A Little-Known STIC Episode, by Martin Meadows

Accounts of the travails of WWII prisoners of the Nipponese always (and understandably) emphasize the obvious subject of food shortages. Such accounts rarely devote much attention to shortages of other kinds of things, and this is a brief attempt to rectify that deficiency. Toward the end of 1944, after nearly three years as Nipponese guests, STIC internees were (needless to say) running short of all kinds of supplies besides food. The focus here is on one of the problems that confronted the STIC central kitchen: it was running out of firewood for cooking the internees’ meager rations. As a result, camp leaders decided to seek unexpected and unusual sources of wood within the camp. And it so happened that room 43 in the Main Building, where I lived along with ca. 60-70 other male inmates, contained a (relatively) bountiful supply of wood.

Room 43 in fact contained perhaps a week’s supply of kitchen firewood; that is because it had been constructed to serve as a U. of Santo Tomás science classroom — likely a chemistry classroom, judging from the following facts. First, at the side of the room adjoining the third-floor hallway, there was an elevated wooden platform, from which professors were able to profess. Second, at one side of the elevated structure was a sink (which, it is worth noting, was extremely convenient for the room’s residents, since we could wash, brush our teeth, etc., without having to trudge to the normally crowded lone third-floor men’s bathroom, which was located at the other end of the building). Third, the room’s concrete floor was visible only around the raised platform, because the rest of the floor was covered by rows of wood flooring, each successive row higher than the one ahead of it (as in a theater, for example), so that all students would have a clear view of the platform (where experiments and demonstrations were performed).

Here it might be of interest to point out the main consequence of living in a room with such flooring. Because of the many raised rows (there must have been around ten of them), for most of the residents’ cots the legs at one end of each cot had to be placed on blocks, so that the cot would be level rather than inclined downward toward the platform. The only exceptions to that were the relatively few cots placed on the very last (highest) row, which was wide enough that cots placed upon it were level without the need for blocks. I was fortunate to have a cot on that top row, thus I did not need to always check to make sure that the cot was not about to slip off a block. (My cot, incidentally, was located by the wall on the left side of the room as one entered from the hallway; the room itself was a large one that had two entrances.)

Sidebar: As best as I can recall, there were three other teen-agers in room 43. Two of them, Harry and Tommy Robinson, were located on the other side of the room; the third, my good friend Eric Sollee, was on my side of the room. Parenthetically, Eric and I played a long-running game of Casino, so long-running that eventually we each had run up a cumulative total score of thousands of points. (Note: Eric, who died in 2008, later became an All-American fencer at Harvard, and a famed fencing coach at MIT.) But I digress. Around the time of the episode at issue, Eric and I were considering the feasibility of victimizing a most annoying person, a noisy chap who constantly coughed and sneezed. We thought about placing his cot on the very edge of one of its blocks, assuming that, at night, his heavy coughing and loud sneezing would shake his rickety cot enough to cause it to slip off its blocks and topple over. (First we made sure that his mosquito netting was not attached to the lines holding up our own netting, otherwise his cot’s fall would also pull down the netting on our end of the room.) But, no doubt fortunately for us, before we could get up the nerve to carry out our plot, the developments described next prevented us from doing so. By the way, I would have preferred to victimize the obnoxious and bedbug-ridden “Skipper” Wilson, about whom I have written before, but his cot was on the top row next to mine and thus did not rest on blocks. And now, boys and girls, as the radio serial announcers used to say, back to our story.

Because of the aforementioned need for firewood, the decision was made to tear out all the wood in room 43 for kitchen use. Our room monitor, Henry Pyle, informed us that, on the scheduled date, we were to arise early and move all of our belongings into the hallway (not a difficult task, involving just a cot and whatever few items were stored underneath it; mosquito nets hung out of the way and thus did not have to be removed). On the appointed day we dutifully did as we had been instructed, causing quite a mess in the hallway and making it nearly impassable, as well as greatly annoying residents of the adjacent rooms. The squad of internees assigned to the job, unshirted and sweating profusely, then spent much of the day ripping up the wood floors and the platform, then hauling off the wood to the kitchen storeroom.

The resulting shambles in room 43 was a sight NOT to behold: clouds of dust filled the air as decades worth of dirt, dead bugs and live insects, spiders, etc. were exposed to the bright light of a sunny day. Most notable of the lot were myriads of cockroaches scurrying and fluttering around; they might have made a nourishing meal had they not been squashed during the proceedings. It is no wonder that, often at night, I had heard cockroaches flying around the room and crashing into my mosquito net. (I am referring to economy-sized Asian roaches, of course, not to the small(er) ones familiar to Americans.)

Another sidebar: I am reminded of the time that my family and I moved into our assigned house upon arriving at the U. of Sierra Leone in 1968; the house had been vacant over the summer, and when I opened a closet door I was met by an incredible torrent of king-size cockroaches. As they sought to flee the closet, I had my hands, or rather feet, full stomping on them.

Back to STIC: Eventually room 43 was cleared of all debris, and by the time it was dark we had managed to move back into our assigned places. At first it seemed a bit strange to be on a level and all-concrete floor, but we quickly got used to the change and greatly enjoyed the room’s improved “quality of life,” although it no longer afforded the opportunity to attempt pranks such as the aborted one described above. — MM