Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Straits Times : WWII shelter open to (virtual) visitors

The Straits Times
By Melody Zaccheus
23rd January 2013

High-definition virtual tour of air raid bunker will be uploaded on NHB website

Tiong Bahru residents (from left) Madam Mandy Lee, 69, Mr Barnie Leow, 43, Mr Donald Wyatt, 78, and Mr Kelvin Ang, 40, in a room at the air raid shelter at Block 78 Guan Chuan Street. -- PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

IT WAS built in 1940 and provided shelter from Japanese bombs during World War II.

Now the red brick civilian air raid bunker is to open its doors to the public once again, in the form of a high-definition virtual tour.

The layout of the 1,500 sq m shelter at Block 78 Guan Chuan Street in Tiong Bahru, which combines Google's Street View technology with high- definition still photographs, will be produced by Smap Agency in collaboration with the National Heritage Board (NHB). It will be uploaded on the board's website on April 2.

"The virtual tour will help present-day Singaporeans better understand how things were like when we fell to the Japanese in World War II and the efforts made to protect civilians against heavy shelling," said Mr Donald Wyatt, 78, a Tiong Bahru resident who lived through the war.

The shelter is the only public housing building erected by the Singapore Improvement Trust to have an air raid shelter incorporated in its design.

The basement shelter could accommodate up to 1,600 people and is also believed to have been the site for the Air Raid Precaution Wardens' depot.

It served residents during the Japanese air raids between December 1941 and February 1942.

Residents scrambled for shelter when sirens sounded and stayed hidden there for about 20 minutes until the alarms ceased. The shelter usually served fewer than a hundred residents due to the small population in the neighbourhood.

Other residents depended on their own makeshift bomb shelters, said Mr Wyatt. "When the sirens sounded, residents living farther off wouldn't have been able to make it to the shelter in time so they converted their backyards and bedrooms into shelters with the addition of strong wooden panels and sandbags," said the retiree.

Some of the shelter's red bricks were made in the famous Alexandra Brickworks which closed in the 1970s. The bunker was also used in 1945 during air raids by the Allied Forces. Windows were added when it was later converted into a storage facility.

Writing on the wall from World War II reads 'Reserved for ARP wardens’ families'. The map (above) shows the location of the bunker. -- PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

The board's director of heritage institutions Alvin Tan said the aim is to create a databank of virtual heritage tours to capture present-day Singapore for current and future generations.

He added: "We decided to develop the virtual tour because of the public's continued interest in the shelter and we wanted to make the inaccessible accessible through the use of new technology."

The virtual tour will remind Singaporeans about the importance of being prepared - even in the best of times, said Mr Wyatt.

One Tiong Bahru resident, Madam Mandy Lee, 69, said there are more secrets waiting to be discovered in estates such as theirs.

She added: "The virtual tour will share with Singaporeans little known facts of the estate's historical value. What is important is for the young to be made aware of how life was like then, what their grandparents and parents lived through, and to better acquaint themselves with our heritage."

The shelter will be a stop in the upcoming Tiong Bahru Heritage Trail in April. This will be the 11th trail introduced by the NHB.