Laugh and tough it out

2 – The Japanese occupation of Penang

Warai Ganbare [Laugh and Tough it out].

Last words of Sam’s Japanese military officer.

Laugh and tough it outOn December 12, 1941, Sam was doing his final paper for his Senior Cambridge Entrance Examination at the Xavier Institution. The school authorities were aware that a Japanese invasion was imminent, and had prepared the children for evacuation from the buildings in the event of a Japanese air-raid.

As Sam tells it –

 While the Imperial Japanese Army was steadily moving southwards towards the Malay Peninsula, virtually unchallenged, their air force rained bombs and wrought havoc in the Malaysian towns.

They had singled out Penang for their initial attack because Penang was one of the two places in Malaya from where large sums of money donated by local Chinese were channelled to Generalissimo Chiang Kai- shek, leader of the Chinese Army, to buy arms and ammunition to fight the invading Japanese Army.  The other place was Singapore.

I was sitting for the Senior Cambridge Examination then. It was my last paper.  When the air-raid warning sirens sounded, all the students were ushered into the New Field, a field adjoining the sea, but protected from the waves by a ten-foot embankment of rock and cement with iron pipe railing along the edge above. We were made to lie down along the edge, face down, with hands clasped behind our necks for protection.

As the sirens went on wailing, we could hear the constant drone of planes, louder and louder as they approached.  Then they were right above us. We could hear the bombs explode, first in the distance, then close by. A couple of bombs dropped on the Convent adjacent to the field. Then one fell right in the middle of the field. The earth shook. We were terrified. We didn’t dare open our eyes. The planes kept on coming, and we knew we could suffer a direct hit any moment. We prayed. Our hands and legs went cold with fright. Our hearts pumped uncontrollably.
When we couldn’t hear any more planes, we opened our eyes. We could see nothing. The whole place was full of thick black smoke. We didn’t dare get up.  I looked to my right and then to my left. My classmate and close companion, who was lying on my left, was laying so silent and still. I called to him and shook him with my left hand.  There was no response. I sat up and was horrified to find his legs covered in blood. I screamed for help.  Two teachers came running towards us. They carried my friend away on a makeshift stretcher. He was a small, fair skinned Eurasian boy born to a Thai mother and a German father. He was one of my closest friends at school, but that was the last I saw of him.  He had been hit by a foot-long piece of shrapnel from the bomb that fell on the field.

I knew it to be dangerous to hang around because the Japanese planes could come back anytime. They were also machine-gunning us. My thoughts were only of home and I wondered if everyone at home was safe.

I ran back home all the way, making sure I did not expose myself to the bombs or to the machine-gun fire.  At one point as I ran along the main trunk road – Dato Keramat Road – I heard the distant drone of approaching planes. I jumped into the big ditch by the side of the road and remained there till the planes went away after dropping their bombs.

By the time I reached home it was about 5 pm. I was relieved to see that our house was intact and everybody was safe.  The bombs had destroyed houses all the way. But the houses along our road were safe.

The bombing continued for about five more days. To hide from the raids, Sam would carry his little sister from his house and hide under a bridge about 300 metres from their house. A couple of days after all this bombing had stopped, Sam went with a small party of boys to view what had happened in the city.

Sam’s parents had warned the youngsters to keep well clear of any looters. They soon found out that there were looters everywhere. They saw looters walking out of premises with all kinds of goods, food and furniture. Sam remembers that more than a thousand people had been killed by the raids in and around Penang. The stench of grotesque, swollen bodies was unbearable.  The boys held handkerchiefs against the noses and mouths, and threw them away later. Sam saw a woman holding tight to a child, both of them dead and stinking. After a couple of hours Sam had seen all that he could bear and returned home quite traumatized.

About ten days after this the Japanese troops arrived to take control of the city. The British forces and all the British government personnel evacuated to Singapore in the south.  The British forces, however, bombed the Japanese in retaliation. Sam remembers how a nearby family of ten children were wiped out by one British bomb that totally demolished their home.

The Malays generally were happy about the departure of British rule.  Some of them welcomed the Japanese as if they were liberators. The resident Indians, whose mother country was by now stirring to cast off British rule, were of the same mind as the Malays.

The large Chinese population, however, had for some time been supporting their mother country’s resistance to the recent invasion of Manchuria by the Japanese. There was also an active Communist presence among the Chinese community in Malaya. The Japanese occupation of Malaya, therefore, was not generally welcomed by the Chinese, and for good reason. Many of them were rounded up and killed by the Japanese forces. Neither Chinese supporters of General Chiang Kai- shek or Chinese Communists were spared from the bloodletting.

Immediately after they invaded Penang, the Japanese set up government offices to provide an effective system of government. Japanese became the official language to be taught in all the schools. Locals who had the talent to learn Japanese were appointed as teachers.

