’. Sat on some stone tiles, which rocked perilously to and fro as I kept time to the music. The Camp Orchestra
was well and truly appreciated by all. The last on the programme was the Camp Choir and we marvel at those marvellous voices and we all sang ‘God Save Our King’ – after which Dr Hopkins called out for ‘Three cheers for our men’ – we cheered as loudly as our lungs and voices would allow! It was a lovely evening and we do appreciate what the men have done for us. Hope there’ll be another one before long – God bless the men.” .
Lovely, and very well written for a girl of that age, if I might say. Sheila, we were speaking earlier about the quilts, and you explained to us that it was an opportunity for some of the women to send to their men and you explained the little message you put in. Can you
describe some of the other ways the women would get messages across?
Well, one of them was a cheerful Tommy [British] soldier with the thumbs up sign. And another famous one, of course, was three dwarves with two menus saying, “There will always be tomorrow”.
Of course some of the more national ones would be, “There will always be an England as long as Scotland stands”. Can’t quite remember the others.
What if a woman wanted to communicate to a husband, perhaps, that a child had been born?
Well, there was one
there with two bunny rabbits, the mother rabbit and the baby rabbit had a blue ribbon around its neck to indicate that they had a son. There was another with two sheep, and the baby lamb had a pink ribbon around its neck to indicate that they had a baby girl. A few others had pictures of children to
say that they were okay. Because you had got the English country garden to remind them of their own gardens. And Freddy Bloom did a clock with wings on it to indicate that she wished time would fly. Elizabeth Ennis did a ship called
Homeward Bound with the hope that one day she would be sailing home with her husband. And of course the one, the very famous one I would think, was by Iris Parfitt our cartoonist, a square of a lonely figure in a cell saying, “How long, oh Lord? How long?” There are other bits and
pieces, funny bits. Dr Margaret Smallwood had her cell decorated with underwear and called it the room with a view. And one who had a humorous one, had a sketch of a brick,
just plain brick wall and called Changi Holiday Home. Anything that would bring the men perhaps a bit of laughter, or a smile to their faces. To know that in a way the women are keeping their end up. There are lots more, but I can’t remember all of them.
Did you eventually hear how those messages were received by the men?
Not until after the war. Elizabeth Ennis, I found out that her husband, who had been working outside the military camps, and one of the men told him that there was some news from
his wife through this quilt with her name on it, and so he rushed in to have a look at it. And Freddy Bloom’s husband, Philip, he also discovered her name on the quilt, because he was one of the doctors working in the hospital. Those are about the only two I know of that have spoken to me about it,
there may have been others. As for the Australian quilt, with not so many Australian women, well, very few of us, probably wouldn’t have created that much interest with the Australian boys because they would not have any need to worry about their womenfolk, I guess because they are not there,
and none of them would have even thought to have a look at them. Because when I was in the association I asked a few of them, “Did you ever see a Changi quilt?” and they said no, they didn’t know anything about it, until this fellow wrote to me from Melbourne that read my book and wanted to know why didn’t I mention the Changi quilt in my first edition.
Well, simply because I had forgotten, it was so early. I have read three other books written by women in Changi and they didn’t mention the Changi quilts, so they must have forgotten it too. We got ourselves busy being alive, we didn’t think, that was something done so early we had forgotten about it afterwards. And so that’s why the second edition was published, I felt I had let the women down.
And then, of course, not only that I discovered we had the quilt at the War Memorial, I didn’t know that. And I went up and had a look at it and that’s how I managed to get in touch with Elizabeth Ennis. I feel that the world needed to know about the women, not how they suffered but how they overcame a lot of things.
Their determination to carry on under difficult circumstances Which we all normally think we wouldn’t be able to do, but when it comes to the crunch it is amazing the things we can come up with. A lot of people have said to me,
“Oh, I couldn’t have done that, I wouldn’t have survived”. You don’t know, I think the instinct to survive is very strong in all of us, the will to carry on. So it’s, the women did make something of themselves in that respect, and I guess that’s one of the reasons
why I am passionate in getting the message across. We did have a bit of a say in getting ourselves acknowledged in the respect that we didn’t sit down and cry, “Why me? Why am I in this situation?” We did something about it. We survived.
