Survival Stories by Land and by Sea

Among the scores of memoirs written by military men describing their wartime survival stories and escapes from POW camps, two books published by Monsoon Books ( stand out. These true accounts were written in simple words without literary embroidery by servicemen who fought the Japanese during the invasion of Singapore in WW II. One is an escape-or-die story through Jap-infested jungle and the other a harrowing tale of suffering and death on the open sea.

You’ll Die in Singapore by Charles McCormac


You’ll Die in Singapore chronicles the author’s escape along with group of 16 other prisoners who broke out of the Pasir Panjang Japanese POW camp in Singapore shortly after the Japanese occupation of the island in 1942. Weakened by hunger, thirst and ill-treatment, only two survived an epic five-month, 2000-mile overland trek through the jungles of Indonesia to safety in Australia. It is not only a personal account but also an historical record of war-time Malaya, Singapore and Indonesia under brutal occupation.

Instead of waiting for an inevitable death, a small work gang of co-conspirators, armed only with crude weapons and stolen bayonets, overpowered their guards and escaped through rubber plantations to the northwest coast of Singapore Island. The book’s only illustration is a map of the escapees’ zig-zagging land route in the dead of night.

Crossing the Melaka Strait, they were strafed by Japanese fighters and then picked up by a Royal Netherlands seaplane that dropped them off on the mudflats of east Sumatra. The small group headed towards the deep, dark purple haze of the Bukit Barisan Range of mountains. Feverish and delirious from dysentery and malaria, 1800 miles of inhospitable rainforest and thousands of Japanese troops lay between them and Australia.

One terrible stretch of jungle took them 13 days to cross, with danger at every turn as they encountered oxcarts, natives in loincloths, huge slow moving rivers and narrowly avoiding Japanese patrols. They ate berries, leaves, bamboo shoots, wild acidy pineapples, frogs, lizards, flying foxes. They tapped palm trees for the pale greenish liquid inside and devoured jelly-like reddish pulps of wiggly white insects under logs.

With no compass or map, they had only their own wits and the goodwill of villagers to rely on. From one moment to the next, you never knew if they would be betrayed, ambushed or suddenly fall victim to natural hazards like snakes and wild animals. They hid under suffocating hot tarpaulins on cargo trucks alongside stinking petrol, fruit and coconuts. They fell in with a guerilla band under the leadership of a bitter, scar faced Dutch commander. Finally, the two remaining filthy, bearded men boarded a fishing boat out to sea where they rendezvoused with an Australian flying boat and freedom.

The author himself is the book’s most vivid and intriguing character – tough and brazen, yet compassionate and philosophical. Born in England in 1915, McCormac grew up in Malaya where he learned to speak Malay, Chinese, Tamil and Japanese. He served in the RAF as a wireless operator and air-gunner. He endured unimaginably vicious bouts of torture by sword, fists and rifle butts. After the war, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

As is the case with many hidden histories, self-published obscurely or published by small publishers, this memoir has been undervalued and under-publicized. One of the best wartime adventure memoirs, You’ll Die in Singapore is a taut, faced-paced and amazing story of hardship and endurance told with an authentic voice and an economy of words.


You’ll Die in Singapore by Charles McCormac, Monsoon Books 2005, ISBN 978-981-053-0150, paperback, 224 pages.


The Boat by Walter Gibson


The Boat is the most riveting story of the mental, moral and physical disintegration of human beings under extreme pressure that I have ever read. It’s a compelling tale of survival and hopelessness, told with a relentless pace and a blunt and clipped writing style of blood-curdling power.

Though one is tempted to characterize The Boat as the oceangoing counterpart of You’ll Die in Singapore, I found  The Boat more believable and held me more irresistibly in its thrall. It’s a leaner story with very little dialog. You’ll Die in Singapore at times seems fictionalized, reconstructed from memory and the dialog contrived after the fact to fit the scenes.

The Boat brings a terrifying moment out of time down to a visceral, personal level so the reader can taste and feel the desperation at close proximity. The narrative shows the best and worst of human behavior under privation, weakness and fear when facing the ultimate reality – one’s own death. Reading this book is like viewing a horror movie in your mind as each individual death is played out one by one. The month-long experience seared into the writer’s mind, he would hear the creaking sway of the boat in his dreams for decades to come.

On March 1st, 1942, the Dutch ship Rooseboom was crowded with 500 people being evacuated fro\m Malaya when it was attacked by a Japanese submarine off the coast of Sumatra. The torpedo destroyed two lifeboats and a third was wrecked as it was lowered in panic. Built for only 38 people, the initial number of occupants was 80 people plus another 50 who clung to the side. Half of them were raw 19-20-year British infantry troops, the first to crack.

We see how the mind goes before the body. The arch enemy onboard the life boat was the merciless sun. The second most virulent enemy – worse than the hunger – was thirst. There are unforgettable scenes of men going insane, hallucinating, vanishing in the night; of murders, suicides and cannibalism; of a violent storm carrying away clingers and other tragic and heartbreaking ways that survivors met their ignominious end.

After drifting for more than 1000 miles, the boat with its remaining three occupants washes up on a reef off Sipora, one of the Mentawai Islands, 60 miles off the coast of north Sumatra and 100 miles from Padang where the ill-fated Rooseboomhad set sail. The survivors recover in a fishing village for six weeks until the Japanese arrived to carried them off to a prison camp in Padang where the narrator is subjected to more interrogation and torture. Gibson led a grim existence for two more years until he was liberated by the Allies in August 1945.

This diary of death and resourcefulness in the face of adversity is a litany of courage, betrayal, suffering, depravity and self-sacrifice all in one. The pace of the story is unrelenting, tense and stark with no words to spare. But what is perhaps the   most unsettling about this gruesome tale is that each one of the characters – whether they be hero, madman, murderer or saint – if thrown into the same sickening circumstances- are you and me.

The Boat by Walter Gibson, Monsoon Books 2007, ISBN 978-9810583019, paperback, 152 pages.


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