Category Archives: Changi POW Camp Concert Parties

“They Won’t Let You Go”

By Sears Eldredge

When the first draft of 3000 Australian (“A Force”) troops were sent from Changi to Burma on 14 May, it should have included pianist Jack Boardman along with Major Jim Jacobs and other non-concert party musicians and entertainers.

And I was quite happy about [it] [recalled Boardman] because I was going away with my mates. And then word came that I was to be taken off the draft because we’d started to give those little scratch concerts around. And “Blackjack” had said, “Anybody who’s entertaining is not to go.”

So I went and saw the officer and said, “Can you get me back on the list,” I said, “because I don’t want to be stuck here with a lot of people I don’t know? I want to be with my mates.” Anyway, he came back and he said, “I did my best for you, but,” he said, “they won’t let you go. That’s the end of it.”[i]

During their years of imprisonment in Changi, Commanding Officer, Lt. Colonel “Blackjack” Galleghan would protect the members of his A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party from these overseas drafts. He insisted they be kept in Changi to keep the morale of his troops there high.

Before leaving for Burma, Major Jacobs transferred leadership of the Aussie concert party to Val Mack, who was given a field promotion to Captain to head the entertainment group.

[To learn more about the activities of the Australians sent to Burma and the extraordinary entertainment they produced against overwhelming odds Up Country, read Chapter 3, “Jungle Shows: Burma,” in my online book.]

As “The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party” continued their weekly touring shows in the Selarang Area and Roberts Hospital, “Happy” Harry Smith became famous not only for his pre-war tall stilt and “tit and bum” drag acts, but for taunting his fellow POWs in the best tradition of barracks’ humor with the mournful cry, “You’ll never get off the island!” “No matter how black the news nor how depressing the atmosphere,” Russell Braddon recalled, “Harry Smith . . . had only to turn his long face full at the audience and wail the apparent truism, ‘You’ll never get off the island,’ for complete hilarity to be restored.”[ii]


[i] Boardman, J. Interview, 37.

[ii] Braddon, 177.

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

Changes/Adjustments

By Sears Eldredge

On 3 April, the first party of POWs was sent from Changi to an undisclosed overseas location – perhaps to Saigon.[i] This was also the date on which the Japanese guards manning the checkpoints between the different Areas of Changi were replaced by former Sikh soldiers of the 3rd Indian Corps who had willingly – or unwillingly – become members of the Indian National Army and allies of the Japanese. Relieved of this responsibility, the Japanese soldiers were detailed to patrol inside the huge POW encampment to spot any infractions of the rules or trouble brewing.

When the pestilential bugler is a-bugling, and the
Whistle is a-piping for P.T;
When the Sergeant-Major’s shouting, and the Sikhs are
up and clouting,
Then you know you’re home in Changi by the sea![1]


[1] From “A Prisoner’s Lot Is Not A Happy One” – a parody of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “A Policemen’s Lot Is Not A Happy One.”


[i] Nelson, 20.

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

Touring Within Your Area

By Sears Eldredge

During April, the Australian concert party continued to tour a different show every week to the outdoor stages in the Selarang Barracks Area as well as two matinees to their sick and wounded in Roberts Hospital.

There were separate wards for battle casualties, dysentery, TB, malaria and so on [wrote Jack Boardman]. 

 I remember Happy Harry in his clown outfit on stilts singing and dancing in the dysentery ward. The blokes were really too sick to enjoy it but seemed to appreciate the efforts to entertain them.

In the earliest of these two concerts, I remember two patients who had battle wounds and were skeletal — one called Johnson weighing 42 pounds or three stones, who survived and came home, and his mate almost as gaunt. The smell of gangrene was strong in that ward.[i]

New songs and sketches were mixed in with previously performed materials to keep both the performers and the performances fresh. Boardman remembered one humorous incident that illustrates the hazards of performing on different stage heights:

It was funny, one time before we got our theatre going, one of our venues was around at the convalescent depot . . . And so Keith was doing this skit where little Jackie had played up, and he [Keith as the School Ma’am Teacher] was going to spank him, you see. So he pulled him onto his knees and hit him hearty. But he’d forgotten to put his underpants on — Keith . . . and when he sat down facing the audience with his legs apart, all was revealed. The audience was laughing and laughing. And Keith said, “Gee, I’m going over well tonight.”[ii]

But coming up with new material for a weekly change of program would soon prove to be a huge challenge for the Australian entertainers.


