My War Experience
125 Anti-Tank Regiment
I was 20 years old on 5th September 1939. Two days after, the war started. I joined the army on October 21st 1939, Trafalgar Day. I was posted to the 25th Medium Artillery Regiment at Marske-on-Sea, on the East coast of Yorkshire, billeted in a converted children's holiday camp. It was a very cold winter and snow was everywhere.
We were told to fill a six foot sack with straw for our bed and given three rough blankets, which were very uncomfortable after white sheets at home.
Lights out was 10.00 pm and first parade 5.30 am on the barrack square.
The sergeant major was an old soldier, 6' 2" tall and as tough as nails. He said "Anybody wishing to go sick take two paces forward." About six blokes. stepped out. "You will be bloody sick when I have finished with you!" he said. So they all stepped back in the ranks.
After a month of marching and rifle drill we were moved to Redcar Racecourse and billeted in the 'totalisators' (long huts). There was no hot water for shaving and washing. The only water was the horse troughs outside which were frozen over due to the very cold weather. We had to break the ice with a spade before we could have a wash.
I learned gun drill on 6" Howitzer and 60-Pound Guns, which I found very interesting. If you had to go on guard duty during the night, at 6 o'clock in the morning you could go for a mug of hot tea at the cookhouse. In here was a very large metal container with about 500 eggs being boiled. When the eggs were cooked they were taken out and the tea was brewed in the same water!!
I spent one month at this miserable camp where stripes were given to the smartest soldiers. (l wasn't one of them although I considered myself worthy of one!)
They then wanted men to be trained as Gun Fitters Class Il Gunners who could also repair guns whilst in action. I put my name forward and after being questioned, was accepted as a suitable soldier for the job.
At this time, I met a couple called Mr and Mrs Hadfield, while walking on the sea front. They stopped and asked me if I would like to go to their house for a meal occasionally and visit in the evenings for some home comfort, which I readily accepted. They had four children, three boys and one girl, who were two or three years younger than me. They were a marvellous family and treated me as one of their own. The children were too young at the time to be drafted into the Forces but one of boys named Roy, joined the Army later and when the Japs surrendered and we were still in the jungle, he was one of the blokes pushing food and clothing from the Dakota planes for us.
I kept in touch with them after the war and visited them in Redcar. There is only one of the family still alive the girl — and she is now married and lives in New Zealand but we still keep in contact after all these years.
For my Gun Fitting training, I was sent to an Engineering firm at Leeds for six weeks learning how to repair guns. I was billeted in a civilian (private) house where I got friendly with a soldier named Arthur Brassington who came from Newcastle-under-Lyme in Stafford.
Home leave was banned at that time as Adolf might invade us, but Arthur said, "Would you like to go home for the weekend?" There was very little petrol available at the time. Arthur's parents owned a Greengrocer's shop and his father was able to get petrol in order to go to the market. So Arthur was able to get petrol from his father so that he could go home from time to time.
Arthur had been an, Isle of Man TT rider and had a motorbike at the billet. He said he could drop me off at Gatley on his was home and pick me up on the way back. This, I accepted. I had never been on a motorbike before.
We used to set off at 6.00 pm on Saturday morning and the road over the moors had a lot of sharp bends. Arthur said that in Huddersfield there would be "Red Caps", Military Police. They would want us to stop but we were not going to do that! He told me to get as close to him as possible and hold on! We sped through the town with the Red Caps after us on their motorbikes but Arthur said that they would never catch us, as he was familiar with that sort of twisting road racing in the Isle of Man TT Races! Sure enough, they were left far behind and we did this for about five weeks.
I was then sent to the artillery depot at Lark Hill on Salisbury Plain. This was an excellent camp but very strict on discipline which suited me. The food was good as was the living quarters. Here I was taught how to take guns to pieces and repair them — most interesting work. I really enjoyed being there. We were sent onto the firing range with 25-pounders and practised destroying mock tanks, which were made of wood and canvas.
On Sundays we had Church Parade accompanied by the Royal Artillery Band, which I thought was great.
After this I was sent to a holding camp to wait for a Regiment going overseas and to make up for any previous losses. The camp was at Hitchen in Hertfordshire.
I was sent to Heaton Moor, near Stockport, which was a stroke of luck as it was quite near my home in Gatley, so I was able to go home most nights before going abroad. I joined the 125th Anti Tank Regiment. We were billeted in empty houses on Heaton
Moor Road. One day, we were told we were going to be sent overseas the next day so I went to see my parents, I didn't know this was to be the last time I would see them for 4 years.
