The Jungle Is Neutral

Rating: 3/4 (As the survival story of Chapman and also as a retelling of the Japanese occupation of Malaya in WWII, this book is sure to provide a few days of edge-of-seat reading.)

The Jungle Is Neutral written by F. Spencer Chapman Dso is the fascinating real life story of his 4-year guerrilla war in Japanese occupied Malaya during WWII. This is one of the many hard-to-find books I picked up from the collection of Mrs. Cheng, a retired NUS professor, before she left for China.

Malaya and Singapore were ruled by the British during World War 2. In 1941, While the Allied forces were struggling against the Axis forces in Europe, a massive Japanese offensive tore through South East Asia. Like a tidal wave, Japanese forces ripped through the Malaya (mainland Malaysia of today). The British were a bit complacent that the Japan blitz did not have energy to last through until Singapore, which was a British stronghold. In Singapore, Spencer Chapman Dso and others trained a small force to stay behind the Japanese frontline in Malaya and cause havoc until the British gained it back. However, these plans were wrecked when Japan attacked Singapore by air and grabbed it, driving out the British forces. In the following year, the Japanese tsunami would continue on into Burma (also held by the British), before finally losing steam there, not able to reach India from the East.

After the whole of Malaya and Singapore was lost, Spencer Chapman and a few others re-entered Malaya secretly with ammunition and communication equipment to hide behind the Japanese frontlines, gather information, form resistances and cause havoc. Malaya during the 1940s was composed of the Malay, Chinese, Indians (Tamils and Sikhs) and Sarai (tribals). The Malay and Indians favoured the Japanese forces, the Chinese favoured the British and the Sarai were mostly neutral. Malaya was full of dense tropical jungles, with rubber plantations and small agricultural plots on jungle borders. Most of the people lived in kampongs (small villages), each full of the people of the same race, close to their plantations or fields. Chapman entered Malaya in such an environment, but was befell of bad luck since all his supplies were stolen!

In the initial months of 1942, he and his fellow travellers, Harvey and Sartin learnt how to hide and live off the harsh tropical jungle. At this point in the war, the Japanese were streaming through Malaya setting up bases and supply lines. Chapman and his friends gathered all their ammunition, created time- and trigger-bombs and wreaked small-scale havoc on the Japanese by blowing up train tracks, bridges, and convoy vehicles under the cover of darkness. Their attacks were so effective that the Japanese stopped all travel at night and started a manhunt to find them. Being the few whites left in Malaya, Chapman and his friends could not survive undiscovered for long. To do achieve that they needed the help of the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party that was operating out of the Malaya jungles.

The Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) was the military force of the Malayan Communist Party. The British formally agreed to cooperate with them under the condition that they help fight the Japanese. The MPAJA was a Chinese force, completely filled with Chinese from Malaya and Cantonese from China. With a secret headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, MPAJA guerrilla groups were well organized, spread all over Malaya and were gaining ground with the increasing atrocities of the Japanese forces on Chinese kampongs. Over the next 3 years, Chapman would move from one Chinese guerilla camp to another, training and motivating them, all the while fighting the Japanese and trying to set up communication channels with the British in India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He would discover he was among a few stay behind parties that were left behind to train small forces to get under the Japanese cover and irk them all the while. Chapman’s unbelievable game of cat-and-mouse with the Japanese and the jungle itself forms the meat of the book. Chapman endures long periods of jungle travel, food hunted off the land or offered by kampongs and a spate of illnesses and diseases that wrack his body to the limits of endurance. He would lose a lot of his British and Chinese friends to illnesses and the Japanese. The book vividly describes just how brutal Japanese were during WWII. On mere suspicion of betrayal, they would pillage, rape and butcher entire villages of Chinese in Malaya!

After endless visits and stays at guerrilla camps, Chapman manages to set up radio communication with the British. Two other Britishers, David and Broome are dropped off the coast of Malaya by submarine and they join him. Together with them, he endures another 2 years of hard jungle wars against the Japanese, before the tide starts to turn. The German offensive starts to lose steam in Europe and Russia and the Japanese in Burma and Philippines. Salvaging radio and dynamo parts over several months, Chapman and his friends finally get a radio working and are able to communicate with the British in Ceylon. Coded communications are set up and the British finally are able to start parachuting Colonels and supplies at dropzones set up by Chapman. In Ceylon, British also train and amass troops to finally take back Singapore in an attack named Operation Zipper. After 4 years of near-death living, Chapman is able to jump onto a submarine off the Malaya coast, return to Ceylon and become the fulcrum of information on the Japanese in Malaya. With that information to plan Zipper and the dropping of atom bombs on Japan, the British finally wrest back Malaya.

Not only is this a breathtaking jungle war story, it is also the story of endurance of a human against all odds. Chapman was not just a well trained and clever killing machine, he had varied hobbies too. During his years in the jungle, he observed the culture and languages of the Sarai tribals. He watched birds to kill time in the jungle and took copious notes in his diaries on new birds and fauna he discovered. He learnt how to hunt animals and gather vegetables and live off the jungle. He learnt how to communicate with the Chinese and Malay in their languages. He took detailed maps of his travels all over Malaya. Once, he was captured by the Japanese and was even able to escape from their camp!

Both as a personal story of Chapman and also as an insightful diary of the Japanese occupation of Malaya, the book turns out to be a win-win. The Jungle Is Neutral is guaranteed to give the reader a few days of exciting edge-of-the-seat reading! 🙂

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