We have already covered two of the possibilities of how my great-uncle Silvestr Nemec might have perished during the Battle of Singapore: He could have become a victim of the infamous Alexandra Hospital massacre; or might have died in battle somewhere in the Pasir Panjang area.
The third possible scenario is that Silvestr had survived the fights and was captured as a prisoner of war (POW).
It is less likely than the previous options we had already discussed, because unlike for those two, there is almost no evidence or reference to support the third scenario we will analyze today. However, in the absence of a solid proof for any of the versions, we can’t entirely rule out a possibility that he had died only several days – perhaps weeks or even months – after the surrender of Singapore. It surely must had been before the Japanese finished identification and registration of all their prisoners, because Silvestr’s name can’t be found in any of the known lists. On contrary, it’s been quite easy to find a POW registration card of Josef Vyhnalek:
Photo: Record of Josef Vyhalek from the Japanese registry of their prisoners of war.
Vyhnalek’s card was written on 15th August of the 17th year of the Hirohito’s era, which corresponds with the year 1942 of the Christian calendar – exactly six months after the capitulation. It’s recorded that Vyhnalek was captured on 17th February.
The fact that there is no trace of Silvestr in the POW lists suggests that had he been captured, did not survive long enough to be properly registered. Significantly, we have not seen any witness account of seeing Silvestr in captivity: in case he became POW, he must had ended up in separation from the rest of the Czechoslovaks. Within the Czechoslovak community, a story of Silvestr’ death in the Alexandra hospital clearly prevailed.
There however is one historical document according to which Silvestr was not considered as a person missing, but as a prisoner of war. This document is unique not only due to this information, but also because of its own story.
It’s a so called Jeyes List – a nominal roll secretly written up sometime in 1942 by Jack Bennett – a salesman from an export company based in Borneo, who was kept in the Singapore’s internment camp at Changi. It was here that Bennett compiled a list of all known Europeans from Malaya and Singapore that were not interned at Changi, and therefore were either known to be prisoners of war, or were considered as missing. Bennett and his team were collecting and verifying their information from other people captured in the camp, or from those who were transiting through it.
Bennett’s unique list is written in microscopic letters on 18 sheets of toilet paper – the only piece of paper accessible in the camp, where it was forbidden to keep any documents or records. He attached a code to every name, indicating his fate: “M” was for missing, “POW” indicated those who became prisoners of war.
Like many other invaluable documents, I have received a copy of the Jeyes List from Jonathan Moffatt from the Malayan Volunteer Group. Here is how one of the sheets looks like, to give you an idea:
Photo: One of the 18 sheets of toilet paper on which Jack Bennett wrote in 1942 his incredible record of the whereabouts of the European citizens living in Malaya and Singapore. Source: archive of Jonathan Moffatt
And here is a detail: although on the verge of readibility, yet it’s an unmistakable record of Silvestr Nemec. It reads as: “NEMEC – CZECH – BATA – POW”.
Photo: Detail of the Jeyes list with a record of Silvestr.
So indeed, Silvestr might had been captured alive, maybe wounded. According to the historians with whom i have been consulting my research, the Jeyes List is considered to be highly reliable, with some 95% accuracy. Of course, Silvestr may belong to the 5% of cases where Bennett’s information was incorrect.
Czechoslovaks in the Japanese captivity
We already know that there were about hundred Czechoslovaks living in Singapore before the WW2. Some of them managed to escape the approaching Japanese in time – mostly the wifes and children of the Bata employees, who evacuated to India or Australia. Some of them however also died as the evacuation ships were bombed at sea. (A hypothesis that Silvestr could have died during evacuation is the least likely option, yet it’s worth looking into as well – i will revisit it next time.)
The older or married Batamen, who did not join the Straits Settlement Volunteer Forces, served as home guards and were lucky that at the time of capitulation, their commander suggested them to discard their uniforms and dress up in their civilian cloths. As civilians, they had a chance to live in better conditions under the Japanese.
