Friday, June 28, 2013

Extract Digit

Is there an etymologist in the house? The above picture appears to have been photoshopped, but only to highlight the message on the roof of one of the cellblocks in the Rangoon Central Jail complex.

The complex housed more than 1,000 British, American and Indian prisoners of the Japanese. I interviewed one of those former prisoners, Karnig Thomasian of River Edge, N.J., in the late 1990s. Karnig was a waist gunner on a B-29 which was badly damaged over Thailand when a 1,000-pound bomb and a 500-pound bomb, with uneven trajectories, exploded beneath his plane. Over the next few months he was subjected to starvation and regular beatings by his Japanese captors. And then on May 1, 1945, as a battle was raging in the city, the prisoners awoke to discover that the Japanese guards had abandoned the complex overnight.

The liberated inmates remained inside the compound and, fearful of being bombed by their own countrymen, painted messages on two of the cellblock roofs. One of them said "Japs Gone," while the other said "British Here."

"British Here" is barely visible in the lower center cellblock. The words "Japs Gone" would be two cellblocks to the left, just out of the picture.
A Royal Air Force Mosquito nevertheless bombed the outer perimiter of the complex, according to a written account by Donald Lomas, one of the British prisoners. The British then climbed to the roof of another cellblock and painted "Extract Digit," a story told by Karnig and confirmed in Lomas' written account.
   The idea being that the pilot who bombed the complex might have thought the words "British here" was a ruse by the Japanese to prevent them from being bombed, much like American GIs would use questions like "What is the capital of North Dakota?" to challenge unknown soldiers, knowing that no German in an American uniform was likely to know the capital of North Dakota. Come to think of it, I don't know what the capital of North Dakota is. Ach du liebe! Ich bin ein Berliner! (On the recent anniversary of that famous statement by President John F. Kennedy, numerous wags pointed out that a "Berliner" was the German word for a jelly donut, and that President Kennedy, at the Berlin wall, was announcing, in effect, "I am a jelly donut." But I digress.)
   The phrase worked, and an RAF bomber passing overhead tipped its wings to a round of cheers and flew to a nearby airfield. The good news is that the bomber landed on the only runway that wasn't mined by the Japanese. The bad news is that its wheels got caught in a bomb crater and the plane was severely damaged. So the pilot and crew walked to the prison compound and discovered it to have been freed. Supplies were then dropped in by parachute.
   Following is an excerpt from my interview with Karnig Thomasian in which he discusses the compound's liberation:
Karnig Thomasian: We were losing people from lack of food, lack of nourishment. There was a shack, a brick building on the corner of our compound, and it was the warehouse, small as it was, of food. Like eggs. It had a door in the brick wall, and the guys had slowly taken the cement from the bricks to the point where the whole housing of the lock assembly came out with the door and the door just opened. But you can’t go in and just ransack the place. You’d do it one time and that’s it. So whenever somebody was really ill to the point that they need the nourishment of an egg, they’d go in and get one or two eggs, period, and that’s it. And then only by the direction of the commandant of our group, whoever was the highest officer there.

And this is, we’ll get to this, we haven’t gotten to this stage yet where they were dropping food containers. They bombed us by mistake. We said, "Japs gone." The British fighter planes thought they were joking so they bombed us. They missed and hit one of the outer walls. So the British prisoners got up and wrote this, "Extract Digit."

Aaron Elson: And what does that mean?

Karnig Thomasian: In British terms? "Take the finger out of your ass." So right away they came back and they waved their wings. Then they came back and they dropped food containers. I mean, would you believe? It’s just wild. What brilliance to come up with that. "No, they’re really gone!" No, "Extract Digit."

Aaron Elson: How much did you weigh when you were liberated?

Karnig Thomasian: I forget, 115, 120, something like that. Not much.

Aaron Elson: And what did you weigh when you were captured?

Karnig Thomasian: I imagine then I was around 165.

