Sketch by Jack Chalker

Freedom at Last

Memoirs of Reg Bulled

Freedom At Last

 

The day started, as usual, with roll call and the marching out of the two work parties. I was getting over yet another bout of malaria and was on light camp duties. As I sat on my bed, almost at the end of the hut, a staff sergeant came in and stood looking up towards the Japanese quarters. Naturally, being nosey, I went and stood beside him and saw an amazing sight. All the Korean guards were on parade with all their equipment and “Baldy” was really screaming at them with the occasional swipe with a bamboo cane. I asked the sergeant what had happened and why was “Baldy” in such a rage? He said he wished he knew but something had obviously happened. Then the wood party came back empty handed. We asked what had happened and they said a guard had come out and ordered them all back to camp. Just after this the main party came marching through the gates. They said when they arrived at the site the engineers were extremely angry and really lashed into the Korean guards then ordered everyone back to camp. They said the guards had told them the allies had dropped gas on Japan. This we couldn’t believe, but obviously something drastic had happened.

As we all sat around discussing the situation a bugle call sounded. As it was an English call we took it for granted there were no parades today as this was the only English call we used. But the men started hurrying out of the hut and by the time I arrived at the other end the bugler was there who said, hurry up, that was fall in at the double. I told him politely I was hurrying as much as I could and what was all the hurry up about. He said, “The war is over”. I replied “what again!” Anyway we all paraded outside the camp on the open space, all in our hut formations. Suddenly the two officers and the sergeant-major came out wearing their Sam Brown belts and the best uniforms they had. The sergeant-major called us to attention and said the MO had something to say to us. He started by telling everyone to break ranks and crowd around him as closely as possible as he wanted everyone to hear what he had to say. I for one was wondering if we were in for another change of camps, but what I heard were the never to be forgotten words: “Gentlemen, the Japanese have signed, on the 14th August, a token of complete and unconditional surrender.” He paused for a few seconds then he continued: “Gentlemen, we are free!” 

There was a deathly hush over the camp as the full meaning of that statement sank in. Then we saw, flying high on the end of a long bamboo pole, the Union Jack. What a burst of cheering there was! I felt like crying, the emotion was so overwhelming, and as I looked around I saw everyone else was crying, so I joined them. They were tears of joy and relief, our incarceration was over. We had taken all the Japanese could throw at us and had won through. Suddenly everyone was singing their national anthem or national song. We were really a mixed bunch, English, Scots, Welsh, Irish, American, Australian, New Zealanders, Dutch and Javanese; everyone was hugging someone. Can you imagine the noise and excitement? 

Suddenly a thought came to me and I sobered up immediately. My friend Jack Alderman had been taken very ill and put into hospital and for two nights I sat with him as he went through his crisis; out of his mind, and sweating profusely. Jack was so much admired that everyone in the camp loaned fresh bedding to constantly keep him dry and comfortable. Then early one morning, Jack quietened down and went into a natural sleep. The MO said he had passed through his crisis and if his heart was strong enough he would recover. Two days later as we were lining up for roll call at night, the sergeant came looking for me and said that Jack had just died, he had died of meningitis. What a shock, I took his wallet, the only thing he had left and promised to return it to his parents in the north of England. Now here we were, just ten days later, free. If only he could have held on a little longer, but his death must be laid right at the door of the Japanese; medical supplies would have saved him.

The padre said he would hold a thanksgiving service that evening but the men wouldn’t wait, they shouted no, right away. He said, perhaps this afternoon, but the men wouldn’t have it, they demanded it right away. So the padre went back to his hut, got his Bible and hymn book and we had the service immediately. We all thanked God for bringing us safely through these terrible years and we had a few moments of silence in remembrance of the thousands of our comrades who had not lived to see this day.

Within hours many flags of different nations were flying over the camp. Then “Baldy” asked our camp commander to take them down for 48 hours. He said that the Japanese troops had to meet in these hills to hand over their weapons and surrender. He said many of them would be drunk and without officers and he didn’t think his small number of officers would be able to control them if they got angry at seeing the flags. As we thought this was a reasonable request and we certainly did not want to be killed now that we were finally free, we agreed. I remember sitting on my bed that day and suddenly heard someone calling, “Bulley, where’s my friend Bulley.” It was a friend I had had several talks with.  He had been a heavy drinker before being captured and as we talked he said he would never go back to it again but here he was, only a few hours after being told we were free, drunk.  Ron I said, how could you. He cried and said he was sorry, he just couldn’t resist it. It just went to show me how strong the power of alcohol was.

We soon learned how quickly the Nips could change; now they bowed to us. The Nips used to march around the camp on the top of the earth thrown up at the back of the trench to relieve their sentries and if we were caught on there we were beaten.  Now, as we heard them coming around, one man said I am going on top of the bund, let’s see what they will do. When the Nips came close to him they walked off the bund and saluted him as they passed and then marched up to the top again. That is how fast they can change and why I have little belief they will not change again if the opportunity arises. When the camp was in danger of being flooded again we sent the Nips out under our control to do the work, sweet revenge, but we could not be as brutal to them as they were to us.