This moment is captured in the previously already quoted article published in Bata’s weekly, Batanagar News in October 1945:
“On 15th February the battle seemed lost. Surrender was in progress. The Commander of the Volunteer Corps called the Czechoslovaks and told them: There is no certainty whether with the Japanese there are no German officers, or at least German controlled intelligence personnel. If they caught you with arms, you would be treated as traitors, considering your country is occupied by the Germans, and as such mercilessly hanged, not to think of worse. Keep your soldiers’ books and better leave the lines, go home and change into civilian cloths. It will be safer.”
The story published in Batanagar News is based on witness account of the first two Batamen who arrived in India after the internment camp in Singapore was liberated. They also describe some of the horrors and atrocities that followed the surrender of Singapore:
“Singapore was a devastated town. Both Allied and Japanese dead were lying in hundreds on the streets, fires were fiercely burning, there was no electricity, the canals were smashed and rubbish found their way on the streets. It was an indescribable scene. The Japanese New Order came into force […] Scores of heads severed from the body – of Europeans, Malayans and Chinese – hung on public buildings, on the streets and halls served as warning against the slightest disobedience. On the street corners were dying the roped men of thirst and hunger and spat by the passing Japanese.”
Here is also Vyhnalek’s recollection of the chaos and brutality that followed the fall of Singapore, and in which Silvestr may had found his end. Vyhnalek himself was captured during the battle at Pasir Panjang.
“For those of us who became prisoners of war, a death march followed to the concentration camp at Changi Barracks. Why do i refer to it as a death march? As we were walking through the city in inless columns, at every street crossing, a Japanese officer puled one prisoner out. That unfortunate was then tied to a pole or chair and bayoneted to death on the eyes of his fellows. It was argued later that the Japanese did this as a warning to the other prisoners, and also to show to the natives that the white men are not anymore in charge of the island.”
Although historians question the reference to the “death march”, because there are no other records of this particular brutality committed by Japanese at Singapore (in contrast, for example, with Philippines), its apparent that there was plenty of chaos and violence in the days and weeks that followed the surrender, during which the wounded were dying and more killings were taking place.
There is another small indication that Silvestr might had survived the surrender: the date of his death in the online record of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) says he died on 17th February – that would be two days after the capitulation. As we know, Silvestr’s official death certificate states that he died “on or around 15th February 1942”. It would be interesting to understand where the discrepancy comes from, and what is the original reference of the CWGC record. Unfortunately, my inquiries with CWGC on this matter so far had failed.
What used to be a British colonial prison at Singapore’s Changi, became an internment camp in which about 3,000 European civilians were held by the Japanese occupants.
Although the name “Changi” also became a synonym for a POW camp in Singapore, the prisoners of war were in fact kept in the British Selarang barracks in its vicinity. From there, many were later transferred to labor camps as a forced labor. Their first tasks were however clean up of Singapore. This is how Vyhnalek described his experience:
“Our first job was cleaning up the rubble and burying the corpses of the dead. The decay was very fast in the tropical weather, so there was a terrible stench spreading to a perimeter of one kilometer, and when we approached the dead body, swarms of flies […] Rice and rice only for food. The rations were small, completely inadequate. We were making salt out of the sea water. We boiled soup from the grass, it was hardly digestible […] When we worked outside the camp, we sometimes managed to collect wild green limes or coconuts, because they are plentiful in Malaya. Sometimes we managed to find snails – we boiled them together with rice, but again, not everybody was able to eat them.”
The conditions in the Selarang POW camp were hard. They are pictured, among others, in a famous movie King Rat, filmed in 1965 – it’s a story of a corrupt corporal who informally becomes the boss of the camp and enjoys relatively luxurious life, while his comrades are starving and living in tatters.
Photo: Poster of the King Rat movie – a story taking place in the Changi POW camp in Singapore.
Although the camps at Changi were tough, they were still a friendly place in comparison with the working camps at Barma and Borneo, to where many of the POWs were later transferred. While only about a thousand prisoners out of 50,000 died during captivity at Changi, the death rate in the other working camps averaged about a third.
Most likely, all eleven Batamen who fought with SSVF and FMSVF were taken as Japanese prisoners (and possibly also Silvestr as twelfth). Since May 1943, they were sent to the labor camps outside of Singapore.