Aaron Elson: Was there any contact with the Red Cross when you were a prisoner, or was that only in Europe?

Karnig Thomasian: No contact whatsoever. We had no contact with anybody.

Aaron Elson: Had your parents been notified that you were a prisoner?

Karnig Thomasian: That’s another story. Mom wrote a diary, in one of these little school composition books. I still have it. It’s one of those notebooks the kids used to have that looks like a cow’s skin, only smaller. So she wrote, "Oh, I don’t know where you are but I know you’re going to be all right, and we miss you." She’d write to me every now and then. Not every day. On the day that we were – I call it liberated because that’s when the Ghurkas came in, the Japs had gone and the Ghurkas came in and this one newspaperman, an American newspaperman, he was the first one in there. He was fabulous. On that day, she said, "Karnig, I know you’re alive." It’s phenomenal. And the date’s there and everything. I could not believe it when I read it, when I got back, she showed it to me some time later.

Aaron Elson: What day was it you were liberated?

Karnig Thomasian: May something. Let’s see if I have it here. Six Ghurkas. May 3rd. (Reading) "I woke up at the crack of dawn, helped prepare the breakfast for our compound. We still had some condiments from the food containers that were parachuted by the British. We all started to gather what little we had so that when the time came to leave, we’d be ready. Later that morning an American officer entered our prison with his aide." That was General Stroudemeyer. I’ve got a picture with him.

Aaron Elson: How did you readjust after being a prisoner?

Karnig Thomasian: Well, I was in the hospital for a month in Calcutta, and they just fed us and they took care of our sores. I mean, these sores, the jungle sores that I got on my ankles, that’s why I didn’t go on the march. I had a choice, am I well enough to go on the march? They said, "Those that are able to walk, we take." Then you’d wear their fatigues, the Japanese fatigue uniforms.

Aaron Elson: What was the march?

Karnig Thomasian: The Japanese contingents were leaving and they used them as hostages, in their minds. Later on what happened was they left them, they just ran for their lives. The guys were lucky, but along the way they killed some people because they slacked back and that’s what I was afraid of. I said, gee whiz, if I can’t walk, what’s gonna happen? So I flipped a coin to myself and I said, I’ll stay back and I’ll be able to help the guys that are really bad off here, and hopefully they’re not gonna kill us all. Why would they? So that’s what we did.

Aaron Elson: Tell me more about the sores.

Karnig Thomasian: I got jungle sores. Because my GI shoes had heels, and there were corners, and at night I’d itch, and pretty soon I opened the wound and sure enough, they became deep sores. And the only way I could clean it – there was no medication – was to boil water and tear a piece of my suntans, which I didn’t wear, I wore a little loincloth, and just laboriously clean it out. Each time. Oh, Jesus.

Aaron Elson: That must have been painful.

Karnig Thomasian: Oh, yes. But you had to do it. And then you’d walk around with a flap on the top because flies were all over the place, so you don’t want them to hone in on it.

Aaron Elson: And what about bruises from the beatings?

Karnig Thomasian: Well, they heal.

Aaron Elson: Did you ever get any broken bones?

Karnig Thomasian: No, thank God.

Aaron Elson: And what about the guys who were in worse shape than you were?

