Heart and Soul: Daring escape from forced labour during Japanese Occupation

A sketch of the scene at the bridge, and the escape from the Japanese. Photos: Raajdip Singh Randhawa

Heart & Soul

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It was 1943. The Japanese had occupied Malaya. There was chaos everywhere. Food was scarce. The word of the Japanese was supreme: You obey or you die. They picked on able-bodied men to work for them wherever they needed forced labour.

My grandfather Santokh Singh Randhawa narrated that the family lived at the Sikh settlement in Tanjung Tualang, Perak, at the material time. This town is about 22km south of Batu Gajah where the incident took place.

The writer and his grandfather Santokh Singh Randhawa.The writer and his grandfather Santokh Singh Randhawa.

About 1km from Batu Gajah, near Kampung Pisang, the Japanese were building a bridge over the Kinta River.

My great-grandfather Banta Singh had, on that fateful day, gone by bicycle to Batu Gajah to buy some essentials. Just out of Batu Gajah town, there was a Japanese roadblock. They stopped him.

In spite of his pleading that he had small children at home, they took all he had and escorted him 1km to where the bridge was being built.

At gunpoint, he was told to help the others who were there to build the wooden bridge.

There was hardly any machinery there. The pillars were being piled into the riverbed by men using big wooden hammers. Some were working by the side cutting and sawing wood. Others were in deep water in the river, constructing the bridge.

On both sides of the river were armed Japanese Guards to shoot whoever tried to escape. At night, flood lights were turned on. The men were watched. And the work went on day and night.

Nobody in the Sikh settlement knew where my great-grandfather was. In those unruly days, anything could have happened.

As night fell, my great-grandmother was crying, with my grandfather – then one year old, on her lap – and my great-grandaunt, then three years old, beside her.

All she knew was that he had gone to Batu Gajah to buy some essentials and never returned.

She begged everyone to find out what had happened to her husband. There was no such thing as going to the police station to report or to request their assistance.

Some men did go up the road to see but could not do anything for fear of the Japanese.

At the bridge, my great-grandfather was thinking deeply and planning his escape. The hundred-plus men there were “forced labourers” like him. There were some who were allowed to return home. They may have been paid craftsmen. There were the Japanese Army engineers too.

Night fell. My great-grandfather assessed the situation. There was no way to escape by land. The river was heavily guarded on both sides. There were flood lights.

He heard from others that some men had been shot in the river while trying to dive and escape.

The next day, he volunteered to work in the water to hammer the pillars. His experience at the tin mine dredge where he had been working, came in handy. He was a good swimmer too. He had the strength of two or three men as he was a weightlifter and a casual wrestler too.

He had heard that some men had been taken from Malaya to Burma (now Myanmar) to build the Death Railway line there. My great-grandfather thought hard and prayed fervently, then made up his mind to make his escape.

Death Railway bridge over the Kwai Noi River at Kanchanaburi province, Thailand. Photo: 123rf.comDeath Railway bridge over the Kwai Noi River at Kanchanaburi province, Thailand. Photo: 123rf.com

He knew that the Japanese were not going to allow him to go as he was a very able workman. The river water was muddy. There were flood lights up and down the river for about 100m on both sides. Could he hold his breath for that long?

Tg Tualang was about 20km down the river. If only he could dive deep and swim underwater till the end of the flood lights, he may have a chance. If he surfaced earlier, he could be shot dead. He was on night shift the third day. It was at the dead of night.

He stood in the river, behind a pillar, where he took off his shirt and turban as they would hamper his swimming. He prayed, took a very deep breath and disappeared into the river. He could feel the bottom of the river.

The flow of the river was of help as he was swimming downwards. His experience swimming in the ponds and pools around the village, and even his work in dredging, came in handy. But it felt like an eternity that he was underwater.

His powerful arms, his swimming ability, the flow of the river, the muddy water, the fear of being shot, and his sincere prayers, all helped!

A sketch of the scene at the bridge, and the escape from the Japanese. Photos: Raajdip Singh RandhawaA sketch of the scene at the bridge, and the escape from the Japanese. Photos: Raajdip Singh Randhawa

He had the presence of mind to only surface at the edge of the river, away from the flood lights that were focused towards the centre. Even then, he surfaced just to take in some air before he went underwater again. He went on like this several times before he knew he had made it. There was no resting.

He kept on swimming for a few kilometres. There was this fear of crocodiles in the river, too. He then came out of the river and ran as fast as he could along the river. It was dark. There were swamps, thick jungle and thorny reeds. He had no choice. Where the jungle was thick with undergrowth, he went into the river, alternating with his run.

By about 4am, he was near the Sikh settlement. He reached home covered with bruises and cuts, and leaches all over his body – and fell exhausted at the door.

My great-grandmother heard his voice and rushed down to see her husband sprawled at the doorstep.

In those hard times, her two brothers, Gian Singh and Keher Singh, had come from Menglembu. They helped my great-grandfather into the house before cleaning him up.

The escape was kept hushed for fear of being caught by the Japs again.

It took my great-grandfather a few days to overcome the traumatic experience and begin routine work again. It was the talk of the village and town for a long time.

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