Buried deep in the National Archives of Australia is an inconspicuous paper document.  An example of a relatively worthless August 1945 minted and circulated 100 Yen banknote known as Japanese invasion currency. Nothing too significant in that, given that following the Japanese Garrison’s surrender in Singapore by 20 August, all occupation currencies immediately became worthless. So this particular banknote is nothing spectacular really. It is just a routine run-of-the-mill example of what was then colloquially referred to as Japanese Banana Money.[1]

Most were discarded en masse by many Southeast Asian populations at the war’s end. Some were picked up by others including Allied forces and civilians. For many, Banana money was a cheap and easily accessible wartime souvenir. A relic of occupation and a memento of nearly four years of war. And if there was one single object that could attest to the authenticity of the multicultural makeup of specialised Allied units fighting against Imperial Japanese forces, then this particular piece of Japanese invasion currency pretty much says it all.

On both sides of the paper are scrawled a motley collection of handwritten signatures. An eclectic mix of English, Chinese, Malay, Hindi and Arabic handwritten scripts, that bring to light just how culturally and linguistically diverse the Allied war effort was across the Malay peninsula. Some of the names are easily recognisable. Others not so much. But all tell a story of time and place in coming together to defeat a common enemy.

Although at first glance there appears there is nothing outstanding about this particular banknote amid the smattering of signatures, on closer inspection it’s poignancy and importance to history is revealed. In the closing days of World War Two, an eclectic group of men were celebrating what was the upcoming and inevitable end of Japanese hostilities in Southeast Asia. Perhaps they were in Singpore or in Kuala Lumpur, and some were making their way around the various Messes as a member of the returning British Garrison. Others may have just been returning from their years fighting in the Malay jungles. Either way, it was probably over drinks or dinner at one such mess, that this particular banknote was used as an autograph canvas.

Most of the men whose signatures appear on both sides of the money were neither famous nor were they particularly well-known – at least not then. Throughout the war, many of them had just been getting on with their various warfighting jobs. Nothing more. Nothing less. United in defeating the Japanese. That’s it. But these were not ordinary soldiers, sailors or airmen. In fact there was nothing regular about any of them at all, other than the fact that they were all linked in some way, shape and form to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the Far East.[2]

Several notable hand written mentions are on both sides of the banknote. Nestled amongst signatures are written the words ‘Baldhead’ and ‘Rimau’, both of which were Allied intelligence operations.[3] Operation Baldhead had been one of many successful three month intelligence reconnaissance operations (Jan-Mar1943) against the Japanese occupied Andaman Islands.[4]  On this side the name ‘Ker Bin’ is written directly next to ‘Baldhead’ which begs the question, was this man bald or had he been a member of Operation Baldhead? The same might be said with ‘Rimau’ scrawled on the opposite side of the note.  Operation Rimau launched in September 1944, and was supposed to be the follow-up to the highly successful previous Operation Jaywick.  Rimau however, was an unmitigated disaster. Which again begs the question, was one of the signatures somebody who’d survived?

Amongst several other signatures are the Chinese characters naming Tun Chie aka ‘Sport’, Wu Liang Ming, Hong Yee, and Wu Kwok Shu.[5] Could some of these men have been members of the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army? Could they have been men from the Chinese Army on loan to Allied Special Operations? And then there’s the name Lee Kiet. Although written in Chinese characters was this man part of the Vietnamese contingent? There’s also examples of others written in Arabic and Hindi including Uiff bin Awang, Aziz and Mohammed Yassin. Were these men too part of the Malayan contingent of local operatives?

Next there are some stand out individual signatures that immediately capture all sorts of other historical wartime interest. There’s the signature of John Morrison. Was he the same Captain John Morrison who was an Australian professional photographer turned jungle fighter and Z force member? There’s also the signature of Tom Verity. Was he the  professional golfer also known as ‘Cobber’ who as Lieutenant Thomas Verity RNVR, became known as the ‘airborne jungle mariner’?

