Secret diary of life in Changi

Name: JackĀ O'Donnell
Date: 1941-1945
Unit: 10 AGH
Location: Changi POW Camp

When Sgt Jack O'Donnell was taken prisoner at the fall of Singapore, he was, quite naturally, rather depressed about life. But rather than give in to melancholy, he decided to document his experiences as best he could.

To maintain a diary was not easy. For one thing there was a shortage of paper and writing instruments and for another - if he had been caught he would have been executed on the spot.

That he was able to overcome both obstacles was a tribute to his determination and care. He hid his diary in a broom and managed to make regular entries, recording the most important details of life as a Prisoner of War under the Japanese.

He began the diary in Changi but went back in time to record events leading up to the fall of Singapore, including departure from Australia on the Queen Mary and a fairly hectic social life in Malaya where his prowess as a sportsman brought him many invitations from the 'ex-pats'. He worked in 10 Australian General Hospital (AGH) until taken prisoner.

"This small book of reminiscences has been written, not with the idea of having my fast fading memories penned to paper, but just as a means of whiling away a few monotonous hours as a POW," he wrote.

"Far be it that I should want to retain many thoughts of Malaya in my memory. The past 16 months have held very few pleasant experiences for me; all of which I have recorded here and I can only hope that time alone will efface as soon as possible this brief, purposeless period of my existence."

Jack records that early in December 1941, the war began to hot up with numerous flights of Japanese bombers passing over the hospital.

"The Japanese definitely respected our Red Cross," he wrote. "Many a time their bombers flew low over the buildings and often we would get word by phone that 54 bombers were headed our way. They always went on to a destination further south and left us religiously alone."

Eventually they received orders to pack up the hospital and move south. The situation in Singapore was even worse with constant shelling and attacks by aircraft. On Friday 13 February 1942 things were really bad.

"Shell fire all around us, the 'Fall Room' floor in a hopeless muddle, wounded still coming in. Singapore township was copping it now - bombs very close to the building, shells going backwards and forwards all day."

On the Sunday their building, the Cathay, was a target for Japanese bombs and shells.

"Bombs were being dropped around us continuously this day. Casualties were coming in thick and fast. About mid-day the Japanese decided to give us a taste of their HE (High explosive shells) and concentrated on the Cathay. Shell after shell hit us and huge pieces of concrete, shrapnel etc were flying. We received 17 direct hits and numerous near misses.

"An ambulance out front caught fire and the whole building was enveloped in smoke and fumes. At this stage, I'm afraid most of us were quite prepared to meet our Maker as it didn't seem possible that the eight storeys above us could withstand much more without collapsing on top of us.

"At one stage volunteers had to be called to unload an ambulance of wounded. Four Field Ambulance chappies immediately raced outside and brought them in, while one poor chap was left on his own for only a minute or so, but his screams above the exploding shells and falling masonry are something I'll never forget.

"These same Ambulance boys brought him in too. Theirs was indeed a heroic deed and worthy of the DCM which I believe they have been recommended for. They faced almost certain death but came through it unscathed.

"After lunch rumour had it that we had asked for cessation of fire at 4pm while a parley took place. This rumour was the only correct one we heard and the cease-fire order was given.

"Singapore had taken a terrific battering this day. Water and sanitation were disrupted while the dead were lying around in thousands. All essential services with the exception of the electric light had been blown kite high.

"At 2000 hours that night, and things were now deathly quiet, all arms in our building were collected, the men marched out with their gear; an official announcement was made that the island had accepted unconditional surrender and we must consider ourselves prisoners of war."

All the patients and staff were moved to Changi Prison where they began life as POWs. The various hospital units were amalgamated into one area of the camp, cordoned off by barbed wire.

"Dysentery became a real plague," Jack wrote." At one stage we had over four hundred alone with it. As I write this on 8 April 1942, practically the whole of our unit has had it. Up to the 8th of April we had nine deaths from it but am glad to relate that it has eased off considerably over the past 10 days.

"I am still in charge of the A & D here and have quite a large enough staff to cope with the business in hand. There is very little nutrition in this rice diet and everyone is gradually becoming weaker. Those who live longest here will be those who work least."

Jack O'Donnell spent quite a bit of time trying to sort out 10 AGH medical records which had been messed up during the fighting.

"We have been lucky this week in having a number of thunderstorms so that we have been able to have our daily shower," he wrote. "When it rains here you sure see some funny sights - there are nude men everywhere having a rain shower, while up on the top storey of this block, the chaps sleeping there have their shower through a huge bomb hole in the roof."