Sam already had a predilection for languages. He could already speak Chinese – both Hokkien and Cantonese – Malay, Tamil, Singhalese and English. He now applied himself to study the Japanese language. He found that in many respects it was similar to his native Tamil, and he liked the language. He soon mastered the declension of Japanese verbs and memorized a basic Japanese vocabulary. Sam soon found himself appointed as a teacher at the Francis Light Primary School where he was quite popular because of his ability to speak Japanese. This new found stardom proved to be short-lived.

The teachers were paid a salary of $25 per month in the Japanese military currency called “banana notes.”  This was the only currency with which to buy most things, especially food. The salary was just enough money to buy a few pieces of tapioca and a loaf of low quality bread. Some of the teachers were men with families, but these were starvation rations. The teachers decided that they would appeal to the Japanese authorities for enough money just to make existence possible.

This was a military government headed by a military governor of very high rank by the name of General Katayama Shotaro. The teachers had a meeting and drew up a petition to the Governor appealing for a better salary. The document was signed by 72 teachers, many of whom were elderly.

Sam was given the task of translating the petition into Japanese and then leading a delegation of seven teachers to present the petition to the Governor. They were totally unprepared for the reception given them by the harsh new military rule. Sam did not realize how serious the Japanese were with matters of discipline, obedience to authority and selfless service. Talk of salaries, remuneration, or Leave – even medical Leave – or anything that might even vaguely suggest a sense of personal benefit over service to the Emperor or country was viewed with anger and suspicion

Among the military, the sense of obedience, discipline and selfless service was at the highest level. This was looked upon as the core of the Japanese way. And here was this pathetic band of eight teachers thinking they could parley about their salaries with a Military government that was fighting a war!

This was the 17th day of August, 1942.  How could Sam ever forget this day? The delegation of teachers waited for the Governor to arrive.  On the dot of 8 am, his Excellency, the Governor of Penang, Lt. Gen. Katayama Shotaro, came walking down the long corridor. Tall and slim, upright and immaculately dressed in a gray khaki outfit, he made a stately figure. Sam fell in behind him and attempted to hand the petition of the 72 teachers to him. The Governor walked straight on, but one of his aides, coming up behind, took the petition from Sam’s hand and detained the group in an adjoining room.

They waited, by now somewhat apprehensively, for over an hour. At last they were ushered into the Governor’s room. His Excellency sat in a regal looking big chair behind a large office table. He was flanked on either side by two army officers in full military costume with long swords.

Lying in front of the Governor was their miserable looking petition. He silently and slowly looked each member of the group up and down and finally focused his gaze on poor young Sam. He had not even signed the petition but had agreed to be the translator and spokesperson for the group by virtue of his expertise in the Japanese language. This is not how the Governor saw things. He had decided the delegation were all anti-Japanese government elements – “Kyosanto,” meaning Communists – he called them. Sam appeared to be the focus of his anger.  That this teenage brat had been able to induce 72 teachers to sign a petition against the Government was an appalling act of insubor-dination. Sam was surely a hard core young Communist or a Communist agent!

Didn’t these rebels know that the Japanese were fighting a life and death war in which they would have no patience with rebellious or subversive elements like Sam and his group? All eight of them were immediately sentenced to be executed the next day. They were told to go home and wait for the death sentence to be carried out. This was no opportunity to hide. Perhaps it was arranged this way to spread fear of rebelling against the Japanese authority.

The group decided that suicide would be better than being beheaded. They decided to gather at 10 pm, head for the cliff at Tanjing Bugah, and jump into the rocky sea below.

When Sam arrived home that afternoon his parents noticed that he looked dejected and frightened. When he went upstairs and began crying, they knew that something was seriously wrong because Sam was a tough young nut who seldom cried. He had to tell his father the truth.

After hearing Sam out, the father dressed up and took Sam to see a Dr. V.K. Menon who was the family doctor and leader of the Indian community in Penang.  Dr. Menon then took them to see Mr. Rahgaven who was the head of the Penang arm of the Indian National Army (INA) which was fighting in collaboration with the Japanese Army against the British. Rash Bahari Bose was a leader of the INA and a very high ranking officer in the Japanese military administration. He was also married to a Japanese woman. That evening he was due to arrive in Penang at ll pm. When he arrived, the Underwoods were granted the priority to see him.  He acted immediately by calling up Governor Katayama (whose rank was lower than this highly ranked Indian) and succeeded in having all eight death penalties revoked. Along with the seven teachers, Sam was sacked from his teaching position and put under house arrest.

Whew!  Although being confined to his house was a galling restraint to Sam, it was much better than having his head lopped off with a long Japanese sword. Sam’s isolation was made much worse because his friends stayed away from his house for fear of becoming blacklisted by the Japanese authorities.

Sam was so young and active, that it was torture to be locked up at home. After suffering loneliness and misery for about three months, a new window of opportunity seemed to open. The local newspaper carried an advertisement inviting young men to apply for entry into the Penang Kurensho, literally, a training place, at a semi-military Institution. Its purpose was to train young Malayan men to become community leaders.

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