Slave Labourer in Nagasaki – Part Five
I chose to be a cleaner. I had to sift through large piles of dirt that had been collected from the ship being built and remove all the nuts, bolts and other metal objects. These were cleaned and reused. It was a very cold job and my fingers became badly swollen. To combat the unbearable noise I put little pieces of wet newspaper in my ears. There was little supervision as we worked directly under the wharf foreman and the guard was far away.
It was a very dirty, unpleasant job. In the darkness under the ship there were many puddles so that my feet were always wet. One day while we were resting, we made a small fire to warm ourselves. When a guard spotted us he was beside himself with rage. As punishment we had to be in a push-up position for twenty minutes. If we sagged we were hit with the butt of a gun. My stomach muscles hurt for weeks afterwards.
Our lunch came in two sardine cans – one with seaweed, the other with rice. There was no place to heat our food, and it had to be guarded carefully or it would be stolen. We were starved when we returned to camp after each day’s work. If we were sick and could not work we only received half a ration of food.
Then I got a break. They needed electrical welders, and since I had learned the trade at technical school, I volunteered. The foreman was very pleased with a sample of my work and the next day I was given my welding outfit: a canvas jacket and trousers, plus a welding cap. Now I could sabotage by so-called cold welding; it looked good on the outside but was not melted on the inside. After a while I was promoted to welding the big masts of the ships. I learned to do a better job. The weather got still colder and I was glad I had my canvas outfit.
Then things again took a turn for the worse. While hammering slack coal I got a sliver in my eye, resulting in a serious infection. I was transferred to the blacksmith shop, where I helped an elderly Japanese. Under his guidance I made a steel-rod rack which was placed inside the chimney to heat up the lunches for the boys working outside. This was greatly appreciated.
Safety precautions were not taken. Many times when working with the steel masses I was in near-accidents which could have left me dead or severely maimed. On both sides of the dock were ten concrete floors to supply the ships below with the steel components. While we were being counted on the side of the dock, one Japanese worker fell from the tenth floor. His brain was splattered on the pavement below. The guards laughed loudly when this happened. Till this day I don’t understand their kind of humor.
There was also an incident among the Japanese workers who had to hammer big steel plates which came out of the furnace. One of these workers found a kitten, which everyone stroked. Then for some unknown reason, the worker threw the kitten onto the red hot plate. Its shrieks were bone-chilling; in no time it had burned into a small heap of ashes. Everyone laughed as if it was a big joke.
That winter was the first time I saw snow. I was shivering all the time and my hands and feet were always cold. I imagined getting hold of empty cement bags and cutting openings for my arms and head to keep the wind out. On the weekends we had a very hot bath in a community bath house. When everybody stood naked we could see how skinny we were. It was a sorry sight indeed, with ribs and bones showing, and the bites of bedbugs and lice covering our bodies.
On Christmas 1942 we were each given an apple. We were very happy with this small token. A soldier, Stevens, in room 18 obtained a violin from the Japanese to play on special occasions and weekends. He was a master. For the New Year we received our first winter outfit of the same quality as that of the soldiers.
Then I came down with dysentery. My elderly boss hid me under the drive belt of the main power supply and brought me soft rice. I lost a lot of weight. From Dr. Nieuwenhuis I received some opium drops to stop the diarrhea. I was very luck y to pull through because many died of this disease. There were many trips to the crematorium.
The hunger continued to get worse and we talked about food all the time. Our feet started to swell due to lack of vitamin B. At the sawmill where I worked there was a machine that separated the rice from the chaff. I managed to get a couple of cups of chaff every day, which I ate after having cooked it with some water over the smith’s fire. Slowly my feet returned to normal.
We were happy when the day ended without any mishaps or beatings. I talked a lot with my friends, especially David Brandon, who was more educated in the Jewish religion. On the weekends we had a cabaret but took pains to prevent the Japanese from discovering it. If a guard was coming we called Rood voor! (Red is coming!) These highlights on the weekend kept us going, giving us a laugh now and then. We lived day by day and hoped that one day there would be an end to this nightmare.
Excerpt by John Franken. Published earlier in Four Years till Tomorrow
To be continued.
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Until next time,