Sunday, March 07, 2010

George's Singapore Tale

I was worried that George might get lost. Navigating from the San Diego airport to the house in daylight isn't easy and he hasn't been here for a couple of years.  Prepared for the rescue, I had a flashlight out, the garage door up and the phone at hand. It rang about 11:00 and it was George. "I'm here", he said. "Where?", said I, thinking he was on Stage Coach driving back and forth or at the very least, in the wrong driveway. I should have known a retired test pilot and fighter pilot would consider this night time navigation a piece of cake.

In he came, all 6'3"of him, looking wonderful as usual. A glass of wine and some cashews seemed just right for the late hour.  Small talk about his flight from Hawaii ensued seguing to a discussion of upcoming travel plans, his and ours. George and Richard were posted together in Switzerland in the early 80's - George was the Air Attache and Richard his Desk Officer.

George has lived a fascinating life living all over the globe; his father was a diplomat and even as a child he lived in exotic locales. The subject of Singapore popped up.  George has vivid memories of when he was as young as seven and "we were living in Singapore, in a house off Orchard Road built by the Firestone company to house management personnel. There were 5 or 6 houses and we rented one of them. In December 1941, I can remember standing on the balcony of that house looking out across the city in the direction of the harbor and the docks, seeing Japanese planes streaking overhead. Bombs were falling and we could see the explosive blasts and fires erupting all over the city. Tracer bullets lit up the sky we could hear ack ack everywhere. From then on, we spent the nights in an air raid shelter with sleeping bags. Up to this point, nobody had taken the Japanese threat very seriously, but the situation started to look bad. Mother, my brother and myself got whisked out of Singapore to Java where we spent several months waiting for my father but it became increasingly possible that he might have been captured or killed in Singapore. Mother went to Jakarta and talked to the US Consul who advised her to get out as fast as possible because the Japanese were coming. We threw what little we had into suitcases and were driven to the nearest port where we boarded a ship, full of refugees, bound for Melbourne Australia.  The Japanese were closing in on Indonesia from two directions - mere hours away. The ship sails and we get out about 500 yards and it stops. Everybody is upset and wonders what's going on. Before the imminent invasion, banks wanted to get their gold out of the country; small boats were bringing out load after load and packing them into the hold of the ship. There was so much gold and so much weight that the ship sunk until the hull was scraping bottom. We had to wait for the tides to change before we could get afloat and get out. "  A ship full of penniless displaced people floating along with a substantial portion of Indonesia's wealth riding along underneath them.

They made it to Melbourne and found out happily, just before arriving, that their father was OK and in Perth. 19 ships had left Singapore with evacuees on board. "17 were sunk, 1 was badly damaged and most on board died. One ship made it through without damage and it was my dad's boat. It was a cattle boat and they were filthy, smelly things -  unlikely to be carrying passengers. Apparently the Japanese didn't think it was worth a bomb."

The family was reunited in Australia and shortly after George, his older brother and mother were able to get passage back to the US. US troops were being shipped to Australia and as refugees the Thompson family were able to get booked on a returning ship. George's father spent the next year in Perth representing the American government. "Officers liked to visit him to listen to his collection of Hawaiian records and relax. Meanwhile our boat took the southern route back to avoid the conflicts and the ship traveled through very heavy seas. There was a pendulum on board, fun to watch, which was used to figure out the pitch as the ship was rolling back and forth most of the time. I would run up to the side of the ship that was highest then run down and across and try to get up the other side before it tipped again. It was marvelous fun for a kid. They used to let me ring up the cash register which was a thrill. Ice cream bars had been loaded on for the troops on the incoming journey and the crew commandeered some of them which they would share with me once in a while. When it got hot, I'd go stand around in the meat locker." The experience was like a kid's dream come true.

George talked about a sudden personality change that he remembers experiencing at that time. He'd been a difficult child with a temper: disobedient and prone to throwing fits. Somehow through experiencing the evacuations and all the attendant stresses, he came to realize, at the ripe old age of 7, that his mother was somebody to be reckoned with. She was successfully managing their survival during a very difficult time. Respect for her illuminated his brain like a light bulb going on and from then forward he was obedient and helpful. Quite an insight for a young boy.


  1. What a fabulous story. You sure have interesting friends. Don't know why you'd want to hang around with us.

    By the way, talking about interesting stories- check out Sepia Saturday. It's full of peoples' interesting family histories. The people are so friendly and they almost all go to your blog and leave comments. There's also a lot of very good writers- some even published. Your stories deserve to be read by more people and I'll bet you have some good family stories. You can click on it on the side of my blog.

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