In November 1941 we boarded the troop train at Heaton Moor Station about midnight and arrived in Bristol the next morning to board the troop ship "Oronsay" and sailed through the Irish See to Greenock in Scotland to join the rest of the convoy.
We set sail with the convoy and four destroyers as escort. To avoid the submarine menace (U boats) the route took us far North, which made it very cold on the ship. The U Boats were sinking a lot of our ships at this time so we were glad to be cold but safe.
The convoy made its way across the Atlantic in heavy seas. The swell was so great that we could see almost down the funnel of the ship alongside and then we would go down in a trough and the opposite would happen. I got used to this rough weather at sea and quite enjoyed it. Also the U Boats could not use their torpedoes to try and sink us, as it was too rough.
One morning when we were halfway across the Atlantic, we saw a great armada of ships approaching and wondered if they were 'friend or foe'. We were told that this was the US Navy, which would escort us as far as Nova Scotia in Newfoundland. (This was a secret as America was not in the war at this time.) After having only four Destroyers protecting us for the most dangerous part of the journey we now had half the US Fleet protecting us, Aircraft Carriers, Cruisers, etc.
USS Joseph T Dickman
We reached Nova Scotia safely and transferred to a US Troop Ship, ours was called the 'Joseph T Dickman'. We had bunks to sleep in instead of hammocks, which the others and I used to climb in at one side and fall out of the other!
The food on the US ship was out of this world after rationing in the UK. We could have as much as we could eat end there was sugar on the table. Ice cream was always available at anytime!
Our C.O. in charge of the troops went to the Chef in charge and told him that we should not have all this food, as we were not used to it! The Chef told him that while we were on the US ship to "get lost" as this was the normal ration for US troops.
Convoy William Sail 12 X
As we sailed further south in Convoy William Sail 12X, the weather got much warmer and we headed for Trinidad to take on oil for the ships. We had to go this long way round to avoid the U Boats again.
We crossed the equator and had a ceremony of being covered in raw eggs and then tipped into a makeshift swimming pool (3,000 eggs were used for this — typical American Land of Plenty!).
Our next port of call was Cape Town in South Africa, what a wonderful sight approached from the sea. The people treated us like Royalty. There were long rows of cars waiting to take us to various seaside places. They paid for everything. We went to the top of Table Mountain in a qable car. It was just wonderful.
Our next stop was Bombay, India. We still had the US escort ships with us. What a dreadful place Bombay was, people were sleeping all along the pavements; Indians stopped four times a day to pray, so everything had to come to a grinding halt; mothers were holding children with mutilated limbs, begging for money. The broken arms and legs had been done on purpose so that people would have pity on them. Bombay was the gateway to India and when you walked through it was a world where people were either very rich or dreadfully poor.
We boarded a train bound for Amhednager, about 90 miles north east of Bombay. The train was packed with local Indians. They were sat on the top of the carriages and buffers with all their belongings and could travel free. I think that was why it was like sardines on top and nearly empty in the carriages, apart from army personnel because they would have to have paid.
Amhednager was a very big army camp. We lived in palm attap leaf huts with bunk beds. The bed feet were in bowls of creosote to stop the bugs etc climbing up them but they still dropped in from the roof! We did at least have mosquito nets to protect us. The meat for our meals was very tough water buffalo and had to be bashed on large stones to make it possible to eat.
We went on route marches and all you could see was a cloud of dust caused by the marching troops. We also practised firing the guns. In spite of all of I enjoyed the stay. We were told that we were going to the Middle East and this was to make sure that the guns and we were fit for this sort of situation.
After about three weeks we were back on the train for Bombay and boarded the dirtiest and oldest ship you could ever imagine. Our C.O. complained about the bad conditions but was overruled. We sailed on Friday 13th which was a bad omen for sailors and it eventually came true. The US Navy left and we had HMS Exeter as an escort.
We headed North on our way to Egypt but overnight the convoy had turned South, we didn't know why.
We were told we were going to Singapore because the Japs had declared war and were landing troops in Northern Malaya. A rota was put up on the ship telling each section of troops what job they had to do in case of enemy action.
On a bright, sunny morning on 4th February 1942, 30 planes arrived overhead. Everybody not on duty had to go below onto the mess decks. We heard loud crashes outside and the ship was heeling over from one side to another. Hundreds of kit bags were thrown all over the place. We didn't know what was going on and it was a frightening experience. The Catholic Padre had all of his flock together and they all started praying. This didn't go down well with the rest of us.
Eventually the planes left after dropping their bombs and we had survived apart from variqus parts of the ship being damaged. There were some casualties. Then in the afternoon the stokers went on strike and the ship came to a standstill. The stokers were all foreigners, which was a big mistake by the War Office, as they didn't like the idea of being in action again.
