Each day from the day I returned from the Far East and as I continue to exist I am constantly reminded of the many wonderful friends and comrades I have had the good fortune to meet. The sound of a simple melody or a song, a cloud formation, a plane passing overhead. Occasionally however I am also reminded of the numerous small devils who crossed my path.
I remember when I enlisted in the army and was stationed at Strensall Barracks. My grand mother lived in York along with two aunts and they came to visit me on the second day of my service, When I told my grandmother that my pay was one shilling a day, she gave me four pennies which I kept with me up until the day we went into the jungle November 1941.
Being interested in sport, I made a number of friends including John Reeves, We called him Big John because who was six inches taller than any of the boys. However, John Potter was a ‘shorter’ acquaintance. Similar to me he had told a lie about his age. He also told a lie at his medical, which came to light the day after we arrived in Moascar Egypt. As we collected our empty kit boxes (a wooden box measuring 3ft by 18inches, 2 Ft deep) and walked across the area known as the barrack square, I watched as he suddenly started to gaze up into the sky and then collapse with his kit box on top of him. He had had a fit. Rules were very strict in those days, and he was sent home within fourteen days. My first casualty.
JOE DUCKWORTH Manchester Regiment
One of my close friends was Joe Duckworth, a well built lad with a heart of gold, he could mix it with the best, but his manner and Christian outlook was a credit to his parents. I last saw him in San Krai camp Thailand and remember his passing. The Japanese were well behind schedule with their railway construction, so they had decided that prisoners should continue to work through the night. To assist providing light, large fires were built close to where the work was taking place. The flames from these fires leapt upwards to thirty and forty feet as bamboo and all manner of wood was heaped on. The Japanese guards were fanatical concerning the rules, included in which was one which stated emphatically that there would be no smoking during working shifts. Anyone desperate for a smoke would ask the Jap if he could go to the toilet, during which time he would have a crafty smoke.
Unfortunately Joe was one of these. The Korean guard watched as Joe took out his backy can in preparation for a smoke. The guard shouted and leapt onto Joe giving him a crack on the head with his rifle butt. Joe went down flat. The guard then shouted for other guards to lend assistance. Three or four Koreans dragged and pulled Joe toward the fire and one of them offered Joe a cigarette.The other guards followed suit and started to push cigarettes into Joe’s mouth, in his ears, and up his nostrils. Joe was then ordered to go to the fire and light all the cigarettes. He hesitated and the guards began prodding him with sticks, gradually pushing him to the fire. The heat was overwhelming, then he fell forward into the fire, his hair caught fire immediately, but he was motionless. The Korean guards started to shout at him until they suddenly realised that he was no longer of this world. Then they shouted out for water and hesitantly made a move toward pulling him away from the fire. Finally Joe was pulled clear, but it was much too late, He was a blistering mess. The senior guard after ordering one or two prisoners to remove his body, shouted for all men to get back to work.
Joe was just another statistic.
LLOYD BULL 125 Anti Tank Reg
I never knew Lloyd, who was a gunner. I can remember the incident well. Most of the prisoners had by now lost a great deal of weight through dysentery and other debilitating diseases. Lloyd was one of these. He was not fit enough to dig, and had no strength to swing the drilling hammer, so he was set the task of climbing to the top of the cutting where he was to collect any rocks and roll them down the back of the hill. Blasting the rock face was very primitive. Holes would be drilled in to the rock face by prisoners using heavy hammers and cold steel drills. It was the type of work which only strong fit men would have undertaken. Once the holes had been drilled to a depth indicated by a chalk mark on the drill. Sticks of dynamite were rammed down the hole followed by plugs of soil wrapped in paper looking like candles. The wires from the dynamite were then left for the ‘Tie man’ to attach to either the positive or negative wire. The main wire then led to a dynamo, which would only be charged on orders from Tanaka/.
Tanaka the chief engineer was my direct boss and was the most evil of men. Without being given an excuse he would wade into the prisoners on the pretext that they were either going too slow, or were not showing the right spirit. This day for some reason known only to himself, he took an instant disliking to Lloyd Bull. Tanaka had climbed to the top of the hill on a number of occasions, each time he would find an excuse to punch or hit the unfortunate man with any weapon at hand. Finally Tanaka must have blown all his fuses. Running down the side of the cutting he shouted to the ‘shot man’ to begin priming the dynamo. Then without allowing time for the workers to run clear, he pressed the plunger which sent tons of rock and fall out scattering among the prisoners. One or two of them were hit by the falling debris. Unfortunately Lloyd fell from the top of the cutting along with the debris and was buried.
