I am very proud to post this feature written by my mother, Mdm Si-Hoe Sing Sow, who witnessed the Fall of Singapore on 15 February, 1942. She was only 8 years old then and lived through the atrocities of the Japanese Occupation to tell the tale.
“The siren will sound punctually at noon. No one will be alarmed. No one will be scuttling anywhere. No one will panic and there will not be a reason to. It has been clearly announced in advance through the media that this is just a Civil Defence Exercise . For the 15th of February is Total Defence Day in Singapore (an observance which falls on the anniversary of Singapore’s defeat to the Japanese in WWII.) But it sends a chill right down my spine. And it always will.
Almost seven decades ago, I heard the same siren, only much louder and more urgent. I was a Primary 2 student at then Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School. The school year was drawing to a close and our class was busy putting finishing touches to our handicrafts for the annual school exhibition. The bright red paint on my little wooden stool was still wet but not dripping because it was the second coating. (Photo above: The author at around 16 years of age.)
Suddenly the siren sounded. We dropped everything we were doing and scrambled to the side of the classroom that had been cleared for us. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, bending forward almost touching the ground, we pulled at our ears with mouths open. Our teacher paced up and down, checking to see that we did it right. She then settled herself at one corner. Ten minutes passed, the ‘all-clear’ siren came on. The exercise was over.
A few days later, we dispersed for our holidays with a happy heart, completely unaware of our impending fate.
Come January, nobody went back to school. Nobody talked about school and no one questioned why. I was too pre-occupied with the goings-on at home. Father had piled up several layers of sand bags around the garage, turning it into an air-raid shelter which we shared with our neighbours. Sand bags stacked up on both sides of the entrance formed a seven foot-high L-shaped tunnel leading to the door. Island-wide blackouts had already been imposed and lights must not be visible from the outside. Vigilante volunteers wearing armbands patrolled every night to ensure effective blackouts. So after sunset, we’d all settle around light bulbs carefully shielded with dark cloth or paper boxes.
Father and Mother would gather all 10 of us after dinner to update the older few on what was happening and review our strategy. The younger ones were repeatedly drilled on what to do when the siren sounded. “Even when there is no siren, keep an ear out for the droning of airplanes,” warned Father. (World War II planes flew low and slow.)
As we were deep in sleep one night, the siren sounded loud and clear. For real this time. Eldest sister and brother instantly woke up, went from bed to bed banging furiously to get us out as quickly as possible. We rushed down one flight of stairs to the ground floor, then out of the house, down another flight of stairs to the air-raid shelter, bringing nothing with us. Powerful searchlights flashed across the night sky, trying desperately to locate enemy planes. Strong and weaker explosions occurred in quick succession, mingled with the urgent blowing of whistles by some vigilante corp. Meanwhile our neighbours half-carried, half-dragged their bewildered children into the shelter, some crying and some half asleep. There was much confusion despite our strenuous efforts to be well prepared.
We sat on the floor, dazed, not knowing what to expect. I was listening to real bombs exploding for the first time. I listened nervously to the explosions that went on around us as the minutes ticked by. Soon the rhythm of the bombing became familiar – a long sharp hollow whizzing sound which would become louder and louder, culminating in a thunderous ‘Boom!’ when the bomb exploded. This could be the ‘guo shan’ bomb (a bomb reputed at the time to be able to fly over mountains and an amazing technological feat in the 1940s) … but I couldn’t be sure. It was not a pleasant sound anyway. I was told that if you could hear the “B-o-o-o-m!”, you were not hit. What a consolation.
After what seemed an eternity, the all-clear siren came on. We all emerged shaken, but not relieved. Because we knew this would not be the last.
In the morning, news spread by word of mouth, describing the damage sustained from the bombings. Father, who was a building contractor, listened with keen interest. This enabled him to assess what reinforcements were needed for the air-raid shelter.
He had two layers of wooden planks placed on the roof of the shelter. Sandwiched between them were a number of steel rods arranged hammock-like – slightly slack so it can act like a bit of a ‘spring’. (So that if a bomb fell on it, it would bounce off – at least that was the rationale behind it.) Father estimated it could withstand a 50-lb bomb.
For the next several weeks, we ran in and out of this safe haven. It was getting so frequent that we decided to sleep on the ground floor instead. We got wiser every day. Our survival skills became more acute. It was the wisest thing to finish our bath in two minutes flat with a large pail of water in easy reach, and a wrap-around garment at hand. Take advantage of the few minutes immediately after a bombing session to go to the toilet. It was no fun to hear the siren while you were in the midst of such activities.
But soon, there were no more sirens to wake us. Late one evening, my then two-year-old sister stopped in the midst of her playing and said in dialect, “The planes are coming.” The adults pricked up their ears and listened. True enough. We all dived into the shelter.
The bombings eventually stopped. 15 February, 1942. The British had surrendered. Chinese New Year slipped by unheralded, unnoticed. Rumours abounded that worse things were coming our way.
We could only surrender ourselves to our fate, and hope for the best.”