This is as well captured in Vyhnalek’s account:
“About a year later [after being at the Changi concentration camp], we were divided into three groups. The first one went to Burma to build a railway and road there, another one to Labuan on Borneo to build an airport, and third to Japan.
We as Czechoslovaks wanted to stay together. I was therefore very unhappy when a Japanese officer pulled me out of our group that was heading for Borneo, and assigned me to Burma.
Soon we realized what kind of a hell we arrived to. Tropical ulcers, skin diseases, malaria and the worst – cholera – were haunting us all the time. Some camps perished to the last men due to cholera, in some others only a third of the men survived. The dead infected bodies were often left in open without burrials, so when the rains came, the water got contaminated.
In early 1944, the railway and road across the jungle in Barma were nearly finished. Hundreds of allied bombers attacked and destroyed a project that cost 150,000 human lives. The Japanese invasion to India was stopped.”
The Burma Railway – often also referred to as a Death Railway – was designed by the Japanese and stretched from Bangkok in Thailand to the western coast of Burma. Its main purpose was to enable the supply to the Japanese army during their operation in Burma, and to support the planned invasion to the British India (as it included today’s Bangladesh, it was directly neighboring Burma). Without the railway crossing the inland, the Japanese would have to rely on transport ship that would have to go around the whole Malayan peninsula, and would be quite vulnerable during this several thousand kilometers long journey.
In contrast, the railway supply route was only 400 km long, but it had to cut through mountainous and wild inland. Therefore, its construction was a very challenging task, and it required more than 600 bridges to be built.
Photo: Japanese prisoners carry railway sleepers during the Burma railway construction. This photograph was taken sometime in 1943.
Another legendary movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai is depicting a story of one of these bridges. It’s however told in a very patriotic and romanticizing way: the British pride and virtuosity make the main hero to advice the supposedly inferior Japanese engineers how to construct a bridge, which – as it became a monument to the British genius – he then sets to protect from the allied air raid. In reality however, the Japanese managed to design and construct this extremely challenging project in a record time of just several months in the autumn of 1943.
Photo: Tents set for the prisoners infected with cholera, built aside from the main labor camp in Barma.
The price for such a success was however paid in the horrible conditions under which the extremely hard work was performed by the local natives and the prisoners of war. The Japanese concentrated about 250,000 workers along the railway, and they were forced to work in the hostile jungle with just minimum supply of food and medicine, and no real infrastructure. The railway was built largely manually, using simple shovels and pickers, practically without any mechanized machinery.
Photo: Three Australian prisoners of war in one of the labor camps along the Burma railway. Source: AWM.
About 20% of the British prisoners who were sent to work on the Barma railway had not survived. Overall, approximately 100,000 people died here as a result of malnutrition, mistreatment and diseases.
After it was finished in late 1943, the railway served until the end of war, except of several short interruptions due to allied attacks. When the work was done, most of the prisoners were relocated again, and the Japanese only maintained several small camps there in order to maintain and repair the railway as needed.
Let’s quote again from Vyhnalek’s memoirs:
“The Japanese then decided to focus on defense and to build an air base at Singapore’s Changi Point. The remaining prisoners from Burma were assigned to it. Therefore, we were going back to Singapore – that was in the middle of 1944. After two months there, we realized that all the skin diseases that infected us in Burma were gone – a miraculous Singapore climate!
But as we got rid of one disease, another hit us badly. Epidemy of beri-beri spread quickly among us, and many prisoners died of it. Our legs first got swollen and painful. When the swelling and pain extended to our stomachs, we knew it was bad: the patient was not able to eat anymore and died within two weeks.”
It was because of beriberi that two of Silvestr’s friends and colleagues died in the spring of 1945: Karel Vitek and Rudolf Janecek.
Photo: Registry of death of the British Colonial Office. On the second line, there is a record of Karel Vitek. He died in a camp at Brunei on 18th March 1945 as a result of malaria and beriberi.