Tanaka would not allow anyone to go near the fall out. When asked if men could try to rescue Lloyd, they were told to rescue their comrades in their own time. Fortunately the following day was a rest day and we were able to recover Lloyd’s remains and bury them in consecrated ground.
Was a civilian railway engineer who was always accompanied by his grinning goon assistant Hashimoto. Although apparently a clever man, Tanaka was totally uncivilised. I was his whipping boy for several months during the building of the railway. But contrary to what the POW fraternity thought of the Japanese engineers in general they were not stupid. The method used to begin building a railway was unique. Hundreds of prisoners and forced labourers were made to collect earth from various positions inside the jungle and place it in a position designated by the Jap or Korean in charge of the
Detail, starting with a 12 meter base by 2 meters high. On top of this a further platform measuring 10 meters and again two meters high followed by a third 8 meters by one or two meters high.
When the monsoons arrived however the whole embankment would condense into a large slippery slope. The first time I observed Tanaka’s inhumanity was when one of his friends fell over the edge of a very steep hill and into the river Kwai below. The only concern he had, was for his equipment which had to be recovered before attempting to recover the body of his so called friend. The next time was in February when he was supervising the creation of a cutting at Chungkai. The men were suffering from overwork, lack of sleep and food, and the onslaught of Malaria and other jungle diseases.The method of blasting a passage way through the rocky hill was very primitive. Several men were each given a steel rod which was to be used as a drill, a partner was assigned to each carrying a heavy hammer which could be anything from a seven pound to a sixteen pound sledge hammer. Once holes had been drilled in the correct places and at the required depth the team of demolition workers came on the scene. There were eight or nine men whose job it was to set the charges and blow up the obstacle. This was achieved by placing a detonator into each stick of dynamite which was then placed in each hole leaving a trailing wire. The hole was then blocked up with clay and earth and rammed tight. The trailing wire from each charge was then attached to a main piece of wire which led down to the Dynamo. At a given signal, one man would charge up the dynamo. He would then shout stand clear and one of those standing by would bang a piece of metal to act as a type of bell. The man at the dynamo would then push the plunger down and the whole obstacle would go up with a loud bang.
This was OK except that if Tanaka was upset or in a bad mood, he would invariable press the plunger before a warning had been given, once or twice before the demolition man had set all the charges to the wire. I saw this happen at Wampo where the whole side of the hill was exploded onto two men who were resting inside a cave. It was after this incident that Tanaka was relieved of his duties and sent to Tamuan.
Ossie had joined the army a year before me, He was five years older. He was a typical Mancunian street urchin who was intent on making his mark in any way he could. As a friend one could not wish for a better one but as an enemy he was ruthless. Age colour or creed was of no consequence In his mind , the army had taught him how to kill and he was not about to dispense with all his training without testing his proficiency. Up to the outbreak of war I considered him to be a rational person but once the balloon had gone up so did Ossies hackles.
On the 20th January when we were taking part in a rearguard action I saw a Japanese soldier impale a Malay baby onto his bayonet. A short time later we were resting before returning to base. I noticed we had acquired a number of Japanese prisoners. I recognised the Jap who had impaled the baby and mentioned it to Ossie. Acting on my word alone he walked round to the back of the Jap soldier and taking a piece of cheese wire from beneath his shirt, he garrotted the Jap on the spot. At that particular instant we were given the order to scatter as the main Jap force were close and immediate.
On the 13th February he was with my team escorting general Gordon Bennet across our lines and to the Jardine steps, from where he fled Singapore. I was talking to one of the General’s Australian escorts who jokingly suggested that I join them as they were intent on escaping to Australia. Jokingly I accepted the offer saying, “Hang on here and I will go and collect my kit bag”. Ossie heard me, he prodded his rifle into my belly “If you make any attempt” he said “I will personally blow you away”. From that day onward I made it a point to keep my eye on him and it was just as well I did.
On another day after being taken prisoner I was with a group travelling by barge up the river Kwai, I watched Ossie perform the same garrotting act on one of the guards as he sat at the back of the barge. Quickly and deftly he swung his arms around the Jap soldiers head then pulled his arms apart. Then he gently slid the dead Jap into the water I watched him repeat this on one other occasion. Ossie came home, but died shortly after his return.