That’s one of the important things.
Before we move on and talk about the time just prior to the war winding down, are there any particular stories that spring to mind that we should hear about that we haven’t touched on yet?
Any aspect of the gaol or particular stories?
I don’t know. What sort of stories would you be interested in?
Well, what do you think your happiest day was while you were in Changi apart from the day you left?
Well, I think that the ones that
I enjoyed most was when I could listen to the music coming from the men’s camp. Or when one of the women played the gramophone with some of the classical music. Mainly a sort of a personal thing I suppose, that I was able to appreciate the beautiful
sunset, because we did have some beautiful sunsets, and to realise that it didn’t matter that I was there, I could still appreciate what is beautiful outside. Hopefully one day I would be able to see it in its full glory without being behind grey walls. There is not much what you call exceptionally
happy days, there were quietly pleasant, I suppose. We had, I had good companionship. I enjoyed helping people. Get a lot of satisfaction when I have done something that pleases somebody. Like the time I made a pillow for my friend
who didn’t have a pillow, I used half of the stuffing from my pillow for a Christmas present, which she appreciated. I don’t know whether there is anything that truly stands out,
to make me want to talk about it.
How would you spend Christmas Day in Changi?
Well, the first Christmas was pretty exciting, I suppose, for the young ones. Prior to Christmas we were all busy making things for the children, and the men were busy making toys for them, and on the day itself
I was one of those that pushed Santa Claus up to get the presents. There was some lovely toys, and a lot of the POWs had made some toys. Which came to a point a few years back, Lady Griffin, who was the wife of David Griffin who wrote that story
about the happiness box for the children, which we didn’t get, because the Japanese officials decided had to be destroyed because they named one of the characters Churchill. The Japanese thought there was some coded message in it. It was buried by one of his senior officials and dug up again after the war,
it got dug up and given to him, and he has since published it. Well, when we were in England his wife was asked, did she know anything about the toys that were made for the children by the POWs, did we get them?
Because one of the POWs had been trying to find out for years what had happened, because he had done something for them. So she said, yes, she knew of somebody who could tell him about it, and gave me the address of him to write to him, and I wrote and gave him the diary entry of the Christmas and I asked him could he remember
what he made. Yes, he made a toy truck, sent me a sketch of what he had done with his name and the number plate of the truck. So he was delighted with that. To know that it was received, one happy little boy. Other Christmases weren’t quite as good, I think we were a bit blasé about it, but then it was still Christmas.
Things were getting hard to get. Toys were hard to get, food was scarce, material was hard to get, but we still managed to give the kids a bit of a Christmas party, and the kids themselves had their own fancy dress party for the older ones. I suppose they were more or less the highlights of camp life, the concerts,
the parties, the morning coffees and every birthday, doesn’t matter who, Freddy Bloom had always put out birthdays in the Pow Wow, the camp news magazine that we used to get. And we would all start to prepare for it and give the
birthday girl a bit of a party. And, of course, going out swimming was another highlight, that was lovely. But then everything stopped after the 10th of October, the double tenth.
Where would you do the swimming?
Up past Changi, the east coast. Not as far as the Changi barracks itself at the point of Singapore. It wasn’t far to walk, it would be about ten minutes’ walk. But it was enjoyed by everybody, we all enjoyed that break.,
How often did you receive the newsletter?
Well, it started off, it used to be once a week and went to once a fortnight, once a month, and then the paper ran out and that was it.
How was that produced?
She had an old typewriter, as a matter of fact I have got a picture of it from Changi Museum, a very old newspaper,
and she used to pinch some of the prison papers from the office somehow or other, she managed to get them anyway.
So how many would be produced each edition roughly?