HMS Exeter, which was escorting the convoy, came alongside and said if we didn't get under way we would be left behind, as they couldn't risk the other ships being vulnerable to attack. After a lot of talking by the Captain, the stokers decided to go back to work and we caught up with the rest of the convoy.
The next day, it was my section that was detailed to man the guns and hose pipes. I was on a Lewis gun of which there were a lot on the ship. At one o'clock we saw another thirty planes approaching. Action Stations was sounded so we go ready for trouble.
The planes came screaming down and bombed the ship, setting it on fire. Everybody was firing like mad but it is very hard to hit a plane and only one got shot down.
By this time the ship was an inferno and the Captain decided to abandon ship. The fire hoses wouldn't work, as they were so rusty and covered in thick layers of paint. The crew started to lower the lifeboats, but they were in the same condition as the hoses. They managed to get one down a few feet, and then it got stuck. It was full of injured soldiers. A direct hit from a bomb blew the lifeboat and its occupants to pieces. This was quite near to me and the blast blew me across the deck. There was a peculiar feeling of emptiness, as all the air seqmed to have been blown away, leaving nothing in its place. This sensation only lasted for a matter of seconds.
Everything that could float was thrown overboard for people in the water to cling to. The injured in the hospital part of the boat couldn't get out, so they were pushed through the portholes and had to manage as best they could. HMS Exeter and the rest of the convoy turned and made for Java, which left us on 'The Empress of Asia' and a free French ship 'The Felix Rouselle' which was also sunk with our guns onboard. We could see Singapore in the distance. It was one large black cloud. It must have taken a hammering.
We had to jump overboard and I couldn't swim at the time. It was that or be burned alive, so over I went. It was quite a long way down from the deck. I went into the water and seemed to be under for a long time. I came to the surface and hit my head on some floating object. I said to myself "Mum and Dad, if I don't get out of this soon you will lose a son." I have always remembered how calm I was, it was uncanny.
I eventually grabbed an oar from one of the lifeboats. Another man was on the other end of it as it was a very large oar, I was in the sea for about 3 hours and was eventually picked up by an RN Torpedo boat and taken to Singapore. An interesting little episode came about 60 years later, I was at a prisoners' reunion and a man came up to me and said, "l know you!" I didn't recognise him but then he said, "I was on the other end of the oar with you and we were picked up by the Navy." I was amazed that he recognised me after such a long period of time. It turned out that he was only 16 years old and part of the crew. His name was Len Butler and he came from Heald Green, only a mile from where I lived. I saw him quite a few times and we became good friends. Sadly, he died 12 months ago (2005).
After the RN Torpedo boat picked us up, we landed at Singapore and were given a meal and fitted out with tropical kit. This was useless as it was a sand colour for the desert. We should have had Jungle Green but typical of the British Army, they never had the proper gear. We stuck out like sore thumbs for the enemy. We were given a rifle and bayonet and 100 rounds of ammunition and made our way to meet the Japs. There was a lot of shrapnel flying about due to enemy shelling which was made worse by exploding in the trees. When night came and it was dark everything was quiet and we did not know what they were up to.
That night we were keyed up. It was our first night in the jungle and every time we heard a twig snap our hair stood on end. It was pitch black with an occasional screech from an animal or bird. We could have done with an extra pair of underpants but we got used to this situation very quickly. On our right side was the creek (River) which flowed into Singapore City and we wondered if the Japs we using boats to land behind us. So an RN Motor Torpedo boat was sent down as a listening post armed with Bren Guns and some of our men to use them. The engines were switched off and they could hear the enemy moving about. We were moving through the jungle, from one tree to another, very quietly as you didn't know what you were going to meet up with. We came across a 3 ton army truck. The soldiers inside had been what I can only say "vaporised" as they were just white skeletons sat there. The driver still holding the steering wheel, both men sat in the position they would have been in before whatever had hit them. There must be a lot of soldiers who were buried in places that were very remote and would never be found again as the jungle took over areas very quickly.
The Japs kept infiltrating behind us. They were very experienced, as they had fought in China for 12 years, whereas we were green. We were told to retreat and not get caught as the Japs were not taking prisoners, but shooting them.
After a few days they put a balloon up with a Jap officer in it so they could pinpoint our position. They knew we had no Air Force and the Ack Ack guns had run out of ammunition. The balloon meant they became very accurate with their mortars. We could hear them being fired and we counted to 5 and then ducked down.
