In 1962, John Pettigrew wrote an article about life and his experiences as a P.O.W. on Christmas Island under Japanese occupation during World War 2. The following is his account.
CHRISTMAS ISLAND UNDER JAPANESE OCCUPATION
by J. PETTIGREW
Welfare Officer, British Phosphate Commissioners
Early in February, 1942, the inhabitants of Christmas Island made preparations for impending invasion by Japanese forces. Deep sea mooring buoys were towed out to sea and sunk, thus making almost impossible the task of moving a vessel within any of the few anchorages inside the coral reef which encircles the island; demolition charges were fired in items of essential equipment and the loading jetties, and a 6-inch naval gun was installed on a cliff to combat raiders.
Christmas Island, a solitary 55-square-mile atoll in the Indian Ocean at the southern entrance to the Sundra Straits, is about 220 miles south of Java, 810 miles from Singapore and 1,625 miles from Fremantle. An almost continuous sheer sea-cliff, 20 to 60 feet high, surrounds the island. Above the cliffs steep slopes rise in two major terraces to a central plateau generally 600 to 800 feet above sea level, and in several places the plateau rises again to a maximum height of 1,170 feet. The ocean for three miles all around the island is about 1,000 fathoms deep. The only anchorage capable of accommodating large ships and the site of the principal settlement is Flying Fish Cove, where the shore is formed of coral shingles. The island is an important source of phosphate. The main installations of the phosphate industry, the quarters for the European staff and the Chinese and Malay settlements also are located at Flying Fish Cove. There are secondary settlements and maintenance shops at South Point and Drumsite and at several other small settlements and camps across the central plateau and at small pumping plants at springs and wells.
Most of the European staff of the Christmas Island Phosphate Company were taken off the island in mid-February, 1942, leaving seven European employees, including the doctor, to maintain essential services and the welfare of the 1,100 Asian employees and their families. The District Officer, the Government radio operator, a British officer, four British N.C.O.’s and an Indian officer with 25 Indian troops also remained on the island. The soldiers constituted the gun crew and were accommodated in the barracks adjacent to the District Office.
At the end of February and in early March, 1942, a Japanese aircraft carrier and several cruisers stood just out of range of the 6-inch gun and rained shells on the island while aircraft from the carrier, unopposed in the air, bombed their targets, killing five and wounding several Asian people The radio station received a direct hit and was demolished. The works area and many houses were extensively damaged.
During the bombardment the District Officer, to minimize the number of casualties, hauled down the Union Jack from the flagstaff at the District Office and hoisted a white flag. Immediately the shelling and bombing ceased and the Japanese naval force sailed away without attempting a landing.
The following day Captain Williams, the officer in charge of the gun crew, hauled down the white flag and hoisted the Union Jack. He considered this action justified because there had been no formal surrender and, at this time, he had every intention of resisting any attempt at a landing by the Japanese forces.
That same day the island’s European community was increased by eleven with the arrival in the cove of a lifeboat carrying survivors of a merchant ship which had been torpedoed about 300 miles off the island. On board were the captain, chief officer, chief and second engineers and bosun of the ship, all British, and six Australian soldiers who had joined the ship at Batavia; the lifeboat also carried 25 Chinese members of the ship’s crew. On 10th March the Indian troops, assisted by the police and watchmen, mutinied and murdered Captain Williams and the four British N.C.O.’s. They threw the bodies into the sea and, on the following day, rounded up all the Europeans and took us up to the fort. They told us of the murders and their spokesman, Sergeant Mir Ali, said that he had no intention of fighting the Japanese if they were to land. He told us he intended to kill us all.
Fortunately for us the Indian officer intervened. He had taken no part in the mutiny and told the mutineers that he would take his own life if any more murders occurred. After a conference, the sergeant, who was the ring- leader of the uprising, held us under heavy guard in the District Office.
There we remained until 31st March, 1942, when the Japanese invasion fleet appeared on the horizon. The fleet, consisting of two aircraft carriers, two or three heavy warships, and five or six merchant ships, sailed into the cove in perfect weather and the landing was effected without any opposition whatever.
Landing barges came ashore and within half an hour about 600 troops had been landed. Ramps were laid up the pebbly slopes of the beach and truckloads of supplies were driven off the barges, up the ramps and on to the roadway.
Within a few hours the Japanese had set up headquarters at the manager’s house; then our little party, escorted by six soldiers, was marched to headquarters for interrogation.