Karnig Thomasian: Well, they had problems. There’s this Montgomery, who I told you about. I have a whole story on him, it’s all in there, where they had to, his hand was hanging by a thread, you see, and they had to cut it off. They severed that. But then it started to get gangrene, so they had to cut it below the elbow. Well, now this doctor, Dr. McKenzie was his name, a British doctor, he performed the operation. First the Japanese tried, and they gave him a shot of something which was the wrong thing and it drove him nuts, and they stopped. And the Japanese were just brutal, they were ridiculing him, "Ah, you, shut up!" Not shut up, whatever they said. So finally the British commandant appealed to the commandant of the Japanese, Look, let this man do the operation. He knows how to do it. Still, they had no anaesthetic, no nothing. Boy, we heard his screams, I hear them today. I tell you, it is absolutely profound. He passed out. How he went through it I’ll never know. A nice young man. So Dr. McKenzie did the operation, and by God, it held. And don’t ask me how he didn’t get infected. We don’t know. You know, we need the stories, they’re so unexplainable. In that humid climate, there were no bandages, there was cloth. Oh, jeez, I don’t even like to think about it. And Parmalee was another one. He had that shattered [bicep], and they had to squeeze the pus out all the time, my friend did that.
   So then we got out of Rangoon. We went to a hospital ship, and they deloused us and we threw all our clothes out the hatch. In the shower room there was a hatch, we threw the clothes out into the Indian Ocean. But I kept my leather jacket. And I kept the big gun, the rifle that I had been able to bring on board.

Aaron Elson: How did you get a rifle?

Karnig Thomasian: When the Japs had left, finally, we took over the place. My New Zealand friend and I were sitting on the steps of the compound, and I was smoking tea leaves; I never smoked in my life, but I started there. So we’re looking out over the city and we see Boom! Boom! Boom! They’re blasting things. And it’s late at night, and we’re saying, "Hey, I haven’t seen a guard come around, have you?"
   We walked around, and we went into this hut again, took the brick out, walked to the front and looked, and we could see from there that the main gates were open. When I say gates, they were these big teakwood doors, ten feet high. They were open, and I didn’t see any movement. We stayed there about ten minutes. So he said, "Something’s going on, let’s go back."
   We talked to the wing commander, and he said, "All right. Don’t tell anybody because it’ll be a riot here." So we hopped over the wall – it’s only about eight feet, you hike a guy up and he gets up and over. We hopped over and went down there. Now we’re taking a risk. Now we’re in dead man’s land, about seven of us. And some of the guys went to the gate and they saw a note. I have a copy of the note. "We meet you on future battlefields, and now you are free to go." Bullshit.
   Now we’re afraid to go further, maybe it’s boobytrapped. So, back in the fields there are cows. The British guys went and got a couple of cows and they made them walk around. The cows meander, they don’t go straight, so oh boy, they’re screening it real good. I expected one of them to blow up, but no. They went out the front door and we ran for the front door and closed it. This was late at night. And we put the planks down and blocked it, because we had all the piles of rice and stuff and cows, and Rangoon was starving.
   Then we went and ransacked the Japanese area. And then we gathered the guns and ammunition, and we found a few hand grenades, and I found a carved ivory cigarette holder that I kept. So now we had to negotiate with the townspeople, and finally we found one guy who was going to help us round up the people who owned boats and gather all the boats so that when the army landed on the other side, they’d have the little boats and could bring them over to this side. So myself and Dow, that fellow Dow, and Cliff Emony and this Burmese fellow, we went over to the other side of the river and went to the huts; they offered us food but we wouldn’t dare take any, or water – you’d get sick, you’d die. We’re not used to their food. It’s not clean, anyway. It’s just terrible. They’re used to it. Their bodies assimilate it. And so we got all our negotiations done, and we had our rifles as if, what was gonna happen I don’t know, and then we came back. That’s when this newspaper man came and the Ghurkas landed the next day.

Aaron Elson: Those Ghurkas must have been awesome.

