Tag Archives: Selerang

Further Consolidation

By Sears Eldredge

At the beginning of May, the huge Southern and 18th Division Areas of Changi were shut down and the troops remaining in them moved elsewhere into a smaller, tighter perimeter.[i] These closings would include the loss of the theatres in those Areas (six in the 18th Division alone), unless they could be dismantled and re-erected elsewhere. With troops being crowded into other’s Areas, Unit distinction became more difficult to maintain. But more intermingling by the troops meant more possibilities for creative interaction. Not only had guest performers from one concert party already appeared in other Division’s shows, but new producers and new entertainment troupes with combined personnel were formed, such as seen above with “The United Artistes Players” at the Palladium. Interestingly enough, no instances of artistic jealousy or concert party rivalry has been found in the literature, but you can’t put that many musicians and theatre performers together without some sort of rivalry going on.   

Smokey Joe’s

The ultimate meeting place was Smokey Joe’s in the Selarang Area. Originally a Java Party snack bar operated by the Dutch in an attap-roofed hut.[ii] But with its huge success, it was taken over by Command H.Q. as a money-making venture for all the Divisions and moved to a more accommodating location.  

An old N.A.A.F.I. canteen was taken over, and painters, decorators and electricians performed wonders, under the circumstances. The decorative work, by A.I.F. artists, was fine, the walls being covered with the topical adventures of well-known comic strip personalities.[iii] 

The N.A.A.F.I. had a stage at one end and a bar at the other. Its official opening as an eating place/cabaret with twice weekly floorshows was on 31 May 1943. In Changi, it was the place to be!

But of all ranks, British, Aussies, Yanks, and Dutchmen (brown and white), representing all services, is not easy to describe. The evening hours were filled in contentedly, with a snack to enjoy, noise of the re-echoing band, the concentration on the cabaret turns which came on at various times.[iv] 

One night, John Wood appeared there in a floorshow “as an entrancing blonde in filmy silver and blue.”[v]

Playbill for June/July ’43. June saw The Five Moods of the Theatre ending its run at the Palladium; Midsummer Follies: Being A Riot Of Fun And Merriment, written and directed by Alan Bush,opening at the Command Theatre (with the Palladium Theatre Orchestra directed by J. J. Porter); and a Variety Show at the A.I.F. Theatre. July 6-9 saw a new producer, Jack Fitzgerald, present Love Laughs: A New–Gay–Romantic–Musical Comedy, at the Palladium, with six female impersonators in the cast, including Garland and Stevens from the A.I.F. Concert Party; and the musical comedy, The New World Inn, re-written by George Donnelly at the Command Theatre.


[i] David, 48.

[ii] Nelson, 85.

[iii] Penfold, Bayliss and Crispin. Galleghan’s Greyhounds, 323-324.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

Two Daring Variety Turns

By Sears Eldredge

Over in the Selarang Area, John Wood wowed audiences by singing and dancing a 1930’s revue song, “Get Yourself A Geisha,” “dressed beautifully as a geisha in kimono and obi.”[i] 

Get yourself a Geisha

A gay little Geisha

A Geisha girl’s the purest,

The sweetest and demurest.

And she’s top hole for the tourist.

Get yourself a Geisha girl.

(Doing what you want to do in Tokyo.)[ii]

Another daring turn on a playbill in a British show was a song entitled “Axis Trio,” performed by three men made up to represent their characters: 

 I’m Hitler the Nazi Fuhrer.

I’m Musso the organ grinder chief.

I’m Tojo the Nip, whose navy made a slip,

In ever going near the Barrier Reef.[iii]

Oliver Thomas believed the lyrics to this song “were written by a Major Bowen (Brig. Major 54 Brig.) who thought we were becoming defeatist and needed to sing a song which would reawaken our aggressive instincts.”[iv]

If any Japanese guards appeared, these items would suddenly be cut from the bill. But at this point, no Japanese officers attended the shows and guards dropped by only intermittingly during their rounds. Nor did scripts have to be submitted to a censor.


[i] Boardman, J. “Notes.”

[ii] Boardman, J. Lyrics and Score in Original Docs.

[iii] Thomas, Letter. 31 March 01.

[iv] Thomas, Fax, 31 March 01. 1-2.

