Tag Archives: Changi

Two New Concert Parties

By Sears Eldredge

The 18th Div. Dramatic Society was given the N.A.A.F.I. building as requested and they set right to work making the necessary structural improvements.[i] They would christen this new space “The “New Windmill Theatre.”[1] 

Locating a suitable play from the scripts available in Changi’s libraries had proven more difficult, but A. A. Milne’s 1923 “absurd comedy,” The Dover Road, was finally selected.[ii]  After their first rehearsal in the N.A.A.F.I., Wilkinson thought the show would go off well. And then reality set it: “Webb and his 39 men went off this afternoon. I wonder if we shall ever see them again.”[iii] July 10 . . . 

. . . was a full dress rehearsal with an audience of about 50. It consisted of all the people who have done so much to get the theatre and the show ready, e.g., Sappers, Scenery Artists, Electricians and so on. It went well and we had all the props, food, etc. The “Kippers” have been most realistically made by the cook at “A Mess”, Div. H.Q.[iv]

During the month, another new Entertainment Unit appeared in the 18th Div. Area with a modern dress production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar performed in St. George’s Church, a converted mosque, situated next to the Officers’ Barracks. It was produced by Alan Dant with costumes and settings by Ronald Searle, one of the Royal Engineers in their midst. 

Searle, who would gain enormous fame after the war for his satirical cartoons of British life, became a costume and set designer for several concert parties in Changi.[2] His design concept for Julius Caesar was heavily influenced by Orson Welles’ sensational 1937 modern dress adaptation of the play in New York which interpreted the play as the rise of Fascism. Searle’s set designs for the first part of the play show a fixed set of arches and how they could be employed for either interior or exterior settings.

The Dover Road

11 July was the opening night of The Dover Road performed by “The New Windmill Players” at their new indoor theatre. The scratch orchestra quickly put together to play pre-show and interval music, became known as “The Nitwits.” It was led by Jack Greenwood, who had been a professional trumpet player in civvy street, and recently arrived from Java with a detachment of British POWs. With him came an American POW, the “angelical pianist,” Jack Cooper. Eric Bamber, a British O.R., joined these musicians as their drummer.[v]

In the audience for opening night was D. S. Cave, who was amazed at the renovations which had taken place in the old N.A.A.F.I building:

The Windmill . . . has been converted into a small theatre by the addition of tiered seats. Owing to a shortage of cut wood the rear and higher seats have no floor and patrons sit like pillar saints, high above the floor. The curtains bear a painting of a Malay girl in an abbreviated sarong and a smile, and a Chinese girl playing a lute without even a smile. Round the walls are some neat cartoons. One shows Mr. and Mrs. Blimp holding aloft shooting sticks flying the Union Jack, captioned ‘Remember you are British; sit still as the siren sounds’. Another depicts an army field urinal with an arrow pointing outside. This is matched by one showing a matron guarding a door marked ‘Ladies’ and an arrow pointing to the heavens.”[3][vi]

And contrary to expectations, they had lights! – the POWs had been able to build a small power station which provided the needed electricity.[vii] But there was no set per se for the show, only a backdrop, a window frame suspended in air, and some furniture that had been scrounged or made in the camp. To overcome for this difficulty, a character called “Prologue” verbally set the stage for the audience.[viii]      

The opening night had been planned as a gala event with an invited audience: “The G.O.C. (General Beckwith-Smith) was in attendance as it was a special programme for his birthday,” noted Wilkinson. “There was a large audience of invited guests, consisting of all Unit Commanders, Senior Officers of the Division and representatives of O.R.s . . . The G.O.C. made a speech at the end and the whole thing had a real first night atmosphere. The show went well.”[ix]

With the success of their first offering, “The New Windmill Players” immediately made plans for their second. The Dover Road was scheduled to run until 14 August by which time all the troops in the 18th Division would have seen the show as well as patrons from other Areas.

Casting Crisis

But on 20 July the Players had a casting crisis on their hands when the I.J.A. confirmed the rumor that had been circulating in the camp. With thousands of POWs on their hands in Changi and Singapore and relatively few I.J.A. or I.N.A. forces to guard them, the Japanese greatly feared that a breakout might be organized. To prevent such a possibility, all the Senior Officers above the rank of Lt. Colonel were ordered removed from Changi and sent overseas, supposedly to Japan. They were to leave on 21 July – the next day. It was, in Wilkinson’s words, “the greatest blow we have had since we surrendered.”[x] With Lt. Col. Dillon and Archie Beavan (members of the cast) scheduled to go with them, it would end the run of The Dover Road unless understudies could be quickly found. They were. Cpl. Oliver Thomas (formerly of “The Optimists”) and Capt. Tunbridge, were given four days to learn their lines before they had to go on stage.[xi] Capt. Wilkinson took over as producer-director of the fledgling company.

