Friday, May 05, 2023

The ‘first historical sites’ of World War II in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand

Translated from LEE Kok Leong’s article published in Lianhe Zaobao, Singapore, 23 March 2023


I received several old and turned yellowish photographs owned by Caroline from Scotland. They show Singapore landscape and later prisoners of war records of Caroline’s father, William Thompson. William travelled to Singapore from the other side of the world during World War II.

William and his comrades taking a picture with local kampung residents. Credit: Caroline

William was a signaller serving the military. Soon after arrival he engaged in defending Malaya and Singapore. After the surrender of the Allies, the British and Australian soldiers were held in barracks at Changi. After nine months of staying there, William boarded a train to Thailand to build the Thai-Burma Railway. As the carriages were packed with people and machinery, the prisoners of war had to stay close to each other for the four-day journey. Comrades were holding each other when they had to do their usual daily business squatting outside the carriage.

William’s prisoner-of-war record is kept in Thailand-Burma Railway Centre (Museum). Credit: Caroline

In recent years, some Allied descendants came to Singapore to trace their roots, retracing the 20-kilometre walk from the city to the internment camp. After walking with them on a journey that was both intellectual and sentimental, I started my journey to the ‘first historical sites’ of the Second World War in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

Prisoner of war record from the Japanese. Credit: Caroline


The first combat of the Malayan Campaign

A year before the Japanese invasion of Malaya, the Pétain government of France signed an agreement to allow Japanese troops to enter Vietnam. On 6 December 1941, Australian reconnaissance aircraft took off from Kota Bharu airfield in Kelantan and spotted the Japanese fleet departing from Saigon. Although it was suspected to be heading north to Cambodia or Bangkok, the fleet was merely creating an illusion. Its destination was the Kra Isthmus in southern Thailand.

On the morning of 7 December, the RAF Catalina took off from Singapore's first completed Seletar airfield. The flying boat was shot down when it spotted the enemy. The Allies lost the first encounter.

The RAF Catalina flying boat took off from Seletar Airfield and was shot down by the Japanese during its first encounter. Credit: National Archive of Singapore


The first Japanese landing site

At midnight on 8 December, Japanese transport ships arrived off the shore of Pulau Pak Amat, the northernmost of Kota Bharu. The landing battle raged until 4 am. After the successful beaching, the Japanese immediately launched the next wave of operations, bombing downtown Singapore and the airbases at 4.30 am.

The Battle of Kota Bharu Memorial came into view as we drove into the quiet Malay village of Kuala Pak Amat, crossing two tiny and narrow bridges with only room for one car. The untouched, pristine beach in front of us is the scene of rising the World War II curtain. Although the sea is undulating, the air seems frozen.

Pulau Pak Amat of Kota Bahru, the Japanese first landing site. The insert is the memorial erected by the Malaysia Authority.


The first naval battle between Britain and Japan

A few hours before the Battle of Kota Bharu, the British Eastern Fleet departed from Sembawang Naval Base. The fleet consisted of two main warships, HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, and four destroyers. The plan was to join forces with the Australian Air Force to defend against the enemy. It was only off Pahang Kuantan that the Allies were informed of Kota Bahru’s defeat and had to combat the battle alone without air coverage.

On 10 December, the fleet was attacked by Japanese fighters and torpedoes. The two main battleships were sunk. On 26 January 1942, the last two destroyers of the Royal Navy engaged in the last sea battle and were defeated off the coast of Johor Bahru. The sea battle for Malaya was over.

The Port of Singapore Authority's Sembawang Pier was part of the former Sembawang Naval Base. The British erected a memorial for ‘The battle for Singapore 1941-1942’ at a corner of the pier. As I walked around the pier, it was common to see foreign soldiers mourning and laying flowers in remembrance.

The British erected a memorial for ‘The battle for Singapore 1941-1942’ at a corner of the Sembawang pier.


The first Death Railway

Before World War II, the rail network in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand was already well connected, with access from Tanjong Pagar railway station to Ban Pong in Southern Thailand. The Japanese decided to build a 400km Thai-Burma railway linking Ban Pong with Thanbyuzayat in Burma, which would run from Singapore to Rangoon (Yangon).

This was already planned by the British in the late 19th century. However, the project was abandoned because it was deemed too complex. Japanese engineers surveyed the area and estimated that it would take five to six years to construct. The Japanese military decided to hasten it and sent 200,000 civilian workers and over 60,000 prisoners of war to complete it within 18 months. About 40% of the civilian labourers came from Singapore and Malaysia, 50% from Burma and the rest from Java. The British and Australian troops accounted for about 70% of the prisoners of war, the Dutch 20% and the American 10%. The Death Railway, which opened two months earlier than expected, claimed the lives of over 80,000 civilian workers and over 10,000 prisoners of war, almost one life for every five steps.

Driving in Thailand was a good experience. Motorists gave way when they saw the signal lights. The Tham Kra Sae, about an hour's drive from the River Kwai Bridge, is deemed the most dangerous section of the railway. The elevated wooden bridge was built on the edge of a cliff. Workers could be broken into pieces at any time during construction. Near the River Kwai Bridge is the Thai-Burma Railway Centre, a museum which displays a step-by-step account of the war by Australian researcher Rod Beattie, who spent years searching for information along the railway. Opposite the museum is the cemetery for dead railway prisoners of war, where Rod reminds us that the Japanese archived prisoners of war. As for the dead civilian workers, they are nameless and without a tomb. They do not seem to have been there.

Tham Kra Sae, about an hour's drive from the River Kwai Bridge, is deemed the most dangerous section of the railway.


The first church mural – The Changi Mural

Inside the Changi Chapel and Museum is a St Luke’s Church replica. Originally located in Block 151 at Changi Airbase (West), the church was converted into a prisoner of war hospital during the Japanese occupation. The Ministry of Defence opened its doors to allow us to see the church in its original form.

The small room in the downstairs corner of the barrack is simply furnished, and the five religious murals on the walls are painted in gold as if they were a glow of hope for the soldiers. Stanley Warren who painted the murals, returned to England as a teacher, thinking he could forget the nightmare of war. Eventually, he returned to the old place three times, in 1963, 1982 and 1988, to restore the damaged murals.

During his time as a prisoner, Stanley suffered severe kidney failure and did not travel to Thailand and Burma with the brigade. As he laid dying in the hospital room, he was touched by the sound of church songs from below. The idea of painting biblical stories came to him. Stanley did not think he would live to finish all the murals, but concentrated first on the Nativity and Resurrection to give believers at least a glimpse of hope for eternal life.

The Nativity features Europeans, Arabs and Orientals blessing a newborn baby. If the Bible had allowed him to paint a fourth king, he would have chosen the African, blending the love of every corner of the world and dissolving all the resentment on earth. The red calf walks away with a look of disdain and eventually turns its head.

The Nativity: One of the five Changi Murals

The paint for the mural was smuggled back from the prisoners of war working in the shipyard. The blue from chalks used for snooker and the white from egg whites stolen by the nuns. The guard sat on a bench watching curiously and smiling from time to time as Stanley applied the layers of colour.

As he restored the mural, Stanley said, “There is no problem that cannot be solved without war…. I hope that the Singapore Armed Forces would never have to find themselves firing the first shot in anger. War is never good."

Travelled through times and thousands of miles of space.

Peace is priceless!

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