Tag Archives: Death Camps of the River Kwai

Christmas, 1942

By Sears Eldredge

In his memoir, Death Camps of the River Kwai, Thomas Pounder writes of their first Christmas in Changi:

Our first Christmas as prisoners of war was very near and naturally out thoughts were of our families at home. How were things going with them? None of us had heard anything or had any letters from home for over twelve months. Was the bombing still as bad? How many of us would return after the war only to find a heap of rubble where once stood our homes? Worse still, to find members of our families had fallen victims to the Luftwaffe. As our thoughts went out to them, so we hoped and felt certain that they too would be thinking of us at this time.[i]

To relieve the anxiety and homesickness, POW cooks, as well as entertainers, tried to prepare something extra special for the holiday celebrations. A petition had been made to the Japanese to allow the POWs to make and deliver toys for the European children interned with the adults in Changi Gaol. The Japanese agreed and POWs in both the 18th Div. and in the A.I.F. set right to work.[ii]  

Christmas Carolers.  George Sprod.
Courtesy of Michael Sprod

On Christmas Eve on the padang in the 18th Div. Area, Padre Foster-Haigh’s Choir, even with the singers missing who had been sent Up Country, presented their Christmas concert, including excerpts from Handel’s Messiah.[iii] It’s probable that Ken Scovell’s newly composed “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” for Male Chorus was sung at this time as well (to listen to this piece, click on the button below). [1]

“Gloria in Excelsis Deo” for Male Chorus by K T Scovell

At the Con Depot in Selarang, the main hall, which had previously been used for performances (their Little Theatre), was now occupied with returned working parties as well as hospital patients, so McNeilly and Hanger dismantled the stage, took it outside, and rebuilt it as an open-air theatre.

Together with flood lights. I think it impossible to have a more magnificent setting amongst the trees and gardens of the Y M Rest gardens. We hung red and blue curtains at the back and heaped up bowls of flowers at the side. The lights shining on these gave the desired effect. Hundreds of men sitting on the lawn and seats in the gardens listening to the Xmas Carols and stories of Xmas.[iv]

There was another concert on Christmas night. “At 20.30 hrs. a large open air concert was held on the hockey ground [wrote Wilkinson]. Horner was compère and the dance band did stout work. It was again floodlight and there was a very large audience.”[v] But the celebration was almost ruined by two Javanese troops caught trying to steal the last of their precious chickens. They were given a good beating, sending one to hospital.[vi] On the evening of Boxing Day (26 December), Wilkinson went with friends to a show by POWs from Java in The Kokonut Grove, a new open-air theatre in the 18th Div. Area.[vii]

This was the show in which Medical Orderly Idris Barwick “attempted an effeminate part” as a member of the chorus line, “The Beri Beri Girls”: 

We winked and “cooed” at the officers showing them our very masculine knees with very suggestive eye rolling and jerking our heads. The men behind started cat calling, “How about looking our way,” etc., then just as we were dancing off (I was the last to leave) my brassiere worked loose and slid down to my waist and the stuffing fell out. The lads went crazy shouting all kinds of remarks and suggestions.[viii]


[1] This electronic realization of Scovell’s Gloria is by Chris Latham, artist-in-residence at the AWM. He has been commissioned to write a series of requiems to honor the soldiers who fought in the war. 


[i] Pounder, 54.

[ii] Wilkinson. Diary. 21 Dec. ’42.

[iii] Wilkinson. Diary. 24 Dec., ‘42; Inglefield, 32.

[iv] McNeilly, Misc. documents. n.p.

[v] Wilkinson. Diary. 25 Dec. ’42.

[vi] Wilkinson. Diary. 25 Dec. ’42.

[vii] Wilkinson. Diary. 26 Dec. ’42.

[viii] Barwick, 31.

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