JEREMIAH had his arms around his Amah’s neck as she carried him to the bottom of the stairs where his older siblings were waiting. He pleaded with his Amah to go with them, but the equally distraught Amah told them that she couldn’t and promised that she would wait for their return.
It was a heartbreaking scene as his older siblings, Roger and Ann, hugged and kissed the Amah goodbye.
Their mother, they were told, would be waiting on board the ship. The war clouds looming above meant they had no time to wait.
The story of Jeremiah and his siblings as child evacuees who left on a ship from Singapore is a fictionalised story The Herewegoes written by Barbara Baker and published by the Hogarth Press, London, in 1948.
However, it is a story, replicated in so many households in Malaya and Singapore and many other countries with news of the advancing Japanese troops into Malaya just after midnight on Dec 8, 1941.
Children and women had to be saved first while the men, even the non-military ones, stayed behind to help in the war efforts.
Malaya fell at the end of January 1942 and Singapore, a few weeks later.
I met several of the child evacuees, who were too young to remember being bundled into the waiting evacuation ships in Singapore; some left with their mothers, never to see their fathers again.
Their stories have something similar – their parents were tightlipped about their harrowing experience, but they left behind journals and diaries that revealed everything.
“The Herewegoes was written by my grandmother, Barbara, during the war.
“Her sister, Joyce Prentis, died on one of the evacuation ships, the SS Kuala.
“Her sister was not evacuated until Feb 13, 1942 and no doubt wrote to her (when she came back to Britain after retirement) about the situation in Singapore running up to this date,” said Dr Hilary Custance Baker of her beloved grandmother.
Hilary’s grandfather, Alan Custance Baker, had been in the Malayan Civil Service for 32 years and was adviser to the sultan of Kelantan since 1930.
She believes that the story of Jeremiah and his siblings is based on her grandmother’s knowledge of travelling to and from the East with small children.
“I think for her it was a way of dealing with some of her grief over the sister, and of her beloved, fragile and heroic youngest son, who died in an air accident in 1945. It is no coincidence that little Jeremiah is really the hero of the Herewegoes,” said Hilary.
Hilary has written three books, one of them Surviving the Death Railway: A POWs Memoir and Letters from Home, based on letters written from her parents to each other during the war.
I contacted and spoke to several other child evacuees, now in their late 70s and early 80s; most of whom are members of the Malayan Volunteers Group (MVG), set up in memory of volunteers who died during the war.
KEEPING MEMORIES ALIVE
Rosemary Fell, 79, who was herself a child evacuee, was instrumental in setting up this group. She was born in Singapore.
“In 2003, I attended a lunch in London with 11 other children of Malayan Volunteers who had been Far East Prisoners of War. We decided to raise some money to buy a bench for the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire and dedicate it to the Malayan Volunteer Forces,” said Rosemary.
They raised enough money to buy two benches and a Memorial Stone, which they put in the arboretum.
“As I learnt more about what happened to the Far Eastern Prisoners of Wars, and my father, I decided that I would do all I could to raise awareness about the Malayan Volunteer Forces, which no one in this country seemed to know anything about,” said Rosemary.
Rosemary recently received the British Empire Medal (BEM) in recognition of her work running the MVG for the past 16 years.
“My mother and I were evacuated on a Canadian Pacific Liner called the Aorangi, which had brought troops from South Africa. The ship left Singapore on Jan 16, 1942 bound for Fremantle in Western Australia, and arrived about eight days later.
“My mother never talked about the journey and I was too young to remember anything about it,” said Rosemary whose companion during the voyage and through some scary moments, was a teddy bear, which she keeps until today.
Rosemary learnt about her experience from a journal that her mother, Kathleen Reeve, wrote.
Kathleen died at the age of 102 in 2009.
“I don’t know when she wrote her story, but I discovered it when I was selling her house 14 years ago when she went into a residential home,” Rosemary added.
Kathleen had gone to Singapore to work in the Children’s Ward at the General Hospital.
It was there that she was reunited with Eric whom she had met in Britain before he left for Malaya where he was a headmaster of the government English School in Melaka.
They were married in July 1938 and Rosemary was born 18 months later.
Kathleen, in her journal, wrote about being deliriously happy, but “had a nagging premonition that something dreadful was going to happen”.
That dreadful day came soon enough. When the Japanese were infiltrating the northern parts of Malaya on bicycles, Kathleen left with baby Rosemary for Johor to stay with some friends.
“Amah was upset and tearful at the thought of leaving Rosemary,” she wrote, adding she left with a suitcase, driving through rubber trees and isolated kampongs. The army, navy and air force had begun evacuating their women and children by ships.
The bombs began pounding Malaya and Singapore, and even when they were boarding the Aorangi, the bombing didn’t stop.
They were allowed one suitcase and 100 Malayan dollars each and Rosemary was allowed her doll’s pram.
They sailed to Freemantle in Western Australia where the Red Cross helped them with clothing and food.
The long journey home involved flying in a small plane, a bus and they even got stranded in the middle of nowhere, where hotels did not allow children.
“After we had been in Australia for about two months, my mother decided we must try to get back to England as my father had urged her to do.
“This is why we sailed on the SS Ulysses from Sydney, across the Pacific Ocean and through the Panama Canal into the Caribbean where we were torpedoed by a German U-boat.
“It was from this ship that my teddy bear was rescued and I still have it,” explained Rosemary.
Both mother and daughter and other evacuees ended up in lifeboats until they were rescued by an American destroyer.
Rosemary read about her mother’s perilous climb up the American destroyer, with her clinging on to her mother.
