“Come On Now! Don’t Be Shy” (Nov. 1944)

'Don't be shy'

This innocent looking drawing has deep and compounding effects when one considers the name of the chart on the wall ‘scrotal dermatitis’. From the description below, this condition would have been extremely uncomfortable and even life threatening.

Des has once again exaggerated this image, drifting away from the reality in which he lived to a nice hospital private room with bed on wheels with a mattress, clean sheets and a pillow. The room even has a bedside table with flowers and the POW has his own private belongings in a case and is being treated with some type of powder by a well endowed nurse in a clean uniform in a caring way.

Des often told and others: ‘I painted to keep my sanity’.

Now here is the reality:

Most POW’s suffered from scrotal dermatitis due to poor diet, a description from the British Medical Journal of 1948 follows…

Scrotal dermatitis was a common complaint among prisoners of war in Malaya six months after captivity. It was noted that no cases of scrotal dermatitis occurred when the riboflavin content of the diet was maintained at a sufficiently high level.

During the six months from July to Dec. 31, 1942, 1,371 cases were admitted to the skin ward at the main hospital for British personnel.

The major causes for this complaint were put down to a lack of vegetables, greens and general vitamin deficiency, particularly the riboflavin content of the diet.

The curative effect of marmite (or vegemite) was found to be specific in mild uncomplicated cases.

The most severe cases were called: Ulcerated and O’edematous.-The scrotum might now become as big as a football. Walking was almost impossible,as fluid and pus oozed from the fetid area. The scrotal skin was extremely painful from ulceration. In some cases flies had laid their eggs in the scrotal ulceration, and the maggots as they moved about caused an extremely painful contraction of the cremaster muscle. Serum exuding from the scrotum was thus an ideal culture medium for Corynebacterium diphtheriae. In the worst cases a spreading gangrene from the scrotum to the legs and lower abdominal wall, with marked generalized toxic symptoms with or without diphtheritic infection elsewhere, terminated in death.

Source: British Medical Journal, (May 29th, 1948), Pg 1023, by A.W. Frankland, MA, BM, BCh

‘Diphtheria scrotum caused by a vitamin deficiency which caused swelling and rawness in the testicles and making it very difficult to walk. With a scrotum ‘the size of pineapples’, Lance Sergeant E. Jones knew he would soon die but saw himself fortunate as he would not have to put up with ‘this hell’ for much longer. He died within days. Another victim, ill with malaria and sunstroke, raved and clapped and shouted, drawing attention from the guards. Contrary to expected opinion, he was not beaten, but the Jap guards danced and clapped right along as if it were a great joke. The gunner died within a few days. (Diphtheria scrotum was given the appropriate name of ‘Changi Balls’ as it was a common complain of prisoners in Singapore’s Changi prison). Another lost his sanity completely, and died believing that he was peacefully at home with his family – instead of lying on a ground sheet in a tattered tent surrounded by death and misery. Others drifted off in their sleep.’

Source: http://www.cofepow.org.uk/pages/asia_ballale4.htm

‘Upon entering the prison camp our hosts placed us on a coolie diet, the main item of which was about 16 ounces of milled rice per man per day. The result was the early appearance of beriberi, to be followed about four weeks later by a most distressing skin trouble, particularly around the genitals. The condition was known locally as ‘rice balls’ or ‘Changi balls’ – the medial term was scrotal dermatitis. Very few prisoners escaped this disease; more serious cases became completely bedridden.’

Source: Burnett Clark, ‘Skin Disease Among Prisoners of War in Malaya’, in Lachlan Grant (ed.), The Changi Book, Published by New South in association with the Australian War Memorial, 2015, pg., 237

Rice Balls is not an elegant term. It was not, however an elegant complaint, and no picture of the life we led from 1942 – 1945 is complete without its inclusion. It was the most apparent symbol of our greatest need – vitamins – and, at the same time, of the common man’s indomitable humour under even the most humiliating of afflictions. For Rice Balls, to us, meant not one of the favourite dishes of the Japanese, but the ripping raw (by the denial of even a tiny quantity of Vitamin B2) of a man’s scrotum and genitals. One felt first a faint discomfort, as of chafing Then the skin split and peeled off an area which might spread from the genitals right down the inner thighs. The entire surface then became raw and sticky and painful. By refusing us a spoonful each day of the worthless polishings taken off rice (and they could easily have given us a sackful), the Japanese wilfully condemned their prisoners to years of living with a scrotum that was red weeping flesh. It was the outward and visible sign of a physical need which was to kill thousands and send hundreds of others blind, or near blind. And because the men who suffered this affliction ironically – and aptly – applied to it the name more commonly given to a food very close to the heart of every son of Nippon, it is fitting enough, however indelicate, to use it here. We ate rice, we ate rice only. Consequently we had Rice Balls.
Source: The Naked Island by Russell Braddon; 1955 edition Pan Books Ltd, Pg119