Tag Archives: Rice and Shine

“The Cathay Players”

By Sears Eldredge

Anticipating the return of the remainder of “H” Force in late 1943, Ronald Horner was posted from Changi to Sime Road to encourage entertainments and to be their Officer in Charge. On 9 December, he wrote: “Am in charge of entertainments here, so far can’t get hold of a piano, but we have an open-air theatre that needs patching up, but has a natural auditorium of a grass bank that will hold 3 or 4,000.”[i]

Caricature of Ronald Horner. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.
View more of Desmond Bettany’s artwork at: www.changipowart.com

After what they had been through Up Country, the POWs at Sime Road were eager to purge their memories of that experience and release their energies in more positive activity, so Horner was able to quickly established a small concert party, “The Cathay Players,” and started to produce shows. Unfortunately, it was the rainy season, so shows were frequently rained out.[ii] But the weather cleared for Christmas and Horner noted that their holiday show “was a great success” with an audience of about 1,500 in attendance.[iii]  

Among the musicians and theatre performers at Sime Road was the artist, Ronald Searle, who recorded the playbill for a Variety Show that went up on January 9th. This document tells us who those first performers in the “Cathay Concert Party” were. The show opened with the “Attap Serenaders,” followed by the comedian Charlie ‘Arvey. Then came Bill Williams as a “personality vocalist” followed by the Dutch Illusionist, Trouvat. Next on the playbill came the blackface comic duo Long and Whelan, followed by the Australian cartoonist George Sprod singing, and closing with Australian “Professor” Alan Roberts.[iv]

Royal Air Force O.R. John Beckerley, who had been captured on Java, became good friends with Alan Roberts at Sime Road.

Alan Roberts: university lecturer and known by all as The Prof! Very small, you could tap him on the head when he got cross: most of the time. He was most intellectual and most scathing with those who were not: like most of us. I had a long face, [and] a disciplinarian—an Army Provost Marshal Major—also had a long face.  Known as Desperate Dan he also had a foot wide ginger moustache.  Alan Roberts wrote a funny sketch where I as a female fortuneteller complete with large glass ball telling his fortune: how he’s going to get his hands on the good goodies stored wherever. ‘Much fiddling’, I say to Alan’s delight. “Just what I want to hear,” says Alan. “How do I get my hands on it?” LIGHTS GO OUT. . . THEN ON. I’m standing before him complete with a foot wide ginger moustache. Alan, “Good God, Desperate Dan!” The major was not a friendly man . . . standing ovation for me.[v]

    “Desperate Dan”
Caricature of Alec Morris Dann.
Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.
View more of Desmond Bettany’s artwork at: www.changipowart.com

The next week, the Variety Show showcased Trouvat with a 20-minute hypnotism act. Thereafter, the concert party began to produce weekly shows on Saturday nights.

Also at Sime Road was a Dutch/Indonesian café called “The Flying Dutchman” in Hut #4 where you could buy coffee and Indonesian finger foods. Here is where Ronald Searle displayed his posters for shows as well as his costume designs and set renderings.[vi]

By 17 January, the concert party had acquired a piano but they still needed a curtain. And they had grown in number to the point where multiple shows were in rehearsal simultaneously. Horner reports, “I’m producing ‘Cinderella and the Magic Soya Bean,’ we also have Shaw’s ‘Man of Destiny’ and Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ in rehearsal as well as ideas for a ‘Ragbag Revue’ . . . Jap interpreter has asked for words and music of my ‘When we’re free’ song—as I haven’t yet sung it here, I wonder how he’s got to hear it.”[vii]

On the 24th, there was a piano recital by Bill Williams, which greatly impressed Australian POW James Boyle:

With us at Sime road was Bill Williams — a sergeant in the RAF and a man in a million. He too could keep the interest of his audience from his first number to the last, and seemed capable of catering for all tastes. Bill’s programs usually consisted of popular songs for which he played his own piano arrangements, interspersed with a dash of light classical.[viii]

On 27 January, Horner, pleased with what he had accomplished in way of entertainment, wrote, “The Sat. night variety shows are going with a great bang, we have about 2,000 [in attendance] each time. Sang ‘When we’re Free’ tonight and got the audience to join in.”[ix] Surprisingly enough, the Japanese interpreter who had been given the lyrics had not had the song banned.


