Sketch by Jack Chalker

Chapter XX

Homeward Bound

Soon we were led out of the hangar again and put into groups of thirty and marched out to the runway where Dakota planes were in line and revving up. We were told to get aboard and when it came to my turn, I was last in that particular group, I was sent back to the next group as the plane was full, and at last I got aboard for my first journey in the air.

Before being sent back from the other plane I had been chatting to a sergeant in our regiment, whose name was something like La Rue who came from the West Indies and he said “Hard luck mate” as I was sent back to the next group, but hard-luck was the appropriate words as tragically that plane which I may have been on crashed in the jungle with a total loss of life, and when I heard about that after safely arriving in Rangoon my legs turned to jelly and I hardly knew what to say about such a narrow escape. This was a terrible blow to us prisoners and it was hard to believe that those brave men who had suffered three and a half years of hell in the hands of the Japs had to die on their way home from it all.

Our plane trip had been exciting as we flew the length of that notorious Burma railway and the pilot must have flown over the area often as he pinpointed and named various camps, Kan-buri, Chugkai, Tarso, Tomajo, Kon-Kwita as we were lifted and dropped in frightening air currents, but my thoughts that afternoon were down there on the ground thinking of the many, many good friends, and comrades who we were leaving behind forever.

Records have shown that at least 10,000 prisoners died in the hands of the Japanese and the Lord only, knows how many natives and some estimate at least 100,000 of there poor souls, who, although we had a terrible time, had worse and I am sure they were conned with the Jap promise of the Asia Co-prosperity Sphere jibberish.

With me on the Dakota was Bill from Norfolk and we tried to recollect the comrades who had failed to stay the distance, and it was frightening to recall so many friends who hadn’t made it and they are far too numerous to put in print in this instance. Some had been shot others had been beaten to death while the majority had succumbed to disease and starvation and none need to have died, if the enemy had had the remotest intention to adhere to the Geneva Convention, that Bob Steele had thought they may do on the tennis courts in Singapore on the 16th February 1942.

When the plane touched down in the airport in Bangkok, one could see the build up of war which could have torn the guts out of the Japs if they hadn't surrended when they did, however although still extremely bitter about the Jap treatment, we had to learn a new way of life again and try to get ourselves fit enough to take our place in the new society, but our first baptism was to be pushed into tents ten at a time and then rush over to the NAAFI tent for a cup of tea and a bun.

There was no trumpets blown or welcome home ceremony for the human skeletons who had endured such misery as prisoners of war, and although it hadn't any significance at the time, I have felt since that we could have been received with a little more dignity, but that is the way life goes and we couldn't be any other than grateful to have at least survived.

The second day at Rangoon involved a move from tent accommodation into hospital and oh! What comfort and luxury this appeared after bug and lice ridden bamboo and sacks for blankets etc. We stripped off and our clothes were carried to the incinerator and burned. We were given a bar of soap, razor, and blades, shaving soap, hair-oil, a comb and towels and were led to the bathroom were we washed. Shaved and toileted to our hearts delight and it was a feeling we cherished to be clean and respectable once again.

Doctors by the dozen examined us freaks and we were each given individual medicines to cope with the various deficiencies and ailments.

Coloured ladies with trolleys came round and we were given chocolates, cigarettes and other things, normal human beings take for granted, but we considered luxuries, we honestly thought some little time ago was beyond our wildest imagination of ever seeing or using or tasting again.

Letters by the dozen were lying in Rangoon for us and although some were dated early 1942 it was great to get them even though they were nearly four years old, as it was the first correspondence I had had since leaving England. I sorted it out into datal order and lying between beautiful white sheets in hospital I devoured the news, but really the more I read, the more depressed I came and I wondered how my Mother could have withstood the course of events that unfolded as I read my letters.

Jim my eldest brother had been severely wounded in Burma, my sister Jenny had been killed in an air-raid on Plymouth where she worked in some naval office, my brother Jack had been severely injured in a fall of stone in Burradon pit and had been on death's door for months in hospital, my youngest brother Bill was in the Naval commandos and Mother hadn't known that I was still alive until late 1944, when she received my first card as I had been posted missing presumed killed in action. The torment my Mother must have gone through with all her family problems was more than one person ought to have had to bear, and tear, unashamedly streamed down my face at all the tragic news.

Bill from Norfolk was in the next bed and he was also shedding tears as I glanced over to him, but his was marital problems and too personal to reveal in this account.

We passed our letters to the other and I read the intimate details of Bill's correspondence and he read the sorrow in mine and we were both terribly sorry for one another at the news and had a most depressing day altogether.