Martin was a volunteer soldier, he had joined the battalion on November 1940 straight from the streets of Salford, one of those streets well known for its thuggery and thieving exploits at the time. He was about three or four years my senior in age but was a junior soldier. I only met him after we had become prisoner. He was one of a gang of what I termed blanket boys, a group who spent most of their time robbing from their friends. To give an instance, the camp at Havelock road consisted of a number of wooden huts. That is there was a sleeping frame about three feet from the ground and a roof. The sides of the hut were open apart from a stretch of wood which ran along the outside of the hut, about three foot six from the ground. Those sleeping in the hut would place their possessions at the head of the platform which allowed parts of it to hang outside the hut.
A group of four or five men would gather and at a given signal from the one in charge one man would run along each side of the hut. As he ran he would pull at anything which protruded, bedding, clothing anything at all which would move, and drag it to the floor. He would be followed by another man who would go along picking up whatever useful items he could find to sell on to the local natives.
Mack was always the leader in such escapades. We became friends when we are working on the Chungkai cutting, he was always on the lookout for partners who would be prepared to break camp and go with him at night through the jungle to whichever village he thought he might get a better deal. He would take items like pens, watches, lighters and similar items to sell also included were blankets and items of clothing. He was the one who taught me not to be afraid of the jungle, as a matter of fact, not to be afraid of anything. “It’s only life”, he would say “use it while you have it, because you will not get a second chance”. It was he and another tearaway named Terry who talked me into joining them when they went to blow up a train. It was frightening but exhilarating, and the aftermath was disgusting even though they were the enemy. Mack was a pleasant lad always willing to help his friends, but similar to Ossie he was deadly to his enemies.
Jack was a regular soldier and was everyone friend and mate. He manufactured his own Banjo in Egypt where he belonged to a group called the TADS mouth organ band. He was also a skilled driver, his skills many times getting his passengers out of danger. He managed to come through the war, but died some time in the nineties from heart problems, He was however one of those gentle men one hears of but rarely meet.
Jackie was a nineteen forties conscript, Married to Renee with two children. He hated the army and all it stood for. Small in stature but as ferocious as a wounded tiger, The Japs were the cause of all his troubles and he could not wait to get among them. Many times he left himself exposed in order to assist one of his comrades, each time showing a blatant disregard for the enemy. He was one of those who went down in the hell ship which was taking him even further away from his beloved Renee, on the 12th September 1944.
Bob was a typical Empire soldier, rough and ready for anything, not a heavy drinker but lethal when he had had one over the top, as well as being a driver during our stint in Palestine, was also in the corps of drums. He was my constant companion, a good all round sportsman. He had joined the territorial army at the age of seventeen and was a first class marksman. Bob was the leader of our group of five which went everywhere together and caused so many hilarious incidents, including sounding the orderly sergeant’s call just on ten o’clock. This gave the drinkers an extra fifteen minutes drinking time.
(The orderly sergeant was responsible for closing the bar at ten o’clock each night and it took him at least fifteen minutes to walk around trying to find out who was asking for him)
Andy survived the war and later became a Chelsea Pensioner, he died in 1991 age 81years.
Itu who was one year younger then I, was born in Singapore. His parents were Japanese and Christian. I met him a couple of days after the capitulation. He was acting as interpreter for the group I was with, which had the sickening job of collecting and disposing of many of the dead, not only in Singapore but also in south Jahore. Because he was a Christian he was given all the dirty jobs by his superiors, although he never showed any favours to myself or any other prisoner. However he also never used any violence against any of us either. He did the job he was instructed to do without any embellishment.
Whenever we had a break he would sit close by and pass on little bits of information. Not necessarily news, but about the various movements of prisoners of war. Occasionally he would look the other way whenever one of my Chinese friends wanted to pass me a message or some scrap of food. I made enquiries after the war but the only information was that he had joined Yamashita’s staff, He was the only Jap I felt sorry for and hope that he made it back to his family.
War brings out the best and the worst in men, I observed the former on several occasions, but the latter was always and ever present.