Karnig Thomasian: Oh, they are. They’re little fellows, but I’m glad they’re on our side. Boy, I’ll tell you what they did. We were ready to go, and this fellow looked so beautiful, he was 6-foot-4, broad, rosy – apples for cheeks – and when we looked and saw our pale faces, we realized really how sick we were because before that we didn’t have anything to relate to. The Japanese have a different coloring altogether, so we thought everything was all right.
   We helped all the guys; there were some we had to carry out of their hospital-like situation, and we brought them in to the tender that was there. Oh, I was telling you about this Ghurka. We gathered around him like Gulliver, you know, with the little people, it was a scene. Oh, if they do a film I could just direct this scene, it was so precious. I remember every moment of it.
   Then the next morning we gather our things, we’re going to have a last breakfast, and then pretty soon it’s time to go to the tender that takes us out to the hospital ship, because the hospital ship can’t get in there. We’re ready to leave, and then we see these Ghurkas, they’re waving, waving, and then they’ve got one Japanese on a rope with his head bandaged, and there’s three or four of the Ghurkas holding a box between them, and the other Ghurkas are following up. And they’re all running like crazy trying to meet us.
   They brought us a gift. What was this gift? This was this Japanese soldier which they threw in the brig – they have a brig there – he was a young fellow – and they opened the box.
   It was full of ears. I was mortified. If you can believe it, I felt sorry for this guy, because he had never done anything to me. Oh, my God, how could they do this? It’s terrible. This is a present? I don’t know what they did with it. I couldn’t look at it anymore. Then they got us out to the ship. They deloused us.

Aaron Elson: You hadn’t mentioned the lice before.

Karnig Thomasian: Oh, lice, yeah, in the seams of our loincloths and everything, because we didn’t wear clothes, you didn’t have to wear clothes, but they get into the seams, so you’d have to get them out. The best way is to put the clothing out in the sun, and you see them starting to crawl out, and then you squash them. That’s the way it is.

Aaron Elson: And they had no delousing facility in the camp?

Karnig Thomasian: No, they didn’t have anything. All that stuff, they didn’t have delousing, they didn’t have Mercurochrome. They didn’t have nothing.

Aaron Elson: Were there rats or mice?

Karnig Thomasian: There were big cockroaches. Big ones. You went "POW!" But I wouldn’t do it in my bare feet – I was always barefooted, so I said, "Does someone have a shoe?" Oh, God. Oh, jeez, I tell you, I sometimes wonder how I…
   So we get there, and then we’re in the ship. And now it’s time to get off the ship. And they tell us, "No arms. Leave your firearms or anything else that you’ve gotten, swords and everything. …"
   So I dismantled the gun and put it in my blanket. We each got a blanket issued to us. So now it was a shorter thing. I managed to smuggle it off the ship that way.
   Then we got to the hospital, and they started feeding us. The first thing they did was clean our wounds. They put that sulfa powder in, and I tell you, in no time – almost in minutes, but it wasn’t, it was a couple of days, but the sores filled up and started to heal, it was a miracle. That’s a miracle drug as far as I was concerned. It healed it so fast. And that’s all we needed. From that to suffering like that.
   Oh, there was a general who visited us in the camp along with the American newsman. I never got his name. And he said, "We will wire news ahead that you people have been freed."
   Then when we got to the hospital, we met General Stroudemeyer, and I’ve got a picture with him. With my beard. I’m the only one that had a beard, I shaved everybody else. The wing commander wanted me to shave. He said, "Why don’t you shave?"
   I said, "No."
   He said, "Do you want to be the only one with a beard?"
   Oh, in the hospital, so they had bowls of pills. You just grabbed pills and ate them by the handful. It’s unreal. And ice cream.

Aaron Elson: What were the pills?

