IT was hell on earth - a place of deprivation and death. Acclaimed oral historian and broadcaster Tim Bowden first heard about Singapore's Outram Road Gaol 30 years ago while interviewing Australian prisoners of war in World War II for an ABC radio series. The men's stories both horrified and inspired him.
"I didn't know anything about Outram Road," says Bowden, from the Pacific Palms home he shares with wife Ros.
"Changi became the buzzword for everything that was horrible and dreadful about World War II for Australian soldiers - it's a sinister word. But if you were in Changi, you were under Allied administration because the Japanese didn't want to waste their resources and you had OK accommodation. You didn't get much to eat but if you stayed in Changi, you were in a better position than those working on the Thai-Burma railway and the men stuck in Outram Road."
Outram Road was a former British stone-and-concrete prison taken over by the Japanese Imperial Army and then the military police, known as Kempeitai. Prisoners were kept in solitary confinement in tiny, bare cells and endured unimaginable squalor. They were fed rice and never enough water, endured scabies infestations, beatings and crippling disease. Prisoners - including women - were routinely beheaded. The cruelty of the Kempeitai knew no bounds.
"You were in there to suffer and they made sure you suffered," says Bowden. "Curiously, they didn't want you to die if you weren't sentenced to death because that would muck up the books. You had to serve your sentence - and if you didn't, well, please explain. When some of the men blew up with beriberi (a disease caused by vitamin B-1 deficiency), a few soy beans would turn up in the watery soup."
Bowden centres his narrative on 12 Australian POWs, nine of whom he interviewed. Only two men are still alive: Bert Rollason, 93, and Bill Young, 88 (Young was 15 when he enlisted and was still a teenager when the war ended). It is estimated between 30 and 40 Australian men were held in Outram Road.
"It is extraordinary anyone survived at all, and they did so because of their mental toughness," says Bowden, "Though you could desperately want to live and still get cholera, which meant you could be dead within hours."
One prisoner, John McGregor, did not leave his cell for 16 months. But amid the horror, the men developed ways to communicate and maintain hope. For Chris Neilson, "a tough Queenslander from Cairns", the greatest fear was that he would go mad. "My sentence was three years' solitary confinement, and that's what it was," he told Bowden. "The guards didn't speak to you, and you had no one to speak to. As a matter of fact, if you had a nightmare and yelled out in your sleep, the Jap guard would burst in the door and kick your ribs in."
After a couple of months, McGregor was placed in the cell next to Neilson's. Desperate to communicate, Neilson used a small piece of lead pencil to write the basics of Morse code on a scrap of paper. The Chinese "cleaner" whose job it was to empty the latrine buckets passed the paper on to McGregor, who memorised the code. "We used to tap with a fingernail on the wall for the dots, and a rap without knuckles for the dashes," Neilson recounted.
It would take all day to tap what you could say in 30 minutes and the pair would tell stories about life back home. "I'd say, 'Well listen, today I'm going to take you for a trip north of Cooktown, fishing," Neilson remembered.
The men's resilience was extraordinary. "I didn't want to just write a horror story," offers Bowden, "and I hope I haven't. It is also a story of the trials of the human spirit and also there is a distinct 'Australianness' to it - the humour, larrikinism, rebellion. Chris [Neilson] used to goad the guards and get bashed up, but at least, for him, it meant something was happening."
Most of the men interviewed by Bowden had never detailed their experiences to anyone - not even their own families. The only people they could turn to were fellow Outram Road inmates. They learned to bury the anger and suffering, though some of the men spent the rest of their lives avoiding contact with any Japanese. "Frank Martin built himself a house on the Gold Coast and when a Japanese moved next door, he moved out," says Bowden. "It was impossible for him to move on from his horrific past."
There was an expectation that when the men returned home, they'd get on with their lives - and to their credit, most did. Neilson, who was hospitalised for almost a year after the war ended, took issue with a comment. "A doctor said to him, 'It's time to put it behind you'," Bowden says. "Chris told him, 'You stupid bastard, if you'd endured five minutes of what I did, you'd remember it for the rest of your life'."
Stubborn Buggers by Tim Bowden is published by Allen & Unwin.