Quite a few I think, as a matter of fact I think her daughter has got most of it and it is at
the British Imperial War Museum.
So each copy was individually typed?
There was no means of reproducing?
No, it would only just be one copy, that was to go around. And if you were lucky you would get a copy. I have got a copy of the minutes of the meeting that I was interested in.
Of course it wouldn’t be in the published diary, because it would be too long winded and boring to read all of those things. The publisher just put in the outcome of the meeting. Because I suppose a dozen or so entries are not in the published diaries, most of it
concerns the trip from Singapore over to here and a couple of concerts, because they have to make a number of pages in a book so they had to cut out a few things.
How important was humour?
You might have someone sitting down looking glum and someone would come along and say something entirely out of context and they would get a smile, it brightens the spirits up quite a lot and there was quite a lot of humour. Some of them I didn’t understand, of course, at that age. You would hear a burst of laughter from someone or other
and you realise a joke had been created somewhere along the line.
You mentioned that some of the women had problems dealing with the situation emotionally and psychologically, roughly what percentage of the women do you think became quite troubled mentally?
I think probably a quarter of them, which would be the older ones. A few of, not many of the young ones, we somehow managed to be able to overcome. Then again, personality, and your nature have got a lot to do with it, how you deal with something. If you are a pessimist
you are not going to get very far. Everything is just going to be black. But if you think of the bright side while, you have got a chance.
And how would those people be dealt with who were becoming quite mentally ill?
In camp I am not
sure, I think we tried to get them out of their misery somehow, getting them involved in things, in some cases very difficult, they just think it’s hopeless and they would rather die then carry on with what they were going through at times,
couldn’t be much worse, they would be much better off. The only counselling we had was to sort of listen and give them comfort if they wanted. Most of them just wanted to be left alone.
You mentioned there was some suicides with them men, not the women?
I don’t think there was.
I don’t know what happened, there was a case of a man threw himself out, I think he was locked up in a tower or something and threw himself out. How he would do that I don’t know. But then again it could be hearsay, I heard a lot of things and I couldn’t ask about it.
They would just say, “Oh, don’t worry bout it, it is not for you to worry, you’re too young to worry about things like that”. Whatever I heard I would write it down, but there are lots of things that I didn’t hear that I would like to have heard.
You were obviously a very good hearted,
optimistic, happy girl when you entered Changi did that side of you take a bit of a…?
Yeah, it took a bit of battering, but not that much., I think it took me back a bit, because I hadn’t realised what it was all about, it was something that I had never dreamt could happen to me.
But then once I sort of settled down I would think to myself, “Well, here I am, no good morning about it”, I am afraid I am a real optimist, I don’t stay sad for very long, put it that way. I get myself a sad moment, but it doesn’t last long enough to make me sick.
I think I am naturally a happy sort of thing, I think I look on the bright side of things, making the best of things, because I have learnt in camp no point fighting against anything if you can’t overcome. My doctor tells me now, I
will never ever have a heart attack because I don’t worry about things. He says, “If you worry you will raise your blood pressure”. So I am level.
So when did you first start to get wind that perhaps the war was shifting against the Japanese and things were looking promising?
We were starting to get more food, when the sentries didn’t come around quite as much. And then there were rumours through the grapevine that things weren’t going too well outside. And then of course we would suddenly see some planes appearing on the scene that we hadn’t seen before and some of the men said they
wasn’t a Japanese plane, they wouldn’t be flying there anyway, a Japanese plane. Things started to get a bit ominous after that. A few people were taken off working outside and brought in and the building of the tunnel was stopped,
and I think the men started to get news somehow or other through their own grapevine that the war wasn’t doing too well over in Europe and that it wasn’t doing too well in Japan. And of course 15th of August, those Aussie boys, they sang out that the war was
over, and naturally we didn’t believe them, we just thought they were trying to be optimistic again and keep our chins up. It wasn’t until that night that the news came through, not through the Japanese but through the men’s side. And somehow or other they managed to get a sort of a radio working,
and we heard Big Ben and Churchill’s voice. And even then we weren’t quite sure, because we still didn’t get any official notice from the Japanese until about ten days afterwards. I can always
remember him standing there in front of us saying, “We have just had a setback, you are free to go”. That was all. But it wasn’t until the 12th of September that we realised it was all over. We were taken to the municipal building,
the whole lot of us. Because by this time half of the camp had been evacuated, repatriated, and a lot of POWs had also been sent home, a lot of the POWs who were sick. But the rest of us interns, POWs, and internees we were invited to go and watch the signing over of the Japanese to
Lord Louis Mountbatten, and after that we realised that it was truly over, that we were truly free.