Karnig Thomasian: All kinds of vitamin things, who knows? I have no idea. All colors. Rainbow. But there was a bowl, on every table. I don’t know, it sounds ridiculous, you’d take one of this, and one of that. I guess we were lacking in so many things they said it can’t hurt.
   Then I went over to the Chinese compound, and I met this fellow. I can’t remember his name now, but he was the one that doled out the rice when we were in solitary. He had a black skullcap, a white, flowing shirt, short black pants, and sandals. That’s how he came around. And he’d always look to see if he could give us a little more, if the Jap wasn’t over his shoulder; we couldn’t converse. But I always remembered him. So I went over to where the Chinese were and I found him, and I said, "Does anybody speak English?" One of the fellows could speak a little English. I said, "Tell him that I want to thank him for his kindness."
   He told him, and then I said, "He made life more bearable for us, and he was such a nice man."
   Then the guy who was interpreting said, "Could he give you his father’s address, and you write to him, tell him that you saw his son and he’s all right?"
   I said, "Oh, sure."
   He gave me the address. And then the Chinese fellow got a coin, and he broke the coin. And he said, "When we meet again, we will match the coins."
   So I wrote to his parents. His father had a pharmacy in some town in China.
   Along comes a letter back, all in Chinese. I was going to art school then; this is when I was back in the States. There was a letter to me, and a letter to his son. So I showed it to my friend – I had a friend in school, the Art Students League in New York, a Chinese guy – and I said, "Do you know how to read Chinese?"
   "Oh, yeah."
   "I wonder if you could please translate these letters, so I could understand what it is and send it to his son?"
   He said, "Sure." So he gave me the translation in the next couple of days. He said, "I didn’t translate his son’s letter because that’s private."
   I said, "That’s okay."
   The father said he hadn’t seen his son all those years. That was the first time he’d heard anything about him. And it was so nice of me to write, and his mother is happy to hear that he’s okay.
   And he said, "Do you think you could send him a letter?" I don’t remember what he wanted to say. He wanted to get in touch with him, basically, that’s what it was. So I said, All right. Let me find out.
   I called up the 142nd General Hospital, they’re not anymore in there but they have an office in America. To make a long story short, I found out that these Chinese were released from the hospital, and they walked back to China.

Aaron Elson: He walked from Rangoon to China?

Karnig Thomasian: Yeah, that means over the Hump, well, they’d probably go to the Burma Road; that’s not a very good place, there are a lot of pirates there. It’s not safe just because the Japs are gone. They’ve got a lot of other things, problems. God knows if he ever got back.
   I wrote back and said he is walking back. I mean, you’re talking about thousands of miles. That’s how they must have gotten there in the first place. Can you imagine?
   Anyway, that was a sad thing for me, I couldn’t come to peace with it somehow.
   The full interview with Karnig is at my web site, and Karnig has also written a book about his experiences, "Then There Were Six," which is available at
   A little more, however, on the etymology of "Extract Digit." According to Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Catch Phrases, Prince Philip used a variation of it in a 1961 speech on British industry, he said "It is about time we pulled our fingers out!" Fast Forward to earlier this year, and Tiger Woods, according to the blog, sent an "extract digit" text to Rory McIlroy:

Tiger Woods Sends ‘Extract The Digit’ Return Text Message To Rory McIlroy.

   New World No. 1 Tiger Woods sent struggling Rory McIlroy a timely text message ahead of next month’s Masters – ‘Get your finger out of your ass and win this week’s Shell Houston Open’.
   McIlroy is returning to the PGA Tour for a first time in a fortnight and in his final tournament ahead of the April 11th starting first Major Championship of the season at Augusta National.
   The 23-year old Northern Irishman tees up in America’s fourth largest city having broken 70 just one in nine stroke play rounds including a pair of 75s to start his new season in Abu Dhabi.
   And on Monday, McIlroy’s 208-day reign as World No. 1 ended when Woods captured a record-equalling eighth PGA Tour event in capturing the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando.
   As McIlroy took to the Redstone course in suburban Humble, Woods helped lead his Albany team to success in the Tavistock Cup in Orlando.
   However before teeing-up in the Singles shootout he received a congratulatory text message from McIlroy.
   “I thought I would just let it all sort of die down a bit after his win yesterday so I texted him this morning.
   “I hadn’t spoken to Tiger for a couple of weeks but I sent him a text this morning congratulating him on his win and saying: ‘Well done’.
   “Tiger got back to me and told me to get my finger out of my ass and win this week.”
   And when www.golfbytourmiss. com mentioned the text to McIlroy later while he was playing a practice round, McIlroy admitted that was a toned down version of what Woods texted him.

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P.S. OMG, if there's one state those World War II Germans would know the capital of, it's North Dakota (Bismarck)!


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