One the 15th of February 1942, the garrison defending Singapore fell, only a week after the invasion of Singapore by the Japanese had begun. It was, according to Winston Churchill, "the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history".
Almost overnight the entire European population of this British outpost became POWs and were imprisoned. Initially the military personnel were housed in one of the three major barracks – Selarang, Roberts or Kitchener – as well as many other smaller camps. Most of the Australian personnel occupied Selarang Barracks. Civilians, including women and children, were imprisoned in Changi Gaol. It's a name that strikes fear in the hearts of Australians, isn't it, Changi, imbued with the suffering of Australian prisoners during the Second World War.
Christmas that year was particularly difficult time for the prisoners of war in Changi, especially for the children. Australian soldiers in Selarang recognised this and to boost morale decided to make the British and Australian children some toys.
Sergeant David Griffin, a solicitor from Sydney, thought he would write the children a story, and his mate, English illustrator Leslie Greener, offered to illustrate it. Together, the two men created The Happiness Box. It was a sweet little story about the creatures of Singapore - Winston the clever chi-chak, or gecko, Martin the kind-hearted monkey, and Wobbly the hard-working frog and how the friends find the secret to true happiness. Cute.
As soon as he reached home, Old Wobbly put the wooden box on the lunch table and when the others saw it they became very excited. Martin cried out, "Quick! Let's open it up and see what's inside!"
But Winston who was very clever said, "No! Do not touch it, it may be bewitched. We're very happy in our little house and we have everything we want. We do not need the thing that is in the box."
As it turns out, the children of Changi were never able to read David and Leslie's book because when the Japanese official, General Sito, read it he became convinced that must be coded message, because it was about a lizard named...Winston, and confiscated it. The Australian soldier, Major Phil Head, who was with the General took the book saying that he would destroy it, but instead, he buried in a container in the Changi grounds where it remained until Singapore was liberated on 5 September 1945.
The book returned home with Griffin and is now part of the national treasures collection in Canberra. It was finally published in 1947 and was reprinted in 1991.
When I gave The Happiness Box to Jemimah to read this term as part of our study of WWII, she thought I was a bit barmy. "It's twaddle, Mummy," she whispered. Her judgement is right. The story is twaddle, but the book isn't. The book and its story are true living history. It deserves its place in our history line-up not because of the story, but because of the story behind the story. Don't miss it.
My copy of The Happiness Box has an additional story behind it because I purchased it from Changi Gaol itself during a visit to Singapore in 1995. It was lovely being able to share my own living treasure with my daughter.
Dave Griffin went on to become Lord Mayor of Sydney. You can read about him here.