We were in hospital for a week and our skinny boney bodies were strengthened with good food and medicine and we were being pulled together ready for the long sea-trip home. Photographs appeared in the local Rangoon newspaper and unknown to me mine was on the front page of one paper my young brother Bill read in the naval base where he had arrived the previous day and he got leave to search for me, however as luck would have it I had to board a ship named the “Worcestershire” that morning and we pushed off from Rangoon before Bill was able to contact me and I didn’t see him for more than a year after.

HMS WorcestershireWe sailed out of Rangoon and started on our last journey under the auspices of H.M. Forces. A sergeant major on the ship told us is no uncertain fashion we were still in the army and he tried to exercise the usual army ‘Bull’, but as could be well imagined we weren't standing for any of that nonsense, and within a day or two he had settled down and for the rest of the voyage he remained as quiet as a mouse.

We pulled into Colombo and as we were pulling in, a ship full of women in sailors uniforms lining the decks was pulling out, and when we docked and got on shore we were informed a shipload of pregnant wrens was the compliment of the ship we had just passed, how far it was true we didn't know; but we presumed it to be true and simply accepted the information.

We were back on ship before nightfall and pushed off on the next stage home. The skies were blue and cloudless as we sailed across the Indian Ocean, and the seas were as calm as a millpond and without a ripple and looked like a sheet of glass.

Our time on board was taken up by light physical exercises on the open deck, a visit to the medical officer every morning, eating three good meals each day and lectures by the padre on the changes we had to expect when we arrived home, and the first change we learnt was that service-men's pay was nearly twice that which we had received before being taken prisoner and I think mine had risen to about, nine-shillings, a day, but money was a secondary thought to us and the main concern was our health and we wondered if we would ever be fit again as we were still just skin and bone.

Our spare time was spent in discussion about the past, but more important the future, and how we would be able to cope.

Land was sighted and we pulled in to the narrow opening of sea that led up to the Suez canal and we pulled into a military station by the name, I believe Akaba, where we left the ship and proceeded to buildings chocker-block with clothing and we were fitted out with battle-dress, boots etc. and believe it or not a bar of military ribbons denoting the medals we were entitled to, funny us getting medals, it was the laugh of the of the century as we displayed our 'honours’. The clothes fitted where they touched, and we looked more like Fred Carno's than the Japs had on their victory parade in Singapore. I had a battle-dress jacket, which could have been used for an overcoat, and my pants finished just below the knee, my forage cap came over my eyes and my shirt was made for ‘man-mountain’ and believe me, I was one of the smartest.

Looking about us at Akaba we could see nothing but sand, and the odd palm tree broke the monotony,

We once more boarded ship and proceeded through the Suez canal and there was more and more sand, and it is a wonderful feeling sailing in a ship and virtually being able to lean over the side of the ship at either side and touch sand.

Travelling slowly but surely we negotiated the canal and pulled in to Port Said where the waters were covered with small rowing boats stacked with all sorts of leather-goods being hawked by the Egyptian natives, who shouted the price and insisted the money was tossed into his boat before he allowed his handbags etc. to be thrown aboard, but there were crafty characters amongst them and in cases were they got the money they didn't deliver the goods and just rowed on to another part of the boat to start again. We soon got wise to that tack, and then we insisted they gave us the goods before we chucked the money down, and as we pulled away into the Mediterranean sea some of our own characters didn't throw the money to the hawker and it was a sight to see an enraged Egyptian, rowing like hell after the ship waving his arms and shouting curses at his loss, and he didn't like it when the tables were turned, I think the troops and the hawkers would break even.

The Mediterranean was cluttered with all kinds of ships and on occasions there was so many near to us it appeared amazing how we missed each other, but we did and soon we passed close to Malta and then on to the straits of Gibraltar, where a helicopter dropped bags of mail for us as we slowed down to take on some naval ratings returning to Blighty.

‘The Rock’ was an apt description of Gibraltar as the few buildings that could be seen made it look an impregnable fortress, and it certainly commanded the route from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean. There didn't appear to be any sand and the facade was sheer rock jutting up out of the sea with what seemed a very small harbour.

Out and through the straits we were now heading straight for home, and as we hit the rough sees at the south end of the Bay of Biscay the ships tannoy system informed us we were nearly home and we were told how much duty free stuff we would he allowed to take ashore. This was a blow to some of the ex-prisoners as they had spent the whole of their pay on duty-free drink and cigarettes, and thinking they would be taken from them they reluctantly flung quite a lot of stuff overboard into the sea.

 

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[The White Flag] [Chapter I] [Chapter II] [Chapter III] [Chapter IV] [Chapter V] [Chapter VI] [Chapter VII] [Chapter VIII] [Chapter IX] [Chapter X] [Chapter XI] [Chapter XII] [Chapter XIII] [Chapter XIV] [Chapter XV] [Chapter XVI] [Chapter XVII] [Chapter XVIII] [Chapter XIX] [Chapter XX] [Chapter XXI] [Chapter XXII]

 

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