It has to be said that no letters or cards were received from home, but I have now in my possession five cards which I sent from the camps and all the letters I wrote to my mother from all over the world when I was freed from captivity.
So it was on board the American aircraft carrier, the "Cape Gloucester", we set sail for Okinawa, transferring to a troop ship there to sail to Manila where we were due to arrive on 25th September 1945. My favourite tune is Glen Miller's "Sentimental Journey" as that was the first time I heard it on a moonlit night aboard the "Cape Gloucester".
My thoughts at this stage were of tremendous relief but still fear in my heart. Would I really get home safely? Were my mother and father alive? What had happened to my elder brother. Was he killed in action? One enters a void in time. I sent a letter dated 23rd September 1945 to my mother from aboard the troop ship the "USS Tyron".
Hello folks, this is your old son, ages 26 years, coming to you by “courtesy of the once Imperial Japanese Army”. That’s what they told you if they ever gave you anything. Well I hope you are all well and happy and I hope looking forward to my home coming as eagerly as I. It has been a long troublesome and heart breaking period, those last 6 years, but you and I have at last got a break and well deserved I think. There is little need to tell you as the some of the stories are already in print, that we have been treated worse then pigs, but thanks to God, I am spared. At this point let us pause for a few moments in memory of so many of my fine pals who helped me through in those days of torture in Thailand, but who were lost at sea on the journey to Japan.
We left Nagasaki on the aircraft carrier ‘Cape Gloucester’ and were transferred on to the ship at Okinawa, where we are en route for Manila, where we should arrive on the 25/9/45. The experience of the last 31/2 years has taught me many lessons and hard ones. The crowning joy will be my arrival at the station in Aberdeen.
Please give my kindest regards to my relations and if any to my friends of the pre-war years. Gee, it’s going to be embarrassing trying to pick up the threads again especialy in my future job, whatever that may be.
Mother there is one person you have to thank more then anyone in the world for my presence here now, and that is Hazel Watson. It appears that while I was lying in hospital at death’s door very ill with dysentery and beri-beri my pals had done everything they could to make me buck my spirits up and make a fight for it, but I must have been in a coma, I cannot remember much of what happened. However they raked out my photographs and as Hazel was the most prominent and most likely my girl friend, they kept repeating her name and showing me her photograph. They said it was not till 3 hours later, that I seemed to recollect and began to repeating her name over and over again, which was the turning point, as I gradually grew better day by day, weighing approx. 5 stone at that time. But, please mother keep this to ourselves as I do not wish her to know, as it puts her and myself in an awkward position. I believe she is married but am not sure. I have never managed to determine my feelings for Hazel, but it is sufficient that the thought of her pulled me together at the critical moment. I only wish that the fellows, who looked after me then and gave me what little supplies of milk and eggs they risked their lives to steal off the Japanese guards, had been spared for this day.
Well mother that is the terrible price of war, and we can only hope there will never be another.
I have made a very good pal and he is quite young yet. He is a marine who was sunk on board the Prince of Wales when only 19 years old. He is now 22 and his name is Dennis Southgate nicknamed “Tiny” and lives at 67, Slades Road, St Austell, Cornwall. Would you please drop his mother a line, letting her know that her boy is in good health and know in good hands. I have had a terrible job getting him to write home, as he is something like Douglas as regards writing home. However I managed to get him on the job today, but in case he does not finish or forgets to post it, please let Mrs Southgate know he is fit and on his way home. He is my sole remaining pal and only struck up a friendship with him since arriving in Japan. He’s a grand kid and he has a passion for comics, and is not ashamed to admit it.
Well folks there goes the call for food and thank God it’s not rice. Hoping this finds you as it leaves me. All the best, love to all at home, hoping to see you soon, Cheerio,
Your ever lasting son
P.S Please excuse pencil and writing, the ships not too steady.
Arriving in Manila on 25th September 1945 I, along with many others, were put into hospital and expected to be there for two weeks. Oh, how I wished they would just put us on a 'plane for home. Apparently we were to be put back on the "USS Tyron" for Honolulu and then to San Francisco. The hospital in Manila treated us very well and the nurses went about with tears in their eyes to see so many men robbed of their youth. Their bodies racked with pain from beriberi and so much dysentery, malaria and all the other debilitating diseases. At least now we had been scrubbed, although I feel I will never be clean again. I vow I will never, ever be dirty again.
We are back on board, now 9th October 1945, and have to face another two weeks on the high seas, tedious and boring, nothing to do and, alas, unable to play deck quoits. In any case the ship had been transformed into a hospital and space was very limited. So day in, night out, very little sleep as my mind churned with that fear of waking up and being a prisoner again.
On 8/10/45 my family received a letter informing them I was being repatriated
Three and a half years condensed into these few pages cannot possibly indicate the degradation, the horrors, the starvation of body and soul. "Are we really free"? So difficult to accept and, having been torpedoed and sunk just a year ago every clang of a door gave us a fright. Please God, a rogue Japanese submarine does not sink us. That would be so horrible.
