Wexford's tragic prisoner of war

By David Tucker

mary o'shea at memorial
mary o'shea at memorial
Mary O'Shea, from Templetown, is Michael's only surviving relative in Ireland.
Michael Walsh from County Wexford.
Living at close quarters in the prison camp.
Michael Walsh from County Wexford.
Living at close quarters in the prison camp.

a County Wexford man is honoured at a war memorial to those who died at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army following the fall of Singapore, but closer to home his memory is similarly honoured at a windswept cemetery by his only surviving relative in Ireland.

The name of Michael Walsh, of Templetown, a gunner with a Royal Artillery Coastal Regiment, who died at the age of 27 on March 5, 1943, as a prisoner of war of the Japanese, is inscribed on the Singapore Memorial as it is in a much smaller memorial at Templetown.

The son of Philip Walsh and Annie Walsh (nee Corish), of Fethard-on-Sea, Michael was one of thousands of men who surrendered when Singapore fell to the Japanese.

Les Newman, the Secretary of the Royal British Legion (RBL) said Michael Walsh was captured, interned and died in Changi.

'He is remembered on the Singapore Memorial and on a family grave headstone at Templetown Church,' said Les.

Mary O'Shea, from Templetown, is Michael's only surviving relative in Ireland.

'I'm the one that put his name on the headstone, though I never met him, I wasn't even born when he was killed,' said Mary.

'I heard he was very quiet, but I know nothing else about him,' Mary told this newspaper.

'A cousin of mine did a bit of investigation, but she said I wouldn't really want to know what happened to him. He was taken prisoner, so I suppose he died of neglect and dysentery,' said Mary, who erected a memorial to Michael at Templetown Cemetery where she takes part in a small Remembrance Sunday ceremony each year.

'It was the least I could do, I am his only living relation here and at least he has his own little plaque,' she said.

Les, who has studied the fall of Singapore, says Michael was more than likely one of the defenders of Singapore captured after the fall of the fortress island and imprisoned in the notorious Changi jail, along with thousand of other troops and civilians.

Changi was selected by the Japanese as a POW camp area and became one of the harshest Japanese prisoner of war camps. Changi was used to imprison Malayan civilians and Allied soldiers.

The treatment of POWs at Changi was harsh but fitted in with the belief held by the Japanese Imperial Army that those who had surrendered to it were guilty of dishonouring their country and family and, as such, deserved to be treated in no other way.

For this reason, 40,000 men from the surrender of Singapore were marched to the northern tip of the island where they were imprisoned at a military base called Selerang, which was near the village of Changi.

Les said the 'British' civilian population of Singapore was imprisoned in Changi jail itself, one mile away from Selerang. Eventually, any reference to the area was simply made to Changi.

15,000 Australians went in to Selarang Barracks, which had been built to hold just one battalion of infantry, and 35,000 British went to Roberts Barracks, Kitchener Barracks and India Barracks (Java Lines), this would have included Gnr. Michael Walsh.

They were later joined by Dutch POWs captured in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).

Two weeks after the prisoners arrived in Changi, Roberts Barracks was designated as the hospital area. One block was taken over as the operating theatre, another became the isolation ward and blocks 144 and 151 became the dysentery wards.

Despite the size of the hospital area, it was too small to cope with the medical needs of all the prisoners, as indeed was the rest of the Changi area. Battle wounds and the growing shortage of food coupled with few medical resources and major sanitary problems meant that health rapidly declined. POWs were sent out from Changi every day to work in different locations on the island.

Many worked on the Paya Lebar air field and others, mainly from the Bukit Timah camp, were sent to the centre of Singapore to build a Japanese shrine, which was later demolished at the end of the war.

As food supplies dwindled the beautiful gardens around Changi were dug up and vegetables were planted and the Roberts Barracks became a much needed hospital In the first early weeks following the capitulation, the Japanese had placed no restriction on the movements of any prisoners within the Changi area and they were allowed to walk about at will over the whole eastern end of the island - until March 12, 1942, when the Japanese started to limit the activities and freedom of the POWs.

