Thursday, April 18, 2013

Changi Point 1965: At The Mercy Of The Lonely Sea


As much as we appreciate the positivity of Andy William's Moon River in my last posting, we must realise there's the other extreme as *The Beach Boys' The Lonely Sea suggests and it was definitely the tidal movement as orchestrated by Mr. Moon that resulted in the drowning girl's predicament. It is a true story and here is his letter. If you or anyone else remember this incident please write in. The experience still haunts Allan to this day:

Dear Andy,
Mid 1965: Changi Point, Singapore.
We usually worked on Saturday mornings at Changi but my section, with only four members of staff, had a local arrangement whereby we took it in turn to have Saturday morning off. On that particular, fateful day, it was my turn. It was warm and sunny so I put my towel, cigarettes and a paperback book into my duffle-bag and walked down to Changi Point.
The tide was about half-way in so I had a quick dip and then sat on the sand to read my book. There was no one else around except a small Malay boy pottering about near the water's edge, and some Chinese teenage boys in two stationary canoes over the submerged sand-spit where the creek meets the sea. My reading was disturbed by someone calling out and I looked up to see the Chinese boys waving to me and shouting.
Thinking they were just being friendly, I waved back and returned to my book. A couple of minutes later they called out again.
"What are they saying?" I asked the little Malay boy.
"Someone has drowned," he replied nonchalantly.
Writer Allan Thompson at a sarabat stall in Changi Point 1965.
"Jesus Christ!" I cried and leapt to my feet. Looking across the water, I could see something floating beside one of the canoes. It looked like a piece of a tree branch. I asked the Malay boy to look after my bag and clothes and then I plunged into the sea and swam out to the canoes. My heart sank as I saw that the 'tree branch' was actually the shoulder of a Chinese girl who was floating, head-down, in the water. I raised her head but she was completely lifeless. A long stream of white bile extended from her mouth across the surface of the water, and the pupils of her open eyes had somehow disappeared behind her upper eyelids, and only the white area was visible.
One of the boys told me that she had fallen overboard, panicked, and had been under water for more than ten minutes. I had to act quickly if there was any chance of saving her life. I turned on to my back, put my arms under her armpits, and tried to swim backwards with her towards the shore. It was impossible because the undercurrent was too strong and I made no progress at all.
There was one Chinese boy in one canoe, and two boys in the other.  I told the two boys to help me lift the girl up into their canoe but they were trembling with shock and were unable to move so I had to shout at them to jolt them into action. When they had lifted her aboard, I told one of them to climb into the second canoe while his friend followed my instructions.

 "Lay her face down," I said, so he immediately laid her on her back.

"Face down!" I yelled, aware that precious time was being lost by his understandably
nervous responses. He was weeping as he struggled to turn her over. When she was lying on her front, I told him to raise her backside so that the water could run out of her lungs. He did so and then gently lowered her down again on my instructions.
Leaving his belongings behind.
Just at that moment, a young Malay man came swimming up to the canoe. He was a caddy at the RAF golf club on the other side of the creek and, seeing what had happened, he had climbed down the bank and swum across the creek to help me. I asked him to get into the canoe and help the Chinese boy to paddle as fast as they could to the shore while I swam ahead ready to administer artificial respiration when they brought her ashore.
My mind was racing as I sped through the water against the current. I was trying to remember what I had been taught during my basic training about the Holger-Neilson method of artificial respiration. I knew I had to lay her face down, raise her middle to let water out of her lungs, press down firmly on the diaphragm with both hands at regular intervals, and... hope for the best! I prayed that I could succeed.

As I stumbled ashore, I noticed a dark-green tent amidst some bushes a short distance along from the Point. It was an RAF Regiment anti-aircraft unit, one of several situated along the coast of the island in readiness for possible attacks by Indonesian forces. I ran towards it, shouting to attract the attention of the gunners. 
Two of them came out and I asked them if they were trained in life-saving because I wanted the poor girl to have the best possible chance of survival and if these men were properly trained, it would be much better than my hit-or-miss efforts. 

Thankfully, they had been fully trained and they came running along the sand with me to meet the canoe as it reached the shore. They lifted the girl gently on to the sand and, following the procedure which I had been running through my mind earlier, took it in turn to try and resuscitate her. 

I picked up my belongings and lit a cigarette to calm my nerves while they worked on her. For a while it seemed as if all our efforts had been in vain because there was no response, only a deathly silence each time they paused to check for a pulse.

A small crowd of people, mainly Chinese teenagers, had gathered, and one or two called out things like "Hey! John! Give her kiss of life-lah!" which caused some laughter among their friends. I am sure it was nervous laughter but to those of us who had tried so hard to save her, it was very upsetting and one of the gunners stood up and waved a warning finger at the comedians who immediately quietened down.

