Saturday, 5 July 2014

Love on the Run from the Japanese

     In early 1942 fourteen British and Australian servicemen made a break from Japanese-held Singapore. Only four of them survived to cross the strait to Sumatra. Then began a long and hazardous flight down the length of the island in order to link up with other Allied forces. By the time they reached the very south end of Sumatra, only three were left. They were Charles McCormack, R.G. Donaldson, and Chris Skinner, the last one of which was described as:
small, dark, profane and possessed of boundless energy and humour. An inveterate grumbler, he had a one-track mind and only one topic of conversation: women.
     In short, he was the last person you would expect to react as he did in the native village which sheltered them. It completely and utterly sidetracked the whole adventure. It was something no writer would think to introduce into any of those old wartime escape movies which were once so popular. He and the chief's daughter, Li-Tong fell for each other straight away, despite the fact that their stay was very short, and that neither of them spoke more than a few words of the other's language.
    Eventually, it was arranged for a fishing boat to carry them across the narrow strait to Java, but on the last night, Skinner announced that he was not coming. Instead, he was going to ask Li-Tong to marry him. It was plain madness. The Japanese were looking for them. They wouldn't find him, he said. They argued with him throughout the night. He wouldn't budge. Then whom should they notify? No-one. (Didn't he have a family who was concerned for him?) Well, to what unit did he belong? Signals.
     Came the morning, and at the last moment, Skinner arrived and announced that he had changed his mind. But then, at the very last moment, Li-Tong came running up, threw her arms around him, and clung to him like a leech, despite all his imprecations. In the end, the chief insisted that if his future son-in-law did not remain, neither of the others would be allowed to depart. So he was stuck.
     McCormack was the only one to survive, having traveled almost the whole length of Java before being rescued. Naturally, he used to wonder what had happened to his companion. But towards the end of the war he discovered it had a happy ending. By now his task was to interrogate personnel who, like himself, had escaped through Japanese occupied territory. In one case three crews made made forced landings in the jungle, and each of them was contacted by natives and brought to a little fishing village where they were entertained, and eventually sent on their way through the underground, by a bearded white man who "was living like a king", superbly happy with a wife, two children, an imposing bamboo hut and a small fishing vessel. Their independent descriptions left no doubt that it was Skinner and Li-Tong they had encountered. Cometely satisfied with his lot, he had no intention of returning to civilisation.
     I wonder whether his family of origin, assuming they were still alive, ever heard of him. I wonder, too, what his war record said because, after all, failing to return to his unit was technically desertion. Was he listed as presumed died in captivity? Or did the authorities manage to identify him from the meager data provided by McCormac, and list him as escaped from captivity, fate unknown?

Reference: Charles McCormac (1954), You'll Die in Singapore, Robert Hale
     

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