Published Date : November 12th, 2012 (2nd edition)
“Eaten by the Japanese” is the inspiring story of John Baptist Crasta, an Indian soldier in the British Indian Army, who miraculously survives 3 1/2 years of inhuman imprisonment and bombardment during World War II. Rescued by Australians, he returns home to India and writes this memoir in 1946. He then waits another 51 years before it is read and published by his son, who by then is an author living in the United States. In the process of reading and publishing the book, the son rediscovers his father.
To begin with one of the rave reviews: “What emerges in Crasta’s survivor’s tale is not a mere story of self but an epic of collective agony. This is the story, then, of a nation’s agony as well as a man’s, a man’s survival as well as that of a nation’s, in both cases to await the next chapter in a complex narrative.”
The story begins in Singapore, where John Baptist Crasta was posted, and the British commander surrenders unconditionally to the invading Japanese. Rather than switch sides simply to save his own life, he chooses to suffer through 3.5 years of horrific imprisonment, including a journey in the Torture Ship to Torture Island.
This shocking and poignant story of World War II and its forgotten Indian Prisoners of War has never been told before from the viewpoint of an ordinary Indian soldier who was there, as one of its actor-victims.
WHAMMA BAMMA, THANK YOU, AMMA
The Second Voyage of the Torture Ship
On the morning of 8 May 1943, nearly 500 Malays, natives of Celebes who happened to be former soldiers in the Dutch Army, embarked on our ship; after which, all Indians were ordered to board. Our hopes were again dashed to the ground. So, after all, we were not stopping in Sourabaya. Where could they be taking us? Perhaps the Malay soldiers would be able to give us an inkling.
The steamer sailed south again. The Malays are a nice people, very polite and sociable. They pitied the Indians. The Malays were given better rations and accommodation. They told us we were nearing Bali Island. Some of them were seniors and could tell us the location of the ship by merely looking at the waves. After a two-day run south, the steamer changed its direction to north-northeast. Were they taking us to Celebes or to the Philippines? The Malays said this could not be, Celebes was their home.
The pangs of hunger and thirst again seized us; heat and stench increased. Owing to the intake of the Malays, it was only with the greatest of difficulty that we could get a cup of water. For twenty-four hours each day, we were confined in those cells to suffocate and sweat. I would often go to the Malays for a cup of water; and if I got one, I would consider myself very lucky. At nighttime, I would thirst as if in the throes of last agony and then lift the water-bottle to my lips. Even a drop that trickled down was so precious. It soothed my parched lips for the time being.
Could humanity be degraded to such an extent? Could Providence be as cruel? The steamer had only one kitchen from which water was being rationed, and the two thousand men had to come one after the other, in a line, for that cup of life-preserving liquid. The rush began at 6 am. My turn came at about 10 am, after four hours of waiting, only to be met with the curt words, AWater finished!@ Heavens, what was I to do until next day? Who knows? Before I could reach the front of the line, water might be exhausted again next day? Death was certain. I went round with a cup to my Indian friends, to Malays, even to Japanese, and was met with the reply ASorry, I have very little.@ That day passed.
The next day I got up early, but the crowd had already collected. It would take three hours before my turn came. My throat was entirely dry. I could not speak. I sat on the deck at a distance with my water bottle and a cup in hand thinking to myself : I hear that in this war many ships have been sunk. Why does not an Allied submarine or plane come and sink this rotten ship too? My parched body would feel cool in the blue waters of the ocean if only for a moment, and then my sufferings would be overConce and for all . . . . While I was in this mood, a pipe in front of me sprang a leak and water sprouted. I rushed to the spot and tasted a drop. It was fresh water. Oh God, it was so sweet! At once I filled my bottle, and with the cup drank as much as my stomach could hold, going away satisfied and contented. I felt sure Providence had come to my rescue and saved me from death. I thought this was one of the happiest days of my life. By this time, a large crowd had gathered and was struggling to collect the wasting water. The man who could collect one bottle of it was considered very lucky.
At this time, another calamity overtook us. Dysentery broke out on the ship. The few latrines were being used by both unfit and fit men. In our own party of one hundred and fifty, three or four deaths occurred daily. The corpses were wrapped in a worn-out blanket and lowered into the deep ocean, unwept for and unsung. I could see hardy men prostrate with dysentery, unable to move, without any clothes. The Japanese did not pay any heed to what was going on. Dysentery spread to other holds of the ship, killing seven to eight daily. But the ship was not stopped, nor was an attempt made to evacuate the victims.