Our final position was a place called 'Mount Pleasant'. We were in a facing hill and dug slit trenches to hold 3 soldiers. This was on the edge of the jungle in North Singapore. The Japs were in the jungle about 100 yards away. They had a couple of tries to overrun us but were beaten back by the rifle fire and 25-pounder guns right behind us. They were firing on open sights because the enemy were so close.
We had no water as the supply came from the mainland across the Causeway and the Japs had turned it off. This made things uncomfortable, as we were only 3 degrees off the equator, so it was very hot. To our right there was a house and we thought there might be some water in it. The house was empty so we took it in turns to run like hell with a water bottle, hoping we could dodge the firing from the daps. You could feel the bullets going past you. We managed to get some water out of the lavatory cistern. 3 of us made it to the house and back together, Roberts, Carney and myself and that was the complement in our 'fox hole' (trench).
We were in this position until General Percival surrendered. Then we took the bolts out of our rifles and did as much damage to them as we could. We had orders from our Officers to burn our pay books so that the Japs new as little as possible about us. Singapore was never a fortress as Churchill said. There were no air raid shelters for the civilian population. No Air Force or Navy and no fortifications of any sort. The Air Force left the Island when there was an air raid on as the old Brewster planes were no match for Jap Zero's.
My mother used to take some of my socks to a sťance meeting to see if she could learn where I was, as my Mum and Dad didn't know if I was dead or alive for about 18 months. These sťances came to nothing, she was just clutching at straws in a desperate attempt to know something. Eventually a lady came to tell my parents that she had seen my name on a list from the Red Cross, posted in Stockport Town Hall. This lady turned out to be a relation of my friend Gus Fletcher. She didn't know at that time that he was my pal.
I had no idea that it would be 18 months before my parents were informed that I was a prisoner and it was only many years later that I realised what a terrible strain they must have been under, emotionally.
All over everywhere was deathly quiet after all the shooting. I must have fallen asleep because I cannot remember sleeping during the previous ten days at all except for occasional dozing. I slept for about 24 hours after the surrender as the Japs left us alone for a couple of days. They knew we couldn't go anywhere. All the ships had left and the harbour was empty apart from bomb-damaged vessels.
After a few days we were marched to Changi where there was a prison and I became PoW Number M-3160. There was hardly any food and we were pretty hungry. A few days later we were marched to the docks where a German ship was berthed, loaded with large sacks of rice. We had come to unload the ship. Two planks were put from the jetty edge to the ship, one for going to the ship and the other for walking back with a 200 kg sack across your shoulders. When we walked on the planks with the full sacks of rice they would bend up and down with each step you took. We didn't like the idea of slipping between the harbour wall and the ship so we started off very gingerly. This wouldn't do for our captors so they decided to give us a crack across our backs with a large piece of bamboo. This carried on for a few minutes until the German Captain came to watch the proceedings. When he saw the Japs hit us he stopped the unloading and tore a strip off them and threw the bamboo poles into the water. We said "Thank you" to the Captain and then finished unloading in peace.
After this we went back to Changi. In August we were told "You have sign a form to say you won't try to escape." This was against International Law as every soldier, if possible, must try to get back to his regiment. It was decided that we would not sign. So we were herded into a barrack complex, which was built for 3000 men, but the Japs put 35,000 of us in the enclosure at Selarang.
We were just like sardines. We couldn't move from where we were standing. There was no food, drink, or toilet facilities and the sun beat down on us all day. It was terribly hot and uncomfortable. At the end of 3 unbearable days things had got into a very unhealthy state, as we had to relieve ourselves where we stood. There was a risk of disease so we were advised by the British Officer in charge to sign the form but put "under stress" on it as well. We did this shortly afterwards and were then taken back to Changi.
On our return to Changi we were sorted out by the Japs and put into their idea of working battalions. The one I was in was "F" battalion. Every morning they used to count us to see that everybody was there. They counted our feet! Very peculiar! I think they must have divided by two to get the answer. We were in 3 ranks and to confuse them we would move 1 person into the next rank while they were busy counting our feet so they never got the number exactly right. In the end they got so mad at getting different counts that they started arguing amongst themselves, which was very amusing for us.
For the first few days we counted in English in order to cause confusion for our captors. We would count 1 to 10 and then "Jack, Queen, King." This caused mayhem. They hadn't got a clue what we were doing so we had to learn Japanese numbers after that.
We were moved from Changi to 'River Valley' camp in Singapore City and were put to work moving a very large mound of earth at Alexandria Military Hospital, which the Japs wanted to use for their own wounded. During the fighting this hospital had been overrun by the enemy and the doctors, nurses and patients had been bayoneted to death.
