Bishop John Leonard Wilson's Account of the Japanese Occupation of Singapore

Transcribed from Saint John's Review 15 (January, 1948): 15-20

CSCA Home | CSCA Anglican Documents on SE Asia

Introductory Note by Michael Poon

John Leonard Wilson was a lifelong friend and colleague of Bishop Ronald Owen Hall of South China.  He arrived in Hong Kong on February 10, 1938, upon R O Hall's invitation, and was installed as dean of Saint John's Cathedral, Hong Kong on the 20th of the same month.  [See Saint John's Review 10 (February, 1938): 41-42; The Outpost, (April-June 1938): 14-17, and Wilson's recollection in The Outpost (February 1957):17-18]. On July 22, 1941, Feast of Mary Magdalene, he was consecrated Bishop of Singapore. The service was held in Saint John's Cathedral, Hong Kong. [Saint John's Review 13 (August, 1941): 241-243.]  From 1941 to 1948, he was the Bishop of Singapore.  the following is his account on the church's ministry during the Japanese occupation.  It first appeared in The Listener, and was reprinted in Saint John's Review.

For further reading on the Anglican ministry in Singapore during the Japanese occupation, see George O. Daniel, Love Unites People: Memoirs of a Christian worker in Singapore from 1913 to 1959 (Singapore: privately printed); John Hayter & Jack Bennitt, The War & After No. 2:  Singapore (London: SPCK, 1946); John Hayter, Priest in prison. Four years of life in Japanese-occupied Singapore, 1941-1945 (West Sussex : Churchman Publishing Ltd., 1989); Roy Mckay, John Leonard Wilson: Confessor for the Faith (London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1973); J. L. Wilson, Only Look on us as Found in Him (Cambridge: Mass: s.n., 1961).   Click for details.

A Prisoner of the Japanese

A broadcast sermon by the Rt. Rev. J. L. Wilson, Bishop of Singapore

Reprinted from The Listener of Oct. 24th, 1946

When the Japanese captured the city of Singapore early 1942, they ordered all Europeans except neutrals to parade and be ready for internment. Certain people were exempted because they belonged to essential services such as telephones, electric power stations, transport, etc. I went to see the Japanese authorities to ask for exemptions for certain church ministers. I have always taken the line that the churches are an essential service, but, as I had not always got the British Government to agree to this proposal, I did not have much hope of getting any satisfaction from the Japanese authorities. They told me that I must be interned because the British had interned all the Japanese bishops and priests. I assured them this was not so. I said to them, 'The British did not intern a single bishop or priest in Singapore'. I did not tell them there were not any to intern. Eventually rather to my surprise, they gave permission for myself and two of my clergy to remain on parole. They told me that they would not provide any pay or rations as they were doing in the case of other men not interned. I knew, therefore, that I should be dependent upon the local population - Chinese, Indians and Eurasians (Eurasians being the children of parents one of whom is Asiatic, the other European).

Material and Spiritual Gifts

I need not have worried about my dependence because, while we were on parole, we received gifts which were ample enough to feed and clothe us during the whole time of liberation; but, however great were their material gifts, they were nothing compared to the spiritual gifts. I have known something of the meaning of fellowship in the parishes that I was in England in Coventry, in Sunderland and other places but never have I known so deep and understanding a friendship as I received from the local population of Malaya. I began to understand for the first time what the Church should be: a forgiving society, a beloved community. Remember that the people had been brought face to face with a great crisis of their life. The whole foundation of their lives seemed to have gone; their future was insecure; their very lives were in danger. Most of the things in which they had trusted had turned to ashes, but in that day when the heavens were falling, they had found one thing secure; their faith in Christ was as firm as a rock. It was no wonder that they came together in spite of the many difficulties and dangers to praise God and to help each other. We were lucky in Singapore in being allowed to hold our services. In Rangoon the cathedral became a distillery, in Hong Kong a social club, but throughout the whole of the time of the Japanese occupation, services were held every day. This was largely due to the fact that a Japanese Christian, Captain Ogawa, was made Director of Education and Religion. He was quite courageous in claiming for the Church the religious liberty which the Japanese had promised, and he himself got into great difficulties with his own military police because of his friendliness to the Christian Church. I felt I had a responsibility, not only to my own church members, but to all Christians in Singapore, because most of them had been deprived of their European leaders and friends; and so we formed a Christian federation of all the churches. Very soon, however, our troubles began.

Suspicion and Internment

It is not easy to know all the facts, but suspicion came upon us because of three things. First, I was not unmindful of the plight of my fellow-Europeans who had been taken to Changi gaol. It was a gaol built for seven hundred Asiatic prisoners and into it the Japanese had crowded nearly four thousand men, women and children. Many of them were sick and were brought to hospitals in the town. There I met them and heard of their conditions. They were very short of essential food stuffs. If they had the money they could buy eggs and bananas and coconuts. But few of them had any money, so I tried to borrow, first from the Japanese and then from the local banks and then from the International Red Cross. None of them was allowed by the authorities to lend any money to prisoners of war or internees, so I borrowed it on behalf of the Anglican Church. I told the lenders that the Anglican Church had outlasted many empires and, whoever won this war, the Church of God would go on and their money would be safe. So large amounts of money were sent into Changi, and the Japanese began to suspect it. Secondly, the congregation at the cathedral had become larger and larger because it was a centre of friendliness in a suspicious world. The services were in English, the language hated by the enemy. From their point of view we were a source of danger, and their suspicions increased. Thirdly, they found amongst my papers some letters that I had written on T.E. Lawrence-Lawrence of Arabia. Many of you will remember that part of his work (a very small part) was the using of the money to influence the Arab leaders to revolt against the Turks. They seemed to imagine that I was carrying out the same policy and trying to stir up the local population to revolt against the conquering Japanese. It was no surprise, therefore, when after the thirteen months of liberation I was interned in March 1943, and sent to Changi gaol.

