Sketch by Jack Chalker

Liberation and Home

Liberation and Home

It was the 9th September when they had us on parade and told us that peace had been declared. We went mad and someone produced a small tattered Union Jack and hauled down the Japanese fried egg and flew the Union Jack from the mast by the Guardroom. Tears poured down my cheeks. That flag meant so much to me at the time. I remembered when I had seen the reverse happen over Government House in Singapore. The next day, the two British officers had us on parade, Marshall was standing on a packing case yelling at us that he would court martial us if we didn’t obey him. I believed him. I was so down, or my brain was so soft that I believed him.

The Americans dropped leaflets on the camp, after we had identified PW painted on the roof of our hut, telling us that clothes and food would be dropped. We sent for Aki san from the foundry and loaded him up with rice and clothes from the store. He was weeping when he left the camp and I watched him struggling under the load going down the road towards the mine. I often wondered what happened to old Aki. One of the schoolgirls that worked with me when I was on the surface sent would she would like to see me, whether she had heard about Aki, I don’t know, but I sent back a message saying I had seen enough Japanese to last me a lifetime.

Ron Little, a man from Barnard Castle had managed to get a radio working and got McArthur’s message to stay put and not clog up the roads leading to Tokyo and that he would send for us. The Americans dropped green US marine uniforms for us and pamphlets telling us not to eat too much even though they didn’t drop any food. The Japanese Medical Sergeant came back to our camp to collect his clothes and the Geordies kicked his head in.

We were kept in complete ignorance of any events outside our world. Once it was announced by Captain Marshall that it was all over, the waiting for something to happen was excruciating. It seemed like years before we were taken to a railhead and I saw my first American. He was a Captain about six feet tall and he couldn’t have been more than 20 years of age. The Japanese were running around him like he was a queen ant. On the way to the railhead I had acquired a rifle and a couple of kimonos for Mum. I use the word ‘acquired’ because it’s so much nicer than looted. Well, I didn’t really loot the stuff as the Japanese put up no resistance.

While waiting for the train, our new Japanese Commandant had us lined up to say farewell. He proceeded to harangue us in typical Japanese Army fashion and ended up by telling us that in the next war, if we were captured again, we would have to serve the rest of our sentences. This just shows how their minds were working at the time.

We were put into passenger carriages and someone remarked that old box cars in Thailand were more comfortable as the seats were much smaller being designed to accommodate the Japanese. Our next stop was a port where we were transferred by barge, the kind the Americans used to land tanks on beaches, an LST, a Landingship Tank. A ship something like a car ferry, only tanks in the hold instead of cars. When we boarded the ship, were in the US Marines uniform that had been dropped on the camp. We were told to throw everything over board except for our pay boos which were our only means of identification. The arms, including my Japanese rifle, were put in the ships armoury for safe keeping. So, there we stood, absolutely starkers, on deck watching the uniform and kimonos flapping about on the waves, slowly receding in the distance.  We were showered and shave of all our hair and dusted with DDT. Issued with US Navy Uniform, white tee shirts, blue denim trousers and little white caps, for all intent and purposes, we were in the US Navy. And then our first western meal. Oh, what joy. Cornflakes with real milk and sugar. Bacon, eggs, toast and real coffee. We were also given small linen bags with writing paper and envelopes, tooth brushes and razors.

It took nearly 24 hours to get to Yokohama. In the bows of the ship where the anchor chains were kept, there was a poker school of American sailors playing with rolls of dollars and one of them wanted to buy the rifle I had bought aboard. This was my first experience of American salesmanship or rather of putting on the pressure. He badgered me for hours and was offering me more money that I earned in a year until I bucked up enough courage to go to the bridge and ask the Captain for my rifle. He soon put me in my place and drawled out that anything on his ship was his property. The Americans would do anything for war souvenirs, even shooting each other. Souvenirs were very highly prized especially by poker players in the Navy who had no chance of getting ashore to acquire them legally so to speak.