[i] Horner, 115.

[ii] Horner, Ibid.

[iii] Horner, Ibid.

[iv] Searle, R. “Notebook,” n.p.

[v] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 04.

[vi] Nielsen, Mrs. Jane Booker. Email 6/18/2015.

[vii] Horner, R. 118.

[viii] Boyle, 146-147.

[ix] Horner, 118.

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

Sime Road Camp

By Sears Eldredge

1943:

It was December, 1943, when the Australian, British and Dutch/Indonesian POWs in “H” Force returned to Singapore from Up Country. Because of a housing shortage in Changi, most of these POWs were shuttled to Sime Road Camp. A fellow officer told Lt.-Col. Reginald Burton not to worry about this location: “It was a camp in the open country part of Singapore Island, next to a golf course. It was hutted camp,[1] with showers, lights, proper roads. It sounded like a paradise to me.”[i]

Backstory: 1941-42

Before the war, Sime Road Camp, on the outskirts of Singapore, had been the Headquarters of the British Royal Air Force and then, in early December 1941, it became the Combined Army and Air Force Operations Headquarters Malaya Command—General Percival’s H.Q. –during the brief battles for Malaya and Singapore.

After surrender, Sime Road became an Australian and British POW camp with British officer, Lt.-Col. Philip Toosey, in charge. At some point, a concert party was formed and an outdoor theatre, dubbed the “New Cathay Theatre” was built. The opening performance was on Christmas, 1942.

Program cover for New Cathay Theatre. William Wilder.
Courtesy Anthony Wilder.

Very little is known about the performers or the shows, and the only observation on their content is from Lt. Stephan Alexander: “Our new electricity supply was used to light camp concerts, at which the Aussies proved particularly uninhibited. (“Do you really love me, dear, or is that your revolver I can feel?”)”[2][ii] In early October, 1942, the POWs at Sime Road were sent Up Country to build two bridges over the River Kwai at Tamarkan in Thailand.


[1] Meaning there were wooden buildings.

[2] A direct steal from the American stage and screen star, Mae West.


[i] Burton, 130.

[ii] Alexander, 91.

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

Shocking Events

By Sears Eldredge

On 28 and 29 April, the remainder of “H” and “F” Forces who had been in hospital Up Country arrived back in Singapore “looking tired and dirty after their long train journey.”[i] Some were in such poor shape at the start of the rail journey that they did not make it and were buried beside the tracks enroute.[ii] 

On the 29th, the POWs in Changi got word that they would be moving soon—to the Gaol. The civilian men, women, and children who had been interned in the Gaol since the surrender of Singapore, were moving to Sime Road Camp outside the city. “Heavy sick” British and Australian cases in Roberts Hospital would be sent to a new hospital at Kranji in the northern part of the island, while “light sick” patients would go to a small hospital being established outside Changi Gaol. With all these changes, it appears the production of Macbeth was cancelled.

Playbill for May ’44. On 1 May, the murder-mystery, Suspect, opened at the Little Theatre, which Huxtable thought “a very good drama indeed.”[1][iii] On 6 May there was a concert with Denis East (violin), Cyril Wycherley (piano) and Doug Peart (tenor), followed by one on 13 May 1944 by the A.I.F. Orchestra. These concerts were meant to lower the POWs’ anxieties about their upcoming move. For Australian Stan Arneil, it was, “[a] glorious night of music . . . It is so easy, via music, to fly back home, that the jolt of returning to hard facts is softened by the memory of a good night’s music.[iv] That same night Leslie Buckley’s musical comedy, I’ll Take You: A Musical Review produced by John Wood, opened at the A.I.F. Theatre. In light of everyone moving elsewhere, the title was significant. No one would be left behind.

This would be the last show produced in Changi POW Camp.

I’ll Take You

Removal of the POWs to Changi Gaol and its immediate environs, and to Kranji, commenced in early May. By the 14th, Wilkinson observed, “Theatres and churches all knocked down in this area [Area 1] ready to be transferred [to Gaol]. More officers and men moved to Jail today. Weather exceptionally hot.”[v] Looking at all the commotion around him, Murray Griffin wrote, “Can you imagine the work involved in moving some ten thousand people with their furniture and belongings, their hospitals, workshops, churches, theatres — and all by manpower.”[vi]

On 31st May, 1944, Stan Arneil wrote in his diary:

Today we, so far, will be moving to the gaol. It is a simply glorious morning and the Straits of Singapore look all the more delightful for the fact that we are leaving them.[vii]


Author note:

It’s not possible to follow the POWs directly from Changi POW Camp to Changi Gaol without first checking out the entertainment activity in Sime Road Camp, as many of the prominent musical and theatrical producers and entertainers in the Gaol come from this camp.

