David R. Miller Interview: July 20th, 1983 (by grandson Scotty)

“We were taken prisoner at 3 o’clock on Christmas morning (inaudible). We got word at about 3 o’clock in the morning. We stayed in the camp till the 30th out at Stanley Port until the 30th of January. Then we marched out to North Point Camp. The camps were destroyed quite badly by gunfire and shells. We stayed there till the 26th of September 1942.

I spent all my time there in Hong Kong between the island and the mainland until the 17th of August, when we were freed. During that time it was really terrible at times – cold and wet, starvation all the time. Worked hard. Always had hopes of getting out. Never give up the idea of staying there, for sure. We lost a lot of men to Diphtheria, Dysentery, (inaudible), starvation, all kinds of things that can happen to a person in a place like that.

There were a lot died; there was over 400 died, besides the ones that (inaudible) in the war. We left here with 1975 from Vancouver. We came back with 1415. Today there’s less than 900 living. We have a reunion almost every year and talk over old times and laugh at the sadness we went through because there’s no use to cry. It’s too late now.

We seen some letters from home. I had some letters from my wife and some letters from others. They were a year and a few months (inaudible) in the camp.

I came out of Hong Kong on the 9th of September 1945 in a Japanese officer’s shirt and a pair of shorts and a pair of socks I knit myself and a pair of boots I had the whole war. That’s all the clothes I had of any description. The weather was warm and we didn’t need anything anyway.

We were 19 days going over from Vancouver and 18 coming back. Had a beautiful trip back. I left on the 9th of September and got home on the 17th of October. Month in (inaudible) …trip. It’s a long time since that and in order for the camp to (inaudible)…there wasn’t much change in the days, anyway. It was only a change in work and..they wanted you to do something and (inaudible) garden and we used to get (inaudible).

One year – last year we were there, we got quite a lot vegetables in the garden. Sweet potatoes, corn, and different things we grew. Ten cent cabbage, which was Chinese cabbage. (inaudible) lettuce and (inaudible). We had Red Cross …three and two thirds Red Cross (inaudible) and about 3 years and 8 months there were 3 or 4, 4 or 5 British Red Cross (inaudible). That’s all we had.

We got on the boat in Hong Kong. We came out of the harbour and there was 2 officers and 2 other NCOs. One fella had been a prisoner of war in France and he said that the grub he got – besides the Red Cross… – the grub he got, he said the dog wouldn’t eat it. There was 160 Canadians standing up on the deck, on the front. And nearly everyone hollered that the pig wouldn’t eat what we got. So, it’s not very nice memories, but now we laugh at things. We really should have cried over it at the time, but why worry about now. It’s all gone.

I was 40 years old when I joined the Army and I’m 82 years old now. Still living and not having too bad a time. Got lots to eat, anyway.”

Were you tortured while you in the prison?

Not personally tortured, no. One (inaudible) tried to beat me up one night and he couldn’t do it.

What did you eat mostly?

Rice mostly. The last meat we had was whale meat in February 1942. The next we got was in May 1945 and I think it was 400 and some pounds between 700 men. And I remember the day we got it. From March 1942 to May ’45 was the first meat they gave us. Had a little Red Cross (inaudible), but not very much.

We kept our place quite clean because we done it ourselves. Bedbugs was kinda bad. I remember in the night something would fall and hit you in the face and you’d grab it and squeeze it in your fingers and throw it away and (inaudible) your fingers to see if it was a bedbug or not.

The last Christmas we were there – I remember it like it was yesterday – the boys were signing and playing the banjo and you thought you were walking down the street in any town in Canada, singing all kinds of Christmas songs. And everybody was singing.

I remember one day the working party was out and one Jap was (inaudible) and another chap was laughing, telling a story about what the (inaudible). And he said – the fella who was standing along side of me was the interpreter – an English chap and he was the interpreter and he was in Japan for years and went to school in Japan. And he was telling me about what the Jap was saying, and the Jap was telling him that it’s a damn shame (inaudible)…and the fella who was doing the talking there, he was talking about how he had to buy cigarettes to make us work hard, to build a tunnel where the stores were stocked in. And the other fella said it was a damn shame to make people work like that and (inaudible) cigarette and they been worked and starved and everything else. And then they’re mean enough to make them work like that, just for cigarettes.