We steamed into Yokohama the next day and were transferred to a hospital ship where we spent two days. Mass production was not yet known to me as far as hospital treatment was concerned. We were stripped and made to put our hands on our hips, then walk backwards in single file. On either side of the line there were three cubicles which housed two or three young nurses who were jabbing our arms and pumping in god knows what. But the ‘piece de resistance’ was a lovely blond nurse at the end with a great big syringe who kept saying, ‘back on to this soldier’ while she stabbed one in the rump.

Outside the harbour, the American fleet had collected, there were warships right over the horizon and HMS King George V was there. I remember how proud we felt of her because her lines were so much sleeker than the rest, like a greyhound among a pack of foxhounds.

It was while in Yokohama that I began to realise how much we had missed, when we saw our first Jeep. Not only was it a completely new concept in Army vehicles but it was strapped to the deck of a submarine which had just surfaced. I also realised that our minds were a bit soft, when we saw perfectly sane people doing the most, odd things. Like the Dutchman who was staggering under the weight of an enormous weight of an enormous American kit bag full of Army boots. Or the English soldier who had collected about three hundred toilet rolls and was hiding them under his bunk. Possession had been a great thing during the last three and a half years and some of us hadn’t been able to shrug it off. I was beginning to put on weight, I was just over seven stone when I was released, but I was still hungry. Still craving to eat.

When we were told we were going to be flown to Manila we were jubilant. Se we piled into American lorries and were driven to the airfield only to be turned back after a couple of hours and transferred to a Liberty ship. The explanation given was that as the US Navy had rescued us there were going to transport us to Manila. Later on, we heard a story that one of the bombers ferrying POWs had opened its bomb doors and dropped its cargo into the sea. How true this story was, I have no idea, but it could have been true, and it could have been our plane. I was inclined to believe anything at the time, it was all so crazy.

While in Yokohama we were not allowed to eat or drink anything local. The Americans were pretty cautious after dropping the bomb and even their water for drinking or washing was brought from the Philippines. There were large notices up that no one was to do any fishing for fear that the fish were contaminated. That was the closest I got to either of the bombs, but I spoke to people, Desmond Lamb among them, that had actually seen the mushroom of the second bomb. But I was still hungry, and I had read somewhere that when the Germans had entered Paris, some of them had eaten a pat of butter between two slabs of chocolate. I thought, what a good idea and did it. The butter came out of a tin and there was plenty of it, perhaps not half a pound, but near it and the chocolate was the dark kind. I wasn’t sick.

The ship’s crew stated that they had never seen people eat like we did. With all the feeding up were back to normal weight before we reached Manila, walking around rampant most of the time. In Manila, were quartered in the biggest camp I had ever seen. The Americans really did us proud. They even gave us a cigarette ration, just a carton a day or a box of King Edward cigars if we preferred. It was here that I encountered Mike O’Leary again. He had built himself a small cabin made out of carboard cartons and wooden crates inside the tent we were billeted in.

Whilst in Manila, a party of Japanese who had been taken prisoner  by the Americans were doing chores around the camp. As POWs they were leaning on their shovels trying to do as little as possible. I had a couple of cartons of Japanese cigarettes. When I saw these POWs, I rushed out and distributed the cigarettes. They had not seen Japanese cigarettes for ages they told me, and were grateful. I had been saying that the first Japanese I saw, I would kick his arse, but on actually seeing them had felt so sorry for them. I held nothing against them, only pity.

Arnold (Robbie) Robertson and I decided we needed more time before we returned home to India. Time to rehabilitate ourselves, so we joined the lot going to England via Canada. The first leg of the journey was from Manila to Vancouver on HMS Implacable. She was one of the larger aircraft carriers and had come from Sydney with the intention of returning there with Australian POWs. With this in mind, the Australian Red Cross had fitter her out lavishly. The planes had been left behind in Australia and the hangars were full of hospital beds, clean white sheet and all, and large dining tables. The crew were acting as waiters. Yet again we had a change of uniform. This time into bush hats and Aussie coloured khaki drill.

