Returned Prisoner’s Vivid Story
Pte. Frank Percival
Pte. Frank Percival, R.A.S.C. only son of the late Mr William Percival, and Mrs Percival, of 160, Doyle Gardens, Harlesden. has written the vivid story printed below of his experiences as a prisoner in the hands of the Japanese since February, 1942. He is now nearly 28.
Educated at Chamberlayne Road School, Kensal Rise, and at Kilburn Polytechnic, he entered the Local Government service. When he joined the army in December, 1939 he was on the clerical staff of the Middlesex County Council mental hospital at Napsbury, near St. Albans.
Upon the capitulation of the Singapore Garrison on February 15th, 1942: the Japanese Commander gave orders for all Allied troops to concentrate in the Changi area of Singapore Island, which is 15 miles east of the City.
Alexander Camp (VRD lines, 29 CMTD) Singapore Island
"2 Feb 1942. Pall of smoke in background caused by Japanese bombing raid on oil tanks. Negative kept through 3.5 years of captivity"
Singapore City on February 17th saw tens of thousands of Allied troops marching into captivity with scarcely a member of the Japanese fighting forces to be seen, apart from a few busily cranking the handles of movie cameras. The remainder had already departed to other theatres of war.
In the early days of our captivity we lived on stocks' of tinned food which we had carried from Singapore with us, but after six or seven weeks we came to rely on the rations supplied by the Japanese. These consisted of 18 ozs. of rice per day, four ozs. of meat per week and one tin of bully beef or fish among 35 men per day.
It was not long before many men were victims of deficiency diseases such as beri beri and pellagra and when the Japanese called for volunteers for an "up-country" working party in June 1942, promising better living conditions, many responded. We left Singapore by railway on June 22nd and travelled in closed metal trucks, 30 men in each. The trucks were so crowded that tire men sat shoulder to shoulder and were unable fully to stretch their legs. On the following morning when the train pulled into Kuala Lumpur station, the Japanese told us that, we would be employed on the railway construction between Bangkok and Moulmen.
MARCHED 120 MILES
After leaving Kuala Lumpur, another four days railway travel was experienced and our spirits were not improved when, upon passing through Ipoh station the following evening, we noticed newspaper placards printed in English announcing the fall of Tobruk and the German drive towards Alexandria.
We left the train at Ban Pong, about 45 miles from Bangkok and remained in a camp there for 4 months. The Japanese were not yet ready to start work on the railway and in the meantime we were employed on such jobs as making roads and constructing camps for the Japanese troops in the environs of Ban Pong.
In late September 1942, further prisoners arrived from Singapore and all prisoners were moved into small camps along the banks of the Meklong River where work on the railway commenced.
The conditions at first were not too bad, but when this section of the track was completed we were moved to a point 120 miles further North on the Meklong River. We were made to march this distance and many men were unfit before starting out. Leather boots had long since been discarded as being beyond repair and the Japanese had issued rubber boots with canvas tops to the men who had small feet. Men who required larger sizes were made to march barefooted. The food on the march was very poor. A day's rations consisted of two mess tins of cooked rice and a handful of uncooked onions. I saw men so hungry that they ate two mess tins of rice without any other food or flavouring whatsoever.
At the end of the ten days march the majority were completely exhausted. Many had contracted malaria as a result of sleeping in the jungle at night and dysentery was rife. Of the party of 100 of which I was a member, six men had died, within 8 days of our arrival, from sheer exhaustion.
SLEEPING IN THE OPEN
We commenced work on the railway almost immediately and at first the work was not too heavy and consisted mostly of clearing the jungle and felling trees for bridges. Food was fairly adequate as supplies of vegetables arrived twice weekly by barge. Most of us were living and sleeping in the open, there being 400 men in the camp and only 20 tents. This was not too bad while the weather remained fair, but when the monsoon came in the middle of May it was a different story.
For the first few weeks of the monsoon two hundred men were still living and sleeping in the open, with torrential rain falling for days without ceasing.
Work still went on. Clothes soon rotted and the few we possessed became infested with vermin.
The river rasp as a result of incessant rain and very soon supplies of food ceased to arrive. The work got behind and the Japanese instituted a "speedo." Many men were forced to work while suffering from gigantic tropical ulcers many of which, were so deep that their shinbones were exposed. To make matters worse, cholera broke out in June of 1943 and every night the camps were illuminated by the fires lit for burning the bodies and personal possessions of the men who had died, from cholera during the day.
As the work got further behind so the Japanese became more brutal in their treatment of the prisoners, and the food correspondingly poorer. By a stroke of fortune I was evacuated to a Base ''Hospital" on August 13th 1943.
A specimen day's feeding for the men of our "up-country" camp at that time was as follows: breakfast, .5 mess tin of watery rice and 4 teaspoon of sugar; midday, .5 mess tin of cooked rice and a fried rice ball containing pieces of dried fish; evening meal, .75 of a mess tin of boiled rice with .5 pint of stew made from dried vegetables with the occasional addition of 3 or 4 onions.
THEATRES AND CHURCHES
Upon the completion of the railway, conditions improved somewhat. Football matches were played In the base camps to which we returned from the "up-country" camps, and theatres were built. Musical instruments were ingeniously made from all kinds of waste materials and orchestras were formed. Many plays were produced and such ambitious productions as "Night Must Fall," Noel Coward's "Hay Fever" and "The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse," were attempted, all most admirably.