RICE AND SHINE WILL CONTINUE IN OUR UPCOMING “SIME ROAD CAMP” BLOG SERIES.


[1] He went on to note that “A young Lieutenant, John White (British Army)—who had been the Princess in Aladdin—was one of the female impersonators: a few weeks later his sore lips and mouth extended suddenly to the throat and he died within a few days.” Huxtable, Diary, 154.


[i] Nelson, 135.

[ii] G’s Greyhounds, 334-335]

[iii] Huxtable, 153.

[iv] Arneil, 13 May ’44.

[v] Wilkinson, Diary. 14 May ’44.

[vi] Griffin, 71.

[vii] Arneil, 31 May 1944.

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

Worsening Situation

By Sears Eldredge

In late March, Wilkinson got involved with theatre again in a production of John Galsworthy’s one-act play, Loyalties. By early April, he reports that the POWs in Changi began to experience further food deprivations and that malaria was rampant in the camp—a result of the worsening ration situation.

Rice rations have been reduced! I am permanently hungry! . . . Malaria is extremely troublesome here. In No. 1 Area, Officers and men go down with it time and time again. We are still rehearsing “Loyalties” but Malaria is hitting us hard and there is always at least two of the cast in hospital all the time. We have recast it three times owing to illness and it will be a miracle if it ever goes on as we have used up all our original understudies. Bill Auld is producing. . .. We’ll never be fit as so long as we are P.O.W. as this food is only just enough to keep us alive. One cannot really risk any sort of illness as there is no means of building up again. It’s still a case I’m afraid, of the survival of the fittest or the luckiest! It makes one quite anxious at times as things get gradually worse and here we are now beginning our third year![i]

Playbill for April ’44. All At Sea, at the A.I.F. Theatre, would play through April. On The Spot, a “Super, Do[o]per, Thriller” at the Phoenix Theatre was produced by Vere Bartrum, while the revue, Swingtime, produced by Forbes Finlayson, opened at the Little Theatre. Loyalties, it appears, never did go on.

Program cover for Swingtime. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

Swingtime

Swingtime by Mick Walker and Freddy Binns, was billed as a “‘moosical extravaganza (with apologies to the Great American Public).” Directed by Hugh Elliot, with the orchestra conducted by the American, J. J. Porter. Its huge cast of 22 characters was played by 18 actors with some doubling. All four acts took place in the USA and moved from “Placidville, DG,” (Act One) to “Studio of the ‘Miracle Sooper-Kolossal Films, Inc.’ NYC. USA.” (Act Four). But why this sudden salute to the U.S.A., unless their “dickey-bird” (secret radio) was telling them that the tide of the war in the Pacific had turned and the Americans were now taking the upper hand, and this was the subtext their audiences were intended to understand?


[i] Wilkinson, Diary. 3 April ’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

Rations

By Sears Eldredge

It is about this time that there is an increase in the mention of hunger in POW diaries and memoirs.[i] Wilkinson compared their rice allotment to what they received Up Country: “We get less rice than we had up country consequently we get less bulk and are always hungry and ready for the next meal. It has become increasingly difficult to buy extras for augmenting our meals.”[1][ii] Obviously, the Japanese supply chain was being severely disrupted by American submarines.

Playbill for March ’44. On 1 March, All At Sea: A Nautical Farce written by Slim De Grey and produced by Keith Stevens, with music by Bill Middleton, and setting by Bert West, opened in the A.I.F. Theatre. The Little Theatre put on Stardust: A Musical Revue 1900-1944 devised and produced by Ken Morrison. March 4th saw the play, Love On The Dole, produced by G. Kenneth Dowbiggin and Martin R. English, open at the Phoenix Theatre in Hanky Park. At the end of the month, the A.I.F. Concert Party performed their Second Anniversary Show.[2]

