In the comfortable, breezy Library Lounge at the health spa Rancho La Puerta, one of the participants in my informal afternoon writing workshop read what she had written that day in response to an exercise evoking memories of childhood. Though I try to steer people to what Rilke suggested in his Letters to a Young Poet, and look at childhood as a “treasure house of memory,” some are inevitably led to traumatic experiences. I had never heard any, though, that could match what Phyllis Pilgrim read that afternoon.
“I was in a Japanese concentration prison camp from the time I was five years old to the age of nine,” she began.
Phyllis, who has become a good and valued friend over many years, was Fitness Director at The Ranch, and is still a yoga teacher and special adviser there, where she’s served since 1981. From participation in workshops with me and many other guest writers and editors, and mainly in the way that all books are done – through her own time and focused effort – Phyllis wrote and self-published a remarkable and fascinating book that deserves to be widely known and read: The Hidden Passport: My childhood Journey Through Japanese Concentration Camps in Java.
Phyllis’s father, a Scotsman who married an American woman, was a chemical engineer who worked for the Shell Oil Company in Java. After Pearl Harbor the Japanese swept down the Asian coast in a matter of weeks, invading Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore, and occupied Java in March of 1942.
“I was five and a half years old when Japanese soldiers took my father away,” Phyllis writes, and she watched as he was ordered into the back of a truck at bayonet point.
Not long after, Phyllis and her mother and two-year old brother Donald were loaded into another truck by Japanese soldiers and taken to Kleina Lengkong Concentration Camp. In the truck, Phyllis’s mother “quietly slipped her American passport into the back of the frilly bloomers beneath my dress. They were the kind with elastic around the legs, so the passport would not fall through.”
In a succession of four different camps over the next four years, Phyllis only wore those “bloomers” when the Japanese were holding inspections so the passport could be hidden in them: “I never grew out of them during those camp years, due to our starvation diet, and the passport was never found!” It was a treasure that enabled her and her family to get quickly home when the war was over.
Phyllis’s mother, a formidable woman when I met her in her nineties, became the de facto leader of the English women in the camps, as she was the only one who would speak up to the Japanese. She taught Phyllis to write by making letters and words in the dirt with a stick. In Tangaray, a transit camp of 5,000 prisoners, they were given chicken-feed corn to eat “that was riddled with weevils and tiny insects and we just had to eat what we were given.”
In the last and most brutal camp, Tjideng, which was barbed-wired off in some suburb, the twice daily allotment of soup had only a handful of cooked rice and “a slimy seaweed substance called Kankong” which Phyllis’ mother was in charge of dividing for forty people in a tiny house. Once a fortnight all were given a hard-boiled duck egg preserved in brine, and Phyllis’s mother gathered any shells that others threw away and mashed them into a fine powder she made her children drink, “hoping you would get a little bit of calcium out of that.” When the camp was liberated, Phyllis little brother Donald had not grown an inch and was so tiny he looked like a three year old instead of a six year old. Her mother weighed seventy-two pounds and had lost an inch in height.
The children were taught to bow – and bow low – every time they saw a Japanese soldier, or else their mother would be punished. Phyllis’s mother tried to spare the children – not always successfully – from the sight of atrocities. The Japanese officer in charge at Tjeding, Captain Sonei, was immaculately dressed, except for wearing carpet slippers most of the month. During the few days around the full moon, he put on his heavy military boots with metal pointed tips, and “reduced everyone to a state of terror.” Once during “tenko,” the counting of lines of prisoners, Sonei decapitated a woman. If a line had not been counted properly the woman in charge of the line was responsible:
“A stumbling explanation or a cowed expression usually resulted in a cruel beating from Sonei’s whip, a thin lathe-like stick, which swished wickedly through the air. Many a tenko resulted in screams, cuts, bruises, and women being beaten to the ground.”
Learning that children had made pets of the dogs around the camp, Sonei ordered all the dogs picked up and put in bags. During an entire night he made the children beat the bags with sticks, until all the dogs had been killed. “The anguished sounds of dogs yelping and boys sobbing filled the night air. . .”
Little wonder that after the war, Phyllis’s parents never spoke of their experience, even to one another. It was only when Phyllis began questioning them in order to better understand her own experience that her parents made a tape-recording of what they remembered. The book she has written and published, with photographs of her as a child, her parents and brother, and a line of women bowing in one of the camps, is a story that hasn’t been told before. It should be included with the WWII literature of survival, and taught in courses on the era. Phyllis has practiced and taught yoga since she was twenty-two, and she writes that the daily practice “helped me to find a coherent, even comforting perspective, on life’s seemingly random events. It continues to do this and more as the years go by.”
– Dan Wakefield
**The title of the blog is cheating –there are two of Vonnegut’s friends older than I am! Don Farber, Kurt’s agent, lawyer, friend, and man-for- all-seasons since 1971; and Majie Failey, Kurt’s childhood friend and author of We Never Danced to Cheek, a memoir of her friendship with Kurt.
Phyllis with her mother