Our first stop was Pearl Harbour with all the American warships that had been sunk in 1942 still sticking out of the sea. On our first night there, I was on deck and a US Navy Club was pumping out music so loud that I was terrified and confused and had to go below deck. The next day we were taken to Waikiki Beach. I knew about the beach because of all the Hawaiian music, but we were very disappointed as the beach was covered with wooden crates and war stores under tarpaulin. The only Hawaiians were running a small shack where we could have ourselves photographed with a girl in a grass skirt, only the skirt was made of nylon. My first sight of anything nylon.

Our next stop was San Francisco. I didn’t go ashore. We then landed in Vancouver and were taken to the railway station. There were three hundred Canadian POWs aboard the ‘Implacable’ that I got to know, and they were taken ashore before anyone else. On our way to the station, I saw one of them sitting at the feet of a traffic policeman who was incidentally still conducting traffic, surrounded by dozens of bottles of beer and all the pedestrians cheering.

I boarded the first of five Canadian Pacific Railway trains for Halifax. Every station we stopped at, we had to get off and listen to speeches and bands. In small towns it was just the Salvation Army Band or the local brass band about six or seven strong. But in the cities where were large bands and thousands of people. Lads started collection pennants which they bought from the railway bookstalls.

We crossed the Rockies and the wag in our compartment said ‘what lovely technicolour’ but most of us couldn’t care less and never looked out of the windows. The Prairies were crossed with towns with peculiar names, Medicine Hat, Moose Jaw and Regina.  And fields that stretched over the horizon. It was harvest time and the combine harvesters were working three and four together. They left wheat standing in the corners of the fields about as much as would grow in a normal Japanese field. I remember Medicine Hat especially because it had domestic gas piped into their houses. There were quite a few ex German POWs from the First World Wat and a middle aged couple who tried to get me to stay there and work for them. They would treat me like a son etc etc. Then onto the Great Lakes. By this time, we were very tired because of this continual getting on and off the train eat doughnuts, drink coffee and listen to bands and speeches. So, we started pretending to be asleep. But a couple of lovely girls got into our carriage and made us get off for cookies and coffee. They said. When we got back we discovered that they had pinched nearly all our bush hats and cut off most of our brass buttons.

I still hadn’t acquired a pennant as by the time we got to the bookstall they were always sold out. So, Robbie and I decided that at the next station we would jump off the train before it stopped and get to the bookstall first. We did just that and there were men guiding us down the steps under the railway and into a great big hall. There was a great big cheer as we entered from people sitting on stands, not unlike football stands. We felt like characters in a Bateman cartoon and it seem like hours before the rest caught up with us. It was either Montreal or Toronto and we never got our pennants.

The Canadian Pacific Railway has to cross the US State of Maine to get to Halifax and when it made a halt at a small station we were larking about and jumped off the train and stood on American soil so that we could say we had been in the States. I remember very vividly looking down on to the ground and thinking ‘it’s just the same kind of earth as anywhere else’. I had no idea what I expected but a lifetime of movies and the mental state we were in might have accounted for my thoughts.

About eight POWs had jumped the train and remained behind. This was not surprising as two Immigration Officials were aboard complete with forms helping people to apply for citizenship.

prime-ashley-george-09

Eventually we arrived in Halifax where we were not welcome as the town had been broken up four times by troops, British and American passing through. Our camp was at Truro an ex RAF pilot training camp about ten miles from Halifax. We stayed a fortnight and to entertain us, ENSA put on concerts or movies in the evenings. Immigration Officials were not allowed in the camps, but they got in in the guise of members of ENSA. I remember a blonde singing ‘Sentimental Journey’ which was the rage at the time and as she finished, an Immigration Officer popped up and told you what a great country Canada was, illustrating his talk with lantern slides. I was not tempted, but years later hankered after immigrating there. In fact, we applied and went to Canada House in London for an interview but was turned down as I couldn’t get out of the Army.

We again had a change of uniform, this time into Canadian Battle Dress, when the time came to join the French liner, I’le de France, that had been converted into a troopship. I left a whole kitbag of uniforms and clothes behind because I couldn’t carry it. To me this was alien, as I had been trained in the old Regular Army in a programme that didn’t allow you to lose or give away any part of your uniform or equipment.