We started digging and loading the soil onto lorries, but the Japs said we weren't working fast enough, so they decided that we should dig into the side of this small hill. A Jap would stand on top and when a crack appeared he would shout for us to get out as the whole lot was going to collapse on us, but they didn't always shout, so the men who were still digging were buried alive. The rest of us would try to dig them out but they were usually dead by the time we reached them. This was a great joke for our captors as they were very sadistic. They used to tie the Chinese up with barbed wire and leave them at the side of the road. Nobody dare do anything to help them so they were left to die.
Next to the camp there was a large pool of stagnant water and there were hundreds of Bull frogs croaking. This lasted from dusk till dawn every night. If you've never heard this before you wont know how unbelievably loud they were!!!
During our time at this camp we received mail from home. The Japs got us all to stand in a big circle around them and watch them burn all the letters in front of us. We never had another post delivery during the rest of our captivity.
We were told we were going to a rest camp further north. F Battalion was the first to go. On 18th October 1942 we were herded into closed railway trucks, thirty to a truck. This was the 12th Train from Singapore to Thailand.
They were very full and half of us stood up to allow the other half to sit down, and then changed over. We were locked in these trucks and left Singapore for the Mainland. The first stop was Ipoh in Malaya. I can't remember how far it was and how long we had been on the train; time didn't seem to matter anymore. There were very few watches about and we didn't know what day it was.
The doors were opened and as the engine took on water, we stood underneath and had a good soaking to freshen ourselves. There was no sign of any food or drink. I don't know how many days we were on the train. We moved off again and the next stop was Alor Star. We were now far north in Malaya and approaching Siam (Thailand). We got some rice and tea without milk or sugar. It was just boiled rice, no salt or pepper to make it palatable. This turned out to be our staple diet for the next 3 1/2 years!
We were beginning to suffer from vitamin deficiency and Beri Beri, which meant your body, was filling up with water. This could eventually drown you, so a tube was put into your stomach with the other end in a bucket and all the water flowed out of your stomach and into the bucket. Some blokes who had it bad could fill the bucket with all the water drained from them.
We eventually arrived in Siam at a place called Bam Pong and then on to Tarso.and I was now PoW Number IV 3020 (Work Party Four). There were no places to sleep and no cooking arrangements. We were told to build some shelter for ourselves. Three of us rigged up some cover made from Attap (like palm leaves) and bamboo. We would have to sleep on the ground. Early in the morning (l think about 3.00am) we heard what sounded like an Express train coming, but it was the wind bringing the monsoon rain. Our shelter collapsed and in about 1 hour we were up to our knees in water. Never had I witnessed such thunder and lightening before and it was raining "cats and dogs."
The next morning some local natives came and began putting up huts for us and made a place where we could cook the rice. Our cooks were given large woks for the rice and there was plenty of bamboo to make a fire. It burned very fiercely and was ideal for cooking rice. The huts were made out of bamboo and dried palm leaves and were quite waterproof but not bug proof. The bugs dropped from the roof on to us. The beds were made from bamboo - 6 foot lengths - sliced down into 4 pieces to make thin strips and placed together on a bamboo base. The underneath side got full of ants and other insects so we took them off occasionally and put them over a fire, to burn them off.
Snakes and scorpions were a menace, the snakes particularly at night. We slept in empty rice sacks and one night I had a 5 foot snake in with me!
I had never moved so fast to get out of that sack. The snakes came in for warmth in the night. Once a snake has been found in a hut you have to kill it as you can't get back to sleep until you have seen it off.
Our ration of food for the next 3 1/2 years was going to be 1 mug of boiled rice in the morning and another in the evening, together with a mug of tea without milk or sugar, nothing else. We never saw milk again. It was only the fact that we were ravenous that we ate and drank at all. Knives and forks were taken off us but I managed to keep mine by hiding it in the Attap roof of the hut. I used to use them for eating the rice instead of a spoon because then I could imagine that I was having a proper meal (a psychological boost).
We were not allowed to take bananas off the trees, which were all around us. If you got caught you were given two bananas to eat. The punch line was that you had to eat the skins as well. It usually took the best part of a day, sat on the ground, in temperatures of 1280.
We had no soap so had to wash in the river and use sand for soap. Fortunately the Railway we had to build ran along the River Kwai as all the implements, rails, sleepers etc had to come by river as there were only narrow tracks through the jungle, so at least we were able to have a wash of sorts. The temperature is in the 120's in the jungle with 100% humidity. Consequently, with sweating your clothes soon rot so that is why we were down to odd bits of cloth or Jap POW trunks. We lost our boots very soon due to walking through mud which was up to our knees. The suction pulled them off your feet when you lifted your legs to move and the Japs would not let us stop to try and get them out.
