Sketch by Jack Chalker

The Will To Live

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The Will to Live

by John Emmett


John, a Scotsman by birth and inclination joined the Gordon Highlanders in 1935, just four years before the war, which was to involve most of the known world, began to erupt. He no doubt signed on  for nine years, not the ‘Duration of Hostilities’ which became the norm as soon as conscription was authorized by Parliament. As a regular soldier he became one of the core around which the British Army of volunteers and conscripts was created. His story centres on Formosa.


As a regular soldier and a member of a proud Scottish Regiment with battle honours from all over the world, the fall of Singapore was a particularly hard pill to swallow. A feeling of shame, that we had not done our bit, caused our morale to fall to an all time low Fear of what the Japanese would do to us, as we had heard of the massacre done by the Japanese at Alexandria Hospital where wounded, sick, doctors and nurses were bayoneted indiscriminately. Fear thus became part of us, we had become naked.

The afternoon of the 15th February 1942, our officers ordered us to hand in our weapons. Many of the rifles were without bolts and had broken butts. Some of our officers were very upset about what had been done and kept repeating that the Japs would kill us all. Kegs of rum that had been carried by the Unit through the campaign, and never once issued as a ruin ration, were destroyed so the Japanese would not get their hands on them.

Next morning we formed up by companies, dirty, with only the clothes on our back and very much ashamed. We marched towards Changi Barracks, a distance of 25 miles this was our first POW camp and the beginning of almost four years of starvation, forced labour and death for many.

After a few months in Changi where we learned more about improvisation and self preservation than we thought possible, we got press ganged into a trip to Formosa. We had been working in Singapore making a road to one of the shrines erected to their dead during which times we had plenty of opportunity to witness the atrocities being carried out against the Chinese and Malay population. Heads on poles and skeletons laying around was enough warning not to get caught bending the rules, although we never refused “gifts” from the native population even though if caught they would most likely receive a fatal beating.


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