Security Dodging—and Jungle Hopping
And now-3345 miles after leaving Tokyo—I have reached Singapore, to settle down for a time before proceeding by air to Java.
This is the most strongly-fortified British colony east of Suez. It is the site of the Singapore Naval Base. But despite all of Britain’s defenses, here and in Hong Kong and at other bases in this part of the world, the whole area is vulnerable to attack. Someone has said that the British lion is trying to show his teeth and it is all bridgework.
It is becoming increasingly obvious, to those who make a business of studying such matters, that the Empire is going to have need of a dentist.
Singapore is a leisurely, quiet metropolis of the tropics and the most beautiful spot in town is St. Andrew’s Church of England Cathedral—in a spacious grass-cushioned central square. I attended vesper services last night and found the cathedral packed. I wonder if it was so, before the crisis? (World War II of course had already engulfed Europe. Singapore, as a British colony, was also technically at war.)
In the cathedral, the hymns were like a touch of home, and made me long for America. As the music filled the sanctuary and drifted through the open windows into the soft tropical twilight, the realization came to me that England’s conquest of empire had spread not only her temporal power throughout the world, but had taken with it the religion represented by this church I was in. Of course her temporal power has not been lily-white, and neither has the religion she spreads.
Shaking empires. Like a paean which was intended to be heard not alone in heaven but in England as well, the final hymn rang out. Following the service, I stood at the entrance and watched emerging from the church all the civil and military leaders of Singapore—men on whose shoulders in reality rests the defense and safety of the British Empire from Suez to New Zealand. The faces were grim. Few smiles.
The church service had been comforting, and like a touch of home. If I were in the colonial service and stationed thousands of miles away in the tropics, I too would belong to St. Andrew’s and attend vespers each Sunday night. Especially in wartime. Empires don’t seem to be shaking quite as much when hymns are being sung.
In the threatened cities of Shanghai, Hong Kong, and now Singapore, I have done all the filming required for my Circle of Fire documentary, but how I was able to accomplish it, I’ll never really understand. In each city I had encountered roadblocks, not as difficult as those which dogged me in Japan, but irritating, nonetheless.
Restrictions on wartime photography were a constant problem but in Singapore a less well-defined difficulty developed, of an entirely different character. I was little more than one degree from the equator, in midsummer, and the area was experiencing a particularly severe heat wave. Personally I do not mind heat, and function well in any temperature.
But the emulsion on color film is another matter. It was actually melting, virtually starting to run. All film that I was not using went into the hotel refrigerator, but the film in my camera just had to take the heat. Whether the pictures would be ruined I would not know until I had them developed, back in the United States. The rather weird thought occurred to me: Oh, to be back in winter Lapland, where my camera froze from the cold. This old world, it was becoming clear, is built on extremes.
A different sort of experience in Singapore counterbalanced the heat problem—an example of the fortunate manner in which it was possible to weave in and out of the mesh of guards, security patrols, and officialdom with no real damage to my picture-taking project.
I had filmed everything I needed in Singapore, even having made a successful journey on the causeway over the Straits of Johore, to the mainland, where exotic tropical scenes opened for my lens.
I was ready for departure. Taxiing to the airport, I checked my
luggage, camera, tripod, and film, and saw them go into the baggage hold of the plane. Next came passport inspection as I boarded the plane.
“Wait. What is this?” It was the voice of a military official, checking my papers and credentials. “It says you are a writer.”
In a gentle voice I replied in the affirmative.
The official commenced grilling me severely. All mail dispatched from Singapore is opened and censored and I assured him I had not sent out any classified information.
(I wouldn’t dispatch any newspaper write-ups until I reached the Philippine Islands.)
He was performing his job thoroughly. “Did you take any pictures?” he asked.
I determined to be truthful. “Yes, I took some travel movies.” “You’ve been taking moving pictures in Singapore?” The official’s voice was not gentle.
“Just some tourist scenes,” I responded, my voice still soft.
“Picture-taking is forbidden. We’re at war. Where are your films?”
Now my voice, though still gentle, was quavering just a trifle. “They’ve been loaded on the plane; they’re in the cargo compartment.”
It just happened that I was almost the last passenger in line. Nearly all the rest were aboard. The plane was ready to leave; already it was late.
The plane’s second officer and the military official held a heated conference. No, the baggage could not be unloaded. Just too bad, but it would be impossible—take far too long.
I edged toward the boarding ramp. As the argument continued, I could see that the plane’s second officer was winning the debate. I boarded; the second officer did likewise and we lifted off over the Straits and headed across the equator.
A Visual Smorgasbord
In “The Flying Dutchman” I was on my way by air from Singapore to Batavia, in Java, a distance of some six hundred miles.
Immediately after taking off, we headed out over the Malacca Straits and soon had a salt-and-pepper sprinkling of dozens of tiny islands spread below. Their concentric displays of color were almost intoxicating in their splendor. The islands were of various sizes, and forest-covered. Surrounding each one was a great irregular band of brown and yellow, denoting shallow water. This merged into greens, which signified that the water was deepening. After the various hues of greens came the blues—the color of deep ocean. Sometimes the demarcation from green to blue was sharp, indicating sudden drop-offs. And always there was a white line of breaking waves between the browns and greens. The whole picture was as though a thousand great splotches of paint had been dropped on the waters below.
