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Category: Changi

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It is almost certain that Murray Griffin first conceived the subject of 'Roberts Hospital, Changi' early in 1942, although the painting was not completed until the following year. In the painting all three men clearly show the effects of malnutrition, although far worse was to come in the years of captivity ahead. The men are silent and withdrawn, enveloped in their own private suffering. The un-hygienic conditions, the chipped mugs on wooden boxes and the soiled bedding are carefully recorded. The tropical heat and humidity in the ward are palpable, and through the open wall is a distant view of palms and vegetation. As an artists with a great love of the landscape Griffin was keenly aware that the human suffering he was witnessing was set against the lush natural beauty of Singapore.
These photos were taken by an Australian prisoner, George Aspinall, inside the barracks at Selarang in 1942. The taking of them put his life in immediate danger far past the normal in a place where life was cheap. Being caught with a camera meant instant execution by firing squad or beheading. The fact that the unexposed film was created from x-ray film and the negatives were protected, guarded and kept until the war was over was both a minor miracle and another life endangering (daily) exercise.
Click to enlarge. Click Icon to SUPER enlarge This photo shows the crush of humanity when you put 15,000 men in a place designed for about 1,000. I believe the aspect is north-west. I think the buildings shown are what was later known as B and C Company lines.
Click to enlarge. Click Icon to SUPER enlarge This is a closer shot of the parade ground (that sacred square) showing the makeshift shelters and further emphasising the crush.
"By this time I had worked out a pretty safe way of carrying the camera. Being a folding model, it was fairly flat, about five inches long, three inched wide and about an inch and a half thick. 

To take a picture you had to open up the front of the camera and pull out a bellows which gave you sufficient depth of focus. 

I noticed that a lot of the Japanese wore a kind of kidney belt, a bit like a scaled down version of those sashes worn by Sumo wrestlers. I fashioned a thick canvas kidney belt, with one important difference. It had an inner pocket which could be closed with a couple of press studs. I used to carry the camera in that, snuggled into the small of my back. 

If I had a shirt on, I'd let that fall over it. It wouldn't have survived a really thorough search but, thank goodness, that never happened while I was actually carrying the camera." George Aspinall

Note that Selarang Barracks was where the Australian contingent was incarcerated right from the start and for the whole of the rest of the war. Contrary to popular misconception the POWs were not locked up in a traditional prison. It was a prison camp of considerable size (thousands of acres) and most of the POWs were housed in former British Army barracks, which is what Selarang was. Prisoners went out through the wire and returned on a regular basis. Once they even smuggled in a full size upright piano.

Click to enlarge The Australia Day march in Selarang Barracks 1943.

Changi was not a particularly bad camp by comparison to other Japanese run POW camps. With the exception of the Selarang Incident overcrowding was not rife. That is not to say that it was not a bad place, just that it was less terrible than it has been portrayed and less terrible than others. Compared to the camps on the Thailand to Burma Railway it was a 'country club'.

In 1943 in New Guinea the Japanese were reduced to cannibalism including the killing and eating of prisoners as well as eating the flesh of their own dead. They are also reported to have used Australian prisoners as bayonet practice targets. Compared to those atrocities Changi was not bad.

To be chosen to join a working party meant that the life of relative security and comfort at Changi was to be exchanged for a life of endless toil under the most degrading conditions, endless, that is to say, unless death mercifully intervened. It was hardly surprising that everybody feared being sent on the working parties and intrigued ceaselessly to avoid this fate.    Extract from Changi History

Map of Changi Area 1942

 Click to enlarge


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Digger History:  an unofficial history of the Australian & New Zealand Armed Forces