Interviewer: Did you have good shelter? Did it leak much?

No, the rooves were pretty tight. The only thing was the cold in the winter time. We used to get permission to sleep two of us together, you know, under one set of blankets. You sleep on a cement floor in a hut where the temperature is 37 degrees (F). That’s not down to freezing, but it’s cold enough. The hut…all cement and the windows were (inaudible) and there was no heat. Two of us would lay close together and we’d be warmer (inaudible) so we used to sleep two together when it was real cold. You never had no heat, never had no heat at all. The only thing we got was wood enough to cook our rice.

We were down to 9 ounces of rice a day one time, which is only an ounce over a half pound. And…it wasn’t very much to eat. You get a little piece of fish about an inch long and about as big as a small smelt, and you’d get that probably once every two or three weeks. And like I say we got no meat from March ’42 until May ’45. And then when we got 400 pound for 700 men. Didn’t go very far; they had to (inaudible) with rice and.

We dug tunnels and dug up ground. We dug up the whole center of the race track – they had a race track over on Hong Kong island called Happy Valley and we dug up all the center. It was all…they cut ‘er down with big, great big hoes and cut ‘er down to about four five inch and turned it upside down to make a garden out of the ground. It was good ground, you know. And we worked there for 15 days. Some of boys lost 15 pound there.

Interviewer: These tunnels, what did the people of Hong Kong store in there?

It was the army, the Jap army. I don’t know what they stored in there at all. I never saw anything stored in there. They never had no (racing wire?), so they fell in after a while. But you’d dig up a little round at the top so they wouldn’t fall it. They weren’t high enough for you to stand up straight, so you had to work bent over all day.

Did you have privileges?

No, we had no privileges, nothing. We got some cigarettes sometimes for working. I worked in the garden a long while after and before the war ended and I used to get a cigarette a day! We used to roll cigarettes out of butts, so we’d pick up butts from the officer’s camps or something or wherever we could get a hold of them. Roll them in toilet paper and roll ’em all like a cigar and the part you had in your mouth was just the paper so you wouldn’t waste any paper. Using toilet paper to roll your cigarettes in!

Where did you wash your clothes?

Didn’t have any clothes to wash, my boy. Only a g-string – a piece of cloth about four feet long and about seven inches wide.

When you got letters from home were you sad?

No, I was glad because there’s nothing sad about it. Never told me about anyone dying or anything.

Did you think that you’d make it back alive?

Sure I did! Why not? I don’t know if it kept me going, but I’d just eat everything I could get a hold of. Get duck eggs sometimes – the last Easter I was there I got 10 duck eggs for a packet of Canadian cigarettes. They got some cigarettes as part of some parcels and some of them got Black Cat cigarettes and an officer, Captain Royal, gave me a a pack of cigarettes, so I sold ’em for 10 duck eggs. So I sold 6 of the duck eggs for 40 cigarettes – 20 cigarettes per pack – so I sold 6 of the duck eggs for 40 cigarettes and I still had 4 eggs left and I had 40 cigarettes!

Did they have showers?

Oh yes, they had a pipe with a tin can on it that you run the water through. When it was hot I used to take a shower every night before I went to bed and you’d feel good for a while and you’d lay down and in about an hour’s time you’d be sweating as bad as ever.

We had barbers. I used to shave a lot, too. I used to shave 7, 8, 9 men a day. Some of them in the hospital and their faces were sore about the mouth. And they were so damn thin the skin was loose and (inaudible) and hard to shave, by God, but I had a good razor that a chap had taken (inaudible) house. (inaudible).

Were you the oldest in the prison?

Oh, there’s were lots older than I was. Especially officers, a lot of them First World War men (inaudible). There was only one man I knew of in the Royal Rifles – around 800, 900 men – there was only one man clear of the officers that was older than me, a man from the Eastern Townships by the name of Mr. Vinum(?).

I was 40 years old when I joined the army and I was 41 when I was taken prisoner. Christmas Day ’41 and I was 42 in January (inaudible) year.