Koga the Devil
The next day, another Japanese soldier, Koga Hugcho, was put in charge of us. I call him Koga the Devil. I still cannot forget his Satanic face nor forget his atrocities. If anyone deserves to be hanged first for ill-treatment of the prisoners, it is he. A man of about 30 years, quite well-built, with slanted eyes and an ape’s mouth with a gold tooth, he looked like a mixture of Japanese and Chinese, a most unprincipled and inhumane brute. Although he said he belonged to Tokyo, I am inclined to think he was either a Taiwanese or a Manchurian. The next three months that we passed with him were the bitterest of our lives. Our daily routine was: rise at 4 a.m., go to the surrounding jungle and fetch two or three loads of firewood; breakfast (two spoonfuls of rice) at 5.30, off to the tapioca garden at 6 a.m. cut grass till 11 with half an hour’s break, return for lunch; half an hour’s break, again off to the garden, back by 4 p.m.; fill a fifty-five gallon drum with water and boil it ready for our master’s bath; again collect two or three loads of fire wood. thus were we kept busy from day-break to sunset. In addition, each of us was called upon by him to help the Japanese cook in preparing the morning food —in which case, we were required to get up at 2 a.m. Fire had to be lit to boil rice, curry and water. The firewood was invariably damp and gave out clouds of smoke completely blinding our eyes. If the fire was not lighted, the Japanese cook would curse us and even beat us. Food had to be ready before daybreak, so that the raiders might not notice the smoke. By now, the planes had no targets left. They would watch for any signs of smoke and let go their deadly bombs.
During fatigue, if Koga thought our speed was not up to his expectations, he would beat us with sticks, fists, and kicks. He said that Indians, like the British, were lazy and were not fit to live. They knew only to enjoy. That is why they were being defeated. He told us the Allied Navy had been completely annihilated near Formosa and in the Philippines. Land fighting was going on in the latter place, and the Japanese were winning. There was no chance of our returning to India. We would remain there in New Britain and cultivate tapioca.
In the evenings, even in heavy rain, they made us boil water for their bath. This was almost an impossibility as the fireplace and firewood became wet. But there was no argument with our masters.
Our hut was more like a pandal. Even in a light rain, water trickled inside. It was infested with rats, mosquitoes, ants, lizards and snakes. Had the Japanese given us half a day’s rest, we could have improved it, but even on our so called holidays, they made us collect coconuts and extract oil for them!
I had a relapse of malaria. Koga allowed me rest as long as my temperature was on; but as soon as he felt my forehead cool, he would ask me to work. To make matters worse, an ulcer appeared on my right foot. The wound broadened, giving out pus and a horrible smell. The leg swelled, and I could not walk. No arrangement was made for dressing the wound. Not even a piece of linen was given. I tore my langoti, dressed the ulcer in filthy water from the nullah, and bandaged it in a dirty rag. Flies swarmed around the wound. Blood trickled down sometimes. The Japanese saw this, but were not moved with compassion. Koga said it was a trifling thing and asked me to go on fatigue. I could only walk with the help of crutches. Other Japanese who saw me on the way thought I deserved rest.
Owing to agonising pain, my temperature did not subside. I and the four others requested Koga to shoot us as it was better to die than to remain as their prisoners. He jokingly gave us shovels and spades, asking us to prepare our own graves so that we might be shot the next morning.
Basanta was the one most cruelly mistreated. For some trifling offence, he was tied with live battery wires; and when the unfortunate man cried for mercy, all the Japanese laughed. He fell down. They kicked him and made him get up, again tying him up with the torturing wires. Besides Basanta, there was another Sikh, Kartar Singh, with us. Koga ordered them to shave off their beards as, according to them, the beards made them ill. For disobeying him, they were beaten.
One day, Basanta was standing by. Koga, like a dog, came upon him and passed urine on him. On another occasion, Basanta was spat upon.
We again pleaded with Koga to shoot us all. He warned us not to repeat this request. We were their prisoners and must obey them. Even the British General Percival was being ordered about by a Japanese soldier. We had been defeated in the war and must not speak anything out of the way.
Koga delighted in making us work in the rain. Sometimes, he would ask us to bring grasshoppers for his fowls. If we failed to fetch the required number within the specified time, he would punish us.
