Singaporean World War II survivors recall frightening, amusing events of the period

World War II survivors share their stories and memories from the dark period. (Yahoo photo)

In tiny but sunny Singapore, our elders led far more exciting lives than the rest of us who were born in the decades post-World War II.

Over the weekend, in commemoration of 15 February 1942, the day the Japanese troops landed in Singapore, we spoke to four World War II survivors who shared one significant memory each from those years that stays with them.

Apart from the devastating, painful, frightening and haunting memories they share with us, there also come the stories of hope, of humour and of brief reprieve.

The poignant

Joseph Conceicao, 91
The retired Singapore ambassador to Russia says his most poignant memory from the war was in late 1941, a few months before the Japanese troops arrived, and in the wake of massive bombings that took place around the island.

"I was about 17 then," he said. "I was walking with two cousins; we had heard about the bombings and they were not very far away from where we stayed so we wanted to see."

They walked across a field toward a junction in the Newton Circus area, where they came across two massive bomb craters.

"We saw limbs, people's heads, hands, legs lying about. One of my cousins took his breath when he saw it, and he was affected by the experience... for many years after that," he said.

"There was a [British] soldier standing at the edge of the crater, and when my cousin went over to touch him — he fell into the crater, he was dead! He was dead standing at the bomb's edge. And when he touched him, he went into the crater."

Conceicao says he was greatly moved by the sight, and continues to carry that memory with him.

Thankfully for the then-young man, he did not lose any of his relatives or loved ones during the war. Conceicao shared that people soon became annoyed with the British government for making poor decisions in those years — for instance, his family was asked to move from Lorong N Telok Kurau further into the centre of the island, when the Eastern part of the island remained fairly unscathed throughout the war.

The frightening

Chia Siok Hew, 92
Mdm Chia recalls through her granddaughter, Tan Teng Teng, that during the 1941 Japanese air raids, she spent several nights running back and forth from beneath the beds in her house in Lorong Hong Lee to the deep drains behind it.

Back then, she was 18, had been married for two years, and slept in her family's home-dug air raid shelter with her months-old infant daughter in her arms, her unborn son in her tummy and shoes on her feet, ever-ready to get up and run.

"So the whole night, they were running to and fro with my grandfather (Mdm Chia's husband) following behind with the milk bottles and milk powder, and the food supplies," said Tan, who grew up in the same house. "My great-great-grandfather was too old to run, so he just hid under the bed!"

Mdm Chia's family thankfully didn't get hit by any bombs, but Tan said, "The minute you hear aircraft flying over I think nobody was going to take any chances. Everybody just ran."

She shared about a family friend who did get hit, however — Tan said Chia told her about a bread delivery man who was out on his rounds when aircraft flew over his house in Potong Pasir.

"His wife and children went to hide in the air raid shelter that they had dug out, (but) they were hit directly and he lost his entire family," she added.

The amusing (on hindsight)

William Gwee, 81
The writer shares a memory that he considers the worst for his family — but it did involve him playing badminton and eating ice kacang (a local cold dessert) with Japanese soldiers.

Gwee was about 10 years old when his father decided to shelter a female relative who lost her husband in the Sook Ching massacre from February to March 1942. His family weren't aware at that time that she "unfortunately out of loneliness befriended a Japanese soldier", who also happened to be a serial drunkard.

One fine night, the soldier staggered into their house, which happened to be located near a Japanese army camp. He entered, flopped onto the sofa and passed out into a near-coma, which Gwee said he could not be roused from.

The next morning, Gwee and one of his brothers were playing badminton in an abandoned court near their home when three Japanese soldiers — whom he later realised were Taiwanese, because they spoke fluent Hokkien — approached and asked them what game they were playing. The three soon joined in their game, and the unlikely group of friends headed together to an Indian dessert stall on Koon Seng Road to share some ice kacang.

"When we came back, my father asked me to approach these three soldiers and ask them to take a look at that man, because by that time his breathing was very very shallow," he said. "If he were to die, what would happen to the whole family? The whole family would be executed," he added darkly.

Thankfully, the three men Gwee was with were reasonable, and one look informed them that the chap on their family sofa was "the worst drunkard in the camp". They all only held "Private" ranks, however, and had to hatch a plan to commandeer a car while bargaining a free pass from the on-duty sentry, but promised they would return later that night to retrieve their comatose comrade.

"That was about 6:30 in the evening. You can well imagine after they left that every minute that we waited for them to contact us was like an hour!" he exclaimed. "They only came back at about 11pm that night. We almost gave up!"

All went well in the end, though, he added gratefully, saying, "If he had died and if I had not met those three chaps, I would not be here talking to you!"

Helen Joseph, 85
The retired department store staff shares a series of amusing memories she has from those years — first was her and her family running from place to place to avoid areas vulnerable to bombing.

In the days immediately following the Japanese surrender, she and her family were still scurrying back and forth between relatives' houses, and were mid-way to her father's house when people started saying, "Eh, no need to go, finish already, surrender already! Come back, come back, come back, where are you all going?"

"So we all went back carrying our bundles, everyone carrying one bundle each of whatever we could take, running back, going home," she said with a laugh.

At that time, she was roughly 12 years old, the youngest of 12 children in her family, and also recalls being fat from all the war rations she was fed by her aunts, uncles and grandparents whom she stayed with in government-provided housing.

"We had to queue for rations, and at first they would run out by the time it was our turn so we learned to go earlier next time," she said.

"There was this dark brown bread, you could throw it at the wall and it would come back to you; it was so hard! We all knew it as 'rubber bread'," she added, recalling her childhood mischief. "My grandmother would scold me and say, 'Eh you're going to eat that bread ah, you throw it against the wall some more.'"

Another fascinating incident she recalls was when a Japanese soldier joined her family in praying the Rosary — a Catholic prayer — one evening at their home. Seeing the crucifix outside their house, the soldier asked to join the prayer, and Joseph's family elders welcomed him in.

"He took out his bayonet, placed it on the floor, and he knelt down. And he repeated our prayer, what we said. In English!" she said. "He was very gentlemanly-looking, too."

The World War II survivors spoke at the opening of a new exhibition and a series of tours to various war sites around Singapore, organised by the National Heritage Board. Case Files from the Singapore War Crimes Tribunal will be on display at the National Museum of Singapore until 5 April 2015.

Retired Singapore ambassador to Russia Joseph Conceicao. (Yahoo photo)
Mdm Chia Siok Hew with her granddaughter Tan Teng Teng. (Yahoo photo)
Writer William Gwee with his wife. (Yahoo photo)
World War II survivor Helen Joseph was just over 10 years old when the war hit Singapore. (Yahoo photo)