Even the "Sleeping Beauty Ballet" was performed to the accompaniment of Tchaikowsky's immortal music. Of course, female roles were played by male prisoners, but with far more restraint and finesse than is usual in plays performed by military personnel.
All religious denominations constructed their own churches out of bamboo and jungle grass, and nightly services were held.
Unfortunately, all this came to an untimely end. The tides of war were turning fast. Theatrical productions were forbidden by the Japanese and the Camp Commandant drew his sword, and rushed round the camp destroying the churches, shouting "Your gods are stronger than ours."
Late in 1944 the Allied air attacks on Siam became increasingly heavy and the Bangkok-Moulmein Railway was subjected to heavy attacks. Prisoners, mostly unfit, were constantly being sent up-country to reconstruct bridges which had been bombed and a number were machine-gunned from the air on the way up.
In close proximity to the base camps the Japanese dumped ammunition and posted anti-aircraft batteries. Usually, the Allied Air Forces, when bombing these objectives, miraculously missed the P.O.W. camps, but on the few occasions when bombs fell in the area of the camps, casualties among the prisoners were heavy.
RODE ON TRAIN ROOF
At the beginning of June 1945, the Japanese decided to move many or us to other parts of Siam. The party of which I was a member were put on a train one morning and were seated in the goods wagons waiting for the train to move off. Members of the Indian Nationalist Army (who at one time announced through their leader Subhas Chandra Bose that they intended to "march on Delhi") arrived at the station and notified the Japanese that they intended travelling on the same train. We were immediately turned out of the wagons, the Indians taking our places, and we were made to climb on to the roofs, taking our belongings with us, and in that way completed the 60 miles journey to Bangkok. The majority of us were badly burned by the sun by the time we arrived.
We were quartered at Bangkok in warehouses on the dockside for three days. On the afternoon of the fourth day a diesel locomotive drew railway wagons on to the dockside and we were made to get into them, 35 men. to each wagon. Each was found to contain a number of boxes, which upon examination revealed small arms ammunition and hand grenades. Two guards were posted to each, wagon. Just as the train was about to move off an air raid alarm was sounded and the diesel locomotive was uncoupled and shunted off the dock-side.
Allied aircraft was soon, heard and were seen flying in formation at a low altitude up the river towards the docks. The sentries were ordered by the Japanese officer-in-charge to load their rifles and to shoot any prisoner who attempted to leave the train. The planes flew immediately over the docks without committing a hostile act and bombs were later heard to fall some distance away. Upon the all clear signal being sounded the locomotive was again coupled to the wagons and drew them away.
KOREANS WORSE THAN JAPS
Our destination proved to be in the Cheng Mai area of Northern Siam and the task set us was that of aerodrome construction.
The weather in this part of Siam was considerably hotter, but the work was lighter. As Japanese went, the guards were very easygoing. Koreans had been guarding the prisoners in the base camps and they had proved far more brutal and sadistic in their treatment of the prisoners than the Japanese.
They themselves were ill-treated by the Japanese receiving only half the pay of Japanese soldiers, and were allowed no promotion in the Japanese Army. Like the Japanese troops themselves, when sick, they were taken off the payroll and receivecl only half rations. Also, when joining the Japanese Army, their dependents received no allowances, having to fend for themselves, once their sons and husbands were in the Army.
The Japanese considered that they were treating the prisoners very well. One was heard to remark: "You are fortunate to be alive, for normally we do not take prisoners."
Most prison camps possessed excelent news facilities. In the camp in which I was interned in 1944 we knew full details of “D” Day on 9th June. Towards the end however things deteriorated, mainly as a result of the frequent searches carried out by the Japanese. But this was compensated for, in some measure, by the leaflets which occasionally came into our possession printed in Burmese, Chinese, Japanese and Siamese. We ware easily able to follow the course of the War from these, aided by excellent sketch maps printed on their reverse sides.
SIX MEN: ONE PARCEL
In June 1944 we were given one American Red Cross parcel between 6 men and this is all the majority of us saw in the way of Red Cross parcels, although there was good reason to believe that large supplies arrived from time to time in Siam.
On the night of August 15th 1945. all the Japanese in our camp were drunk. We thought nothing of this, as it was a fairly frequent occurrence. The working party for the aerodrome paraded for work as usual at 8 a.m. on the morning of the 16th, but no Japanese sentries came to take them to work. At 10.30 a.m. the Japanese Commandant made an announcement to the effect that he was going away for a few days and upon his return hoped to have some very good news for us. In the meantime outside working parties would cease. The camp immediately went mad with joy and few slept that night.
On the afternoon of August 20th, a British parachutist major arrived in the camp, gave us details of the cessation of hostilities, said that he and a number of colleagues had been in Siam for some months and arrangements were under way to get us out of Siam as quickly as possible. He advised us to ignore the Japanese as at that time there were less than 1,000 Allied troops is the country and there were over 100,000 Japanese yet to be disarmed.
The majority took this wise counsel being loath to prejudice their chances of recovery after having endured so many hardships. Siamese gendarmerie replaced the Japanese guards in the prisoner-of-war camps, and were placed there only for the protection of the ex-prisoners.
We moved down to Bangkok by rail on August 31st and were given wonderful receptions by the Siamese people at every station en routs. We departed from Bangkok the following day by Dakota aircraft for Rangoon, and it was not until we were actually on the planes that we felt ourselves out of the clutches of the Japanese.
Our new-found, elation was dimmed, however, by the memory for many hundreds of our friends left behind in Siam. They would never again see the shores of England as a result of the bestial treatment meted out to them by their Japanese captors.