[i] Boardman, J. Letter, 18 August 02.

[ii] Boardman, J. Interview, Typed Notes.

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

Singapore and its Environs — Work Site Concert Parties

By Sears Eldredge

Among the Australian work site concert parties not reported on in Captive Audiences/Captive Performers were the work camps at Adam Park and The Great World Amusement Park.

Adam Park –

“The Tivoli Theatre was an open-air affair,” wrote Adam Boyle, “and accommodation quite good really. The stage was situated in front of two adjoining cement garages at the bottom of a relative steep slope, thus affording a perfect view of proceedings beside providing excellent sound effect.”[i]

The Tivoli Theatre at Adam Park. W. T. Pole.
Courtesy of Mrs. Rae Nixon.

Boyle was one of the volunteers willing to provide entertainment at Adam Park even though they did not get release time to prepare their shows:  

Amateur actors and musicians were called for, and within a week we had quite a versatile group of between 30 and 40 artists.

I enlisted my aid as a banjo-mandolinist, and joined the band each evening for practice. The show was capably managed by [Lt.] George Bransen of the 2/4th MB Batt. The orchestra consisting of about fifteen instruments was conducted by Bert Ford of the 8th Div. Sig, who had been a member of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra before enlisting.

Some of the instruments were wholly manufactured in our camp, mainly from 3-ply and some of the lighter timber from the house furniture. For instance, chair arm-rests made ideal ‘necks’ for guitars and banjos. Strings became a problem for a while, until we found that steel signal wire served the purpose admirably. Later on, we made a machine by which we could bind thin coil wire into D8 signal wire for the heavier D and G Strings of the mandolins and so on.

 A new show would be produced each two weeks and would run for two or three nights. They became so popular that some of the chaps would take their evening meal with them in order to obtain a good seat[ii]

Program cover for “Khaki on Parade” Adam Park, Aug. 1942. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.[1]

Desmond Bettany was a British O.R. in the Royal Artillery. He survived the evacuation at Dunkirk and was posted to the 18th Div. Territorial Army. While a POW in Changi POW Camp and Changi Gaol, Bettany was able to use his skills as an artist by producing numerous concert party program covers, caricatures, and sketches of POW life, which are an invaluable resource.

The Great World

The Great World had been one of several popular amusement parks in Singapore prior to the war. It was here that a work force of Australians from the 2/30th Battalion were quartered. Their earliest concert – just a two-person show – took place soon after their arrival.[iii] 

And with the resources of abandoned open-air cinemas and small theatres that had operated as part of the amusement park prior to the war readily available, “The Great World Concert Party” soon developed more elaborate variety shows for presentation every Saturday night. And Gunner David was there to appreciate the additional theatrical elements: “it is wonderful where all the clothes and props have come from, even evening dress suits, a woman’s wig and clothing.”[iv] The Great World company had no problem finding soldiers willing to be female impersonators, and at the close of one show, “a banana for each of the ‘ladies’ was handed up from the audience and one ‘lady’ came forward to thank the audience for their applause.”[2][v]

Removal of POW workers from Changi to Singapore and its environs continued throughout March and into May greatly reducing the number of able-bodied men available to perform the necessary daily tasks in Changi.


[1] After liberation, he returned to England, got married, and he and his wife eventually emigrated to Australia. The Bettany Family have been extraordinarily generous in granting permission to use Desmond Bettany’s artwork in this series of blogs. Please see http://changipowart.com for more images and information.

[2] One can easily imagine the comic possibilities in those bananas and those “thanks”!


[i] Boyle, 33-34.

[ii] Boyle, 33-34.

[iii] David, 20.

[iv] David, 36.

[v] David, 37.