During the fighting I witnessed many acts of what can only be described as self preservation at the expense of others. The officer with a section of men who came across a company of Japanese, who gave the whispered order. “Don’t fire, they might shot back”. A certain lance corporal in charge of a machine gun section who left his position behind the gun and ran into the jungle on sight of Japanese soldiers approaching. Once in the jungle he shouted for others to follow him. I remember Acer Cook, shooting him in the leg to slow him down. Those men who turned their backs when we needed help in rescuing our wounded at Parit Sulong.
Wherever an advantage could be obtained there was always the one with the strength to turn it to his own uses. I have seen so many bad deeds that I could most probably write a book about it. Men like Jackie ?? and others who sold water at anything up to £10.00 a pint. Most officers had carried their cheque books with them and when things got bad, they would use them to purchase items which other ranks could never afford. The cheques they used were required to be signed on the reverse with the words. “This cheque to be honoured on proof of my death”
The pawn brokers who would provide a cigarette in exchange for a man’s rice quota for the day. Others who would purchase at a very low price, such things as pens, lighters, rings, brooches and badges or anything of value which the Japanese had not already stolen. There were others who when they found that the man lay beside them had died, they rifled his kit stealing anything of use or value. There were the scroungers who were forever feigning illness in order to stay behind in camp, when every one had gone out to work they would trawl the camp stealing whatever articles of value they could find. I remember the officers and NCOs who refused to give food to myself and my group who had been without food for several days. The usual cry was that “If we give it to you, it will leave us short”.
The officer who would not assist when the opportunity arose to be able to blow up a Japanese train. His excuse was that if the Japanese found out they would probably kill a number of men as a reprisal.
That certain sergeant major who tried to stop our group from breaking camp at Uttaradit Thailand on the 30th August the day we found out about the Atom bomb.
After the war those in high office who stated that they would bring to justice all the war criminals and then within one year decide to release them all.
Our government; who at the time knew of our predicament but signed a peace agreement releasing the Japanese from paying any form of compensation, while they themselves claimed for damage to churches and British owned buildings.
Those people who take it upon themselves to send young men and women to fight in a campaign or war in which they themselves would not have the courage to fight.
Those people who set themselves up as some form of military or service charity for the sole purpose in giving themselves a rich life.
There are hundreds of small devils in this world, but very few little Gods to curtail their wickedness.
Of lasting memory are the two executions I witnessed. The first officially I attended as a bugler. The sick Japanese had decided that the five men they were about to execute for trying to escape were actually heroes and that they deserved a military send off.
All prisoners of war in Changi had been incarcerated in Selerang barracks because of our refusal to sign our parole and it was late on the second night when the CO was called to the Japanese guard room to advise him that five men were to be executed on Changi beach the following morning at 1100 hrs. The padre and I were to attend for the purpose of creating a military style performance. Also to attend was Colonel C Wild to act as interpreter.
The following day the 2nd September I will always remember for its typical Japanese barbarism. When we arrived at the scene a large group of Japanese soldiers and civilians were already waiting for the carnival to commence. A truck arrived from Changi prison. The back was dropped down and the prisoners ordered to get down. One of the prisoners was wearing his pyjamas having been brought from the hospital. He could not walk or even stand on his own, so he was assisted by the Padre and one of the other officers.
The prisoner’s names and army details were read out parrot fashion. 7591250 Private Fletcher (RAOC) 6140961 private Waters (East Surrey)1573184 private Nurse (Royal Artillery) VX63100 private Breavington (AIF) VX 62289 private Gale(AIF) Private Waters had been injured during the fighting and was suffering with Pneumonia due to lack of attention. The four able men were taken to a position where five pieces of wood were protruding from the ground. Each one was placed in position in front of each pole and secured by rope. The fourth man was carried to sit upright. There was a preamble in Japanese read out loud, which I believe was the sentence of death issued by the Japanese court, this followed with two Japanese officers performing some form of salute using the swords. There was a deal of muttering coming from the English speaking witnesses , with colonel Wild stating that the men had not received a fair trial. While this was going on ten Japanese soldiers were marched in line facing the prisoners. A Japanese officer shouted orders which were repeated by the Japanese guns (sergeant) at which the ten men raggedly lifted their rifles to the aiming position. The order to fire was again given by the officer which in turn was repeated by the gunso . The double order caused confusion among the soldiers as each one fired indiscriminately. The officer shouted out some kind of instruction and one or two of the executioners started to shoot at Pte Waters who was sitting on the ground. Further confusion followed as one or two of the men fell forward their bonds broke loose. The Japanese soldiers must have imagined that the prisoners were about to escape and they immediately started to fire indiscriminately. Above the shots could be heard our own officers shouting and swearing and the Japanese officer trying to regain control.
