‘Piercing screams were just a noise that I got used to...’

Margaret Wells today
Margaret Wells today
Portsmouth & Southsea railway station by Andy Cooper

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Margaret Wells was seven when she was captured and interned by the Japanese. she and her family were separated for three years in different camps. She tells her story to Chris Owen

Most of us have a particular sound from childhood which resonates for the rest of our lives.

Margaret Wells aged 7 in the arms of Japanese soldier Sykai in 1942

Margaret Wells aged 7 in the arms of Japanese soldier Sykai in 1942

For Margaret Wells the noises she hears are the excruciating screams of women being raped.

‘They are sounds which will live me for the rest of my life,’ she said. ‘I can never forget them and still hear them from time to time.’

It’s hardly surprising because when Margaret’s ears were subjected to those terrified screams she was aged between seven and 11.

For three years Margaret, now 76, was interned by the Japanese in Singapore during the Second World War.

She, her mother and sisters were held between 1942 and 1945 in Hut 130 at the Sime Road internment camp.

Her father and brothers were imprisoned separately in the notorious Changi prison. ‘At our camp there were no men – except for the Japanese guards,’ added Margaret.

‘They would surround the hut at night and then you waited – you knew what was coming – and then you heard the piercing screams of the women as they were raped in their own beds. It was the sound I grew up to.’

So it came as something of a shock when we sat down to talk in her Cosham home to discover a faded photograph of a young, stern-looking Margaret in the arms of Sykai, one of the camp guards.

‘You can see from the expression on my face that I didn’t like it, but there was nothing you could do.

‘For some reason they took a liking to me, probably because of my nickname – Mimi. In Japanese it means ears. The Japanese took the picture, got it printed and gave it to me as a souvenir...’

In her collection she has another photograph. This time it’s of a corporal. Margaret has written his name underneath – Oyoshiki Isoka.

She remembers him, not for some kind of atrocity, but for an act of kindness. ‘One of my brothers died when he was six months old. We had nothing to bury him in and this man came along with a small coffin and took him to the cemetery in his own vehicle to be buried.’

Margaret’s British father, David Morier, was working as a travelling tea merchant when she was born in Kuala Lumpur in February 1935.

When she was three her father moved with his work to Singapore and the family went with him.

It was 1938, a year before the start of the Second World War and four before the British surrendered Singapore to the Japanese on February 15, 1942.

The Japanese took all of Malaya during the Battle of Malaya in little more than two months.

The garrison defending Singapore and comprising British, Australian, Indian and Malayan troops, surrendered only a week after the Japanese moved in from Malaya. Prime minister Winston Churchill called it ‘the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history’.

Margaret said: ‘I knew about the war because we had an air raid shelter built under the verandah, but at that age I had no idea that it would really affect me or the family.’

That all changed shortly after the invasion. ‘It was 8am. We’d had our breakfast and we were in our usual clothes. By then the schools had closed.

‘Suddenly there was this banging on the door. My father went to answer it and there were two Japanese soldiers and an officer.

‘The soldiers shoved a bayonet into my dad’s chest and the officer, in broken English, said: ‘Everyone out and into the lorry’.

‘It was awful. We weren’t allowed to take any of our belongings, not even a toothbrush.’

Margaret reckons the journey took about six hours before the family arrived at the camp and the men and women were separated.

‘My three brothers had to go with dad, while me, my mum and my three sisters went to the women’s camp.

‘It was surrounded by wire which must have been about eight feet high and in the middle of the compound was a hill with a hospital on top.

‘It was harsh. We had to get up and parade for a roll call at 7am and if anyone was missing the Japanese went nuts and started dishing out punishments.

‘We weren’t allowed to cook – not like they showed on the television in Tenko. A lorry came round once a day and threw some food at us.

‘We had no education, apart from having to learn Japanese. I missed three of the most important years of my life because of that camp, but I was determined I would make up for them.

‘We had no toys and made up games to play outside.’

Margaret added: ‘I saw how cruel they could be one day when I was walking up the hill towards the hospital.

‘The Japanese are very particular about their culture, particularly bowing, and bowing properly from the waist.

‘A woman was walking down the hill towards us when she was approached by a Japanese officer. The woman merely nodded her head, not giving him the full bow.

‘He immediately hit her hard around the face, knocked her down, kicked her in the genitals and walked on.’

And her feelings towards the Japanese all these years later? ‘I don’t feel angry and bear no malice towards them. I don’t hate them. It was war. Awful things happen, but you have to move on.’

Margaret, a Roman Catholic, said the highlight of those long weeks was Sunday morning mass. ‘If it hadn’t been for my faith I don’t I would have got through those years,’ she said.

‘Of course, there were no pews. We had to kneel on concrete outside, the altar was a table and there was no singing. Can you image no singing or music for three years? And I love to sing.

‘Where the priest came from I don’t know. Perhaps he was the chaplain at the hospital.’

Sunday was different for another reason. ‘It was the day they let me see my dad,’ said Margaret. ‘They would bring him over for a few hours along with some of the other fathers.’

Her father knew exactly where his wife and daughters were because he would occasionally get a glimpse of her during the week.

‘Dad was put in a working party that had to dig the graves for those that had died in the hospital. He would be marched up the hill past us. We weren’t allowed to speak to each other or wave but we always made eye contact.

Remarkably, the entire family survived their internment. ‘When the British recaptured Singapore we went back to our house only to be find it had been taken over by squatters, so an Indian family next door took us all in and we lived right next to our own home for many months until that was sorted.

‘But it was nothing compared to what we had been through. One thing that being held prisoner for three years teaches you is to put everything that follows into perspective.

‘Nothing could ever be as bad again.’