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

Wired In

By Sears Eldredge

At first, it had been easy to move from one area of Changi to another without interference as there were no I. J. A. guards on patrol inside the camp or barriers set up between the different Areas, but on 6 March the Japanese, concerned about this easy intercourse among the military units, issued two orders to gain some control over this situation. One was that a daily Roll Call would now be conducted in each Area. The other, was, to say the least, extraordinary: each Area was to wire itself in. Work commenced on 7 March and was completed on the 13th. Japanese guards now manned checkpoints between the camps. Movement from one area to another was still possible, but strictly controlled. For an individual, approval had to be sought first, and then an officer carrying a “flag”—a white piece of cloth with Japanese characters on it—had to accompany the person. At some checkpoints, an officer with a flag walked back and forth providing “ferry services.”[i]


[i] Nelson, 15.

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

Early Days

By Sears Eldredge

As the A.I.F. concert party got reestablished, each unit within the Selarang Area was ordered to provide a platform stage for the entertainers. The entertainers had to improvise everything else they needed to put on a show, including settings, costumes, and props. Australian POW S. Kent Hughes described this situation in his epic poem of their lives as prisoners, Slaves of the Samurai:

Performing in the sunset’s after-glow

In convalescent trousers, royal blue,

A nearly clean white shirt, a hat or two,

A waistband black, and one or two stage props,

With only palm tree fronds for scenic drops.[i]

“Concert Party, Changi, 1942.” Oil painting by Murray Griffin. AWM 39710.

Murray Griffin’s painting of the “AIF Malayan Concert Party” in its’ early days on tour around the Selarang Barracks area depicts the scene Hughes described in his poem. Griffin had been sent with the Australian 8th Division to Malaya as a war artist not knowing that he would have three and a half years as a POW in which he would produce an extraordinary collection of sketches and paintings documenting the lives of the Australian soldiers in Changi POW Camp. Later, when the Concert Party moved into permanent quarters, his artistry would also be employed in designing sets for their shows.

Musical instruments, Jacobs wrote “were hard to get, and we got no assistance from the Japs, but it was surprising what we found tucked away in the men’s kits. We finished up with a portable organ, several trumpets and cornets, violins, clarinets, a banjo, and two piano accordions.”[ii]

Oswald “Jack” Boardman. Courtesy of Jack Boardman.

It was Oswald “Jack” Boardman, a slender, dark-haired, unassuming young soldier everyone knew as “Boardie,” who played the small portable pump organ (harmonium) “like he had been born with it.”[iii] The harmonium achieved a kind of mythic stature within the A. I. F. camp during this early period of their captivity:

           The centerpiece — an organ frail, whose frame

            From week to week was never quite the same,

            As wire and slats were added to prevent

            Disintegration of the instrument — . . .

            In Changi camp it reached its greatest height

            Of popularity and sheer delight . . .

            No singer in the street, no country priest,

            Would guess that in a prison camp — Far East —

            A rickety and old harmonium

            Could cause such happy pandemonium.[iv]

George Sprod was not quite so sure that it was a “happy pandemonium.” He thought the soulful accompaniment of the harmonium made it difficult for the performers to do their best.

Such music as they were able to conjure up came from an ancient harmonium, the church strains of which had an inhibiting effect, it must be said, on the ebullience and sparkle of the song and dance men. I mean, you can’t do much in the way of light-hearted cavorting to an instrument that at any time seems likely to break into ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ or ‘Tell me the Old, Old Story’.[v]


[i] Hughes, 93.

[ii] Jacobs, 16.

[iii] De Grey, 30.

[iv] Hughes, 95.

[v] Sprod, Bamboo, 62.

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

The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party

By Sears Eldredge

The A.I.F. 9th Division was quartered in the sprawling Selarang Barracks Area in Changi which before the war had been home to the Gordon Highlanders. When Jim Jacobs, the concert party’s O/ic, and Lieutenant Val Mack, his assistant, searched among the surviving Australian POWs for former concert party members, they found that, “the whole of the previous [pre-war] A. I. F. Concert Party was still available. These men formed the nucleus of the new party, and to them we added many new performers whom we discovered in the camp.”[i]

Their female impersonators would be tap-dancing “Judy” Garland, and singers, Ted Druitt, Charlie Wiggins, and John Wood. According to Jack Boardman, neither Druitt nor Wiggins “made up to what you would term an attractive female; Ted was too tall. Charlie did good impersonations of some film identities, such as Zazu Pitts.”[ii] John Wood would play the important “glamour” roles.