It was three-and-a-half months since they left Singapore that they arrived in London, surviving the attacks by German submarines.
During this time, Eric had been taken prisoner of war and died while working on the Burma-Siam Railway.
In 1946, Kathleen returned to work in Malaya, to train nurses to look after mothers and babies in Kuala Kangsar, Alor Star and Johor Baru.
She was eventually appointed Health Matron of Johor until Malaya gained independence in 1957.
IPOH GIRL AT HEART
Ruth Iversen Rollitt was 3 when she and her brother, Per, were evacuated along with their parents, Berthel and Corry Iversen.
Berthel was an architect in Ipoh who designed and built some of the Danish buildings in modern Malaya.
He was allowed to leave with the family because he had a broken leg after a fall.
Ruth, who was born in Batu Gajah, Perak, in 1938, and like Rosemary, did not remember anything about the evacuation. But Ruth came from a family who wrote journals and diaries through peaceful and turbulent times.
“I only have what my mother had written in her Never a Dull Moment journal. I was only 3 and a bit, and my parents obviously protected us from all harm,” said Ruth who had just recently read a eulogy at a friend’s funeral, a friendship that started when they were evacuated to Melbourne.
“Josy and I met when we were so tiny! We were both children who had been evacuated from Malaya when the Pacific War broke out,” she recalled about her 77 years of friendship with Josy.
From her mother’s journal, Ruth learned that they had moved to live in the house that her father built in Cameron Highlands. A lot of food had been rationed but they had enough.
The order for European women and children to leave the hills came on Dec 8.
They could only take one suitcase, which the wives could carry themselves.
It was unsettling times. They had just arrived in Kuala Lumpur when they were woken up in the middle of the night with orders to leave as the Japanese had passed Klang and almost near Kuala Lumpur.
Ruth’s father was then asked to go to Java to build a hospital and quarters for the British army and air force there.
So they sailed on a small ship, Plancius, on Feb 6 for Batavia, the last Dutch ship to leave with evacuees.
“We had to be at Collier Quay at 12 noon and sat in a small launch on the water for several hours with Japanese planes flying overhead dropping bombs non-stop. It was terrifying!
“Per was not allowed to take his lovely Malaccan junk with him, the only toy now left was his little tin helmet, which he adored. Ruth was just clinging to me all the time, did not even think of toys, all she wanted was to be safe on the big ship,” wrote Corry.
Adults were allowed to take £600 and they had to leave their valuables behind.
The convoy was to sail straight and fast to Batavia, but the captain of the Plancius broke away from the rest and only sailed at night. During the days, according to Corry, they hid between the many small islands. The other six ships of the convoy were never seen or heard of since. The Japanese had sunk them all.
They left Java again to Melbourne with very little money left.
The family returned to Malaya after the war. Ruth met and married a young Scottish planter but sadly, he was murdered during a robbery. Ruth had always considered Malaysia her home, calling herself an Ipoh girl.
“My father returned to Malaya as soon as the war was over and we followed after some time. The thrill of being back at home was just fantastic! We had had a good time in Australia, but Malaya was the country we loved best,” said Ruth.
Michael Thompson, who arrived in Malaya in 1939 when he was only 3 years old, was evacuated from Singapore on Jan 31, 1942 on his sixth birthday on the Empress of Japan.
“My father had gone out a year earlier to escape the economic recession of the 1930s.
“He became a junior rubber planter on an estate near Kuala Selangor.
“At the age of 4, I was packed off to school in Cameron Highlands as it was considered to be a healthier environment.”
He recalled: “The rapidity of the Japanese advance against all expectations was such that my mother and I, plus by then a younger brother who had been born on May 23, 1941 in Kuala Lumpur, had to leave our rubber estate in a tearing hurry and with just a couple of suitcases, everything else having to be abandoned.
“My father had enlisted with the Volunteer Forces to help throw the Japanese back into the sea before being captured and subsequently dying as a POW on the Burma Siam Railway on June 16, 1943”.
As a 5-year-old, he found the journey and the chaos in Singapore exciting rather than terrifying.
“Our journey south to Singapore must have been a nightmare for my mother and all adults.
“The Japanese had total control of the air and used their Zeros to bomb and strafe on a widespread basis. I was free from schooling, the sight of enemy aircraft in action was a vivid experience and life was for living to my juvenile mind. The awfulness of those times only set in when I became much older.
“As the years went by, I duly became aware of two major emotions on the part of those who had endured those times.
“The first was a deep reluctance to talk about them. For example, if I ever asked my mother about what it was like, she simply clammed up.”
According to Jonathan Moffat, a visual storyteller and historian in MVG, who tirelessly compiles and researches stories for the site, there are more evacuation stories in the Stories section of the MVG website and in their newsletter, “Apa Khabar”.
“Anne Scott wrote about her experiences in her book Journey by Candelight using her maiden name of Anne Kennaway. She got from Singapore to South Africa aboard the Empress of Japan then, and like Rosemary, survived a second journey sinking by German U-boat as she and her sister headed for the UK on another ship.
“Fiona van Lidth der Jeude, then teenager Fiona Sutherland, was evacuated late on from Singapore to India on the same ship as Guy Scoular of MVG, who was then a baby.
“Fiona kept a diary of her experiences, which I hope she will get transcribed. Her father, a planter serving in the Royal Signals, died at the Changi POW camp early on,” said Moffat.
These are stories not found in any history books nor taught in our history lessons but these are stories that need to be told and shared for they are certainly part of our history.