Foolshah caught malaria while on fatigue one day. He had high temperature. I requested Koga to give the man rest. But Koga was Koga. He made Foolshah stand in the sun with arms outstretched and kicked him until he fainted.
In February 1945, Ginso of our Buthai paid us a visit and was apparently moved to see our condition. His party was only two miles away, and he asked us to come to him for medicine. We went there during the afternoon recess. Our ulcers were being dressed weekly, but as for malaria, a decoction prepared from some strange leaves was given to the patients.
My physical condition at this stage was extremely bad. My body had become very thin. When I walked a few yards, I felt giddy and close to fainting. My weight then could not have been more than 100 pounds.
My companions and I were now very dejected. Was Providence planning to kill us slowly? Why did not we die like the others, from bombardment or disease? Our troubles would have been over. This was the limit of human endurance and degradation: hard work with practically no food or clothing, no medicine, and torture on the top of it. Of one thing, we felt certain; things could not go on indefinitely at this rate. Our deliverance or end was nearing.
. . . . . Our daily ration now consisted of hardly 2 – 3 ounces of rice mixed with 2 – 3 ounces of boiled sweet potatoes. Curry was again of the jungle leaf variety, boiled, of course, without salt. We felt as hungry as wolves the whole day. I thought myself extremely lucky to be included in the coconut fatigue. I could eat as much as I liked and satisfy my hunger. There were days when I even finished four coconuts a day. Some people said we might contract dysentery. We laughed at the idea.
The Japanese medical officer who inspected us frequently now became strict. We were given rest only when we had a temperature. The next day, we had to go to work. No quinine was given. Instead, a decoction of boiled papaya leaves or plantain tree pulp was administered. The Japanese said this was excellent medicine. Meena was helpless. He was obliged to carry out orders from above.
Although this particular barrack did not leak, the accommodation allotted to each man was less than three spans. We were in all 50 men. The congestion inside was too great. Added to the squalor and filthy smell as a result of dirty clothes and patients who never bathed, smoke was ordered to be diffused to kill malarial mosquitoes. Dirty, old, and torn mosquito nets, in which lice had made their homes, were given to us. On one occasion, the Japanese carried out mosquito net inspection. The portion immediately facing the Japanese was repaired, but the opposite side touching the side of the wall was not. The Japanese could sometimes be fooled easily.
April, May, and June 1945 dragged on wearily, wearing and tearing our bodies. The raiders were coming and going. They were preying on transport vehicles and huts. Each night, after going to bed, we would discuss the prospects of peace. The war was completing its sixth year, which was already too long. The Japanese had no supplies left. Their ammunition was becoming unusable. They, too, looked tired of the whole business. Our own condition was getting bad. If the war did not end by 1945, there was definitely no hope of our survival. It would have been better to have died earlier like the rest, but having undergone such a long ordeal, it would be most tragic to die now. No, no, we would see peace and better days. God would reward us. He had saved us from a thousand and one deaths. He would help us now, too. We were filled with fresh hope and a dogged determination to survive. It was a question of only a few months more. The war must be over by the end of 1945.
“A classic in military history, telling the story of men trapped in a world of torture, starvation, and death”—Roger Mansell, War historian, in Tameme Magazine
“You see the horror of war, without a trace of artifice, through the eyes of one who was there, the writing a simple act of catharsis. A war memoir that ranks with the best.”—Professor Mark Ledbetter, Nisei University
“Striking and raw, an antidote to myth. Something to be treasured. This is the kind of record that this generation is losing fast, and we need to hold on to this. It made me think of what had happened to my own father’s memoirs, which were lost.”—Barry Fruchter, Ph.D., Professor of Literature, New York.
“It is a tale of unmitigated horror: savage beatings, starvation, malaria and dysentry, as they were shifted from one camp to another in over-crowded ships which were often sunk by Allied submarines. A handsome tribute to a man of courage and rectitude.”—Khushwant Singh, author and India’s foremost columnist.
The atrocities of war and man’s inhumanity make up the theme of this shocking revelation of what happened to thousands of forgotten Indian soldiers who fought on behalf of the British and the Americans. Horrifying, compact . . . a moving tribute to the unknown Indian soldier.—Deccan Herald
The theater of the absurd . . . war as seen from the smoking trenches. Written without rancour or hatred, of archival value to historians. Bloodcurdling references to acts of cannibalism. Crasta’s memoir should find a cherished place in all major libraries, and should be prescribed as a standard textbook.—Dr. Arunachalam Kumar, Author, in Morning News.