We sat around talking and wondering how soon we would be relieved and who would do it. Everyone thought it would be their regiment, and of course, the Americans thought it would be their people. But one day three men calmly walked into the camp, two officers and a corporal, all members of the Royal Corps of Signals.  How we crowed!  They had been operating behind the lines and were told to contact us. They told us to make a large sign like the Red Cross symbol, using the Japanese sleeping mats, in a large open space so that the planes could pinpoint our position. We did this and the next day we sat around waiting to see and hear a plane. Finally we heard one.  It was a long way off but seemed to be making a straight line for us. Suddenly he veered off into another direction and although we shouted until we were nearly hoarse and waved our arms, he vanished from our sight. We thought they had missed us, but the next day we had our answer.  Several planes flew over and dropped bundles of clothing, food, medical equipment and drugs, by parachute.  At the end, one plane came in very low, almost shaving off the tops of the roofs of our huts.  We could see a man standing in the open door quite plainly; he leaned out and dropped a sack without a parachute. When we took it to the office we found it contained copies of that day’s English newspapers. What a treasure they became, if you had a page you read it and didn’t give it up unless someone would trade another page. We in the Signals were brought into the office to try and make up rolls of those men in the camp, their number, rank and regiment. Then three Americans and one Thai were dropped by parachute into the camp, one Yank finishing up halfway through the roof of one of the huts. They had come to make the arrangements for the start of our journey home!

Things soon got moving and we were told we would be on our way within a few days.  I had a very heavy cold and in my weakened condition I really wondered whether, after coming safely through the past three and a half years, I was going to die of a cold. You see, we were still in great fear that something would happen to stop us from going home. We often wondered what sort of a reception we would receive. One man said, “I bet I get all the way home safe, walk out of the railway station and get knocked down and killed by a bicycle.” Such were the fears in each one of us.  Once again my friends rallied around and made me go to bed, then they begged or borrowed every bit of covering they could, covered me and gave me a very hot drink. From that moment on and all through the night I sweated very heavily but next morning I was much better.

We sat around in groups, talking about our experiences and wondering how soon we would leave this land. Often our thoughts and conversations turned to the ones that we knew who had tried to escape from Tarsau. Three of them were gone for a few days, then they were bought back into camp under armed guard. They said they had met natives who said they would help them but all they did was to lead them to a Japanese patrol and hand them over. The last we saw of them they were loaded onto a truck, with armed guards and picks and shovels. Some while later the truck returned with the armed guards, dirty picks and shovels but not the POWs. The obvious inference was they had been taken out of camp, made to dig their own grave, and then shot.  Another man was being abused by the Japanese guard until he snapped and couldn’t take it any more. He made a dash for the river but had to pass the Japanese canteen and there he was stopped. He followed the same way the other three did.

The Americans were the first to leave the camp. We were not surprised or disappointed, they had always been the hardest to get along with and we felt there would be more peace in the camp when they were gone. I wrote a letter to my fiancée and asked one of the Americans if he would mail it for me. This he promised to do, but if he did, she never received it.

I well remember one evening, we were sat around a small fire talking and singing when one man started a conversation. He said “wait until we get home and tell them what it has been like, how many thousands the Japanese have killed.” After a moment’s silence another man replied “It won’t make any difference because no-one will ever believe you, they will think you are exaggerating.” How prophetic those words were. If our governments had told everyone what it had been like they might have believed, but the governments remained strangely silent, and still do until this day.

The next to leave were the Australians and New Zealanders leaving only the British, Dutch and Javanese. We were told we would be leaving the next day, but in the evening those orders were changed. We were told Lady Mountbatten was going to visit the camp the next day and it would be nice if some British were there to greet her. Although disappointed we agreed. We had been told we were free, and sure enough there were no Japanese guards ordering us around, but while we were still in the prison camp we found it hard to believe that we were really free. The next morning Lady Mountbatten arrived and talked to us from a hastily erected platform. She told us about the atom bomb and how the war had ended. Then she asked us to be patient, her husband had promised to get us home as quickly as possible, and she said “when he makes a promise he keeps it.”

He surely did! The next day the trucks were supposed to come for us from the Japanese camp farther up the road but by lunch time they had not arrived.  Someone ordered two others to go up and give them one hour to get the trucks down to our camp or else they would come up shooting. They arrived! We travelled all through the night and three times we went through rain storms which completely soaked us, but when it stopped we soon dried in the heat of the night. We arrived at Bangkok airport and were divided into plane loads and each load was numbered. The first six or seven loads were lined up inside a large hangar and the rest were allowed to wander around outside as long as they kept within hearing distance of the numbers being called out.  Inside the hangar there was a booth where one white lady was serving cups of tea.  She was the first white lady we had seen to talk to in three and a half years and most of the men took their tea and just stood there looking at her.

