The extraordinary story of the book's creation

In the early evening of February 15, 1942, General Arthur Percival, Commanding Officer, Malaya Command, surrendered the British Singapore garrison to Japan’s victorious “Tiger of Malaya”, General Tomoyuki Yamashita.

General Percival’s signature on the document of unconditional capitulation represented final confirmation that the Japanese 25th Army’s 70-day long Malaya campaign had delivered Britain her greatest ever military defeat.

On the day following the surrender, the beaten and demoralised British and Australian defence forces were ordered on a heartbreaking 25km march from downtown Singapore to prison quarters at Changi, on the island’s northeastern tip.

Trudging past the forbidding concrete walls of Changi Jail along the last few hundred meters of their journey of despair, the battle weary troops were thankful that, at least, they were not destined to go in there. Not yet, at any rate. Their initial POW camps were to be the nearby Selarang, Birdwood and Roberts barracks, formerly home to key British garrison units.

The defeated troops were soon horrified to learn that British and Australian women and children, captured in Singapore and Malaya, were being held inside Changi Jail. Maintaining morale among the imprisoned allied military personnel would be problem enough. To ensure that Changi’s civilian prisoners never lost hope as war raged in the Pacific, would add an entirely new dimension to the morale challenge.

As the first Christmas in captivity approached, an unnamed Australian in Selarang had a brilliant plan. Why not make a range of gifts for the jailed children?

To the surprise of Aussie POW’s, their Japanese captors agreed and inmates were duly instructed to make toys and deliver them to Selarang’s AIF Education Centre, a camp unit established to bolster morale through education.

As the troops completed their toys - model cars, trains and ships, dolls and animals, a miniature theatre complete with tiny cardboard actors, and many other wonderful creations - they handed them to the Education Centre in readiness for required inspection by Japanese commander, General Saito, and his staff.

Twenty-seven year old Sgt. David Griffin, NX69235, one of those recruited to form the original nucleus of the Education Centre, couldn’t make toys. But he could write stories. Thus was born the idea of writing a book for Changi Jail’s child prisoners. Griffin’s friend and fellow inmate, the accomplished artist, Leslie Greener, agreed to do the illustrations. Another POW, Bruce Blaikey, who operated the only typewriter in the camp, readied his keyboard.

Time was pressing. Griffin made due allowances for illustrations and, working on Gordon Highlander regimental paper, handed his creation page by page to Blaikey for typing. The typist in turn, passed each page on to the artist. When completed, the pages were bound into a little book which, 36 hours later, went on display along with the toys.

At the appointed time, General Saito arrived with his staff and was conducted around the exhibition. On leafing through The Happiness Box, one of the Japanese inspection party, with a certain command of English, suddenly became agitated. He had noted that a key character in the book - Winston the “chi-chak” lizard - bore the same name as the British leader of the day, Winston Churchill.

General Saito and his group became immediately suspicious. They believed the book was an ingenious collection of secret coded messages between the military prisoners, housed outside the Changi jailed walls, and the civilians within.

The Japanese ordered the book to be confiscated and destroyed. In the confusion that followed, the Australians managed to spirit the volume away. Eventually they hid it, along with some divisional documents, in an ammunition container which they buried within the grounds of their prison camp.

Following the liberation of Singapore in September 1945, The Happiness Box was dug up and returned to its author. The original copy survives, lodged in the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.
— Norma Miraflor, 1991, from a pamphlet published to accompany Media Masters' republication of 'The Happiness Box'