Stories from the Store – Artificial Leg made in Changi Prisoner of War Camp, 1944

Kelly van Doorn

A small but fascinating part of the collection are the objects made by Prisoners of War. From French Napoleonic prisoners to South African Boers in Ceylon, each item tells a unique story of time and place. One which I would like to focus on is a rather unusual object…

Artificial leg made in 1944 out of hosepipe, a bracket and a piece of aircraft.

This item was donated to us in 1986 and was made in the Changi Prisoner of War Camp. Located in Singapore, it was a notorious prison camp. Changi Prison, which is still in use today, housed British civilians and Malayan locals but the name Changi Prison became interchangeable with the Selarang Barracks nearby, which is where the vast majority of prisoners of war were held. The barracks held British military regiments and allied forces of varying nationalities from the surrender of Singapore in 1942 to Imperial Japan.

The infamous Selarang Barracks incident began after four prisoners, two of whom were British and the others Australian, attempted to escape from the camp. They were captured and upon their return the Imperial Japanese Army Commander wanted all of the camp prisoners to sign an oath that they would not attempt to escape. The POWs refused because it was widely believed that a prisoner had a duty to escape if they could, reinforced by the Geneva Convention. This stated that POWs had a right to escape and they should not be punished if unsuccessful. It also set out some ground rules of how POWs should be treated (i.e. humanely) but Imperial Japan was not a signatory. Therefore, they could treat the POWs however they wanted.

This defiance caused the Imperial Commander to order all POWs, totalling nearly 17,000 men, to cram into the outside parade ground and stay there until they signed the document. The prisoners stood their ground and after three days, the commanders of the POW regiments were ordered to attend the execution of the returned escapees. The POWs still did not relent and so the Imperial Commander ordered all water to be turned off so the toilets could not be used and only one tap for drinking water was available to all prisoners. Given these conditions, dysentery and other diseases were rife and prisoners were dying. To avoid preventable and unnecessary deaths, it was decided by the POW commanders that their men would sign the treaty but that they did so under duress. This ended the stalemate and the prisoners were allowed to return to their barrack buildings.

Basic necessities like food, water and medicine were scarce for the POWs and so they had to make do. The object that we have in our collection is an artificial leg made at the camp in 1944 out of hosepipe, a bracket and a piece of aircraft. Given how crude the resources were, it was put together incredibly well and belies its 76 year age! I uncovered an article that seems to explain how and why it was so well put together. It stated that a British Colonel in the camp, who was also a surgeon, realised that many prisoners needed artificial limbs and so set about enquiring about the skillsets of the interned men. He found an ex-chartered civil engineer and together they created the limbs. Supposedly the artificial limbs were so good that “it is impossible to tell that the walker is minus a natural leg”. However, they weren’t as popular as the simpler hollow legs that they made as these enabled users to smuggle in food from the prison gardens! Although the materials were crude, the abilities of those who made them were not. It seems incredibly likely that given the professional standard of the leg in our collection, it may have been made by the surgeon and the civil engineer. The camp also managed to fashion a functioning  x-ray set and handcuff keys for prisoners who were put back into their cell still handcuffed- incredible!

The artificial leg was donated to us by Signalman (Albert) Gordon Pike from Brighton. He had served in the Royal Corp of Signals during World War Two and as a postman before the war and also after he returned. It was unclear, until very recently, whether the artificial leg was his or someone else’s as that information was not recorded at the time. After extensive research, anecdotal evidence was found that states Gordon Pike lost his leg in a Japanese POW camp. We are not sure whether he lost his leg due to an incident in the camp or as a result of the conflict before internment but it is clear that this artificial leg was created for him to use during his time as a prisoner of war in Changi (Selarang ) camp. Unfortunately for Gordon, it is also reported that once home he lost his other leg, again we are not sure what caused this. Gordon Pike passed away at the incredible age of 97 in 2007.

Rack 3, shelf 4 is its current home but its journey to this location has been fascinating. Such an unusual object has allowed us a glimpse into what being a prisoner of war in Changi was like. It is also an object which represents determination and survival and we are privileged to have it in our collection.

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