Suffice to say we finally arrived in Honolulu on 19th October and I sent a cable from Hawaii, where we berthed in Pearl Harbour for 24 hours for refuelling.
Telegram home from Hawaii
We did not get ashore but the scenery from the deck was everything you read about Hawaii. At night a party of Hawaiian girls came on board and performed the "Hula, Hula" dance. They had guitars and were bedecked in grass skirts, shirts and garlands and sang their love songs. Tears flowed from many eyes that night.
So we were off again heading for San Francisco and another six days at sea. We sailed under the "Golden Bridge" on 26th October and, approaching it, you actually imagine it is golden.
Another cable was despatched via the Red Cross and first news from home.
Red Cross telegram from home
We disembarked and were taken to a military hospital feeling a little bit better than a month ago. A very kind and generous lady arrived in the ward and asked if anyone would like to come with her for the day. She was, at that time, an elderly lady called Miss Ash and I thought this would be a wonderful break from hospital so I volunteered.
Well, I was feted. Taken to Los Angeles, Hollywood and to see the magnificent red pines. A wonderful Hallowe'en party at the home, where Miss Ash was Superintendent, was held and I joined in playing with the children and "dooking for apples" "feeding the baby" with Miss Ash. Miss Ash gave me the honour of wheeling into supper a dear old lady of 99 years. During the evening I met a lovely girl of, I should say, 20 who was stricken by paralysis and I took an interest in her, trying to help her and make her evening happy. Miss Ash commented on the girl and how her eyes followed me around the room. At least it would appear I had made some of the party as happy as I was. Next day the children wondered why every day was not like yesterday.
Telegram from home confirming telegram received
I met a lot of people from Scotland, Peterhead and Dundee. Needless to say Miss Ash became a close family friend and my mother and her corresponded for many years after.
Sadly at the time, came the day we were to leave San Francisco for a six day journey across America heading for New York. Miss Ash arrived at the station with a large hamper of "goodies", fruit, chocolates and cigarettes, such a wonderful person. The hamper was well received I can assure you. Incidentally, we were congratulated on our politeness and good manners and we were unusual. We gave up our seats to ladies and elderly men - unheard of over there. So, some of the pride of our country was still there and generally we all behaved well.
We travelled First Class Pullmans and Dining Cars. Although it was a long journey it was an experience not to be missed. We arrived in New York on 7th November 1945 and for five days were taken to places such as the Empire State building and Sonja Henie's Ice Show. There was another cable awaiting me in New York, reiterating the previous one.
I had written letters home from the different places and am glad to say these are now in my gentle care, thanks to my mother (God bless her) for saving them. So they are now very precious to me,
By now we were 'champing at the bit'; anxious to be home. We sailed from New York on the "Queen Mary" on 12th November for the crossing of the Atlantic, a five day voyage. We were well treated and docked in Southampton on 17th November. There we were issued with train warrants to our home towns.
On arrival at King's Cross Station, London, I was approached by two MPs and asked to go with them to their office on the station. They had a chap (a Gordon Highlander) who was so depressed and really mentally ill. They had tried to talk to him and could not get any response. His home town was Inverurie and could I look after him on the train to Aberdeen? This episode did upset me but I realised that he could well have been mad and he needed my help. The MPs saw us on to the night train and the overnight journey. Arrangements had been made for MPs to meet him off the train at Aberdeen. Most of the night I spent talking to Hugh and persuading him to start afresh.
"You are home now". Alas, he is no longer with us.
So dawned the morning of my arrival. The family were there and a sister-in-law I didn't know I had, with her son named Alistair. Standing next to Rhoda (my sister) was a young chap and when I came to welcome him I said "Are you Rhoda's boyfriend"? "No you.......fool, I am your brother, Bill". Just goes to show what six years can do. I shall never forget the look in my mother's eyes. She was so upset, probably by my "skin and bone" appearance and little hair. Not a welcoming sight. We hugged and hugged the tears no longer held back. Both my mother and father had aged beyond their years. It had taken its toll on them as well as myself.
Arriving back home 1 "blotted my copybook" by snatching at the breakfast table then announcing I wanted to go out. "I'll come with you" was the chorus, but I declined. I needed to feel free. I left the house in Seafield and didn't return until the late hours of the next morning. Neither my mother, nor anyone else, had slept and they called the police, but they said they couldn't help. My father, Rhoda and Bill had walked around hoping to find me. 1 had gone into a shell and just could not bear four walls surrounding me. My family were at a loss to understand my actions.
There was no counselling for Japanese prisoners of war and I finished up in Strathcathro Hospital for three months, being allowed home at the weekends if I wanted to. Sometimes I did but often stayed. The scars were to take years to heal but never completely.
Perhaps, some day I will write another episode of my life but, for now, this is the final chapter. Now I hope to devote the rest of my life to helping others.
Copyright reserved and not for publication.
Alistair Kynoch Urquhart 8th July 1994