Were you able to celebrate?
In a way, maybe, that’s the part I should have recited, I suppose. The 12th of September one.
Could you find that?
“Wednesday 12th of September
1945. This morning, most of the Camp turned out to watch the victory parade. It was the formal surrender by the Japanese officers to Lord Louis Mountbatten on the steps of the Municipal Offices. The padang was packed, it looked like the whole population of Singapore was there. Planes, flying boats, transport planes, bombers, (you name it, anything that flew), flew low and
zoomed here and there. The army, navy were assembled on the Padang together with the band, the marines did look smart in their ‘whites’. What a lovely sight – we cheered and we clapped and we hugged each other and cried and laughed and then cried again! The atmosphere was unreal. Those who were specially invited were in the Municipal Buildings. I was on one of the balconies with the others.
The POWs were there too. Lord Louis arrived in great style – how we cheered and waved our hands. The band played and he walked round, inspecting and talking to the army and navy – one sailor fainted and had to be taken away on a stretcher. Seven Nip [Japanese] Officials then arrived – the Chinese roared their anger and wanted to rush at them but were kept at bay by the MPs [Military Police] . After the ceremony was over – they
came out again and were taken away. The Flag (our beloved flag) was hoisted while the band gloriously and thrillingly played ‘God Save the King’ followed by French, Dutch, Chinese and American anthems. Heard speeches – had photos taken. We cheered and danced and cheered ourselves hoarse. There was dancing in the streets – we were mad,
gloriously, madly happy – Time stood still as we let our hair down – for a moment we forgot those 3 ½ years as we went into a frenzy of dancing, singing - we are FREE, FREE, FREE! AT LAST!” That was the moment that we knew we were free, it was a wonderful moment, and I don’t think it will ever be repeated again.
I believe when you heard Churchill’s voice there was a special song that was sung as well?
“There will always be an England”. Every time I hear that now it brings tears to my eyes. It is a wonderful song.
Being the one you sang at the beginning of that experience, too?
So what happened to you after that great day?
Well, I had nowhere to go, so I was still staying in the camp, my stepmother had left Sime Road Camp.
Where had your stepmother gone?
She had gone back to her old homeland, and
so a handful of us Eurasian girls and boys, I suppose, were still there, some of us had lost our parents and we didn’t know what was going to happen, we were just waiting. I suppose I was more or less waiting for whether I could be sent to Australia. But I couldn’t just sit around
doing nothing, I didn’t have any money and I had to get some work. And so when I heard the British military hospital was asking for volunteers for VADs, I went and volunteered my services there. Stayed there for a while, moved out of the camp, well, not all together, still had me, few things there, but I just stayed in the nursing
home for a while. And then I went to Kadang Kerbau, the maternity hospital, to actually start my training, and it was there that the Red Cross found me, and I was told to get ready in twenty-four hours because they were going to fly me over to Australia. My aunt was looking for
me and wanted to have me with her.
And how did you respond to that news?
Well, not terribly well. Because I got involved with a young man. An English RAF fellow. And I didn’t want to leave him,
but then he had to be demobbed [demobilised] and he said that I should go to Australia and start a new life and forget about him. It was utterly devastating.
So it was a real mixed blessing?
In a way, yes.