Here the conditions were appallingly crowded, but life was not too difficult until October of that year. It is just three years ago since a great disaster fell upon the camp. The military police that is, the Japanese Gestapo raided the prison, searched all our luggage and arrested some fifty of us. A few were released almost immediately; others remained for many months, and fifteen died from the treatment they received. It is not my purpose to relate the tortures they inflicted upon us, but rather to tell you of some of the spiritual experiences of that ordeal. I knew this was to be a challenge to my courage, my faith and my love.

'Long Hours of Ignoble Pain'

I remember Archbishop Temple in one of his books writing that if we pray for any particular virtue, whether it be patience or courage or love, one of the answers that God gives to us is an opportunity for expressing that virtue. After my first beating I was almost afraid to pray for courage lest I should have another opportunity of exercising it, but my unspoken prayer was there, and without God's help I doubt whether I should have come through. Long hours of ignoble pain were a severe test. In the middle of that torture they asked me if I still believed in God. When by God's help I said 'I do', they asked me why God did not save me, and by the help of His Holy Spirit I said, 'God does save me. He does not save me by freeing me from pain or punishment, but He saves me by giving me the spirit to bear it,' and when they asked me why I did not curse them I told them that it was because I was a follower of Jesus Christ, who taught us that we were all brethren.

I did not like to use the words 'Father forgive them'.  It seemed too blasphemous to use our Lord's words, but I felt them, and I said, 'Father, I know these men are doing their duty. Help them to see I am innocent'. And when I muttered 'forgive them', I wondered how far I was being dramatic and if I really meant it, because I looked at their faces as they stood around and took it in turn to flog, and their faces were hard and cruel and some of them were evidently enjoying their cruelty. But by the Grace of God I saw those men not as they were, but as they had been. Once they were little children playing with their brothers and sisters and happy in their parents' love, in those far-off days before they had been conditioned by their false nationalistic ideals and it is hard to hate little children. But even that was not enough. There came to my mind as I lay on the table the words of that Communion hymn:

Look, Father, look on His anointed face,
And only look on us as found in Him.

And so I saw them, not as they were, not only as they had been, but as they were capable of becoming, redeemed by the power of Christ and I knew that it was only common sense to say 'forgive'.

It is true, of course that there were many dreary and desolate moments, especially in the early morning. I was in a crowded filthy cell with hardly any power to move because of my wounds, but here again I was helped tremendously by God. There was a tiny window at the back of the cell, and through the bars I could hear the song of the golden oriole. I could see the glorious red of the flame of the forest tree, and something of God's indestructible beauty was conveyed to my tortured mind. Behind the flame trees I glimpsed the top of Wesley's church and was so grateful the church had preserved so many of Wesley's hymns. One that I said every morning was 'Christ whose glory fills the skies'. Do you remember the second verse:

Dark and cheerless is the morn,
Unaccompanied by Thee;
Joyless is the day's return
Till Thy mercy's beams I see.

So I went on to pray:

Visit then this soul of mine,
Pierce the gloom of sin and grief.

And gradually the burden of this world was lifted and I was carried into the presence of God and received from Him the strength and peace which were enough to live by, day by day. This joy of prayer was used by God to help others. Many non-Christians came to ask me to teach them to pray because prayer evidently meant so much to those of us who were Christians. We were not supposed to talk to each other, but when the guards were not looking I told them some of the elementary things of prayer, thanking Him, being sorry for things done wrong and praying for others and so we formed a wider fellowship than any I had known before, a fellowship of suffering humanity, and people knew that when they were taken out of the cell for questioning or torture there were others of us behind praying for them, praying that if it be God's will they should not suffer, but if they suffered they would be given the spirit to bear it and not involve others. One Chinese, after many weeks of teaching during the silent hours of the night, asked to be baptised, and I baptised him in the only water available, a lavatory basin at the back of the cell, which had to be used for all purposes. Later, I had the joy of confirming him before I left Singapore.

But there were other battles to be fought. I do not know how many of you know what real hunger is, but the temptation to greed is almost overwhelming. Here again we were helped. There was a young Roman Catholic in the cell. He was a privileged prisoner; he was allowed food from the outside. He could have eaten all of it and more than all of it, but never a day passed without his sharing it with some people in the cell. It was a small amount we got, but what an enormous difference it made. It raised the whole tone of our life and it made it possible for others to follow his noble example and to learn to share with one another.

After eight months I was released and for the first time got into the sunlight. I have never known such joy. It seemed like a foretaste of the Resurrection. For months afterwards I felt at peace with the universe, although I was still interned and I had to learn the lesson or the discipline of joy. How easy it is to forget God and all His benefits. I had known Him in a deeper way than I could ever have imagined, but God is to be found in the Resurrection as well as in the Cross, and it is the Resurrection that has the final word. God in all His power and strength and comfort is available to every one of us today. He was revealed to me, not because I was a special person, but because I was willing in faith to accept what God gave. I know it is true not just because the Bible says so or because the Church has told us, but because I have experienced it myself, and whether you are despondent or in joy, whether you are apathetic or full of enthusiasm, there is available for you at this moment the whole life of God with its victory over sin and pain and death. I pray to God that for your sakes, for England's sake, for the world's sake, for God's sake, you will accept Him.