NST Online

Tales of a Prisoner of War

Naveen Mathew Menon

KUALA LUMPUR: Octogenarian Neal Hobbs returned to the land of his birth recently to reminisce about the good and not so good old days. He vividly recalled what it was like growing up and working in Malaya, and the suffering under the Japanese in World War 2.

The former prisoner of war said this will probably be his last visit. He had come to the New Straits Times library to look for pictures of himself and his family.

Horse racing aficionados may recognise the name of his father, Robert Neal Hobbs, a successful jockey and race-horse trainer. Both father and son were well-known sports personalities here back in their glory days.

Hobbs now lives in Brisbane, Australia. Before his retirement he was an air-conditioning sales administration manager with Carrier.

Q: Tell us about your early years in Malaya.

A: I was born in Kuala Lumpur in 1924. I attended primary school at the Batu Road School. In 1938 I went to the Victoria Institution (V.I.) and was there till my final year in 1941. During the Christmas holidays that year, the Japanese trooped in.

I did not leave this country from the time I was born till 1941, when I was captured by the Japanese and taken to Bangka Island in Indonesia. I was 21 years old when I was released after 3-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war. I went to Australia and after I recovered my health I came back here in 1946, and lived and worked here for 19 years.

A couple of years before I left in 1965 I became a Malayan citizen. But I had to give it up when I went to live in Australia.

Q: What work did you do here?

A: I was a stock broker for a company called Charles Bradburne, and later on a rubber broker.

Q: What made you visit Malaysia this time?

A: I was talked into it by my daughter. She was born here as well.

Q: Is this your first visit since you left in 1965?

A: No. I came back here in 1972 for a few days to meet up with my wife who had taken my daughter to visit her relatives in England. I was working and couldn't go with them. It's been over 30 years since I was last here.

Q: You were a legendary cricketer here...

A: I played cricket at V.I. before the war. After World War 2, I played for the state for about 10 or 12 years. Every year there was one fixture - North versus South. North was Selangor upwards to Perak and Penang, while South was Negri Sembilan, downwards.

I was selected to play for Malaya against Hong Kong, but unfortunately I had just switched jobs and didn't want to take the risk of going to Hong Kong at that crucial time and asked to be left out.

Q: What about local food, do you like it?

A: I'm crazy about local food ... I virtually grew up on it. In the last four or five years before I went back to Australia I used to have nasi lemak for breakfast almost everyday. I love hot kuey teow and mee goreng. My wife and I used to go to the Madras cinema and afterwards to the stall just outside for fresh wet popiah. It was absolutely fabulous.

Q: How and when did you become a POW?

A: When the Japanese came in we were chased down to Singapore like a lot of other people. On the 12th of February 1942, three days before Singapore fell, we scrambled out of the country, like hundreds of other people did, on any available vessel. We took off to Perth, but unfortunately we didn't get far because the Japanese captured us at sea and took us to Bangka island near Sumatra. We spent three and a half years there being moved around from one prison to another. Luckily my mum had left for Perth a month earlier with my sisters.

There were three ships in our particular convoy. When we were sailing out of Singapore our ship got lost in a mine field. The other two vessels, one with Australian nurses, were sunk by Japanese planes. Some people swam to shore while others drowned. On one of the beaches of Bangka, the Japanese shot about 21 nurses. One survived, and she went to the war crimes trials after the war to give evidence.

Q: Do you remember your days in prison?

A: We were in a civilian camp. The main problem for us was slow starvation. We got rice and tapioca - very little of it. We weren't fighters or soldiers. We just got in the way, so the sooner we died the better as far as they were concerned. So instead of putting us against the wall and shooting us, they decided to starve us to death. We were so run down many picked up malaria, dysentery, cholera and other diseases. About 55 per cent of the prisoners in our camp died. But I was lucky. My father and I were together and we both survived.

The women's and men's camps were separated and we were never allowed to see each other. Even husbands and wives were never allowed to see each other, and didn't even know whether either one or the other had died. In jail we had a couple of feet of space, and they didn't provide us with any beds or mattresses. We slept on concrete, and gunny sacks softened the hard surface.

Q: How did you survive?

A: In the final camp, some of us supplemented our diets. My father was so frail at that stage I thought I should do something to get some extra food. Our camp in a disused rubber estate was surrounded by barbed wire, but a few of us plucked up enough courage to go out at night and eventually during the day too. We used to raid the ladang for tapioca and other things. If you were caught, you were executed. That was the risk we had to take.

Q: Did your mum and sisters know you were alive?

A: No, in those three and a half years, they didn't get any information about us, whether we were alive or dead. The Japanese gave us post cards to write a couple of times which they said they would send through the Red Cross, but I guess they all ended up in the dustbin. My mum and sisters only realised we were alive when we got to Singapore after our release.

Q: What do you think of Malaysia now?

A: I hardly recognise many of the places because of all the changes. New streets, new buildings ...things have changed. Even the names of the old streets are different, and that confused me a bit. In Singapore nearly all the names of streets are still the same. The present Federal Hotel was the Federal Hotel back then, but obviously it's not the same building. And the Pavilion cinema is a car park today. But the people are extremely polite and helpful. That hasn't changed.

Q: Where did you meet your wife?

A: I met her in Penang. We were married here in Kuala Lumpur.

Q: What did you do for relaxation?

A: After the war, when we came back here, we used to go to the cinema quite a lot, the Odeon near Batu Road, the Madras cinema and the Pavilion.

Q: Where did you go for your holidays?

A: Fraser's Hill! I used to go up there and play golf. Also Cameron Highlands and Port Dickson.

Q: What is your most striking memory of Malaysia when you were working here?

A: I just loved the atmosphere of the place, the relaxed attitude of everyone - the locals and the foreigners. I played a lot of sports and I mixed with a lot of local people and I got on extremely well with them.

Q: What kind of sports did you play other than cricket?

A: I was a very good golfer and was a member of the Royal Selangor Golf Club for a number of years. For two years, I was also the captain of the Selangor Club hockey team.

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