The British witnesses were ordered away from the scene being pushed and belted by the Japanese soldiers and witnesses. After some time we were all instructed to return, all that remained was four wooden stumps. The Padre started to pray and the Japanese gunso ordered me to sound the last post. I could not do justice, I was trying not to show my tears and after a feeble attempt at sounding the Last Post the colonel shouted to me to follow him. A Japanese staff car took our party back to Selerang. The following day all men were instructed by Colonel Holmes to sign our parole. Many men refused on the grounds that it was against British army regulations, so the colonel made it an order.
Just a little more than twelve months later I was to witness a similar execution in Chungkai Thailand on the 3rd March 1943 a party of men were on the move up the line from Chungkai to Tarso. During the short journey four men decided to try to escape. Kenneally, Kelly, Reah and Fitzgerald broke away from the main party running single file into the jungle.
The first I knew about this was on the morning of the 23rd when Tommy Walker my assistant in the hospital cook house informed me that the Japanese had brought in three men who had tried to escape. They had been tried and found guilty and were to be executed that morning.
My shift finished at six o’clock and as was usual I walked across the railway to collect wood for lighting the fires on my next shift. I had collected a useful bundle of bamboo when I heard the noise of several men talking. I hid behind a large log from where I observed the group which included the three prisoners surrounded by Japanese guards, behind them, Major Cooper, the Padre and one or two other officers. The group halted in a small clearing and the Japanese guards immediately began to push and shove the prisoners toward three shallow holes at the head of which were a single bamboo pole, I noticed that each prisoner had his hands held together with jungle ties. The Jap guards secured each man to one of the poles, again using jungle ties. The Japanese officer shouted a command at which all the guards formed a line about five yards opposite the prisoners. Without further hesitation the officer gave the order to fire. There was a rattle of shots after which the Jap officer stood over each of the executed men and fired a single shot into each man’s head. The firing squad then moved forward and pushed the now dead bodies into the shallow pits. Two of them using chunkels and spades left by the grave diggers, threw soil over the bodies. Within twenty minutes it was all over. For myself I was crying yet again, I don’t know if it was for the men I had watched being executed or for me. I remained behind the log for some time. When I finally decided to leave, I watched as four Thai men and two women were straightening the grave.
On return to camp I went to report to Colonel Strauss who was in charge of the cookhouse where I worked the night shift. Later he told me the full story. The men had escaped on the 3rd March and had come to a small village of five huts, the headman of the village gave them food and shelter for the night promising not to reveal their whereabouts to the Japs. On the night of the 8th March a Japanese patrol had rushed the place where the prisoners were hiding. The group had run into the jungle but unfortunately Fitzgerald was shot in the back and died instantly. The remaining three remained in the jungle for a further three days and then returned to the village unaware that the village headman had sold their whereabouts to the Japanese for twenty Baht, about ten shillings.
The village headman gave them food and that night while they slept the Japanese arrived again in force and captured the escapees. They were taken to Bampong criminal prison where after a brief trial on the 15th March they were each sentenced to death. One week later they were brought back to Chungkai and were executed on the 23rd.
The four bodies are buried side by side in Kanchanaburi cemetery. In Chungkai cemetery and buried side by side are four men of the East Surrey regiment who had also attempted to escape Privates Croker, Cleaver, Doval and Richardson were executed without trial on the orders of sergeant Sato the Chungkai camp commander
A Squaddies Lament
On our retreat from Endau
Many times Iv’e wondered why!
They were the one’s who had to die
I was the one too scared to live
They were the one’s with more to give
Five of us set out that day
Four great pals were blown away
No warning given, mine fields ahead
A flash, a bang, and four mates dead
I still can’t get it into my head
Why I’m still alive and they are dead.
This novel, based upon the accounts of actual people and written by a man who was there, is a story about the battle for Malaya and Singapore in WW2. It is told from the viewpoint of three characters - Chuck Stewart, a Manchester regiment soldier who deserted his unit to go up country and fight the enemy; Itu, a Japanese infantryman who landed on the beaches with the invasion; and Chung Lee, a Chinese Malayan who joined the Chinese People's Party to help repel the invaders.
The people behind these characters were all known to the author and this compelling novel of combat and heart ache is based upon their personal accounts.