The Japanese commander was angry about the damage done to the phosphate plant and at first would not believe that the destruction had been caused by Japanese bombs and shells. After a few hours’ intense interrogation, beatings, and threats, the commander at last seemed to be satisfied that the damage had indeed been caused by the bombardment of the island and our little party was marched to the Asian clerks’ quarters and placed under guard.
The fact that the invading force had met with no resistance and that there had been no Japanese casualties undoubtedly was a contributing factor to the rather lenient treatment we received during the first few days of the Occupation. Our party was confined to barracks for two days and, apart from an hourly check by the guards, we were left to ourselves.
On the third day, however, we were put to work. Again under escort, we were marched to the beach where the unloading and sorting of supplies was still in progress. The Japanese had erected a temporary store shed on the beach and we were ordered to assist the considerable Japanese labour force with the back-breaking task of carrying supplies from the barges and storing them in the shed. Cases of food, barbed wire, chain blocks and a miscellaneous collection of articles, obviously looted from shops in Sourabaya, were among the items I can distinctly remember lugging up that steep pebbly beach.
Within a few days the Asian population of the island was rounded up and work was started on repairing the damaged works area. Strangely, the Indian troops were also formed into a working party under the supervision of the Indian officer. They were given the task of clearing the debris from inside one of the large phosphate storage bins.
The naval task force withdrew, leaving about 500 military personnel on the island. By this time some orderliness was evident. This contrasted sharply with the scenes of brutal behaviour and drunkenness which marked the first few days of Japanese occupation.
About 100 Japanese civilians who had landed with the soldiers were technical staff brought to get the phosphate plant operating and ship the phosphate to Japan. They took over the general office and organized the Asian labourers on lines similar to those of the Christmas Island Phosphate Company.
This organization of the labour brought some semblance of order to the island when the Asians returned to their old jobs reluctantly at first, for they had no idea of the kind of treatment they would receive from the Japanese. Fortunately, the soldiers seldom interfered with the workers and conditions were not nearly as severe as might have been expected. Meanwhile, our party of Europeans was left under close guard and inspec-tions by guards were very frequent.
Food at this early stage was a serious problem for us because we had only a limited supply of rice in our quarters. Our guards, however, listened to our pleas for regular rations and after a time we were given rice and green vegetables each week.
At this time we realized how loyal, good-hearted and generous the ordinary Chinese labourers could be. Often at great risk to themselves they dodged the sentries and left great bundles of vegetables, cakes and other welcome items of food at the rear of our quarters. But the greatest boon of all were the packets of Chinese tobacco and cigarette papers they gave us. These we divided equally among us. Some of the Japanese soldiers also occasionally gave us cigarettes, but the lack of smokes was always a problem.
Our little party was soon split up. Two men were put to work in the quarry at the south end of the island, one went to the power house and one was set to work in the drawing office to assist the chief civil engineer – a singularly nasty character. The remaining members of the party were formed into a wood-cutting squad and each morning, except Sunday, we were marched from our barracks through the labour lines and out to an area three miles from the settlement where the Japanese had decided to fell trees. From nine o’clock in the morning until five o’clock in the afternoon, with a short break for lunch – usually ship’s biscuits and papaya – we felled trees and sawed, split and stacked them ready for delivery to the various European staff houses which had been converted to barracks.
About a month after the occupation by Japanese forces the invasion force commander was replaced by a much older man. He turned out to be a much more amenable person and allowed us more freedom of movement, within certain limits, without an escort. The food situation also improved and we were issued with a small ration of cigarettes each week.
The rations were drawn every Friday from the “Kaisha” store and with the little extras smuggled to us by the Chinese, we were comparatively well off. Altogether, we found that life was considerably more pleasant than we had expected it to be under Japanese prison camp conditions.
Our main worry then, and indeed all throughout our internment, was that we had no opportunity or means of contacting our families to let them know that we were still alive and well. Actually, it was not until September, 1945, that our families at home received word that we were still alive.
After the first two or three weeks of occupation, the Japanese had managed to ship about 1,000 tons of phosphate. As the loading plant had not been repaired and as no ship of any size could moor at the jetties, the rock phosphate had been “bagged” and man-handled by the Chinese labourers into the hold of the Nissa Maru, a 700-ton ship which sailed between Christmas Island and Sourabaya with supplies. The ship was moored along-side one of the jetties and loaded by crane.