On Anzac Day, 25 April 1942, there was a short march past of all ranks not on duty with the salute taken by Colonel Pigdon. This was followed by a short service.

As the POWs settled into a routine, educational lectures began, discipline became stricter, everyone continued to lose weight and hunger was the order of the day.

By the end of May the food situation was infinitely worse.

"Most of the troops are in town on working parties, very few remaining here," Jack wrote. "Rumours are still rife as to our future movements but an early move sometime in the next fortnight seems imminent.

"Most of the lads are now suffering in some form or other from malnutrition and lack of vitamins. Personally speaking I find it extremely hard to move one leg after the other these days. Beri-Beri patients are increasing in number, also mental cases."

On 1 September they spent five hours on parade while the Japanese carried out a complete roll call.

"Also this day we have been issued with the following document from the Japanese: 'I ...... do hereby swear on my honour not to attempt to escape no matter what the circumstances.' Needless to say every man refused to sign same with the result that we expect reprisals in the near future."

The following day the reprisals began.

"All AIF and British troops in Changi area, comprising roughly 18,000 men, have been herded into a compound roughly 150 yards long by 100 yards wide [138m by 90m], surrounded by three-storey buildings in a square fashion.

"This square is roughly one and a half miles [2.4km] from here and no communication allowed between the square and the hospital and from here we can see the lads in hundreds on top of the flat roofs of the square buildings.

"Sanitary conditions must be appalling, while thousands will never be able to see the inside of a building at all. Things are in a hopeless mess and I am much afraid that we are going to be forced to sign their bl.... documents or starve to death, patients and all.

"As a demonstration of their intention to adopt a cruel and unrelenting attitude they took all our commanding officers for a joy ride and showed them what to expect by making them witness four of our lads who had previously attempted to escape, face the firing squad. The commanding officers were then sent back to us to tell us what they personally had seen and what we were to expect should we attempt to escape."

The stand off lasted three days and the troops were ordered to sign the papers to avoid unnecessary deaths after the Japanese threatened to shoot 50 people at a time until everyone signed.

A special service was held for the first Christmas in captivity with a choir performing and Christmas dinner, including plum pudding made out of rice and dried fruits.

"I doubt if even the pigs would eat it at home but we thought it delicious," Jack wrote. "Besides our first course of tinned bully, peas, vegetables and beetroot, another riceless meal."

On 24 March 1943, Jack received his first letter from Australia, sent by his mother and father. The following day he received two more, including one from his sister.

On 12 May 1943, Jack wrote:

"Have been doing much more work lately owing to many of our boys having left for up-country working parties - 10th and 13th AGH men mainly being included while the 2/9 Field Ambulance are remaining here to run the hospital. Feelings are very high at this point. At the moment only 2000 odd AIF left on the island, 1000 of which are in hospital here."

On 21 August 1943 the hospital was moved to Selerang Square.

"Practically all work done by man-power pulling trailers - completed in five days," Jack wrote. "F Force arrived back from Thailand - terribly thin, covered in scabies, ulcers and practically every man suffering from malaria. Busy as can be - many deaths making casualties approximately 30 per cent."

In May 1944, the hospital was split again, moving to Kranji Camp under the rubber trees.

"Atap huts in extremely poor condition, other conditions poor, mosquitoes bad, bugs and ants numerous, malaria prevalent."

And finally the day they had all been waiting for. On 19 August they were told by the Japanese that the war was over but that they must remain in the camp until relieved by their own troops.

It was something of an anti-climax. Ten days later they were still behind barbed wire.

"Thousands of Nips going past off the island day and night - mostly armed with swords and bayonets but very few with rifles," Jack wrote. "Red Cross parcels being issued - plenty of food now. Still haven't been out of camp and taking things very easy."

On 18 September he was taken to the Duntroon and finally realised he was on the way home.

"Food on board marvellous. Now in mine fields but paravanes will be raised tomorrow. Issue of cigarettes daily is 20."

When Jack returned to Australia he was a real wreck according to his wife, Stella O'Donnell.

"He had malaria, dysentery, beri-beri, you name it there was a big long list of things wrong. He used to say he was the fittest man in Australia until the Japanese got him."

The material for this article was supplied by Mrs Stella O'Donnell, Jack's widow
8/01/2002 10:21:29 AM


Last updated: 3 June 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Secret diary of life in Changi, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 21 January 2021, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/secret-diary-life-changi
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