Changi Point where the incident occurred.  Submerged sandbank continuing from the tip of the Point where writer was seated up above the high tide mark near the Point when the youngsters called out to him.
Just when I thought it was hopeless and that the poor girl must be dead, there came a hideous retching sound and her body shook as she coughed up a quantity of salt water and bile. There was a loud cheer from the crowd and one of the gunners bathed her face with a towel while the other ran back to their tent to radio for an ambulance.  I suddenly felt very weak and faint so I walked away from the scene and sat down at the water's edge as tears of relief cascaded down my cheeks.  I washed my face with sea water to hide the tears, then I stood up and put my shirt and shorts on over my swimming-trunks.   
Then a young Chinese boy, one of those who had been in the canoes, came up to me and took my arm. 
"Oh thank you, sir," he said tearfully. "Thank you sir for saving my cousin." 
This was too much for me and I could feel myself trembling, presumably from the shock and emotion of the occasion.  I muttered something in reply and turned away as an RAF ambulance, closely followed by an RAF Police Land Rover, came along the sand towards the Point.  I had only gone a few yards when one of the policemen came running after me.
"I've been told you were involved in this rescue," he said, and I nodded.  "If you hang on, we'll drive you back to the guardroom so that you can make a statement." 
I waited by the Land Rover while he and his colleague, both corporals, took details from the two gunners, then we drove to the guardroom.  As we went, one of the corporals said: "I should think her family will hold a big celebration in your honour for saving their daughter's life. They'll probably give you a big meal and make you an honorary family member." 
A vision of dozens of brightly-dressed Chinese people of several generations smiling and laughing crossed my mind, and for a fleeting second I wondered if this poor girl had a beautiful older sister!  I quickly put this impure thought aside and felt a sudden panic. I didn't want to be given profuse thanks for what I had done. Fate had decreed that I should be at Changi Point at that precise moment and I had only done my moral duty as a human being. I tried not to think what the outcome would have been if I had not been given that particular morning off and had decided to spend it at the beach.

Writer's personal possessions on the burning shore.
I wrote out a full statement at the guardroom, sipping a mug of coffee as I did so. They offered to drive me either back to the beach or along to my billet but I thanked them and said I'd be fine walking as the billet wasn't far away.  When I reached my room which, thankfully was empty, I lay on my bed, staring at the ceiling and listening to the overhead fan as it creaked slowly, hardly stirring the air.  Then the tears came back and I turned over and buried my face in my pillow.  I didn't hear Mike come into the room and when he spoke I looked up with a start.
"Are you okay, Allan?" he asked, obviously concerned by my red eyes.
"Yes, I'm fine, thanks," I sniffed, wiping my face with a handkerchief.
"No you're bloody not!" he said. "What's up?"
 So I told him what had happened, just to get it off my chest, and I was  trembling as I spoke.
"You're a hero, Allan!  Wait until I tell the lads. We'll have a big party tonight to celebrate."
"No." I shook my head.
"What do you mean?"
"I don't want a party, Mike.  I just want to keep quiet about this because it's too upsetting.  I feel as if I'm in shock or something and I'd be really grateful if you don't mention it to anyone"
"Not even Geordie or Jay?"  He looked puzzled and a little hurt by my attitude.
"No, not even them. I don't mean to be awkward or anything but I don't think I could handle it if people came up to me and said nice things about what happened.  I'm sorry, Mike, but I hope you understand.  Will you promise to keep it to yourself?"
"Okay, Allan," he sighed. "I promise."
"Thanks a lot, Mike."
Mike was true to his word and the only people who knew about it other than those who had been involved, were the RAF Police and Mike. I never mentioned the incident to any of my friends or family until, in the early 1980s, I finally came to terms with what had happened on that sunny day back in 1965, and felt I could talk about it at last.  Oddly enough, I never met either of the gunners, the two corporals, or the Malay caddy again.  Nor did I ever hear from the Police after I had made my statement, and I never found out what became of the Chinese girl.  Did she recover from her experience or did she suffer brain damage from being under water for so long?
Good wishes,

Original article and images by Allan Thompson (Copyrights Reserved).

*The Lonely Sea by The Beach Boys. Video by julianpetsounds.

The lonely sea
The lonely sea
It never stops
For you or me
It moves along
From day to day

That's why my love
That's why my love
You'll never stay
You'll never stay
This pain in my heart
These tears in my eyes
Please tell the truth
You're like the lonely sea (sea)
Sea (sea)

You Tube video The Lonely Sea is a melancholic ballad Brian Wilson wrote with Gary Usher.  It was first recorded on the 19th of April 1962 and was included on the demo track that resulted in the band getting signed to Capitol Records.


ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...

This story is done as a single posting as I didn't want to break the continuity. Story leads up to final paragraph and that sigh of relief when all's well that ends well, hopefully... But it's 50 years later and we still don't know what happened to the girl.

Thank you Allan for sharing.


Dear Andy,
I thought the Changi Point piece was excellently set out and you made good use of the old photos I sent a while back.


From James Kwok:

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interrèd with their bones

William Shakespeare - Julius Caesar Act 3 Scene 2

“Instead of acknowledging any good that Margaret Thatcher might have done, we seem to prefer to tear into the woman personally.”

ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...

Thank you James for the articles you sent from the internet. I have published them as usual for further discussion.

As I explained my interest in the subject was simple. I was in the UK during Margaret Thatcher's time as PM and enjoyed the moment as a non-citizen and a student. But these periods were fleeting glances.

ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...

I had fears about the sea when I was a rookie teacher at Pulau Tekong since I had to travel 5 days a week in a little boat from Changi Point to the island and back. When the sea was rough and the boat rocked and was pelted with rain my worst fears and imagination had already drowned me. It was an ordeal. But teacher friends who were on the island schools encouraged me and we sang and joked our sorrows away. In the boat there were Chinese, Malay and Indian teachers...

If you talk of the 'kampong spirit' and 'gotong royong' there we were singing 'Rasa Sayang' and me and Yusnur Eff discussing P. Ramlee and pop music.


The only mechanical thing was a wind-up gramophone with a collection of popular classics, including Handel’s organ music, and, of course the current dance tunes. Unusually, one of these was of local origin, sung in English by a Chinese girl, and called either “Rose of Malaya” or “Rose, Rose, I Love You”. Its popularity extended to the UK, where returned troops demanded it so often on record request programmes that the BBC eventually blacklisted it. Although I could hear the room above playing music it was never loud enough to be a nuisance.


You may be forgiven if you think that the British Invasion referred to the colonial period, or some other theatre of war. If you are old enough, you’d know that the British Invasion was a wave of music performers from the UK that hit the pop charts in the mid-60s with the likes of performers like the Beatles.