The “Kaisha” officials had many difficulties with the shipping of phosphate. Then, to add to the troubles due to the partial demolition of plant and the damage caused by the initial bombardment of the island, the Nissa Maru was torpedoed whilst unloading supplies alongside the jetty. Two torpedoes made direct hits and the ship sank almost immediately. One Malay and four Japanese were killed.
We had a good view of the incident from the top window of our quarters. The Chinese were jubilant and we could see them running from the scene of the torpedoed ship giving the thumbs up sign.
The Japanese ordered us to close the shutters on the window and we were confined to our barracks.
After the loss of the Nissa Maru no more attempts were made to ship phosphate to Japan. The labourers were then employed in repairing, cleaning and painting the plant.
Our party continued cutting wood and arranging to meet our quota of four tons a day. The removal of all this timber was clearing an ever- increasing area of the forest. The sergeant in charge of our party was one of the few Japanese I would like to meet again. He was always very fair to us and, provided we performed the work allocated to us, treated us well. The sergeant had a friend who was a cook at headquarters and, through his light- fingered appropriation of stores, often gave us biscuits or a tin of bully beef. We found it difficult to converse with him because he had no knowledge of English or Malay. But he always managed to give us the current news, which we learnt after the war was reasonably authentic.
Life, however, became very monotonous. We were not allowed out of our barracks after sundown and lights had to be out by eight o’clock. From six o’clock until lights out we usually played cards or held a debate – which would continue until the sentry passed and shouted to us to quieten down.
Although we still received our weekly ration of rice, vegetables were scarce. The commander then allowed us to go into the jungle each Thursday and Sunday to forage and supplement our food supply. There were plenty of robber crabs to be found and each week we brought back a plentiful supply of crab-legs and claws which, when boiled, made splendid eating. The flesh tastes like crayfish. Also, in season, we collected limes, guavas and pomeloes, so our diet was reasonably balanced and we all kept fairly healthy.
By the end of our first year’s internment we were getting on each other’s nerves and quarrels were frequent. Time passed with painful slowness and little troubles were magnified. Our close confinement and the dreadful monotony, together with the feeling of hopeless resignation, had made us all very depressed. There seemed to be no hope at all for our future and our lack of knowledge about what was happening in the world outside the island did not help our state of mind.
We did get scraps of news occasionally from the Chinese and from our Japanese guards, but could place no reliance on these sources. Immediately before our internment the news from Europe had been very gloomy and in our isolated condition our thoughts ran in very pessimistic channels indeed. Our life, however, did have some bright intervals, and conditions could have been much worse. All things considered, the Japanese treated us fairly well and, apart from a few incidents of beatings and bullying, we were left to ourselves.
Early in our internment we had been moved to wooden barracks built from the dismantled “fort” and re-erected near the Chinese quarters. Although these new quarters for a time revived unpleasant memories of the Indian mutiny we were comfortable and had a little more space. Our quarters consisted of two of a group of six huts. The other four were occupied by the Indian soldiers, the Sikh police and watchmen and although we were housed only about 20 feet away we saw little of their inhabitants.
The Chinese and Malay labour force turned out for work each day but apart from maintenance and general cleaning up, there was little work for them. They “bought ” rations each week from the “Kaisha” store and, as most of them had little gardens in which they grew beans, pumpkins and Chinese cabbage to supplement their rice ration, they kept reasonably healthy.
The Japanese method of timekeeping and payment to the Asian labourer was strict. Every morning and afternoon each worker dropped his numbered disc at the time office and withdrew it when the hooter signalled knock-off time. Each man carried a little pass-book in which his wages were entered. At the end of the month he withdrew a certain amount of cash – Japanese “banana” money – and the balance was credited in the pass-book. The amount of money the workers withdrew was regulated by the amount of goods on sale in the “Kaisha” shop. Prices for foodstuff were regulated so that the cash paid in wages just covered the cost rations available – so all the worker had left was the “credit” in his pass-book.
After our party of Europeans had spent some eighteen months cutting our quota of four tons of wood a day a considerable area had been cleared. At the time we did not know that this clearing work one day would be p to good use-that clearing is now the island golf course, so all the toil an sweat, blistered hands, and mosquito bites were worthwhile after all.
In December, 1943, we were told that we would be taken to Java and th following day we were ready to embark on a small ship.
With nearly 300 Chinese, the Indian troops and police and most of the Japanese civilians and soldiers we sailed from Christmas Island for Sourabaya. The small Japanese force left on the island was evacuated August, 1945.
Taken from the publication “Australian Territories” Vol 2., No. 1, January 1962