That evening, General Percival was in the audience as the guest of honor, and he came with all of his Malayan Command Staff along with General Beckwith-Smith[4] and the Australian G.O.C.[xii] This performance was supposed to be their farewell concert. But the 21st came and the officers’ departure did not happen. It was postponed until the end of the month.

On 30 July, the “St. George’s Players” opened their second Shakespearean production, Macbeth, produced again by Alan Dant with sets and costumes again by Ronald Searle. It would tour to four different venues within the 18th Division.


[1] The “Windmill” in the titles referred not only to the “flash” of the East Anglian 18th Territorial Division, but may also refer to the well-known London theatre of the same name.

[2] . In Searle’s IWM Art folders are costume and set designs for Julius Caesar. Unfortunately, these were not made available for this blog.

[3] It was Ronald Searle (and, most likely, Derek Cooper) who had painted the murals.

[4] 18th Division G.O.C.


[i] Wilkinson. Diary. 11 June ’42.

[ii] Wilkinson. Diary. 15 June ‘42

[iii] Wilkinson. Diary. 18 June ’42.

[iv] Wilkinson. Diary. 10 July ’42.

[v] Bamber, IWM Interview, Reel #5.

[vi] Cave, 9.

[vii] Cave, 9.

[viii] Bamber, IWM Interview, Reel #5.

[ix] Wilkinson. Diary. 11 July ‘42.

[x] Wilkinson. Diary. 17 July 42.

[xi] Thomas, Fax, 31 March 01.

[xii] Wilkinson. Diary. 17 July ’42.

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 Carries On

By Sears Eldredge

Even with the reduction in camp numbers caused by the deployment of troops to Singapore, Up Country, and other overseas locations, concert parties continued to flourish all over Changi. When the “A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party” opened their next major Variety Show in the Gordon’s Gymnasium, the highlight was John Wood in a solo drag act singing “Flora MacDonald,” a song made famous by the British female impersonator, Douglas Byng.

John Wood as “Flora MacDonald.” Cartoon by A. E. G. West.
Courtesy of Jack Boardman.

According to Jack Boardman, who was sitting in the orchestra pit, 

John Wood was dressed in full tartan rig including cap and sang a song . . . “Many’s the time I’ve been out in the heather, behind the bracken with young Charlie Stu” . . . dialogue mid-way through details how Bonny Prince Charlie was shacked up with her on the Scottish moors hiding from the Sassenachs and used to work in the field by day. He was particularly fond of porridge and would return home at night to the shack, saying, “Flora, Flora, I must have it now (ha’e it noo).” Flora would say, “Bonne Prince Charlie, get ye to bed. You’ll have your oats in bed and not before.”[i]     


[i] Boardman, J. “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

Further Troop Deployments

By Sears Eldredge

During July, the further removal of POWs from Changi to overseas worksites continued as the Japanese mined the enormous supply of free labor for construction projects in support of their war effort. The 2nd of July saw 1,500 Australians (“B” Force) ship out of Changi for Sandakan in North Borneo to build an airfield.[1] Among them were Captains Claude Pickford and John Rowell, and Lieutenants “Tod” Walker, Bill Peck, and George Forbes. These officers will become responsible for producing an astonishing series of choir concerts, original musicals, and plays under the most adverse conditions in their camps at Sandakan and later, when they, along with other officers and batmen, were separated from their Unit and sent to the Australian Officers’ Camp at Batu Lintang outside Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. They were the lucky ones. Before the war was over, those left behind at Sandakan would undergo a series of death marches that would kill all but six of them.

[For more on these men and the entertainments they produced, read the forthcoming blog on Borneo.]


[1] This was 2/10th Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery under the command of Lt. Col. Walsh.

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 18th Division Players

By Sears Eldredge

In response to the success of Malayan Command’s Arms and the Man (and perhaps a little sense of rivalry), 18th Div. H.Q. requested that Capt. Charles Wilkinson of the Northumberland Fusiliers, form a Dramatic Society.[1][i] Canvasing the 18th Division Area for an indoor location, the Entertainment Committee found a N.A.A.F.I.[2] building with a stage that, if it could be acquired, could be easily remodeled to fit their purposes.   

The N.A.A.F.I. building in the India Lines, Changi, Singapore.
Photograph by Capt. Charles Wilkinson.

