February 15th is the 75th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore in 1942, described by Winston Churchill as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”, when the combined forces of 85,000 British, Australian, Dutch and Indian troops surrendered to an invading Japanese force of 30,000. Many families have stories of their war heroes, and this is the story of Diana’s mother, Carol Brown Purdie, who survived on both fronts of World War II: The Blitz in England and the Japanese capture of Singapore.
Carol came from a modest upbringing in Glen Rock, New Jersey and went west to Stanford University in 1938. There she met Donald Purdie, a visiting professor from Cambridge University in England. Carol was tall, bright, pretty and vivacious while Donald was handsome, 6’4″ and already being recognized as a brilliant chemist. He was nine years her senior, but they fell in love, married and moved to Cambridge in 1939.
Voyage to Singapore
The British were terrified of an impending invasion by Nazi Germany. By 1940, the Germans were bombing England almost daily, and the abdicated King of England, Edward VIII, was a Nazi sympathizer who had met Hitler and gave Nazi salutes at Hitler’s Obersalzberg retreat. After many months of uncertain life in the Blitz, the Purdies had a chance to get out of England when he was offered the professorship and chair of chemistry at Raffles College in Singapore (today the University of Singapore).
In late 1940, Donald and Carol Purdie and their infant son Rob arrived in Singapore and settled into their new life on the Raffles College campus. They experienced a happy existence except for the looming threat of Japanese expansion into all of Asia. News stories told of Japanese troops who were ordered to take no prisoners because that would slow up their advance. The Japanese had killed wounded Allied soldiers and hospital patients, and soldiers who surrendered were often murdered. Australian troops had been doused with gasoline and burned to death. By the end of December 1941 the Japanese were flying constant bombing raids over Singapore and invasion of the island was imminent, so the British government there encouraged women and children to leave. All of the men needed to stay to defend Singapore.
Carol was in the late stages of pregnancy with Diana, too pregnant to fly or to travel on one of the evacuee ships. She had to stay long enough to have her baby in Singapore General Hospital because she and the baby probably would not have survived birth on one of the overcrowded, filthy evacuee ships. By January 20, bombing raids occurred multiple times every day and civilians were dying at the rate of at least 150 a day. Shortly before Carol’s due date, their house was hit by bombs that broke every window in the house and left them without a roof over their heads. Two-year-old Rob picked up a large piece of a bomb and brought it into the house, and was most unhappy when Carol took away his new-found toy.
Labor Under a Hospital Bed
By late January the Japanese were approaching Singapore and the British knew that they would invade very soon. All of the other wives and children of the faculty at Raffles College were gone when Carol went into labor. Donald obtained leave to take her to the hospital, but the labor was long and hard and he had to return to duty as a member of the British defense forces. Diana’s mother spent her labor underneath the hospital bed, which gave cover from shrapnel from the exploding bombs. The air she breathed was full of smoke and the sound of exploding bombs was all she heard. Diana Purdie was born on January 26th. Mother and newborn had to stay four extra days in the hospital because Donald could not get leave to take them home. The Japanese continued to bomb the area heavily, so Carol and Diana spent the nights hiding under a table.
Donald was able to get evacuee ship tickets for Carol, Rob and Diana, but he could not get leave to be with them for their departure on February 8th. They sat for hours on a road packed with cars trying to get to the docks, and far more people were turned away than were able to get on the ships. Carol climbed aboard the troop ship holding Rob, while a friend carried two-week-old Diana in a box. The friend, Sir Norman Alexander, later wrote that “helping her board in the pitch dark, carrying the baby up the slippery gangway with no outer rail, was my most hair-raising experience of the whole war.”
The ship had been hit by Japanese bombs before it arrived at the dock in Singapore and there was no time to repair the damage. With far more passengers than could be safely accommodated and not enough food or water, the trip was another terrifying experience. The Japanese continued to try to sink as many of the 200 evacuee ships as possible. Carol’s ship was hit again by bombs on the journey out of Singapore but managed to get to Bombay three weeks later. There Carol had her purse stolen with all her money, passports and Diana’s birth certificate. After much hassle and confusion at the embassy, they were put on the SS President Polk, which traveled around South Africa, through the Panama Canal and on to Los Angeles. From there they took the train back to her family in New Jersey.