All At Sea

When the Japanese authorities saw All At Sea, they promptly announced they were going to film it for viewing elsewhere (propaganda purposes), which they did on 6-8 March. As Stewart reports, “A compulsory parade was made to the A.I.F. Theatre, where scenes from the current “All At Sea” were [reenacted] by the cast, photographs taken.[3][iii]

Love On The Dole

Walter Greenwood and Ronald Gow’s gritty three-act drama[4] takes place in Hanky Park,[5] a slum neighborhood of Salford (in Greater Manchester) during the Great Depression and has a strong socialist message—an unusually serious play for POW audiences. Charles Dolman, playing the lead role of the daughter, Sally Hardcastle,[6] who becomes a prostitute in order to help her family survive, was given star billing as his name is above the title on the program cover. Familiar names among the largely unknown cast were Graham Sauvage and Desmond Bettany.

Program cover for Love On The Dole. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

Australian O.R. Stan Arneil thought it “a rather sordid play magnificently acted by a group of English players.”[iv] But he was so taken with the show, he saw it a second time five days later. And then decided, “but I had best not see it any more. I dreamt about it all last night and woke up with a boomer cold (almost my first in the tropics).[v]


[1] This must have been while Wilkinson and others were recuperating in Kanburi Hospital Camp Up Country where the Japanese wanted to fatten them up before they were sent back to Singapore.

[2] This is the last entry in Val Mack’s list of their shows in his exercise log books.

[3] As far as is known, no propaganda film of this show has ever been found.

[4] Based on Greenwood’s documentary novel of the same name.

[5] That the play takes place in Hanky Park, England, and the POWs were in Hanky Park, Singapore, may have carried some significance.

[6] Besides its metaphoric significance, the family’s name, “Hardcastle,” must be a reference to the family in Oliver Goldsmith’s famous 18th cent. play, She Stoops to Conquer, in which the daughter, too, saves the family.  


[i] Thomas, Fax. 31 March 01, 9.

[ii] Wilkinson, Diary. 5 Feb. ’44.

[iii] Stewart, Leonard. extracts from A.I.F. ROs, Changi ’44. AWM PR01013.

[iv] Arneil, 10 March, ’44.

[v] Arneil, 15 March, ’44.

The Intrepid Theatre-Goer

By Sears Eldredge

Once he was back on his feet, Capt. Wilkinson lost no time catching as many shows currently playing as possible. First, he saw the pantomime, Dick Wittington, which he called “first class.” It was so good he went back a second time. Then he saw Roman Rackets, which he thought only “fairly good,” followed by Hay Fever: ‘“Hay Fever’ was undoubtedly outstanding, even comparing it with English Rep. standards!”, he pronounced.[i] Finally, Wilkinson went to see the revue Shooting High. “It was a sort of wild west show,” he wrote. “The outstanding item was an apache dance in which ‘Judy’ Garland was brilliant.”[ii] He heard that the St. George Players were going to do a revival of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the near future, which he definitely planned to attend.”[iii]

Hay Fever

Of all the shows currently on view in Changi, it was Daltry’s production of Hay Fever that garnered the most praise. Nelson, who had received a special invitation to the premiere, thought: “It was simply marvellous, at least the equal of performances I have attended in London. Many of the artists are professionals.”[iv]

Program cover for Hay Fever. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

David wrote that it was “beautifully produced and one of the best shows we’ve had. I intend to see it again.”[v] Huxtable, thought it “witty and amusing” and went on to say:

Major Daltry, overcoming all difficulties, produced a first-class show and the acting was very good. John Wood, the Australian, was Miss Bliss and Major Bradshaw her husband. We had a good laugh and all agreed that we had often paid ten bob to see shows of a far lower standard in peace time.[vi]

Caricature of John Wood as “Miss Bliss.”[1]  Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

Wilkinson elaborated further on his initial reactions to the production:

The outstanding show was “Hey Fever” . . .. The stage setting was wonderful and so were all the dresses etc. They had a first class cast. The female lead was taken by John Wood. He is an Australian who has had professional stage and film experience in England. Bradshaw was in it and Douglas Rye of the Croyden Ren. [?] Since we went up country a number of new “females” have cropped up and most of them are first class actors.[vii]

Caricature of Willis Toogood. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

