7 Stories From Singaporeans Who Survived WWII To Mark Total Defence Day


Survivors Of The Fall of Singapore

Total Defence Day is on Wednesday (Feb 15). But many may not know that Feb 15 also marks the day that Singapore fell to the Japanese.

75 years ago today, the British, who were colonizing the island, surrendered to the Japanese forces. Singapore was subsequently renamed Syonan-to, which literally translates to “Light of the South”.


Singapore was under Japanese occupation until Sept 12, 1945.

The 3 years and 7 months under Japanese rule was chaotic and grueling for the people of Singapore, and mentioning the war could send shivers down the spines of survivors — evoking bad memories of the ordeal.


As a reminder to everyone of what our forefathers had to go through and to commemorate Total Defence Day, we have compiled a list of 7 stories from Singaporeans who survived World War II.

1. Chia Siok Hew

Mdm Chia Siok Hew, aged 18 in 1941, was married with one child, and had another one on the way, reported Yahoo! News.

Mdm Chia was all prepared to run when the Japanese conducted air raids, and slept in her family’s self-dug air-raid shelter.

And run she did — she spent numerous nights dashing to and fro, seeking refuge from the bombs with her infant in her arms, from underneath her bed to the deep drains outside her house.

Her husband would follow, carrying food supplies, milk powder and milk bottles.

Mdm Chia’s grandfather was too old, and had no choice but to hide under the beds and hope for the best.

Lady Luck was on their side, and they emerged unscathed.

Here’s what Mdm Chia looks like today:


2. Tommy Wong

If you had bumped into Mr Tommy Wong during the Japanese occupation, you’d be forgiven for believing he was a girl.

Surrounded by rumours of boys being kidnapped, Mr Wong, who was only 3 years old in 1942, grew his hair out and tied it into a ponytail, and wore a girl’s samfoo.

For those of you who don’t know what a samfoo looks like, this is an example of one:


His family took drastic measures to survive, with his four sisters hiding in a fake ceiling in the house and only coming down for meals.

Speaking to The Straits Times, he said: “It was a very tough time. We had no food. My sister had to carry me to queue for fish, and even then, it was rotten fish.”

Going through the WWII ordeal awoke the soldier in him, and he subsequently served in the army from 1964 to 1989.

He is now a freelance tour guide who gives talks about his experience living under the Japanese Occupation and takes students to the Reflections at Bukit Chandu war memorial.

3. Joseph Conceicao

Mr Conceicao, now retired, was the Singapore ambassador to Russia.



Back in 1941, 17-year-old Mr Conceicao’s curiosity got the better of him. Together with his two cousins, he went to investigate two giant bomb craters that was near their home.

What they saw was nauseating — to say the least.

In an interview with Yahoo! News, Mr Conceicao said: “We saw limbs, people’s heads, hands, legs lying about. One of my cousins took his breath when he saw it, and he was affected by the experience… for many years after that.”

As if that wasn’t dreadful enough, one of his cousins approached a British soldier standing by the edge of the crater and touched him.

Unbeknownst to him, the soldier was actually dead, in a standing position, and promptly fell into the crater.

4. George Prior

At the tender age of 19, Mr Prior was taken by the Japanese to work on the Death Railway in 1942.


While there, he made a guitar out of bamboo, which prompted Japanese soldiers to make him sing for them.

As a token of appreciation for his efforts, he was given food and medical treatment.

“I didn’t mind, as long as I got some food,” said Mr Prior, according to AsiaOne.

Here’s a picture of him (centre) at the Singapore Veterans’ Anniversary dinner in 2012:



5. Kwek Keng Tee

The oldest of three siblings, Mr Kwek lived with his parents and two brothers on a farm in Pasir Panjang. He was 18 when the Japanese invaded in 1941, and the family promptly evacuated from the area.

However, he still managed to chance upon human skulls that were washed ashore on Pasir Panjang beach.


In a report written by his daughter Janet at the National Institute of Education, Mr Kwek told the story of how a Chinese boy escaped death by pretending to be dead in the trenches:

“(He) stood behind a grown man, and the bullet from the Japanese rifle, passing through the heart of the man in front of him, went harmlessly over his shoulder.  The weight of the corpse falling back pushed him into the grave .  The Japanese soldiers shuffling through the mud thought he was already killed, and by some error did not completely fill the grave.  As a result the boy could breathe, could still see a small patch of sky.  All day, he laid under the weight of the dead man. When darkness came, he crawled out of the grave, along a monsoon drain and eventually he reached the safety of a Chinese village, where he explained what had happened to him and was given food and shelter.”

6. William Gwee Thian Hock

Aged 8 at the time of invasion, Mr Gwee brushed off the air raids and didn’t think much of them. He and his brother even treated the bombings as a game.

Alas, he understood the severity of the situation when a bomb was dropped just a stone’s throw away from his house — killing a domestic worker and all the chickens in the area.

When The New Paper interviewed him, Mr Gwee was quoted as saying:

“When the bomb dropped, followed by the explosions, I was under the dining table. I could see the glass shatter, the items and crockery had fallen out of their shelves.”

He further elaborated that he “had to grow up in the worst possible way – lacking food, living in constant fear of being executed and being forced to drop out of school”.

Mr Gwee and his family managed to survive thanks to his father, who used to work under Japanese bosses and had photographs to prove it. These photographs saved their lives on a few occasions, when he showed them to Japanese soldiers.

Here’s a recent photo of Mr Gwee and his wife:



7. Mary Pereira

While Jan 21, 1942 is her date of birth, Ms Mary Pereira may look back on that fateful day with conflicting emotions — her father, a civil defence volunteer, was killed by an air raid on the same day.

She was born in an air-raid shelter as bomb after bomb fell from the sky outside.

After the bombing, the Pereira family lost their home as others occupied the flat and locked them out. With no other alternatives, they moved to Malaysia for a couple of years to live with relatives.

Here are some photos of Ms Pereira with her family:



Life Lessons From WWII

Total Defence Day is a reminder that we should be thankful to be born in a period of peace and stability, and hope that we will never have to experience such catastrophes in our lives.

Read more WWII-related stories here:

  1. 5 Key Battles That Resulted In The Fall Of Singapore
  2. 7 Singapore Heroes From World War II Your History Textbook Never Talked About
  3. This 94-Year-Old Singaporean Grandpa Tells What It’s Like To Have Survived World War II

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