The Fall of Singapore
Diana’s father had joined the Straits Settlement Volunteer Force (SSVF) as part of the effort to defend the island. Earlier the British had assumed that any attack on Singapore would come by sea so they concentrated their limited resources on the harbor. Instead, the Japanese came down the Malay peninsula and invaded the island from the north. The invading force faced very little opposition from the British and their allies. On February 15, 1942, after being attacked for only a few days, the British surrendered. Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the ignominious fall of Singapore to the Japanese the “worst disaster” and “largest capitulation” in British military history. Donald Purdie became one of the 85,000 British, Australian, Dutch and Indian prisoners of the Japanese. They were marched down the city streets to Changi prison, which had been built to house 600 prisoners.
From Changi Prison to the Death Railway
For his first few months as a Japanese POW, Donald Purdie worked with other prisoners to make conditions in Changi as humane as possible, despite the extreme overcrowding and lack of food. They were even allowed to bring books from Raffles College so they could organize classes and a library for prisoners. That all ended when Donald was transported north to a slave labor camp to build the Death Railway, a 258-mile Japanese rail line to connect Siam (Thailand) to Burma. After eight months of forced labor in impossible jungle conditions, with virtually no food, sanitation or medical care, Donald died on May 17, 1943. He was one of 13,000 Allied POWs and 90,000 Asians who died in these work camps. Many of the surviving POWs have said that the popular films about the Death Railway, The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Railway Man, failed to capture the horrible reality of their experiences. After the war, 111 Japanese and Korean soldiers were tried for war crimes for their brutal treatment of the Death Railway prisoners, and 32 were sentenced to death.
At the end of her long journey, Carol arrived in the United States with her two children and went back to Glen Rock to live with her parents while she waited for news of Donald. She eventually learned that he had been killed by the Japanese in 1943, but his death was not confirmed until 1945. She spent the rest of her life just trying to cope. She remarried twice: the first time with the practical goal of providing a stable home for her two children and the second time with the fantasy goal of building a sailboat and sailing around the world. She succeeded with both goals, although the trip around the world went only to Hawaii, where she and her third husband lived aboard their ketch Crescendo in Lahaina Harbor until her death. At age 57, she suffered a ruptured berry aneurysm in her brain and never regained consciousness. She died on January 23, 1976, just a few days short of the 34th anniversary of her evacuation from Singapore. She had never fully recovered from losing the love of her life and had been devastated by this terrible example of man’s inhumanity to man.
A berry aneurysm or cerebral aneurysm is a weakened area in the wall of a blood vessel that balloons out and can rupture to bleed into the brain. You can have no symptoms at all, or it may leak blood to cause a severe headache. The ballooned artery can press on nerves or other parts of the brain to cause double vision or loss of vision, headaches, and eye or neck pain. All sudden, severe headaches should be checked immediately to rule out a ruptured berry aneurysm. Risk factors include high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, persistent headaches, long-term use of pain medications or a family history of stroke.
Much of this story is drawn from my mother’s unpublished book which she wrote between 1946 and 1949. I have also gotten a lot of information from Mary Harris, daughter of Norman and Elizabeth Alexander, who were Donald and Carol’s neighbors and close friends at Raffles College.
This year I have learned the parallel story of Malcolm Read, who posted a note in the Malayan Volunteers Group about a commemorative medal (below) issued by the Malaya Section of the Royal Institute of Chemistry. Our fathers were both chemists – Malcolm’s working for the government searching for ways to make white rice more nutritious, and mine as head of the university’s chemistry department. The medal honored them along with three other members of the society who had died in captivity.
Malcolm was one year old and I was three weeks old when our mothers carried us aboard evacuation ships to escape from the attacking Japanese. Our fathers stayed behind, having left their civilian jobs to serve as “volunteers” for the defense of “Fortress Singapore.” They were captured by the Japanese on February 15, 1942 and both died performing slave labor in brutal jungle conditions and on starvation rations. Malcolm wrote a detailed account of his family’s experiences in his book Don’t Know How, Don’t Know When (available on Amazon).
Our email correspondence revealed that Malcolm, like Gabe, was a sports medicine doctor and that we had many other common interests, so we decided that it would be fun to meet. Fortunately, Malcolm and his wife Rosemary were willing to do the traveling and we were able to offer Florida’s appealing winter climate. So, this month, we are getting together to mark these 75th anniversaries:
• January 26 – Diana’s birthday
• January 30 – Malcolm’s evacuation from Singapore with his mother, aboard the Duchess of Bedford
• February 8 – Evacuation of Diana with her mother and brother Rob, aboard the Felix Roussel
• February 15 – The Fall of Singapore and the last day of freedom for our fathers, Frederick Read and Donald Purdie
Carol Brown Purdie
December 23, 1918 – January 23, 1976