This month August in the year 2020, is the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s significance is highlighted by the signature of William F Duffy USR. Not that it is significant in and of itself, until asking whether or not this is the same Captain William F. Duffy who had been one of the B29 crew that had dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan, and whose plane had gone missing in Malaya a few months earlier?[6]  It’s also significant that on the other side of the bank note, written neatly under the hand written heading of ‘Malayan Exiles’ lies perhaps one of the most important names in the history of Special Operations in Southeast Asia. It is the signature of FS Chapman, the man well-known for his exploits behind enemy lines in Japanese occupied Malaya.

In his own words Lieutenant Colonel Freddy Spencer Chapman was not one for convention. He’d loathed his School Officer Training Corp and as a Cadet, had vowed never to polish buttons on a uniform again.[7]  Chapman’s youthful rage against the conventional didn’t last long however, when at the outset of war in June 1939 he gained a commission into the Seaforth Highlanders.[8] As a highly experienced mountaineer, ski specialist and naturalist, Chapman’s reputation as adventurer only saw him excel at all forms of unconventional warfare. It was Chapman who along with a few others,  had been instrumental in setting up the Special Training School 101 (STS101) in Singapore (including  stay behind parties), and it was Chapman that lived for the entire war’s duration in the jungle, fighting alongside the Chinese Communists.

In determining the historical value through provenance and authenticity of this particular collection of signatures, does that irrevocably change the measure of this banknote and give it new life? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that not only do the individually handwritten signatures tell a story of time and place in wartime Malaya, they encapsulate a priceless piece of historical documentary evidence. So even if this banknote had been collected as nothing more than a personal memento back then, seventy-five years later it is anything but ordinary.

ENDNOTES

[1] The Australian Archives identifies JL Chapman as the signatory on the note. NAA: A10822/26 Captain JL Chapman (South East Asia Command – Malaya – Force 136 – Operation Pontoon) – $100 Japanese Government Banknote signed by Chapman and fellow Force 136 operatives in Malaya, including United States Services personnel, dated 22 July 1945 and 30 August 1945 – 1 folio. Officially known as Southern Development Bank notes (Japanese: 大東亜戦争軍票  Daitōasensōgunpyō trans. KReid-Smith), these were currencies routinely issued by the Japanese Military Authority in Imperial Japan occupied territories. Often after successfully invading any country, Japanese authorities would confiscate all  existing hard currency from both individuals and governments alike, replacing it with Japanese invasion money. In Malaya, Japanese invasion currency was often colloquially referred to as banana money (Malay: duit pisang trans. KReid-Smith), named derisively because of the motifs of banana trees on the ten dollar banknotes.

[2] At that time, the SOE was operating in a wide variety of clandestine jungle operations across Southeast Asia. Charles Cruikshank, Special Operations Executive in the Far East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983) 61.

[3] Ronald McKie, The Heroes Daring Raiders of the Pacific War (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1994) 228.

[4] Operation Baldhead was a series of Alled actions in defence of the Andaman Islands. David Miller, Special Forces Operations South-East Asia 1941-1945 (Barnsley: Pen and Sword Military, 2015) Chapters 9-13.

[5] A Chinese soldier named Woh Kok Shu in company with three others, was parachuted into Pahang on 12 May 1945. Tan Chong Tee, Force 136 Story of a Resistance Fighter, trans. Lee Watt Sim and Clara Show (Singapore: ASIAPAC Books Pty. Ltd., 1995) 304.

[6] William F. Duffy, Jr., Destiny Ours “If they tell you I’m missing…” (Marion, Iowa: Farrell Pub., 2002) 169.

[7] F. Spencer Chapman, The Jungle is Neutral, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1949) v.

[8] Brian Moynahan, Jungle Soldier The True Story of Freddy Spencer Chapman (London: Quercus, 2010)113-114.

(c)KateReid-Smith2020

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