SURVIVORS: Prisoners at Singapore's Changi Prison during World War II suffered terrible malnutrition. During more than three years as a prisoner of war, Kiwi David Nelson covertly scribbled notes on toilet paper and scraps of material – but when the war ended, his invaluable secret records disappeared without a trace. The documents, compiled by Captain Nelson, who spent the entire Japanese occupation of Singapore at a POW camp in Changi, record the details and fate of more than 100,000 prisoners who were kept at the facility or moved to forced labour camps across Asia.
With paper and the keeping of any records forbidden by the Japanese, Captain Nelson scribbled the information on anything he could find. The papers were last seen by the soldier in 1945, when he handed two trunks weighing 710 kilograms over to the British Government after his release. Captain Nelson returned to New Zealand soon after his release and died in 1973, still believing the records to be lost. His son, Mason Nelson, who lives in Taupo, said the family was overjoyed to hear the documents had been found.
Born in 1890 and having fought at Gallipoli in WWI, his father was already reasonably old when imprisoned at Changi, which held more than 70,000 POWs, including thousands of Australians, Britons and many more ethnic Chinese. Changi, built by Singapore's former British colonial rulers, became one of Japan's most notorious prison camps after Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942.
Captain Nelson had not said a lot about his time at the camp but had mentioned the records and how he used to scrounge for paper, his son said. Captain Nelson's granddaughter, Dinah Okeby, said she remembered hearing stories about how he had recorded all this information and would hide pieces in his shoe until he could find a safe place. Mr Nelson, who lived in London for 28 years, had tried to track down the files at the British National Archives but had been turned away. He was planning a trip to Britain next month to visit his children and hoped to squeeze in a visit to look at the records.


Rod Beattie, who founded the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre in Thailand and has been researching POWs for 16 years, said the discovery of the records was a huge moment for historians and the families of POWs around the world.
He was so excited he had already booked a flight to London for early next month so he could spend some time with the records. With the daily running of Changi largely left to the POWs, the disbanded command took over its administration. The Bureau of Records and Enquiry was formed with its headquarters in the mess and Captain Nelson, who was a good mathematician with a photographic memory, was put in charge. His first task was to collect a record from all unit commanders of everyone at the camp with casualty details and information on missing civilians. The use of paper was banned so the records were written on whatever was available, including toilet paper.
Rolls and casualty details were recorded for POWs sent to other parts of Asia to work on labour camps.
Captain Nelson's typewriter is on display at the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre in Thailand.
Joined the RAF in 1916 and trained as a pilot, flying missions along the western front in 1917.
In 1928 took up a job in Singapore with the Singapore Improvement Trust doing town planning, and joined the volunteer corps. With the outbreak of WWII became fulltime with the volunteer forces working in intelligence.
Became a prisoner of war after the Japanese invasion in 1942 and was imprisoned at Changi along with 52,000 Allied personnel.
After spending the next few years living in Asia, moved back to New Zealand in 1949 and worked in planning until the time of his death in 1973.


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