Our bedding consisted of one rice sack and when anybody died the neck of the sack was tied up and you were buried in it.
So, our sole belongings, officially, were:-
No shoes, hats or shirts. Toilet paper was leaves off the trees. Our working day was 7.00 am 'till 6.00 pm every day.
We had no medical supplies; only what we could get the Chinese to smuggle off the boats coming up the river from Bangkok. There was no money to pay for the supplies so the Singapore Volunteer Service who knew the Singapore Chinese said if they could get medical supplies for us they would be paid when the war ended. This they said they would do, as they trusted the British people. They were indeed paid in full after the war.
When we had finished our part of the Railway line we leap frogged over the next working party to start another part. The distance was about 10 miles, going through the swamps where you would be up to your knees in mud and this was very hard going as the Japs were always saying "Speedo" which meant, "Go faster!"
By this time, Amoebic Dysentery was getting a hold on us. The only drinking water was the river or any old piece of bamboo with a hole in where water had rested. We were troubled with mosquitoes, leeches and scorpions. We had no protection from mosquitoes so everyone got malaria. There wasn't enough Quinine to give each man a full dose to clear it and that meant that it kept recurring. Occasionally, we were given a small dose of powdered quinine for malaria. This used to get all over the inside of your mouth and it is horrible tasting stuff. So we used to get a small piece of newspaper (I don't know where this came from) and wrap the quinine in it and swallow it. This wasn't enough to clear the malaria but gave you temporary relief.
Medical supplies were being sent over for us from South Africa but the Japs kept it for themselves, we never saw any of it.
Men began to lose weight. We were also getting Jungle Ulcers, which got bigger every day. In some cases a man's whole leg would be eaten away and the raw bone got gangrene so he didn't survive. We used to have a rota for cleaning these ulcers with maggots. It was painless and they would be left in overnight then washed out.
Then we had the biggest menace of all, Cholera. It could kill in 10 minutes. Treatment had to be given immediately. You lost all the water in your body and a drip had to be used. Often it would be too late as the veins closed and it was impossible to get the needle in. You got a bad dose of cramp in the lower part of your body which kept going higher and higher.
One doctor was called 'Weary' Dunlop, an Aussie. How he got that name I don't know, but that was Aussie humour! He did fantastic work. All the doctors worked wonders with makeshift implements. The steriliser for making the water for drips was made out of old coconut oil tins. A 'Heath Robinson' affair, but it worked!
We were building a bridge at one stage. It went round the cliff face by the river and was the only way for the Railway to get to the next section.
We nicknamed this bridge "The Pack of Cards". It was very unstable for a train to go over, but the necessary tools were not available so we had to make do.
The Japs persuaded the Siamese Elephant Mahouts to work for them because we needed logs for building the bridge and there was a teak forest across the river. So we had saws, axes and dynamite to bring the trees down. All the branches were sawn off and then we moved them to the water's edge with men on each side and poles underneath the logs.
We pushed them down the embankment with the help of the elephants. The logs had chains fastened to them and the other end was fastened around the elephant. When the elephants got to the water they swam across, pulling the logs with them, and we were holding onto the chains. I never thought would ever be working with elephants to that extent.
Sometimes the 'elephant men' would decide not to work if the Japs had been nasty to them. The Mahouts would say they couldn't get the elephants to do anything that day, blaming it on the elephants was very crafty and made the Japs mad because there was nothing they could do about it.
Life continued in this vein, leap frogging from one camp to another, building the Railway.
We had a shave about every two months, so we all had beards. The Army barbers used to shave us with an ordinary table knife that had been sharpened on a pebble from the river!
At one of the camps I was at, we had a radio, which we kept on a ledge in the side of the wall of the latrine. These were 15 feet deep pits that we had dug. We knew the Japs wouldn't come anywhere near as they didn't want to get Dysentery. When we moved to another camp we didn't know how to carry it without being seen so some bright spark said, "When we load the Jap officers belongings on the barrow we will put our radio on as well when they aren't looking." This we did. It was the last place they would look for our radios!
By now, the blokes were just skin and bone, but one morning we had a boost to our morale. About 8 or 10 planes flew over and blasted the Jap compound. While they were running to the trenches out of the way, we were stood up cheering! There had been some aircraft activity lately but we never thought we would see this.
We were eating snakes, wild dogs and iguanas! One of the blokes at the camp knew how to cut up the snakes, he had worked at a zoo. The wild dogs were for the Japs as it was a delicacy in Japan, but we made sure we had some for ourselves. Also on the odd occasion they would dynamite the river because they wanted fish for a meal. We had to go in and get the fish while they were stunned from the blast. Again, we always got some for ourselves.
