By F H Batten
The invasion of Singapore on the evening of 15 February 1942 came as a shock to us all, because we thought this country was well fortified. The authorities warned us that the Japanese invasion was imminent and to evacuate immediately by boat to India. But my mother decided against it, as my father was working somewhere in Singapore in a government job. She desperately wanted the three of us to stay together in the same country, whatever the hardships. Somehow, we were destined not to leave then. Later, we heard that three of the boats were torpedoed in the Indian Ocean, and all lives were lost.
On that very evening, my mother and I were living on a fruit plantation near SARANGOON, (Serangoon) almost adjacent to the air base SERLCRITE (Seletar). We could hear the incessant whine and thud of the bombs as they exploded, rocking the ground beneath and around us, creating havoc as houses were demolished and aircraft and fuel tankers were ignited. I could hear the screams of my terrified country folk fleeing, wounded, or lying dead amidst the havoc. There followed a relentless plundering as the enemy forged its way through town and countryside. We knew we had somehow to escape. There were a few families mercifully still alive, but we knew it wouldn’t be long before we were discovered.
We headed for “the White House” on the slopes of a hill, thickly disguised by the plantation, hoping to escape detection. We knew the danger of putting on any light, so we huddled together, holding hands, praying incessantly. We knew it wouldn’t be long before we were discovered, and it would be our turn to die. It was a horrific experience: I trembled, but my mother’s warm firm hand was calmly holding mine. I remember that in our midst was a Chinese lady who vowed that if our lives were spared, she would dedicated the rest of her life to the Lord, praying in a Convent. This was my first experience of immediate conversion; my mother lit a candle in a tiny chapel. Outside, it was a bright tropical, moonlit night. What a chance to miss, but in the stillness of that area, we felt comforted as we prayed.
Despite the pillaging and plundering outside, we were protected, “spared by that mysterious mighty land of God. Gradually, the screams and heavy footsteps faded into the distance.
As a child, being curious, the next day I walked outside in the garden for some fresh air. Suddenly from nowhere, a Japanese soldier appeared out of the early morning mists, and he was pointing his bayonet straight at me! Terrified, I was rooted to the spot. Almost simultaneously, my mother appeared (she must have been keeping watch at a window.) She dropped to her knees and pleaded ‘you take me as a hostage, kill me if you want, but please spare my one and only child.’ Strangely enough, a Japanese officer appeared. He commanded the soldier to lower his weapon, then he dismissed him and curtly ordered my mother to make tea and cakes for his men and himself. Relieved, my mother promptly obeyed. The curious thing was when the tea and cakes were served, neither the officer nor his men would touch anything. My mother and I were ordered to sip some of the tea from the pot and sample tiny bits from the cakes. After that, they raided the larder taking any provisions with British brand names inscribed. At least, they left us with some of our own food. Having escaped this ordeal, my mother felt it unwise to stay any longer at “The White House”.
Hastily, we packed a few meagre portions of food and with just the bare essentials in clothing, we cautiously made our way to the city. I remember the awful experience of dragging ourselves through the streets, witnessing the carnage and decay of way – the awful stench of rotting flesh. We stayed in hiding with some friends for a while. Then my mother, sensing further danger, sort refuge elsewhere. We ended up seeking protection and shelter from the church at the convent. Although the sisters were pretty near starvation themselves, they offered us food and shelter.
Dr (Rev) Robert P. Balhetchet, ed. (1996). From the Mustard Seed pp. 93-94. Singapore: Robert P Balhetchet, Cathedral Reprographic Services.
Mr Batten was born in Singapore, and as a teenager, was taken to Bahau, Malaysia, in the care of the priests in the Cathedral during the Japanese Occupation. After the liberation from war, he went to Britain and never came back to Singapore until October 1996. He was brought around Singapore by Father Robert Balhatchet, editor of publication, ‘The Mustard Seed’, to the places of his childhood. This article first appeared as part of a longer one that can be found in ‘The Mustard Seed’.