April 24, 2011

Granpa's World War II Experience

Been meaning to blog this; wanted to share this, especially to my family members who might not know this side of my late maternal grandfather's experience.

As far as I know, hitherto, I'm the only one in the family who knows this story. When asked, even my mom  conceded that my grandfather did not tell her this story.

I can't remember the exact details of the story as it was told to me more than 20 years ago and I was struggling to follow the story as my grandfather was reminiscing to himself more than he was 'telling' the story to me! He would pause and revisit earlier part of the story to add additional details which only confused me more. However, I do remember the gist of it. 

One afternoon, more than 20 years ago, my grandfather beckoned me to his side. He was resting on a reclining chair in the main living room of his home at Kampung Takuli. I remembered that we were the only two at home then. He told me to get a chair and sit next to him. I obediently did as I was told. 

He began his story by telling me how hard life was during World War II. The minute, he mentioned World War II, I felt a slight trepidation; not another World War II story??! I was young and did not appreciate the significance of this event. War was a distant thing to me, yes I 'heard' about the sufferings and the atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese army but they were just stories to me. And perhaps because old folks kept drumming into us about the hardship they had to endure during World War II, they repeated it enough that they actually desensitized me. Whenever we didn't finish our food, my late paternal grandmother would tell us how lucky we were and that people had to scavenge for food during the war and they ate just about anything to ease their hunger. So World War II became just another tool for adults to twist my arm into doing things.

Nonetheless, I didn't object because we were taught to just submit to our adults' wants. Children did not have 'rights' in our family, according to elders (in fact I think that was the principle in many families in those days). A principle that would become a source of friction for me and my elders in later years but that's another story for another time. 

Anyway, my grandfather said he left Bundu for Sandakan in search of work. I'm guessing that he must had been between 24 to 26 years old when he did that. Note though that I am just deducing here. He gave me the impression that he hadn't been in Sandakan that long before the Japanese Empire invaded. My grandfather was born in 1916 and Japan invaded North Borneo in 1942, he would have been 26 years old when it happened. 

He didn't tell me what he was working as in Sandakan only that he was gainfully employed and he rented a room from some lady. He said that he would spent his money on gambling and drinking as he didn't know better and advised me against such a lifestyle. Sandakan was then the capital of North Borneo. Hence, I imagine it would have had the trappings of a 'city', vices, drugs ect. He said he was young, naive and later on he would admonished himself for allowing himself to get lost in such trappings.

It seemed to me that by the time he found his way back to the right track, Sandakan was invaded. 

He said the take over was swift and he would later found out why. He was among the people who were rounded up and sent to a labour camp. I don't know whether it was a rampant exercise or a selective process but my grandfather find himself in an alien situation that not even his live of poverty and hardship in his hometown Bundu could prepare him for what he was about to face.

They were made to do hard manual labour. He said it was very tough! They worked under the hot sun, from dusk till dawn and they were not allowed to rest. If they stopped to rest, they would be beaten up and the Japanese didn't actually serve them a 5 star 7 course meal either. He said he was always hungry and because of the lack of food, he was mentally and physically fatigued! I think fatigue would be an understatement. 

After a grueling day, all he could do was to crawl up to his sleeping quarter and curl up in a foetal position and cry. He said he could hear sobbing from other men around him too. He said his body would be raked with unimaginable pain and he would feel sick because of extreme hunger. He missed his family, especially his parents and would wonder about their well being. Whether they were in the same plight as him and whether they were alive. He said he was in utter dismay and engulfed with a sense of hopelessness.

One day, while working, he saw the camp manager for the first time. He recognized the man, he had been a fixture of the business circle in Sandakan long before the invasion. It sank in for my grandfather that the Japanese that he thought was just a businessman was actually a spy sent in to recce for the invading party.

He must have felt betrayed. I can only imagine. However, one fateful day, the manager saw my grandfather and remembered him as English educated and literate. My grandfather's education had been sponsored by the Catholic Mission and if you had the chance to meet him, you'd be in awe of his Queen's English.

The camp manager summoned my grandfather. I can only imagine how scared my grandfather as he made his way to the office, what more hardship is in store for him, he must had wondered that? 

My grandfather said he was relieved when the manager told him that he needed a clerk and whether he was interested! He accepted it. I'm not sure whether he accepted it on the spot or he struggled to come to a decision but he said, he accepted it as it would mean he didn't have to do hard labour which he couldn't withstand any longer. 

From that day on, he worked in the office. He didn't tell me whether his meal improved or not but he told me situation improved for him. He did tell me that the manager was kind to him. I suppose this nameless manager must had been kind because one day, he asked my grandfather why was he sad? My grandfather told him that he missed his parents and worried for them. 

The next day, the manager handed a travel pass to my grandfather. The travel pass enabled him to travel without being harassed by the Japanese army. The manager told him to go and visit his parents and come back to work after my grandfather did his duty as a son. 

My grandfather said he readily promised to the manager with no intention to honour it!  I wouldn't blame him for breaking his promise in this instance.

So he caught the next ship that would sail to the East Coast of North Borneo and never looked back. Glad he did it. Otherwise, I wouldn't be around to blog about his experience now. 

To the unnamed Japanese manager, thank you for your kindness.   



AngeL BeaR said...

his life must be very hard back then..ur lucky to hear it from him! even papa never said anything much about his life when he was young, only in few pieces of memories here and there, nothing much...

Justin said...

Yup. Lucky. Only learned to appreciate all things old in my later years LOL. My next 'project' is to find out more about our ancestors Laksamana and Datu Koh Thai Hock.

When your mama tua and aunty Maggie are together, ask them to tell you about your dad's story and also theirs, shiok tu. They got many funny stories about growing up.

Tina said...

Interesting post, Justin. I didn't know your grandfather was in Sandakan during WW2. But I remember the family saying your mom was 'born during the war' and life was very difficult.
Looking forward to more stories about other ancestors!

Justin said...

Thanks Auntie Tina. That's what he told me(about being in Sandakan).

Maybe he got married to grandma after he returned to Bundu and mom was conceived soon after. The war lasted from 1942 to 1945 after all.

Wah.. They must had great faith that the war would end soon and got married despite the hardship!

I try to 'interview' more elders when I'm in KP.

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