Had the British provided much support for you through that period when you were trying to work out how you were going to survive and what to go next?
Not that I can remember. I think they were more involved with their own people, and I guess we Eurasians more
or less got forgotten, put aside for the time being, anyway. Probably eventually when they found out we were still in the camp they would have done something, but they were busy repatriating, transporting all of the others first.
Simply because you looked a bit different to your typical British citizen?
Well, I was registered as a
Eurasian and that was it.
Did you try and approach Australian authorities at that stage yourself?
I didn’t know anything, I had no idea who to go to or what to do. All I knew was that I had to get some work and that one day I would try to get myself to Australia and see the place where my father was born. I had no idea
who to go to, there was nobody I could go around asking help for. I wouldn’t know how to go around asking for help at that time. I was completely naïve about things like that. So anything that had to be done had to be done for me, because I didn’t know who to approach. The same applied when I arrived here, I just let things slide, go by, I didn’t have any idea,
when I started to do nursing I was told to do this and I did it. But there was never a time where I could find or seek or have somebody say to me, “Go to so and so and ask for some advice”. When my aunt took me to a doctor because I
was so thin, and when he looked at me and wanted to know why I was so thin, I didn’t tell him, but my aunt said that I had been a civilian internee in Changi prison and that was all for three and a half years. And he looked at me and said, “Well, my dear, you are still young, forget about what you have been through, don’t talk about it, get on with your life”.
And he looked at my aunt and said, “Don’t you ask any questions, because that would upset her”. So nobody asked me any questions and I didn’t volunteer any information, and I was told not to talk about it and I didn’t talk about it.
End of tape
Interviewee: Sheila Bruhn Archive ID 1998 Tape 08
Sheila, that advice about don’t ask don’t tell, how well do you think that served you?
Not very well, thinking over, because I think I would like to have unburdened myself, but I didn’t know how to. And
also the fact that people didn’t ask me questions, I felt that they weren’t really interested, and if I was going to start talking about it they would be less interested, I mean, after all, what is my story compared to a lot of the others that have happened? And that’s how I looked at it. My story isn’t that important as some of the others, the others
needed more talking about it, until I found that they were told the same thing too. Not to talk about it, family is not to ask them any questions. I think I would have liked to have been able to talk about some of the things that happened. Maybe not all of it. I would have liked to have been able to say that I kept a diary and perhaps we could have looked after it and talked over it.
But I was told to get on with my life and I got on with my life. I started nursing, still had my nightmares, still went on. It was a good nursing career in a way, because after I had finished my training I went to a lot of different hospitals, in the country particularly, because I wanted the country experience.
After a couple of years I came back and decided to do children’s nursing. And then I got married and came up here to Sydney and had two children and I still, I sort of put it at the back of my mind. I felt people weren’t interested anymore about what I had been through, until my
daughter-in-law discovered those scraps I had really never thought about it. But the nightmares continued still, all of the time. My husband used to get quite upset, wanted to know, couldn’t I talk about it, I just, in fact he died not ever knowing exactly what I went through, because I never talked about it. The children certainly knew nothing about it until the book came out. And the neighbours didn’t know anything about it until the book came out .
And they, strangely enough, are not particularly interested, my children. They are interested, yes, but they don’t ask me questions, not like my two grandsons. They are interested and they ask me questions. I discovered with the other POWs a lot of them said exactly the same thing, their immediate family are wary of
asking questions, but their grandsons are starting to ask lots and lots of questions. Unfortunately with some of us it is a bit late. I am lucky, having written the diary while I was there, because I am quite sure if I was asked now some of the things that happened I would not have remembered. Memory plays
tricks on you, you forget some things, perhaps play down some of the things and highlight some of the things over the years, but I can’t do that because I have got it down in black and white in my diary.
What role in your healing process has all of the talking you have done held, and also your
return visits to Singapore?
