Wednesday 30 December 2020

A Woodland Far East Prisoner of War


by Amanda Jones

 a jungle bird cocktail


Suddenly they were diverted. The ship to which he had become accustomed now sped towards Singapore. A far cry from the original Middle East desert. His comrades in the Beds and Herts 5th Battalion, 55th Infantry Brigade, 18th Division were confused. As they travelled Grandad thought about his training back home. At only 24 years old, he had seen some sights from Luton and Dunstable to Honington Aerodrome then Beeston Park, Neatishead, Wroxham and Scottow Aerodrome in North Walsham. It was the Norfolk landscape at Thetford, East Harling Aerodrome which had contrasted dramatically to Galashiels in Scotland where they were based in a tweed mill.

Little did he know that staying in the horseboxes on the racecourse at Uttoxeter would be a luxury.

Then they had travelled to Merevale Park, Atherstone and Whittington in Lichfield. But it was at the end of October in 1941 that they had embarked on the SS ‘Reina Del Pacifico’ in Liverpool. The ship was to take them to India as they were transferred to the USS ‘West Point’ when they had arrived at Halifax, Nova Scotia. Indeed, the attack on Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941 had seen their course change. After three days in Cape Town they arrived in Bombay after Christmas.

The train took them onwards to Ahmednagar and three weeks here saw brief training before they re-joined the USS ‘West Point’ and sped towards Singapore. The transport which had left Liverpool ahead of them many weeks ago was lost and on 29th January 1942 they arrived in Keppel Harbour, Birdwood Camp, Changi.

Flung into battle within a dying country no sooner had they landed than they were captured. The firing and fighting had not lasted long and Singapore fell. After the Japanese dive-bombed Birdwood Camp all of their baggage including their personal belongings were incinerated and on the 9th February the Japanese successfully landed on the island with surrender on 15th February at 8.25pm.

Changi Prison was then crammed full of prisoners of war. The Japanese knew not what to do. It was their custom never to give in, to avoid capture at all cost and suicide was the honourable way. Therefore, these prisoners had committed a huge sin by choosing life. It was monsoon season making life even more difficult as they were taken into the virgin jungle.

Grandad stayed in Changi until he was welcomed into the working party going north. It sounded fine. But, after being almost suffocated in cattle trucks as they were rammed in with each other and soiled with their own excrement he soon realised life was not going to be easy here. Water was hosed at them through the blinkers of light which dared to enter the train.

Then, they were off.

Forcibly marched through raw jungle further and further. Little food and what of it was dregs of rice with no nutritional content. It wasn’t long until prisoners began to drop down dead and become sick.

Manual labour kept them working under beatings in an environment full of mosquitoes and disease. They built jungle huts and shivered through fevers on the beds and floor. Washing in the river where cholera threatened and swelling with beriberi and starvation as work tore the muscles from their bones. Jungle plants were thick and thorny and they ripped at limbs leaving non-healing ulcers which led to amputation. Trained medical prisoners struggled with inventions to relieve pain and suffering.

After months on the Burma railway Grandad was admitted in the Nakom Patom hospital camp. All around war ravaged the landscape and Allied bombing sought to destroy the newly finished railway. Elsewhere in Thailand and Burma millions of native Chinese were killed and abused including women and children by Japanese and Korean guards and soldiers.

Then in April 1945 another promise delighted those in the hospital camp. Surely, if they were sick any offer of work would be light and be a welcome distraction? But the Japanese broke their word once again and Grandad found himself in even worse conditions than the railway but this time on the Mergui Road. Marched 73km in four days the already sick prisoners arrived to work 9am to 2pm, 3pm to 9pm then 10pm to midnight building this escape road.

When the rescue party arrived at last, they pulled the dying men out of the roadside with very few survivors. How did Grandad survive? Some were still marching in the jungle of Thailand when the war ended and it wasn’t until four weeks after surrender on 2nd September that every prisoner was on their way home, in India or in the Dominions’ hospitals. A long time after the end of the European War and they were still not ‘home’.

It is a battle I have only recently overcome with myself after becoming a Quaker. The atomic bombs saved my Grandad and made sure I was born. Prisoners were in the middle of digging their own trench graves around the camps when the bombs were dropped. What would have happened without the nuclear weapons? You look at the overall picture, not just the personal. So many Japanese civilians died and the cruel behaviour came from their leaders and doctrine. Their strong belief that shame and violence was guilt-free on those who did not follow their own laws and jurisdiction created the appalling conditions. Every part of society has this in their history in different ways but still in human-degrading suffering.

Forgiveness comes from acknowledging the behaviour and realising how love within you is the ultimate path to peace. Unfortunately Grandad never found his peace but died of bowel cancer alone. Survivors were told never to talk about their experiences and when he did he was told he was not believed by anyone. To deal with this hidden PTSD he became a violent alcoholic. Support and mental health was non-existent after World War II.

He used to visit Mum and me, riding his bicycle and smoking his pipe. We knew the first five numbers in Japanese as a hand-me-down. Grandad worked in the brickworks at Stewartby and Marston Moretaine. As with all things it was Mum who taught forgiveness, peace and love and she welcomed him with open arms to allow some healing and I became his Woodland girl.


 About the author

Amanda has been writing since childhood and along with short stories she writes her Missy Dog charity series, poetry, non-fiction and horror. You can find her here:




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