As loyal martayaki readers may recall, back in October I rambled through Fort Canning Park early one morning and passed The Battlebox, the former WWII British underground command centre. Despite some minor objections from the offspring, we headed out on a Saturday morning shortly thereafter for a brief tour.
We’re no strangers to wartime museums and memorials. Outside the US we have taken the whole family to the “Hanoi Hilton” in Vietnam; the beaches and bunkers of Normandy, France; the Former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters in Okinawa, Japan; and Citadel Hill in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Three out of four of us also saw Corregidor Island in Manila, Philippines.
Within the US, the list of war sites we have visited is just as long. It includes the Pearl Harbor sites of the USS Missouri, the ship that was anchored in Tokyo Bay when representatives of Emperor Hirohito signed Japan’s surrender to Allied Forces in September 1945; and the USS Arizona Memorial, the final resting place of the 1000+ sailors and Marines who died there when Japanese kamikaze pilots attacked Pearl Harbor the morning of December 7, 1941.
Why, Tessa always asks. War is terrible, and I hate it. Why do we have to go these places?
She’s right. War is terrible, and the history is pretty grim. And yet I keep taking them, and frankly I can’t give more than a stock answer. To witness what man has done before, and hopefully learn from it moving forward. To learn the history of the place we will call home for the next few years. I start with this lofty image and eloquent explanation that devolves into me sputtering, searching for words, and waving my hands around a bit while eventually falling silent. And I take the kids anyway.
So we arrived at the visitor center and gratefully stepped through the entrance to the cool interior of the rooms nestled within the hillside. I assumed that the cool air came from its underground nature, but I quickly learned that air conditioning worked hard to keep the temperature comfortable. I imagined the stifling heat of sitting underground with however many fellow unwashed soldiers and said a quick thank you to the universe.
I walked into this tour knowing pretty much nothing about Singapore’s role in WWII. So here’s a quick overview of what I learned that morning. And a disclaimer/reminder: I’m not a historian, by any means. I did a little online research while writing this to ensure that I get the basics right, but I’m basically a curious tourist with a blog.
So! Moving on.
By 1942 the British military forces were spread pretty thin, particularly in Southeast Asia. Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival led the British garrison in Singapore and Malaya (Malaysia today), and a handful of British ships remained in Singapore. Japan had already invaded Thailand and Malaya to the north, then set its sights on toppling Singapore. The Brits relied on their domination of the sea to defend Singapore and retain their final stronghold in the region.
Percival raised the alarm to his superiors that Japanese forces could swoop down and invade Singapore quickly over land. The British superiors scoffed and pointed out with disdain the bicycles and tiny tanks that conveyed the Japanese fighting force. Percival responded that bicycles and light tanks are exactly what a military force needs in a jungle. The British superiors scoffed again and basically said, let us know if you’re trouble and we’ll send more ships.
I think we all know where this is going.
The Japanese army came in overland from the north on their bicycles and light tanks, commanded by General Tomoyuki Yamashita. Singapore fell in seven days, with the Battle of Singapore lasting from February 8 to 15, 1942.
Percival realized the inevitable. He met with his commanders at the Battlebox to discuss surrender terms, then headed out to literally face the enemy at a meeting situated at the Ford factory in Bukit Timah. His army superiors ordered him not to surrender unconditionally, and he tried to negotiate humane treatment for the tens of thousands of soldiers under his command who were about to become prisoners of war.
General Yamashita responded by demanding unconditional surrender immediately, or shelling would recommence within hours. To some degree Yamashita was bluffing. His troops were outnumbered by the British and his supplies had only a few hours of shells (ammunition) remaining–but Percival did not know that.
Percival blinked, defying his orders and surrendering to Yamashita unconditionally. The 120,000 soldiers under his command became prisoners of war; it remains the largest surrender of British troops in history.
As soon as I learned this statistic I immediately remembered a lesson from Captain Myers, USN, my commanding officer when I was a midshipman (officer-in-training) during my university years. He stated that military leaders might make wrong decisions that led to the deaths of troops under their command. Then he added that sometimes the right decision could also lead to deaths.
I thought of Percival in this position and the impossible decision he faced. Hundreds and probably thousands of his men would die no matter what he decided. I cannot imagine the gravity of this responsibility.
Yamashita demanded a review of his prisoners, ordering them to line the roads and stand at attention as he drove past. Then the captives marched to Changi Prison, including Lieutenant-General Percival. They remained captive until the war’s end, though some were transferred to other Japanese POW camps throughout Asia.
So we wandered the underground rooms and learned this history with the help of short films, displays, maps, period-specific furniture and comms equipment–and an eerie number of uniform-clad wax figures, a suspiciously large number with red (or ginger, as the Brits say) hair.
A quick aside: the Hokkien Chinese word for white person is ang moh, which literally means red haired….person. Or sometimes a slightly more rude noun. It’s the Singaporean version of gringo, gaijin, and similar.
The Japanese occupation of Singapore lasted from February 1942 until the war’s end in September 1945. The Battlebox displays discuss prisoners’ treatment very briefly, and I learned that Changi Chapel and Museum addresses the story in more detail. So stand by for a future visit there.
On September 2, 1945 Emperor Hirohito’s representatives signed the treaty signaling Japan’s surrender to Allied Forces aboard the USS Missouri. Later the same day General Yamashita formally surrendered to Allied Forces at Keangan, Luzon, Philippines. Yamashita’s old adversary Lieutenant-General Percival stood nearby, witnessing the surrender.
This new-to-me facet of WWII history reinforced the sheer scale of the war, and how impossible it is to learn its complete history. I’m sure that most of you out there have some family WWII connection, and it likely colors what you have learned.
In my family, my people were still in Poland and witnessed WWII from the perspective of German invasion, internment in Nazi concentration camps, and leadership in the Polish Underground Army and Warsaw Uprising. Mark’s family history includes the US perspective of the conflict, with relatives serving and perishing in the US military. My military service in the US Navy led to my learning more about the US Navy’s and US Marine Corps’s role in the Pacific theater of WWII.
The kids took it all in. Tessa quietly said, I had no idea of Japan’s history in Singapore during WWII. Neither did I.
In the Venn diagram of my WWII knowledge, WWII in Singapore simply never overlapped any circles. It’s stunning to think how many stories there are, and how each nation bore its tragedies and challenges. And the old truism holds: the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.
So today I know a little more about my new island home and its past. I look forward to continuing my journey.