In September 1942 came the 'Selarang Incident' when 15,400 men were concentrated at the Selarang Barracks for refusing to sign a declaration that they would not try to escape.

The POWs held out for three days but eventually the British and Australian commanders ordered their men to sign the declaration, pointing out that failure to do so would result in hundreds of very sick men dying of disease in the squalor, heat and unhygienic conditions.

After the men signed on September 5 they were allowed to return to their normal places of captivity. 3,500 civilians were also interned at Changi Prison. For the first few months the POWs at Changi were allowed to do as they wished with little interference from the Japanese.

There was just enough food and medicine provided and, to begin with, the Japanese seemed indifferent to what the POWs did at Changi. Concerts were organised, quizzes, sporting events etc. The camp was organised into battalions, regiments etc and meticulous military discipline was maintained.

However, by Easter 1942, the attitude of the Japanese had changed. They organised work parties to repair the damaged docks in Singapore and food and medicine became scarce.

More pointedly, the Japanese made it clear that they had not signed the Geneva Convention and that they ran the camp as they saw fit. As 1942 moved on, death from dysentery and vitamin deficiencies became more common. The mood of the Japanese changed for the worst when a POW tried to escape.

The attempt was a failure and the Japanese demanded that everyone in the camp sign a document declaring that they would not attempt to escape.

This was refused. As a result, 20,000 POW's were herded onto a barrack square and told that they would remain there until the order was given to sign the document.

When this did not get the desired result, a group of POWs was marched to the local beach and shot. Despite this, no-one signed the document.

Only when the men were threatened by an epidemic, was the order given that the document should be signed. However, the commanding officer made it clear that the document was non-binding as it had been signed under duress. He also knew that his men desperately needed the medicine that the Japanese would have withheld if the document had not been signed.

But this episode marked a point of no-return for the The Japanese used the POWs at Changi for forced labour. The formula was very simple - if you worked, you would get food. If you did not work, you would get no food. Men were made to work in the docks where they loaded munitions onto ships. They were also used to clear sewers damaged in the attack on Singapore. The men who were too ill to work relied on those who could work for their food.

Sharing what were already meagre supplies became a way of life. The number of POWs kept at Changi dropped quite markedly as men were constantly shipped out to other areas in the Japanese empire to work. Men were sent to Borneo to work, or to Thailand to work on the Burma-Thai railway or to Japan itself where they were made to work down mines.

They were replaced by more captured soldiers, airmen and sailors from a variety of Allied nations. Malaria, dysentery and dermatitis were common, as were beatings for not working hard enough. In 1943, the 7,000 men left at Selerang were moved to the jail in Changi.

Les Newman said Changi was built to hold 1,000 people, but the Japanese crammed in the 7,000 POWs, five or six to one-man cells. With such overcrowding, the risk of disease and it spreading was very real.

Very little arrived from the Red Cross and the men at Changi had to rely on their own initiative to survive. For example, the army medics at Changi made tablets and convinced the Japanese guards that they were a cure for Venereal Disease, and accordingly sold them to the guards.

They could then buy proper medicine for their own men in an attempt to aid those who were sick.

As the end of the Pacific War approached, rations to the POW's were reduced and the work requirement increased. POWs were made to dig tunnels and fox holes in the hills around Singapore so that the Japanese would have places to hide and fight when the Allies finally reached Singapore. Pay for this work was increased to 30 cents a day - but one coconut cost $30.

Many POWs believed that the Japanese would kill them as the Allies got near to Singapore. This never happened. When Emperor Hirohito told the people of Japan that the war 'has gone not necessarily to our advantage', the Japanese soldiers at Changi simply handed over the prison to those who had been the prisoners.

To these soldiers, they were simply obeying an Imperial order and were not disgracing their families or country.

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