“The Selarang Incident”

By Sears Eldredge

With the Senior Officers now out of the way, the Japanese precipitated a crisis of their own between 2-5 September that would test the resolve of those remaining in Changi. It became known as “the Selarang Incident” when all the POWs in Changi, except those in hospital, were ordered to assemble in Selarang Barracks Square (more fully reported on in Chapter 1 of my online book). Once there, they were told that each soldier had to sign a form swearing that he would not attempt to escape. Their officers refused.

In order to keep everyone’s spirits’ up on their second day in Selarang Square, Lt. Col. Galleghan, the Australian C.O., ordered his concert party to perform. “So we built a platform,” said Piddington, “out of bits of wood and things and we put on this concert to the largest audience we ever played to, 15,400. They couldn’t get away!”[i] They opened with their standard Opening Chorus (only the beginning verse is given here):

Let us all be merry and bright.

Turn on the light,

And we’ll soon put you right.

Smiling faces,

That’s all you’ll see.

So come with us to the land of jollity.[ii]

Aussie Russell Braddon remembered that “when the concert ended Black Jack ordered the most magnificent gesture of defiance of that whole defiant incident. ‘Sing ‘The King,’ he bellowed. And at once the square, teeming with the prisoners of Japan, thundered as seventeen thousand voices sang the British National Anthem.”[iii] The singing of national anthems had been banned by the Japanese in late spring but they got away with it here.

But it wasn’t only “The King” that was sung. The POWs went on to sing “Land of Hope and Glory,” “There’ll always be an England,” “The Yanks are Coming,” and “Waltzing Matilda,” as well.[iv] 

On 5 September, the impasse was resolved and that night the Southern Area Concert Party put on a big show to celebrate.[1]

[1] See my Chapter 1 for a more detailed explanation. Were there really two shows in Selarang or only one, differently remembered?

[i] Nelson, Prisoners, quoting Piddington, 31.

[ii] Boardman, J. “Notes.”

[iii] Braddon, 86.

[iv] Nelson, 43.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

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