One of these “new ‘females’” was Willis Toogood, who played “Myra Arundel.” His first appearance as a female impersonator was in the Glade Theatre’s production of Old King Cole back in 1942. Oliver Thomas (originally in “The Optimists Concert Party”), played Simon Bliss. Thomas remembered, “We did 35 performances of this.”[viii]

We obviously had to make do with what furniture & props we could get together. Some things had to be made e.g. a ‘barometer’ which falls off the wall & breaks in ‘Hay Fever’ when one of the unhappy house-guests ‘taps’ it . . .  there is breakfast scene — edible things had to be made out of rice e.g. both the slices of ‘toast’ in the rack and the small yellow balls of ‘butter.’ We were so hungry that it was impossible not to be very excited eating this substitute food, and the audience knew it & didn’t let the fact you were actually eating go by unnoticed. Hunger was the perpetual condition of our being Japanese POW’s.[ix]


[1] The artist did not identify the person caricatured, but I assume this is John Wood as he always played a blond female.


[i] Wilkinson, Diary, 5 February ’44.

[ii] Wilkinson, Diary, 5 February ’44.

[iii] Wilkinson, Diary, 5 February.

[iv] Nelson, 127.

[v] David, 55.

[vi] Huxtable, 150.

[vii] Wilkinson, Diary, 5 Feb. ’44.

[viii] Thomas, Fax, 31 March 01, 2.

[ix] Thomas, Fax, 31 March 01, 5.

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 Concert Parties: January–May ‘44

By Sears Eldredge

Because of the huge resettlement of the POWs into a smaller perimeter that had taken place during the latter days of 1943, the number of performance venues in Changi were now limited to five: The A.I.F. Theatre, Command’s indoor and outdoor theatres, and the Con Depot’s outdoor theatre, as well as the YMCA music marquee—all in the Selarang Area. There is no mention of another performance in The Kokonut Grove Theatre in the records. But a new outdoor venue—The Phoenix Theatre— appeared in January in Hanky Park, which was, according to Huxtable, “over near the Malaya Command building half a mile away, over by No. 3 gate.”[i] These POWs were most likely from the Volunteer Forces who had been in the Southern Area and Up Country. The entertainers called themselves “The Red Rose Players.” Their orchestra was directed by Geoffrey C. Knight and their Stage Manager was S. J. Cole. The Phoenix became another of the Command Theatres.

Playbill for January/February ’44. Dick Wittington, at the A.I.F. Theatre, and Aladdin at Command’s indoor theatre, would finish their runs towards the end of the January. Meanwhile, the Variety show, Roman Rackets, written by Graham Sauvage and produced by S. J. Cole was on at the new Phoenix Theatre at Hanky Park. On 25 January, Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, produced by Osmond Daltry and directed by Chris Buckingham opened at Command’s indoor theatre.

In early February, Shooting High, a Western Farce written by Les Connell & McArthur and produced by Keith Stevens went up at the A.I.F. Theatre, followed by a Variety Show, Bits & Pieces. Huxtable, had this to say about the A.I.F. shows he saw:

The shows are always bright and amusing, if somewhat lowbrow – clever singing, dancing, female impersonations (John Woods) and conjuring tricks (Sid Piddington).[ii] 

The Phoenix Theatre’s show for February was P. G. Wodehouse’s, Good Morning, Bill, produced by John Burne.


[i] Huxtable, 153.

[ii] Huxtable, 153.

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

Christmas Pantomimes, 1943

By Sears Eldredge

Program cover for Aladdin. Desmond Bettany. Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

The former Command Players in their new Little Theatre (formerly Smokey Joe’s) mounted Aladdin: A Christmas Pantomime written by Rich Goodman with a huge cast featuring Norman Backshall as Aladdin, John White as the Princess, and Hugh Elliot at Widow Twankey. It included a Chorus and a “Ballet” of eight harem dancers. Musical arrangements were by J. J. Porter, scenic design was by Derek Cooper, and costumes were by Fred Cooper. Chris Buckingham was the Stage Manager.

The A.I.F. Concert Party opened their pantomime, Dick Whittington and His Cat, on New Year’s Eve. It was produced by John Wood with a book by Leslie Greener. Settings were by Murray Griffin, costumes by Teddy Druitt, lighting by Clarrie Barker, and music/lyrics by Ray Tullipan and Slim De Grey with Bill Middleton directing the orchestra.

