Heart and Soul: Living in a time of war

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With the approaching 75th anniversary of the Japanese surrender in WWII, I often think about my conversations with my late father about his wartime memories. I recall one such account, when I was a schoolboy in the 1960s.

My father and his friends all respected the British as their colonial master. But when they heard that the Japanese – under the fearsome General Yamashita – had defeated the British army in their battles in Kedah and Penang, it was a big blow to their confidence. After that, the Japanese were advancing southward to Kinta Valley rapidly.

So my grandpa moved the whole family to the hills of nearby Temoh to hide. Before they knew it, the Japanese were already attacking Kampar. Although the British army was outnumbered, they fought bravely against the Japanese. Much of the fighting took place at the Chinese cemetery. The British army made use of the tombstones as shields from the gunfire.

After the war, when my father’s family went to pay respects to their grandparents at their graves during Qing Ming, they noticed that many tombstones were badly broken up. They rebuilt their grandparents’ tombstones after the war.

My great-grandparents’ tombstones had probably saved the lives of some British soldiers in the Battle of Kampar.

As a 12-year-old boy then, my father helped my grandparents to evacuate the family. They had to hide deep in the jungles behind the Temoh cemetery hill. When the Japanese started dropping V-bombs from their planes, everyone ran for their lives, even the dogs, chickens, goats and cows. Many people were killed and buildings destroyed. It was total chaos.

Father was carrying a heavy bag of rice in his right hand and holding on to his sister with his left hand. The rice had been mixed with white chalk powder to make it last longer. My grandma was carrying his baby sister and grandpa was carrying his two-year-old brother. They were carrying various belongings as well and running up the steep hill. Many other families were also desperately fleeing the advancing Japanese army.

All the females, including my grandma and aunts, had their hair cut short and wore men’s clothes, as the Japanese would not spare young girls or even old ladies.

It was terrifying, especially at night. It was complete darkness everywhere as they dared not light their lamps for fear of alerting the Japanese. They could hear the tigers roaring nearby, too.

The little ones cried often due to hunger, sickness, darkness and the tigers’ roaring. The adults tried hard to console them as their cries might attract any Japanese soldiers nearby.

Although Father’s family was safe from the Japanese and tigers, not everyone survived the war. His baby sister died of sickness while they were hiding in the jungle. Another younger sister had to be given away as his parents were unable to feed so many mouths.

Many folks suffered from large festering sores all over their bodies. But they did not have any medicine in the jungle. They searched for some jungle plants to eat or use as medicines. They also grew tapioca for food and ate only this every day. They all suffered from malnutrition. Many folks had swollen limbs and paralysis.

My father said that my granduncle was tortured and killed by the Japanese. Some of our neighbours were raped.

A group of Sikh men were killed by Japanese aircraft. The Sikhs were bullock cart drivers who were resting beside a stream at the foot of Temoh hill, and their cows were grazing nearby. Their two-wheeled wooden carts were left idle.

The patrolling Japanese aircraft could have mistaken those bullock carts for anti-aircraft guns as they appeared to be pointing upwards at them. Hence, the planes swept down and machine-gunned the carts and the men. In trying to escape, some of the men fell into the nearby stream. Some of them were killed, and their blood turned the stream red.

The Japanese were known for committing many atrocities during the war. One of the most fearful campaigns conducted by them was known as Sook Ching. Thousands of innocent folks perished or disappeared during that time, but that is a story for another day.

The Battle of Kampar is documented by historian Chye Kooi Loong in his book The History Of The British Battalion In The Malayan Campaign (1941-42), published by Muzium Negara in 2002.

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