Karel Vitek and Rudolf Janecek were transferred from Changi in March 1943 as a part of the “Force E” to Borneo. It was there, in Batu Litang/Kuching camp that Vitek died on 18th March because of malaria and beriberi. Rudolf Janecek was in the same group of prisoners and died in the same camp as a result of the same diseases a month earlier.
The other Czechoslovak volunteers who became prisoners of war managed to survive and see their liberation.
The fate of the civilian interns was still hard, but a bit lighter than that of the POWs. Bohman and Jedovnicky told the Batanagar News that immediately after the Japanese occupation began, they had to wear a visible red start symbol – marking the “enemies of Japan” – and also their apartments were marked in a similar way. Unlike many other European civilians that were soon interned at Changi, the Bata employees were allowed to stay in the city – but they were requested to renew the production of shoes, which were in high demand by the Japanese army.
“A Jap office daily came with more and more threatening promises, supplemented with kicks and slaps if the Batamen did not bow to him right down to the earth. The deep humiliating bow to every Jap-soldier, officer, even civilian. It was almost a miracle that they got together some tools and in the chaos of Japanese occupied Singapore they got material at least for few hundred pairs of shoes […] Placed as they were in such danger – surrounded, guarded, watched and controlled – the Singapore Batamen refused to give in, refused to work for the Japs. Had they done it openly, there would not be any Batamen to tell the story today, so they found their way: for each pair of shoes supplied to the Japanese authority, they made four pairs of footwear and secretly gave them to the Chinese, Indian and Malayan population whose plight cannot be described. In reward, the Singapore people helped them with foodstuffs and materials. And the shoes for the Japs were specially marked which indicated – Make them specially for Japs! They were made so specially that complaints were received after every despatch.”
The Batamen also delivered hundreds of pairs of shoes to the camp, especially for the interned women and children. Besides shoes, they also secretly supplied the camp from outside with quinine and other badly needed medicine. The Batanagar News article continues:
“Such activity could not be hidden for long, even with the best precautions. A military police once came to the Bata house and took away the Manager, Mr Jugas, along with Mr Chudarek and Mr Ambroz, for interrogation to the Military Police headquarters – some sort of Japanese Gestapo. This office was a prison and torture chamber, situated in the former YMCA building in Singapore. These three came out after one week, all at the point of collapsing. Only after the victory day it was possible to get out of them piece by piece what had really happened […] Appart from brutal interrogation they had to suffer themselves, they had to witness the terrible and indescribable torture of other prisoners, including women and young boys and girls.”
Finally, the Japanese lost their patience and took over the shoe production themselves. All the remaining Batamen were then also put into the Changi internment camp.
“On the 6th December 1943, the Jap police surrounded the premises and gave thirty minutes for dressing and taking some belongings. Then they threw all the Czechoslovaks into a van and took them to the Malayan prison in Changi […]
Bohman and Jedovnicky have given me an instance of the life in the Camp: The shortage of food there is known by now to the world. In the grass and evergrowing bushes around, there were plenty of slimy slugs. Some of the inmates tried to cook and eat them – they proved to be eatable and promised at least partly to still the hungry stomach. Joining collection of the slugs was then organized, and they were primarily given to the sick ones.
Death was stalking in the camp. There were deaths from torture, deaths from exhaustion, malnutrition and diseases. There were nervous breakdowns, illnesses, sufferings. How the Batamen withstood them all?
They were to work hard, day in and day out, from morning till evening, performing the most humble and humiliating tasks one can think of. When in the evenings, the tired body wants rest and hungry stomach pains, the most gloomy thoughts come in one’s mind: Can I stand all through? How about my wife and child in India? Are they all right? How abut the family under Germans? What will come of me when it is over? What new tricks the Japs will try tomorrow?
It was Mr Jugas who arranged the filling up of such moments […] Coming back from work, they set up to learn thoroughly the King’s English; others went with Malayans; Then Matus was cooking, Mizia with Varmuza were hospital orderlies; Jugas himself, Pospisil and Martinec were cultivating the allotment of earth and so on.”