On the orders of the Japs, we went on dog hunts with pieces of bamboo. We surrounded the dogs and as there were so many of us the dogs couldn't get away, so we could catch them.
Another way of getting a bit of extra food was when the boats came up the river for the Japs. They had pigs and poultry on board and we had to slit the pigs' throat and chop the heads off the hens. I never knew that a pig could swim, but they did when they realised what we were going to do to them!
The hens used to come in a type of wicker basket, but there were far too many of them in each one, so a few of them were dead when they arrived. The Japs told us to throw the dead ones in the river, but we got the best live ones for ourselves and hid them until we could get them to camp. We made up the number for the Japs by substituting the best ones that we had taken with the dead ones as they had all had their heads chopped off and were all dead, so the Japs couldn't tell the difference!
These extra meals were few and far between and were not sufficient to improve our health.
When I first went onto the Railway to work, I got to know a man from Stockport and we became great pals. You could not survive on your own.
The Jap soldiers had been having a night with the local Thai women and had caught V.D! This is a crime in any army. They couldn't go to their doctor for help, so they came into our hut asking for "M & B" tablets, which in those days cured everything!
Gunner Gus Fletcher, the Stockport man, said, "I'm sure we could make some M & Bs" and managed to get hold of some Plaster of Paris. We got a small metal top off a bottle and with a little water mixed it up. Then we put it into the metal top with a bit of coconut oil to stop it sticking. When it had dried I marked them with M & B on one side, Gus said I would make a better job of the lettering that he would.
The next time the Japs came in asking for M & Bs we said we had some. We sold them for ten Jap cents at a time. This money was worthless apart from using it with the native Thai's. The tablets wouldn't do them any good, only make them very constipated!
We used to slip out of the camp with this money and dodge the guards. We would run to the Thai villages, which were a cluster of small attap huts, and buy eggs with the money. If we had any money left over we would buy tobacco from the Thai's and then proceed to make cigarettes. We had various tries with different paper but the best was the Holy Bible (Holy Smokes), which we had managed to get hold of. This was still too thick in its natural state so we got the paper damp and with the aid of a razor blade, which we got from another enterprising soldier, we split the paper so that we had two sheets of very thin paper. This proved a success for making cigarettes, so we rolled the tobacco into the paper and stuck the edge down with rice water.
We realised that the tobacco was drying out before we could sell the cigarettes to the Thai's, so we managed to get a couple of bananas from the trees when it was dark as we were not supposed to take them, by order of our captors. We peeled the bananas and put the cigarettes into the skins. This made them moist and kept the tobacco in good condition. We then watched the guards until it was safe to go out of camp again and went and bartered cigarettes for eggs. There were other soldiers from the camp there also flogging something for eggs and it was getting a bit dangerous. If a Jap came, it was easy for two of us to hide, but when there were four or five of us it could cause problems, so we did out bartering and got out.
After a while, Gus and I got split up into different working partings and I never saw him again until after the war had ended.
I got friendly with another solder called Ted Willis who was from Dudley in the Midlands. A nicer man you couldn't meet. I had been doing a little painting when we had any time off and one night the Japs came into the hut to see if there was anything going on that shouldn't have been. They saw my drawing and asked me to do one for them and they would pay me. They said they would send it home when they next wrote. So I drew the pictures and Ted, after a few lessons from me, coloured them in.
I managed to get some paints and papers from a bombed out school in Singapore. This venture was a great success and earned us money again.
The pictures probably never arrived in Japan in good condition as the paints were watercolour and if they got wet they would be ruined.
Ted proved to be a great pal. I wouldn't be here now if he hadn't got a doctor to me immediately when I got Cholera.
When I recovered we moved to another camp further up the line. Then I was split up from Ted. He was sent to a very bad camp where blokes were dying at an alarming rate. I never had any news of him until after the war and sadly learned he had died from Cerebral Malaria, of which, at the time, there was no cure. I had been unable to do anything for him when he needed it most because of us being split up.
Eventually the Railway was finished and I became PoW Number IV 7979. We had to stay to keep it well maintained. There had been some sabotage to the embankment, putting dead logs, which rotted away with the monsoon. When the rains came the embankment would sink. Also, the undergrowth in the jungle soon started causing trouble and this had to be cleared continuously.