Over in the Selarang Area, “The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party” had also located a potential indoor venue – the former gymnasium of the Gordon Highlanders – where they could perform additional shows. Here they could hold their audience’s attention for a longer period of time – fifty minutes rather than their half-hour tour shows. So, they put everyone and everything they could muster on stage—songs, instrumentalists, comedy sketches, a magic act, and a ballroom dance number, as well as the ventriloquist, Tom Hussey, with “Joey,” his dummy—for Sing As We Go, their first show in this new indoor locale.

Highlights of their next show, Cheerio, included a telepathy act with Syd Piddington and Russell Braddon that would become one of their great concert party acts,[3] and a piano duet by Herb Almond and Fred Stringer.                 

How these two pianos were “acquired” are intriguing stories. One piano – an upright – had been obtained without the Japanese knowing about it.

One night, some months later, a party of engineers, led by Sergeant Keith Stevens of the 2/12 Field Company, making use of one of the gaps in the fence, made their way stealthily to an unused building in the former British naval base, in which a piano had been discovered. Without anyone’s authority they took possession of the heavy Robinson upright and carried it through the scrub and swamps back to the camp, a distance of about two kilometres. This was a daring and highly dangerous exercise, for if the lads had been discovered outside the wire they probably would have been treated as escapees; and the usual penalty for attempting to escape was death.[4][ii] 

“The Piano.” Cartoon by George Sprod. Courtesy of Michael Sprod.

The other piano – a grand – was actually acquired with the help of the Japanese. Some Australians on a day-long working party cleaning up the debris at Raffles College of Singapore University found it. As Boardman tells the story,

Not a full size grand, but one of the intermediate sizes. And they said to the Japs, “Can we take it back?” And they couldn’t care less, you see. So to get it on the truck they had to take the legs off, and the pedal. And, of course, when you see a baby grand without those things, it’s just a flat box.

So they put it in there. And then some of them sat on it on the way back. And they came back, and they said, “Boardie, try this out!” And in front of the theatre was all cement. And to play it I had to kneel down. Somehow, they got the Cantonese to build some legs on it and put on its pedals — and we had two pianos then.[iii]


[1] Wilkinson was passionate about theatre and his diary recording the planning of shows, their rehearsals and performances, as well as his attendance at other productions, has been a godsend.

[2] Navy, Army, Air Force Institute. An education and recreation center.

[3] Piddington and his wife would continue this mind-reading act to great acclaim after the war.

[4] This is the treasured upright piano that the concert party would bring back with them to Australia after they had been liberated and now resides at the Australian War Memorial.


[i] Wilkinson, Diary, 3 June ‘42.

[ii] Boardman, J. “The Changi Piano – and the Little Organ – The True Story,” Legacy Torchlight, 8.

[iii] Boardman, J. Interview, 25.

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 Temple Players

By Sears Eldredge

Arms and the Man

On May 28, a new entertainment group, “The Temple Players,” appeared in the Command Area to give their first performance in the 11th H.Q. Division at Temple Hill. The Players, composed entirely of officers, chose George Bernard Shaw’s full-length play, Arms and the Man, for their debut. This would be the first time a straight play had been attempted in Changi. It had quirky characters, an absurd plot, and scintillating dialogue barbed with typical Shavian wit. But, given the circumstances, it was also a provocative choice. In the words of one critic, Shaw’s play was a “comedy that mocked war, propaganda, lies, and false heroism.”[i] Arms and the Man would engage audiences in a way that the Variety Shows and Revues did not, and it proved to be hugely popular with the POWs.

Programme cover for Arms and the Man. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

Unfortunately, the opening night’s performance in their open-air theatre was rained out, and had to be postponed until the following day. And the performance that Australian S.M.O.[1] Albert Coates saw on the 31st also got rained out in a fierce storm: “Near the end rain stopped the play and we made for camp. We were soaked in a minute, blue with cold, wind blowing branches off trees off right and left, nearest approach to hurricane I’ve seen.”[ii] With the coming rainy season, foreshadowed by drenching tropical squalls (deemed “Sumatras”), there was now a determined effort by the Divisional Concert Parties to acquire indoor performance spaces. Indoor theatres would allow them to do more than keep the rain off themselves and their audiences; they would increase the performers’ abilities to project their voices so they could be heard more easily. And, as electricity was slowly being restored to the different Areas of Changi, lighting effects, combined with scenery, would greatly enhance a show’s effectiveness. Most of all it would give the theatrical producers an opportunity to create the atmosphere of attending a real theatre back home. Unfortunately, these indoor spaces would also limit the size of audiences.


[1] Senior Medical Officer.


[i] Weintraub, “Introduction,” xix.

[ii] Coates, 7.

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

“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

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