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 Y.M.C.A. Hut Concerts

By Sears Eldredge

A welcomed addition to the week-day entertainment in Selarang were the Sunday evening musical concerts (including gramophone concerts or operas) performed in the Convalescent Depot area in an open-sided hut [marquee] which their Y.M.C.A. Representatives, George McNeilly and Ivor Hanger, had especially built for these purposes.

“Listening to Music YMCA Hut” Murray Griffin. AWM ART26510

McNeilly later wrote,

At our Y.M.C.A. Hut and Gardens every Sunday evening, the A.I.F. Band and Orchestra gave promenade concerts. The Hut was flood lit, and hundreds of men promenaded in the gardens or lazed under the palm trees, and listened to “Rose Marie Selections” and “Poet and Peasant” Overture.[i]

McNeilly was also encouraged to form a Choral Society. “Music,” he wrote, “was the means of keeping hundreds of men sane. It appealed to them in different ways, but it was a vital part in each man’s life, and added to the morale of the camp.”[ii]


[i] McNeilly, “Summary,” p. 3.

[ii] McNeilly, “Music in the Prisoner of War Camp Changi Singapore,” n. p.

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

Doctor Behind the Wire

Jackie Sutherland, author of Doctor Behind the Wire: The Diaries if POW, Captain Jack Ennis, Singapore, 1942-1945, writes about how she uncovered the identity of who sketched her father as a POW in Singapore.

The answer was there all the time!

The search began in an attempt to find out more about the artist who sketched my late father, Captain Jack Ennis, while a POW in Singapore. No more was known other than the signature ‘F.J. White’.

Sketch of Captain Jack Ennis, image courtesy of Jackie Sutherland

Reading through lists of FEPOW gave several possible identities but then, quite by chance, as I leafed through papers on my desk, the sunlight caught a tiny reflection on the back of the sketch.  Graphite – pencil – on the dull brown paper, a page from a photograph album.

There, in my father’s small spidery writing, he had noted ‘Drawn by “Willie” White in January 1944 at Selerang after a hockey match’.

This was a name I had come across while transcribing my father’s diaries – but it had never occurred to me that ‘Willie’ might be a nickname. Sadly, my father had also recorded Willie’s death (from illness) in May later that same year.

Following the trail from the Commonwealth War Graves Commision website, I was able to find out more about this remarkable artist. F. John White (nickname ‘Willie’), a trained commercial artist, had enlisted with the Sherwood Foresters (Nottingham and Derbyshire Regiment) and with the 1/5th Battalion, was captured in Singapore. During his time as a POW he was very involved in theatre productions, designing posters and scenery as well as acting.

To quote from my father’s diary (on a production of Aladdin) ‘Young (John) Willie White of our Mess made up as a wonderful princess, very, very pretty girl. Steve Campbell sent up a bouquet of flowers after.’

‘Willie’ John White must have drawn many portraits. As  Capt G K Marshall wrote in his Changi Diaries.’

‘25th January 1944. Had a sunbathe on the roof and later sat for Willie while he did a portrait of me. He finished it by lunchtime and made a very good job of it, the best I have seen him do.’

Willie White’s portrait of my father was only recognized 75 years after VJ Day, which makes me think how many more portraits and sketches of our relatives are waiting to be discovered?


Doctor Behind the Wire, by Jackie Sutherland

Although other books have featured Jack and Elizabeth Ennis, this is the first complete account of their story – from meeting in up-country Malaya (the rain forest, the orchids) – to their marriage in Singapore just days before it fell to the Japanese, and then through the long separation of internment.

Published here for the first time, Jack’s diaries record the daily struggles against disease, injuries and malnutrition and also the support and camaraderie of friends. enjoyment of concerts, lectures, and sports, Ever observant, he records details of wildlife.

The inspiration for the ‘Changi Quilts’, the story of the Girl Guide quilt (now in the Imperial War Museum) is told in words by Elizabeth, written after the war.

Elizabeth’s former employer, Robert Heatlie Scott, distinguished Far East diplomat, was also POW in Changi, much of the time in solitary confinement or under interrogation by the Japanese.

The individual experiences of these three persons are dramatic enough – together they combine in an amazing story of courage, love and life-long friendship.

You can pre-order Jackie’s book through the Pen and Sword website here.