The Japs started using the Railway to take troops up to Burma, but the Allied planes were flying over a lot more often, so we thought things were beginning to look better for us and I was then moved to Nakom Paton in Thailand. The officer in charge of the camp (Japanese) said that if the Allies invaded Japan we would all be shot, as we would be of no further use to the Japs. Fortunately, this never happened due to the Atom bomb being dropped. Of course, we didn't know anything about it, so one morning we wakened to find all the Japs had gone.
British troops arrived, including Earl Mountbatten. What a morale booster this man was. He moved from camp to camp, giving pep
At this stage in time, the Japs started moving their troops from Burma, using the Railway. The Jap guards were rounded up by the British to look after us in case things got nasty with these fighting troops coming past the camps on the train.
The Jap Camp Commander gave us a lecture saying he hoped we would put a good word in for him because of the kind way he had treated us! We thought "No Chance". The Jap guards, who had been as nasty as they could when we were captured, suddenly started being nice to us when they were brought back to guard us from their own troops.
It was great to be free again and soon Dakota aircraft began dropping food and clothing for us, and the Railway was taken over by the British troops. We were put on the wagons and taken down to Bangkok. We were given a large English type meal, but we couldn't eat it as our stomachs had reduced in size due to only eating rice. The people giving us the food couldn't understand this and there were a few nasty comments about the fact that we didn't appreciate getting a decent meal!
We were taken to Bangkok airfield and boarded a Dakota plane. There were so many of them taking off and landing that it was like a taxi service. We were being taken to Rangoon. I don't know how long the flight was as we were just glad to be on our way out of Siam. We were sat on boxes of ammunition, which had the plane been hit, would have been the end of us. There were pockets of Japs who refused to surrender even though they had been told to. During the flight, one bloke wanted to relive himself but there was no toilet on board so some wag said "do it in your shoe" which he did!! He held his shoe until we reached Rangoon!
We reached Rangoon safely and were taken to hospital and given doses of vitamins. We had a shower and were given clean clothes, then waited for a ship to take us home.
We boarded the SS Chiteral for our homeward journey — a really nice ship with bunk beds, good food and entertainment at night. One of the ex-prisoners had made a guitar out of a tea box and a length of bamboo. How he got hold of the string for it I don't know. He had made it in captivity.
Our first port of call on the journey home was Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). We had a couple of days there and went to Beach Candy where we could relax. Ceylon was a much nicer place than India, although it was so close. The place was clean and the people were better fed and dressed.
We then headed for the Suez Canal. It was terribly hot as the ship could only go slowly through it, so there was very little cool air coming in. It was a peculiar sensation going through the Canal, as the water appeared to be higher than the land. It must have been caused through the heat haze. When we stopped again after going through the Canal, we were in Adibya. We were taken to a large building and given winter clothing for the rest of the journey home. We then set sail again, going through the Mediterranean Sea and we anchored off Gibraltar on a beautiful sunny day. It looked fantastic. The pilot and a governor came on board and checked papers on the ship, and then we were off again with an aircraft carrier right behind us. It looked like a one-legged table from this position and when we hit the rough weather, it rolled about alarmingly.
We eventually arrived in Southampton, where we stayed the night. There were quite a lot of German prisoners and we got on quite well with them. I think they knew that we had been prisoners too and so had something in common with them.
We were then taken to Woking, where we were given a demob suit and everything for civilian life. We were given leave and a railway pass. I arrived home, much to the relief of my parents who had received a free cablegram from Rangoon from the Cable and Wireless Company, telling them that I was safe in British hands. It was November 1945 and I stayed at home 'til after Christmas. I was then sent to the Military Hospital at Upton, just outside Chester. I was there for a few weeks and had to wear Hospital Blue, army gear. There was no chance of coming home at the weekends as the Red Caps could see that we were military.
I was then sent home again for a while before I had to go the Hospital for Tropical Illnesses at Mosley Hill in Liverpool. They said that I still had Dysentery, Malaria and Jaundice and would have to stay for treatment. I was in for a few weeks, after which, the Doctor said I was OK to go home. He told me to forget all about it. I did my best to do this. This was June 1946. I went back to my job as a Commercial Artist.
I still got one shillings Army pension for about 3 years and then it stopped, so I was discharged from the Army — "Unfit for Further Military Service".
After I left the Hospital for Tropical Illnesses I was still groggy and was allowed double the rations that civilians were getting due to the war. This carried on until rationing finished. Army life had been good for me - it had been exciting and frightening and I had seen a lot of violence but thankfully I had managed to stay alive
I was well and truly back in civilian life.
Japanese Index Card - Side One
Japanese Index Card - Side Two
My thanks to John Hanson for supplying this story and allowing me to add it to Far Easton Heroes
William’s entry in the Roll of Honour