This was the Rhio Archipelago we were passing. Somewhere just below here extended the equator but, hard as I looked, it did not show up.
Now we headed out over several huge islands all heavily covered with jungle. Great brown river systems, with the tributaries and branches visible for miles, were the only break in the mass of jungle trees.
I watched those rivers sharply. Often we flew low. There—far down—were one or two thatched huts along the stream. And a tiny native boat. The signs of human beings. Dwellers in that isolation of forested jungle! We were miles from anywhere. And below, just dense jungle on an isolated island in the sea.
Perhaps the native in that boat had scarcely ever seen a white man. But every day he could look up at the great flying thunderbird which roared over his hut. By now he was resigned to it. But what must he have thought the first time this devil with wings had broken the solitude of his home? To him it must have been a very real terror. It was easy for me to feel the fear which certainly possessed his heart when he first saw the plane and went running to his but to comfort his wailing wife and children.
For a time we caressed the tops of some soft tropical white cloud puffs. They were great pillows of sugar candy, tantalizing the wheels of our plane. I could look down into wide canyons of pure dainty white, billows built upon billows. It was luscious.
More open sea. A few tiny fishing boats. Then we plunged out over the jungles of the Sumatran mainland. A ridge of mountains rises like a backbone in western Sumatra, but this portion was a vast, flat, tangled wilderness. There was a sea of thick green forest with occasional reddish trees, some few forest giants rearing far above the main mass of growth, so that their gnarled gray limbs came into view.
And more river systems. Vast waterways. Small rivers. Tiny feeder streams. I could follow them all from my godlike seat on high. They ran golden brown with the rich silt of the tropics. This area receives some of the heaviest rainfall in the world. Those matted trees, these great rivers opulent with their brown mud, were convincing proofs of this. When we approached the coast I could see that nearly every stream had a large delta. And one great river had two distinct mouths, miles apart.
Thousands of square miles of jungle, without break or open space. We were in a land plane, but since coming to Sumatra there had not been one place to land. It behooved the pilot to keep the ship up in the air.
As I was thinking of this, the plane started to glide low. I could make out the individual trees now, and the coconuts on the tallest palms. Lower and lower, I could see down through those trees; there was a sea of marsh and water to form the jungle floor. Another river came into view, bending in a great arc. We were just above the treetops, and there by the stream was a native village—half a hundred grass-thatched huts built on piles along the shore at the water’s edge. That sight was a gem. It was a movie set in its perfection. But how far from Hollywood this was.
I feared we would clip the trees. I knew this was the vicinity of Palembang, our only stop en route. Without circling once, without deviating to north or south, we cut down and down, almost nipping the branches as we came to a landing strip and roared along to a well-braked stop. Clearings mean hard labor in a Sumatran jungle; this landing field was none too large.
All of us piled out of the plane and went into the modern, newly-built station. For the half hour we were here, I gave my eyes a couple of weeks of work. Oh, for that camera of mine which was sealed and locked in a special compartment of the plane.
Photography from the air over any country which is at war is as impossible as a flight to Mars. And these Dutch East Indies, possessions of Holland, definitely were at war. I couldn’t even take pictures on the ground without first reporting to the authorities at Batavia. Otherwise I would have stayed at Palembang. And even so, the Dutch consul in Singapore had told me my trip would probably be useless; he didn’t think I could get a permit to make a film during time of war. These are days of severe restrictions.
Where the forests had been pushed back, I could see banana trees and palms interspersed with the more numerous hardwood trees. A dusky Sumatran maiden, with a sarong about her body and a dull soft cerise-colored “selendant” or veil slung over her black hair, padded barefooted along the road. She was headed for a thatched hut—the only habitation in sight.
We took off easily because here was no wind; and now we had a change of scene. Almost immediately clearings and agricultural land came into sight; then we swung out over the city of Palembang. It was a real metropolis stretched along both banks of the Musi River, its thousands of tiled roofs reminding me that this was a colony of Holland. Steam freighters were plying the river, wharves lined the stream, and down beyond the city was a great refinery, with oil storage tanks hugging the water.
Now there was no jungle, but mile on mile of rice lands, all flooded so only the raised edges of the fields were visible. Soon these areas merged with the jungles again but—looking back against the sun—I could see the glint and reflection of water. This whole region was damp and partly flooded.
Next, the Sunda Strait. And more islands, even more beautiful than those of the Rhio Archipelago, for these new ones are coral formations.
Sumatra receded on our right and in ten minutes Java was in view. Here was more rice—more than I had ever seen. Every inch of soil was cultivated in the flat plain surrounding Batavia. The fields were clearly delineated and small, and there seemed to be a million of them. Small wonder, for Java is one of the most densely populated land masses in the world, and needs rice for food.
We were passing now through clouds which obscured vision. There had been one great mass of black clouds and the plane had pitched violently. In fact, it hit pockets most of the way and we did much upping and downing. The unevenness of the tropical equatorial air, I presume.
The clouds broke and I could see roads down below, with cars. On the left was the harbor, with a ship just coming in—the one I had almost decided to take two days before from Singapore. Down below me was Batavia, with its thousands of red tile roofs, its neat patterns, the cathedral, the recreation ground. We swung down to the landing field eighteen miles from town and I was soon started on my adventures in Java.