Several years spent in the camp caused a deep trauma to most of the Bata people. Several of their descendants, currently living in Australia and elsewhere, wrote me about how their parents kept meeting and socializing after the war – gathering for Sunday afternoon tea, card games – but they never talked about the gloomy experiences they had to go through during the internment; not among themselves, not to their children.
Photo: Liberated British citizens are leaving the gates of the Changi prison, which was used by the Japanese as an internment camp during the occupation of Singapore.
Some other Batamen, such as Viktor Kos, who was captured on sea during an unsuccessful attempt to evacuate Singapore, went through somewhat different experiences. Kos, along with several other colleagues, ended up in an internment camp on Sumatra. He captured his story with a lot of detail in his diary that he wrote in 1943 – but that alone would be enough for a separate story.
Photo: Leaflets dropped above the prisoner camps by the Allies following the capitulation of Japan.
All the individual stories of the Batamen living in Singapore were researched and mapped over the last couple years by Oldrich Plesek – an Australian citizen and descendant of one of the Bata families. For those interested, here is a link to the most recent version of Mr Plesek’s document (one copy had been already deposited in the Czech State Archives in Zlin).
Photo: Liberation questionnaire of Josef Vyhnalek that I found in the National Archives in London. Source: National Archives Kew, London
Captain Nelson’s lists and the mystery of his box
Finally, I am coming back to the question of lists of war prisoners from Singapore. Besides the above mentioned phenomenal Jeyes List, there were many others.
Perhaps the most famous author and collectors of such lists was captain David Nelson, who lead an administrative team in Changi in charge of evidence of the prisoners. Among others, he had managed to bring along with him a Malayan Directory – directory of the British citizens living in Malaya, into which he was then writing updates and information about their whereabouts during the occupation.
We can find Silvestr’s name also in this Nelson’s list. However, unlike in the Jeyes List, Silvestr is recorded as missing. His record was added by a pencil, and says “M/V NEMEC S 1/SSVF”. The letter “M” stands for “missing”, and “V” indicates he was a volunteer; there is also additional information that he was with the 1st of battalion of the SSVF.
Photo: Handwritten record of Silvestr in the Malayan Directory of captain Nelson. Source: Imperial War Museum, London
As the war ended, captain Nelson collected several hundred kilograms of documents at Changi – mostly nominal rolls and lists of people who were kept in, or transited through, the camp. These papers were stored into two large boxes, which in September 1945 captain Nelson loaded on board of a plane heading to Ceylon. This was the last time had seen them, as they disappeared from public eye for several decades – the British government appears to have classified them in their secret archives. It was only in May 2011 when part of them resurfaced in a batch of de-classified documents released to the British National Archive. The whole mysterious story has been summarized in an interesting article in The Times. As I have learnt, the historians generally refer to the Nelson’s collection as Nelson’s Box.
Photo: Article from The Times, July 2011, tells the fascinating and mysterious story of captain David Nelson’s documents.
I have decided to get access the original of the Jeyes List: because I both wanted to get a better copy, but also just see that artifact with my own eyes. However when I requested the collection of captain Nelson’s documents from the archives of the Imperial War Museum, all that I was eventually provided with was one large cardboard box with documents – all that they presumably keep of the much larger collection of the Nelson’s Box.
Yet, going through that small box was still very interesting. There were a number of lists, of various shapes, sizes and colors. However, there was no trace of the Jeyes List I was most after.
Photo: Cardboard with documents from captain Nelson’s collection, as it was presented to me by the IWM archive.
Photo: An example of the content of the collection of lists from Singapore POW camp kept at the archives of IWM.
From my correspondence with several historians as well as the curator of the IWM archives, it eventually became clear that nobody knows exactly where the original of the Jeyes List could be found. It appears that bigger part of the Nelson’s collection is impossible to find again.
The curator of the IWM archives who was in particular expert in the history of Singapore occupation and that had the best overview of existing documentation, had unfortunately passed several years ago – and with him went also his immense knowledge.
And so the Nelson’s documents and lists that might bring more light into the unknowns about Silvestr’s fate, seem to be lost again, somewhere in the basements of the British archives.