Well, it took quite a while for the healing process to continue with the start of the diary in 1992, I was a little bit worried because I didn’t think anybody was interested, and I didn’t want to talk about anything that was so private with me. It was a private thing, some of the things, I still get embarrassed reading about them even now. And then I started getting letters from the young people that
read my book and wanted to know more about what their parents went through. I was able to help them in that respect, and I was glad I had published the diary, and then I discovered I hadn’t mentioned the Changi quilt and with that, of course, I got myself really involved in trying to get myself over
the difficulty of writing things that happened to me. And then when I was invited to talk, first at my local RSL [Returned Services League] , and from then on by word of mouth it just went from strength to strength. And I discovered that I could speak, as time went by, a lot easier, I was able to get
some slides done, and then when Elizabeth handed me this quilt, because she felt as I was going to talk about the quilts I may as well have this Changi guides quilt because that was the start of it, and it had given me a purpose in life, that what I have been through was worthwhile in spite of everything.
The respect of showing people that women are considered to be the weaker sex, can at times, sometimes be the stronger sex and able to do things that in normal circumstances you wouldn’t think of doing. It took me a while to talk about my nightmares, it was only
three years ago that I could mention it, tentatively at first, and then it got a lot easier. I found that my nightmares are not as frequent, occasionally I get them when something crops up. And when I had this invitation to take part in the return to Changi I was reluctant at first,
but with the advent of my third edition being published, to fill in all of the missing gaps that I had been looking for the last fifty-odd years when I went to England, it is going to be a closure. I will realise when I stand in front of that gate, I can see myself in 1942,
tired, hot, thirsty, hungry, a lot of the other women and children, waiting for the gate to open. Hearing the men cheering us in, the women singing as we walked in. Not knowing what the future was going to be, but knowing that I
am at last safe from all of the bombing. And this time standing before it I can see the remaining ghost being put to rest when the building comes down and all of the rubble.
Be at peace at long last. The end of the road has come for my journey. The circle is complete and I feel that my healing process will be complete the day that I have my last look. Particularly now I am allowed to take a camera in and take a photograph of the cell I was in,
if it still looks the same. Because in 1992 when I had a look at one of the cells that they showed us it had been updated, it had a wooden bed, pedestal toilet and a little wash basin. So in a way I am looking forward to it. I am sad in a way,
I am glad that it will be all over for me. I am sure of that I can put that side of my life away. And I hope that the new prison will never ever harbour a POW or a civilian internee, that it will be built, just be built just for what it was meant for.
Not be used in a war for any other reason.
What sort of, as I have said to you off camera before, Australians usually associate Changi purely with Australian military prisoners, what battle do you have to have people to understand that there were others of you there as well?
Difficult, because they wouldn’t believe me when I started to say I was in Changi. But when I told it they started to come around to it. It has been difficult for them to believe it was possible, because there is no stories about it really, not in Australia.
Maybe because there wasn’t many Australians in the camp. I think I was the only Australian internee. But over in England they did know a little bit, because a lot of those women were British and they did form an association. I had none here, which I felt sad about.
I used to envy all of those reunions, that why I asked whether I could join the association. So now I go to their reunions, I go to their memorial services. I feel as if I am in part one of them.
What association are you talking about now? That’s the Australian…?
Ex-Prisoners of War Association, New South Wales branch.
Why was bringing your fathers’ remains so important to you?
When I went back in 1995 to Singapore to put a plaque on his grave I was talking to
some of the people in Singapore and I heard a rumour that the cemetery was going to be redeveloped into an underground railway and shopping complex, I think it was. And I thought, “Well, it took me fifty years to find out where he was buried and now they are going to take him somewhere else”, so I thought it
was time for him to come home, knowing that it was his intention to come back to Australia when he retired. So that’s the reason I brought him back to his homeland, the land of his birth.
Did you ever watch the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Commission] series on Changi, the comedy kind of series?
Do you really want my comment on that? Terrible.