Performed by concert party regulars: Keith Stevens played Dick Whittington, his Cat was played by Bob Picken, Ron Caple played Widow Twankey[1]; and Doug Peart, the Sergeant Major.

Dick Wittington and His Cat. A.I.F. Pantomime. Xmas, 1943. Painting by Murray Griffin. AWM.

Both shows were huge successes—just what the M.O.s’ ordered for sick and recovering troops. And so ends 1943. In early 1944, the POWs in Changi would begin the third year of their captivity.


[1] Yes, Widow Twankey appears in more than one pantomime, so there can always be a clothes washing scene where suggestive remarks are made about the state of the underwear.  

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

Another Short Wave Broadcast and The Return of “F” Force

By Sears Eldredge

Another Short Wave Broadcast

The fifth in a series of recordings for short-wave broadcasts “from AIF hospital in Malaya” occurred on 16 December. The Australian announcer, Capt. Alan Bush, reminded his listeners that on the last broadcast they had heard the “very colorful number ‘The Race that Rules the Rhythm of the World.’”[i] (Whether this song is referring to the Japanese or the White race is ambiguous.[1]) Then he launched into the first sketch:

Announcer: All roads today led to Circular Quay [Sydney] to welcome home thousands of soldiers returning after years in Malaya. As we reach the Quayside, we behold the tall, lean, sun-tanned Anzac marching down the gang-way. . .. And there’s a pretty girl with a beautiful blue-eyed baby in her arms waving to them. This will be a touching wartime reunion and I’ll take the portable microphone over close and we’ll listen to their conversation.

A.  My darling little wife, gee it’s great to be back.

B.  Sweetheart you are looking wonderful.

A.  Yeah! And so are you, honey, but tell me, whose baby is that?

B.  Why, that’s our little Benny.

A.  Our little Benny? But I’ve been away for four years. That kid can’t be more than 6 months old.

B. Don’t you know, Benny’s from Heaven?

Then came a takeoff on the song “Pennies from Heaven” closing with the lyrics,

Now every kid must have a Dad,

They’ve always taught us.

But little Benny had,

A flying fortress.

No use to ask the preacher,

St. Peter’s the one to see,

For Benny’s from heaven

And not from me.[ii]

The mention of “a flying fortress” as the father of the “blue-eyed baby” is a reference to the American airmen stationed in Australia as part of the war effort. Everyone seemed to know the saying, “The Yanks are overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” Fearing the worst about the G.I.’s behavior with their sweethearts and wives, this was a warning to the “girls” back home to toe the line.

The Return of “F” Force

That same day, 16 December, members of “F Force” began to arrive back in Changi. “Most were in very poor state of health and their morale at a low ebb,” observed Nelson.[iii] The Australian returnees would be accommodated in huts on the padang in Selarang Barracks.[iv] The British returnees would be relocated to the Garden & Woods Area.

Four days later Huxtable reported that “All the AIF of F Force are back except such as are still in hospital,[2] too sick for the four and a half days train journey.”[v]

One of the Aussies who came back at this time was Stan Arneil. His diary records the moment when they emerged from their transport boxcars.

The people from Changi stood back and uttered not a word. It was really quite strange. We lined up on the road as best we could and stood up as straight as we could. Those who couldn’t stand up straight were on sticks. And those who couldn’t stop shaking with malaria were held by their friends. We thought this was what we should do as soldiers to say that we were not beaten. The sergeant major dressed us off and we stood in a straight line as he went over and reported to Colonel Johnson. Johnson went over to [GCO] Black Jack Galleghan and he said, “Your 2/30th all present and correct, sir.” And Galleghan said, “Where are the rest?” The major, he was a major then, said, “They’re all here, sir.” And we were. Black Jack Galleghan, the iron man, broke down and cried.  It was an incredible scene. We wanted to show them we were soldiers.[vi] 

If the word from “H” Force about POW treatment Up Country wasn’t bad enough, the word from “F” Force would be worse—much worse.

Huxtable saw “young Wycherley, the pianist and accompanist, but all the rest of the celebrity concert party, who used to entertain us so delightfully both here and at Roberts Barracks have been wiped out by disease,[3] with the exception of the violinist Denis East. The latter, we hear, is still in hospital up north,[4] but recovering.”[vii] 

Huxtable was aware that for many of the returning POWs, it still wasn’t over. “Since the last date of entry,” he wrote in his diary, “I have taken part is some hard work at the hospital and seen much tragedy and death from sickness. The men are so emaciated from malaria and other disease that they die easily.”[viii] 

This horrific situation made it all the more important that the concert party Christmas shows not only had to be excellent in execution but wild with laughter.


