“One of the most horrifying lies the Japanese told people was that they would give them a job so long as these men followed them.
Many people, particularly men desperate to bring food to the table, believed and went away with the soldiers. Your grandfather was one of them.
The Japanese would bring the unknowing victims to isolated beaches, tied their hands together and lined them up in a straight line by the seaside.
Taking their rifles, they would fire away and watch the helpless individuals fall down one by one into the seawater. It was almost like a game for them,” Ah Ma recounted angrily.
My grandfather escaped death even though he was already lined up by the seaside thankfully for the missed bullets and the mangled mess of bodies that came crashing down upon him like dominoes falling on each other after the first one was pushed.
As the fortunate few, he climbed out from the pile of human shields in a dramatic-sounding fashion and only made his way home after a few days of walking.
But he did live to marry and tell my Ah Ma his frightful story.
Although Ah Ma did not experience the firing range first hand, her experiences with the ‘Japanese ghost,’ a local term to refer to their new colonizers, were no less good.
“For the girls, the Japanese would pull down their pants and rape them and for the boys, they would beat them up very badly,” Ah Ma exclaimed. “So once we hear that they are around the area, we would run away.”
She was 13 years old when the Japanese came.
Landing in Singapore early February 1942, the Imperial Army troops crossed the Straits of Johor from Malaya (today’s Malaysia) riding on bicycles in a shocking attack for the British, who had brazenly called the island an ‘impregnable fortress.’In less than a week, the British surrendered their century-old colony to their enemies, barely putting up a fight due to forces being tied up back in Europe.
Despite being at war, it barely made a ripple in Ah Ma’s comfort zone.
“I only heard bits of news from my parents or my neighbors but honestly, I didn’t know what was going on out there,” Ah Ma said with a sheepish smile.
December 7, 1941 – Pearl Harbor in Hawaii came under a surprise military strike by the Japanese, who officially declared their ambitions in the Pacific. The United States entered World War II for the first time.
Two months later, the Japanese conquered the whole of Malaya, including Singapore, putting an end to more than a century worth of British colonization.
“Compared to the British who left us to our own devices, the Japanese constantly harassed us,” grandma recounted the war years when she grew up as a young teenage girl. “They were merciless, brutal and always beating innocent people up.”
“The Japanese dropped a huge bomb after a plane flew past at the other end of my village and a lot of people died,” Ah Ma said. “Since then, we would never stay in our houses when we hear the sound of planes.”
Dodging bombs became a matter of survival and the main preoccupation in Ah Ma’s everyday life.
Once a plane is spotted or heard, Grandma and her neighbors would flee to a nearby rubber plantation to seek cover.
Amongst the thicket of rubber trees, they would hide in a long and deep trench secretly dug by numerous families, which could fit about five to six families. To camouflage their hiding place, wooden planks were placed across the hole before grass patches were laid above them.
On top of experiencing psychological trauma, the war also depleted supplies of resources in a country where natural resources are in the first place hard to come by.
As a tiny island, Singapore is never a self-sustainable nation, importing almost everything from critical food resources to petroleum. (According to the CIA, Singapore is about 3.5 times the size of Washington D.C.)During the warring years, staples such as rice and noodles came under tighter centralized controls and were rationed monthly.
“We had to carry our identification cards and wait in a long line to get our rations,” Ah Ma recalled. “Different items were distributed at different places, rice could be in the east and kerosene in the west, so we had to cover great distances before we could buy them.”
In spite of going to great lengths to obtain rations, they were barely enough for Ah Ma’s family of six to survive. Such limited supplies drove them to search for another way out, which sadly put an abrupt end to grandma’s childhood.
“I remembered blisters and calluses formed on my hands from digging the soil and carrying hoes,” Ah Ma said. “They were really painful but we didn’t have any money to buy gloves to protect my hands.”
Like most of her neighbors, grandma’s family planted cheap but nutritious sweet potatoes and tapioca plants in their backyard as alternatives to the much-preferred white rice to supplement their diets.
Days of terror reigned for the rest of the three years and eight months until 1945 where atomic bombs Little Man and Fat Boy brought the Japanese imperial army to their knees, which also drew an end to their occupation of Malaya.