To help them become more believable, female impersonators were given permission to let their hair grow long; they took it upon themselves to shave their chests and legs.

Cartoon by George Sprod. Courtesy of Michael Sprod.

George Sprod, the irreverent Aussie cartoonist of Changi POW life, drew a cartoon illustrating what happened when one of these female impersonators strolled around the camp. If at first these female impersonators were objects of amusement or harassment, those who played the “glamour” roles convincingly, very quickly became substitute objects of desire.  


[i] Jacobs, 16.

[ii] Boardman, J. “Notes on Val Mack.”

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

“Changi by the Sea”

The Concert Parties in Changi POW Camp, Singapore, Feb.  ‘42—May ‘44

By Sears Eldredge


Dedicated to Oswald “Jack” Boardman[2]

With his peerless musical ability Jackie Boardman brought great happiness to hundreds of prisoners of war for the total time of their long captivity, yet he never sought headline billing. He was quite happy to accompany those of lesser ability, but he deserves to be rated as the brightest star of some legendary luminaries.

–Gus Baker. “Legacy Spotlight”[i]  

Introduction

This new blog series assumes that the reader is familiar with Chapter 1 (“In The Bag”) of my free online book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers,[3] which details how the defeated British, Australian and Volunteer troops in Changi POW Camp, Singapore, quickly reestablished their pre-war concert parties, or created new ones, to alleviate the boredom of POW life and to keep hope alive.

What readers will discover is that concert parties in Changi proliferated so much during the first year and a half of captivity, that it came to resemble Broadway, or London’s West End, with all its entertainment venues. The professional and amateur musicians and theatrical performers active in Changi numbered in the hundreds with more POWs behind the scenes in construction, technical, and design work. Changi was not the worst place to be.

Indeed, the POWs who were sent Up Country to Burma and Thailand to work on the Thailand-Burma railway looked back wistfully on their time in Changi as in a holiday camp. Not counting the first few months as prisoners, or the last year and a half, the POWs’ living conditions during the intervening years were bearable—food was never plentiful (when the meat rations ran out, they were given fish), but they had running water (for at least two hours a day), electricity, gardens provided fresh produce (although a limited variety), and daily rations of rice. Though there are many reports that they were “always hungry,”[ii] their lives were not filled with sickness, brutality, and starvation as it was for POWs elsewhere.

Following the departure of the all-Australian “A Force” to Burma in May, 1942, there is little mention in Chapter 1 of the accomplishments of the “A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party”[4] which remained in Changi, because the focus is on those POW musicians and theatrical entertainers who were sent up to the Thailand side of the railway construction.

This new series of blogs will first recover the unreported story of the Australian entertainers in Changi—going back before May 1942, if necessary, to mention events left out of my book. But once that’s been done, it will tell as complete a story as possible of the extraordinary entertainment that took place in Changi—up to the point when the POWs are removed to Changi Gaol in the spring of 1944. A future blog will detail the story of the last year and a half of POW entertainment in the Gaol.

This will be the most comprehensive history of the POW entertainment in Changi POW Camp and Changi Gaol ever attempted.


[Title: “Changi by the Sea”] From “A prisoner’s lot is not a happy one”—a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “A policeman’s lot is not a happy one”—sung in a camp show.

[2] Jack Boardman, who was the pianist/musical arranger for the A.I.F. Concert Party, provided me with voluminous invaluable materials on their activities in Changi POW Camp and Gaol.    

[3] http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/captiveaudiences/

[4] This had been the original name of the A.I.F.’s 9th Divisional concert party (see previous blogs on pre-war concert parties).


[i] Baker, Gus. “The Legacy Spotlight,” Sydney, 2003, p. 2.

[ii] Wilkinson. Diary. 5 Feb. ‘44.

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