[1] The ambiguity allowed any Japanese to understand it his way while the listening POW audience understood it a different way.

[2] Up Country in Kanburi Hospital Camp (see my online book, Chap. 4 “The Interval: Thailand and Burma).

[3] Not entirely accurate. Because he couldn’t keep up with the rest of the marching troops, Reginald Renison was beaten to death on the long march up to their work sites on the border with Burma. John Foster-Haigh died of starvation in a camp in Burma.

[4] Actually, East was in Kranji, a hospital for chronic cases that had been established in the northern part of Singapore Island. According to my interview with East, he insisted that he had never gone Up Country.


[i] Frey, Kerrin. Shortwave Radio Transcript, 1.

[ii] Frey, Kerrin. Shortwave Radio transcript, 1-2.

[iii] Nelson, 124-126.

[iv] Huxtable, 144.

[v] Huxtable, 144.

[vi] Arneil, in Nelson, Prisoners of War, 68.

[vii] Huxtable, 144.

[viii] Huxtable, 145.

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

1st Short Wave Radio Broadcast & The Return of “H” Force

By Sears Eldredge

1st Short Wave Radio Broadcast

The A.I.F. made their first recording for short wave broadcast to Australia on 18 October. But it was not one of their shows that was broadcast: it was an original script, which included as many names of POWs as possible and coded references to their health and situation. Huxtable was part of a group of officers and men who “played” the audience, applauding as directed.[i]

Playbill for November/December ’43. November 2nd saw the opening of “Keep Singing” An Oriental Adventure by Ray Tullipan and Slim De Grey at the A.I.F. Theatre. It ended with a “Jungle Dance” supposedly performed by the African-American tap dancer, “Bojangles of Harlem.”[1] On 11 November, Lord Babs, an adaptation of a book by P. G. Wodehouse, opened at The Command Little Theatre, produced by Jack Fitzgerald. Credits list S. J. Cole as the General Manager for “Command Theatres, Inc.”.[2] On 16 November, the A.I.F. Theatre staged a new Variety Show in which the opening number was entitled “Outward Bound”—surely a takeoff on the popular play at The Little Theatre with lyrics more hopeful about their own destination.

December 1st saw the opening of Emlyn Williams’ play, A Murder Has Been Arranged presented by “The Command Players” at the A.I.F. Theatre. Besides the excellent acting, it was notable for the fact that there were five female impersonators in the cast. On the 12th, the A.I.F. Concert Party mounted We Must Have Music, a Variety Show with a surprise appearance of “Santa Klaus” and “Jingle Bells” during the Finale.

The Return of “H” Force

In early December, the POWs in Changi were shocked when the survivors of “H” Force unexpectedly returned from Up Country. Capt. Wilkinson was relocated to the Old Garden & Woods Area; others to a new camp at Hanky Park. But many of the Brits (like Ronald Searle, who almost died Up Country) and Australians (like George Sprod) were sent to Sime Road Camp on the outskirts of Singapore, where R. M. Horner had been dispatched to start weekly entertainments to take their minds off the recent past. On 14 December, he wrote in his diary:

The remainder of ‘H’ Force have now come down from Thailand – the total death rate of our force of 3,320 is now 823. ‘F’ Force are also on their way down either to Bangkok or possibly another camp in Singapore. Their casualties are over 3.000 already and they are dying at a rate of 8-12 a day. They lost a lot from cholera and pure starvation. As 18 Div. had a large number on this force I fear I’ll have lost many friends.[ii]

Now the POWs in Changi would hear firsthand about the killer work details, the cruelty, starvation, disease, and death suffered by their mates Up Country. [See future blog on Sime Road Camp].


[1] This was a highly unusual Finale, which raises all sorts of questions. Was this performed by an Aussie in blackface, or by one of the Dutch/Indonesian troops? Did it try to convey some sort of coded message about the war to the audience about their own “oriental adventure”?

[2] Note the use of the plural here. 


[i] Huxtable, 139.

[ii] Horner, 116.

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