Some of the things that happened in the picture didn’t really happen in Changi, they happened somewhere else. There is nothing wrong with the story, it is the title, Changi, they should have given it a different title. Because some of the POWs were angry after it was shown
and I was asked what do I think and I said, “Terrible”. As I said to you and he said, “Wasn’t it?” because they had been in Changi., none of those things happened there, so in part it wasn’t quite true. Of course it was meant to be a comedy, a going back in memory. They should have given it a different name, they shouldn’t have
called it Changi. Because the first thing you think of is Changi not what's the things that have happened somewhere else and were brought into Changi, which also applied to Paradise Road, it is a lovely story but some of the things didn’t happen there. And I queried it when I was given a preview, there is a scene where
a young Chinese girl was doused with petrol and set alight. Now, I heard that when I was in Changi, one of the men who had been out came in and relayed that story, so I knew that it happened in Singapore, so I queried it and the director said, “No, it didn’t happen here, what we have done is taken stories from different camps and put the story into the one camp”.
Which did upset quite a few of the other people that had been in that camp, because they sort of felt, well, it was based on true facts and they find that isn’t quite. But they liked the part of the choir, they said they would have preferred more of the choir than things that didn’t happen there. But that’s, what do they call it,
literary licence? Poetry licence, the thing they take. So I hope you will record what I said exactly and not change it about a bit.
The archive is recorded unedited, so that is not the function of the archive to edit your words. Given that
you know these inaccuracies can come about into popular culture, are you aware that this sort of history of the Second World War is not taught in Japan?
I am aware, yes. I believe they are now, I don’t know how true that is. Because when I was at Singapore in 1992 I was at the Kranji service, and there was a bunch of Japanese students standing by and they
came up and asked me what connection I had for being there. And I told them and they said they didn’t know anything about it and they certainly didn’t know anything about the Burma Railway, and there were tears because they weren’t told anything about it. So whether I have been told that they are doing something about it, but you speak to the normal,
I know a couple of Japanese families, I have been to their home, spoken to them and they know nothing. They are not the aggressor as far as they are concerned. And so it is very difficult, it is not their fault. It is the fault of their grandfathers, the army personnel. The things that happened,
we can’t blame the young ones because they don’t know anything about it. And so, as I said, I have forgiven the young ones because they don’t know anything about it, and yet what do I have to forgive them for, because they haven’t done it to me?
Do you think Australia
does enough to remember this part of history?
Maybe they’re trying, bringing out all of the books. Or maybe they think it is so long ago, it is in the books, it is in the history, it is in the archives, and the young ones will just have to look for it. It has
to depend on the ones that are still alive to tell the story, like I think what you are doing is a good thing.
Well then, maybe I should ask at this point, given that this is going to be a proper historic record, is there anything else you want to leave on the record, any message for future generations, your grandsons, your great-grandsons?
Learn to love one another.
Be patient, be tolerant, understand that there are different ethics, that we do have to, that’s a bit different to us. But to understand some of the reasons, but not to the point of wanting to kill each other, what is the point of killing each other?
What can you achieve except sadness? What is war doing? It is destroying everything, people, everyone. Not just the ones that they are going to war against, even themselves, they lose their homes, their families, their loved ones.
I am all for peace. But how to achieve it is something I don’t know. Unless it is learn to not hurt people, to find out why they do those things.
What is it that makes us want to hurt somebody else? Is it because we enjoy doing it? Is it for power, to have power over somebody to know that we can hurt them and to think, would you like that to happen to you? If you don’t want that to happen to you then why do it
to somebody else? And so I don’t know what the answer is. All I know is that we have only got one world to live it, it is still a lovely world, it is still a beautiful world, we can still enjoy life, we can still enjoy the sunshine, the rain, the flowers, birds, the people we love.
To make the most of each day the best way you can. My father always said, “Be true to yourself”. I don’t know how true that can be. If you are going to be naughty I don’t know how true you can be to yourself. But not to hurt anybody,
try not to hurt anybody by word or by deed. And if you can make one person happy then you have done something in your life, I think that’s about all.