Were there some very young people there?

Oh yes, there were boys 16 years old. Some of them 15 years old. Some of them worked harder than I did.

How did they take you prisoner?

The Governor of the island issued a surrender because there was no water. They drove us back of the Tai Tam Gap where the dam was and all the cement tunnels, cement pipes, and the rain water come down from hills to this Tai Tam Gap and there and they had a filter there to filter it through. And they got in and shut the dam off (laughs) – drove us right back and shut the dam off, so there was no water. So we had to quit.

Were you scared when you were taken prisoner?

No, I wasn’t scared. Why would I be scared? They never touched me at all. Some fellas they was bad to, but not me.

Is there anything else you could add to the story?

Well, I could talk all night. You got up in the morning and you ate your rice for breakfast and you had your rice for dinner and you ate rice for supper. We used to cook it in big iron pots and the bottom parts used to burn, you know, and it created a crust on the bottom and we used to take our turns getting it. We used to cut it in strips, you know. You cut a strip about 3 or 4 inches wide and about 6 or 7 inches long and you give so much to each guy today and next day you give it to another, so all had their rations. It was a real treat.

Did you ever go days without food?

Oh no. One day they took us out one morning after parade and never brought us in till after evening. They turned us out one night after we had our supper and it rained all night and we were outta doors till after daylight the next morning before we got back in, but they never missed a meal, only that dinner time, that’s the only one. But it didn’t matter if you missed a meal; there wasn’t much to it anyhow (laughs)!

What was your reaction when they told you you were free?

Well there was nobody there to tell us that we were free. We just had to…the way it happened was that the planes came over – American planes came over and dropped pamphlets that told us that the Japs had agreed to the Potsdam Conference, you see. And then we knew, there was Colonel White there, senior officer of the British Army, and he went and told the camp (inaudible) and he took over and I was a truck driver and I was to drive a truck to gather up food and to gather up anything you could get.

And it was from the 17th of August to the 30th before anyone had landed. We were all on our own. Never had any shots fired or anything. And they asked us to leave the guards on the warehouses or the Chinese would loot them. So we didn’t bother going downtown (inaudible). So then the boats landed on the 30th of August and I went downtown with the truck, looking for gas. Had a Chinaman with us and a Sergeant and another chap from (inaudible), from Christ King(?). I was driving the truck and we went down there and a big shot in the Navy, some kind of commander with stripes half the way up his sleeve; he said “what are you doing?” and I said I was driving this truck looking for gas, and he said “I’m going to take the truck over” and I said “okay”.

So he took us over and got a bunch of Air Force guys – ground crew members – 3000 of them were coming in, and I picked up a bunch, so we started out and I knew where to go to get the camps and places (inaudible) and the Sergeant got in the seat with me and we drove up the hill and the first place we went to there were two little Japs all alone. And they were scared to death. They was terrified, you know, they thought we were going to shoot them (inaudible). Took these two little guys in the back of the truck with 40 guys; took all the rifles and everything and ammunition and everything piled in the truck and these two prisoners we put it the truck with them.

Then we went over to another place called Grand Bay Rd and there was quite a bunch there, so there was 3 or 4 of them started running away. One fella went out with a (inaudible) gun and he was going to shoot them and the office said “No, put your gun down. Running away won’t hurt any.” So then we got them all lined up and looked for watches (inaudible) but they hadn’t a darn thing on them at all. They hid it all.

Some of them had good (inaudible), in the camp, you know, but they were scared to death that someone would steal everything. They didn’t take anything from me because I wasn’t caught outside. The prisoners used to pick up, individually, they took all the watches and everything away from them. But I kept mine and I sold it all for something to eat, you know. I paid for it after I came home.

What was it like when you finally got back?

I don’t know. I was so damn happy, it didn’t matter! I remember downtown I met (inaudible) McDonald. She was a friend of mine I worked with in Baker’s in 1923. I shook hands with her and kissed her. (inaudible) Bechervaise said “you kissed an Irishman!” and I said “I’d kiss an Irishman’s ass”, I said (laughing)! I was so damn glad to get back to this country.