Finally my load number was called and we went inside the hangar and gradually worked our way up to the door. We were amazed at how fast everything moved along. We were loaded into ambulances and driven out to a plane which we boarded. It wasn’t very comfortable as there was only a bench seat down each side of the plane and if you wanted to lean back you had to bend over. But who cared? We were on our way home! The crew gave us some of their iron rations consisting of condensed meat, biscuits, chocolate etc.  I was getting over another bout with malaria and didn’t feel like eating anything but the man next to me ate everything in sight.  He made me feel very nauseous. The captain of the crew came back and told us we were running into bad weather so they were “going upstairs” to fly over it.  He said it would get much colder and if we needed one, there was a pile of blankets in the rear. I was very happy to take one. When we landed in Rangoon I folded the blanket and offered it back to the captain and he told me to keep it as a souvenir from the air force. I still have it! In Rangoon we left the plane and were loaded into ambulances and taken to a large building.  Here tables were set out for four or six men with an English lady to wait on each table. We really felt out of place; we felt so scruffy and poorly dressed.  We hadn’t been able to wash properly since our release.  Also, we didn’t know what to talk to her about. But to see bread and butter, fruit cake, jelly and blancmange and canned fruit was overwhelming; we wondered when we were going to wake up. But we were not hurried, we were told to take our time and eat slowly and above all, not to overeat.

From this place we were taken, again in ambulances, to a hospital and into a very large room. Tables were set up all over the floor space and you went and sat by any one which was vacant. The soldier behind my table asked me my regiment and told an orderly to take me to a certain ward. Here I found all members of my regiment. Some had been in other camps and now we met up again. I was the first bed inside the door. The orderly called for quiet and told us to strip off and stand by our beds, the medical officers were coming to look us over. We complied with this order, but what a shock we had when the medical officers turned out to be three Indian army lady doctors. We were given silk pyjamas to sleep in and grey cotton ones for daytime use.

We were allowed to go out and many of us made our way to the large pagoda and purchased stones to take home. As I entered this building, I couldn’t help remembering when Jesus threw the money lenders out of the temple. You walked up about four wide marble stairs onto a larger flat area. Here booths were set up on side, selling precious stones, incense, candles, gold leaf, etc. This was repeated until you reached a large open area at the top. Around this area were a number of smaller temples, each one holding a different Buddha. Worshippers were kneeling before these and placing lighted candles as they prayed, also some were rubbing gold leaf on the idol. What a cheap way to upkeep their statues. I felt sorry for these people as they were worshipping dead idols. Just inside the main door a man was standing holding the hand of a little girl who looked no more than about five years of age. Another man was grafting a large coloured stone into her right thigh, it must have been about one and half inches long, all done without the aid of anaesthetic, and open to all the dirt and flies.

We had only been there about a week when the orderly announced that anyone wanting to go home should report to the MO right away. When my turn came he asked me general questions about my dysentery, malaria, etc. and said I was OK and could go home. As I was turning away he stopped me and asked how long I had had the rash on my chest. I said it had only just come there, and he suggested that perhaps I had better delay my home going for a couple of days to see if it became anything more serious.  I could have cried with disappointment.

During this time we were able to write letters home so I decided to sit down and try and write a letter to Jack Alderman’s parents.  How do you break such bad news?  I tried and tried and the other men who knew Jack helped until I finally composed a letter we all thought was the best we could manage. I sent it off and hoped that when they received it they would not be too upset. I was writing constantly to my home and they received all my letters, but the one I really wanted to arrive, the one to Jack’s parents, did not.

Two days after my disappointment the orderly called for more volunteers for home. The orderly looked at me and said how about you, don’t you want to go home? I told him about what had happened the last time and he said, try again; you never know what may happen. So I did and this time the MO gave me the all clear to travel. I was out of that room and out of his sight as fast as possible; I didn’t want him to change his mind again.

That afternoon we crossed the road into another building for one night and then trucked out to a camp ready to board the ships. Here I went down with a group of others to the canteen. When we opened the door it was almost wall to wall bodies, but the first one I saw was my old friend Johnny Brecht who had gone down to the base hospital. What a joyous reunion and better still, two days later we boarded the same ship for home. We first went to Sri Lanka and spent two days visiting Colombo, then up the Suez Canal, stopping for two days at Port Said for warm clothing for England.

 

Next Chapter

Really On Our Way Back Home

 

 

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[Memoirs of Reg Bulled] [The Story Behind the Story] [The Road From Freedom To Captivity] [Life in the Camps] [Freedom at Last] [Really On Our Way Back Home]

 

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