We had been interrogated by both the Americans and Canadians, now we were interrogated by the British. While we were on the I’le de France waiting in dock in Halifax, we heard over the loudspeaker system that Captain Marshall and Lieutenant Fletcher were to report to the Pursers Office. As these two officers were in charge of our camp in Japan a few of us rushed down to the Pursers Office to see what it was all about. Just in time to see them taken off in hand cuffs by two great big Canadian Military Policemen. No one knows what happened to them. Marshall was a member of Col Flower’s Regiment, the Northumberland Fusiliers and Fletcher was in the Royal Signals. I had never met anyone who knew their fate. Col Flower when we discussed it when he stayed with us in Horsham, said it was a mystery. This was a result of the interrogation, when the troops had said how these two officers had treated us, stolen our Red Cross parcels and shared them with the Japanese and various other acts of collaboration.

prime-ashley-george-10

We landed in Southampton and as we were the first large party of POWs to reach England we were feted. Pathé News and several newspaper reporters were there. What reunions and also what heartaches. A pal of mine was horrified to see his wife turn up with three children when he only left her with one. He refused to get off the boat and we never found out whether all the three children were hers.

A welcome speech from the King was read by someone over the ships loudspeaker system, but not many of us listened to it. Dave Yendell was taken off by his colleagues who had worked with him in HM Customs before the War. He came back a couple of times to collect his kit, more than slightly inebriated. We have passed through Southampton docks several times and I had only seen Dave once.

We were taken by train to a large camp in Chalfont St Giles. The camp was used to dealing with POWs, had had the experience of processing the POWs from Germany earlier in the year. Robbie and I had to go and confess we had no home address to go to. We were not alone. There we about a dozen of us in the same position for a variety of reasons. A Red Cross driver took us in her ‘tilly’ to Sloane Square where the Red Cross had a hostel and the same evening we were driven down to Windsor.

In Windsor we were housed in a large house called Queensmead. It belonged to Winston Churchill’s Uncle, who still lived in a small flat. I imagine it was the servant’s quarters. The rest of the house was used as a rest home. At first by men of the London Fire Brigade to give them short breaks, then by the POWs from Germany who like us had no homes to go to.

The thought then entered Robbie and my mind. It was about time we went back to India. So, we started the ball rolling and were amazed by the opposition we received. Everyone thought we were mad. The whole of the subcontinent was full of soldiers all trying to get back to England and here we were two ex POWs trying to swim against the tide. Must be mad. We then started being interviewed by different departments in the War Office, which MOD (A) used to be called in those days. Mostly they were trying to demob us. The sixth Department had a Royal Signals man who understood our predicament. The Major in the Department had been the Orderly Room Sergeant in Jubblepore, India where we had done our basic training. He arranged for us to be billeted with London District Signals, who were then housed in St John’s Wood in the Barracks that now house the Kings Troop, Royal Artillery. At that time the Army requisitioned all the blocks of flats around the Barracks, so Robbie and I were given a flat on the 6th floor to ourselves.

It was February 1946 before we heard we had to report to an RAF Station prime-ashley-george-11in Membury, not far from Newbury. We boarded an old Dakota that had canvas seats down each side facing inwards. Our route was El Adani, Tel Aviv, Bahrain and Karachi. At Karachi I fought with the Colonel who was commanding the camp as I wanted to go straight home to Lucknow. He won and I flew on to Poona and then by train to Mhow. I was given 6 weeks leave and got home to Lucknow. I arrived home pretty late in the evening and found where Mum and Anne were living. They were sound asleep and it seemed like ages before the door opened. I hugged Mum and swung her around. She woke Anne and said ‘this is your daddy’. Anne looked at me with reservations and didn’t say anything.  At last I was home. At last, at last. The events of the last three and a half years were all forgotten.

Photo is Vera, daughter Anne and Ashley. Taken. 1947

 

The End

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