Welsh POW David Harries shares memories of the horrors of war

Friday 11 November 2011, 08:19

BBC Wales History BBC Wales History

Eyewitness accounts from those who lived through World War Two can provide valuable historical documents for subsequent generations.

Welsh Airman David Arthur Harries, from Llandybie, Carmarthenshire, tells how he survived a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Indonesia. In spite of witnessing instances of ferocious brutality, and helplessly watching his friends die from diseases that flourished in the squalid and unsanitary conditions in the camp, David says that his life has been full of adventure.

David Arthur Harries

David Arthur Harries says that his life has been full of adventure

David decided that it was time to share his memories of the war, after being reunited with the few surviving POWs during a special function funded by the Big Lottery Fund.

1939, in search of excitement and adventure, David joined the RAF 81 Repair and Salvage Unit as an engineer. His first experience of war was during the Battle of Britain. It was David's job to repair the spitfires and hurricanes damaged during arial combat as that fought to repel the German Air Force (Luftwaffe).

Later David was then posted overseas to Singapore and spent some time in the main RAF camp in the Far East known as Seleter where they built mock aircraft which were then transferred to airfields across Malaya and were used as a form of deception.

David Harries

David decided to share his memories after being reunited with other POWs

When the Japanese invaded in December 1941, his unit was moved north of Penang.

Unprepared, the Allies were unable to halt the Japanese advance and, over the following month, David's unit retreated down through the various airfields in Malaya.

"The first time you come under attack you're very frightened but you kind of get used to finding cover the best you can.

"The strafing by planes was the most horrific experience. That's when fighter aircraft would machine gun your position and do about two runs at you. The Japanese by this point had complete air control and the Brewster Buffalo planes we used to defend Malaya were very ineffective as fighter aircraft."

In retreat

David's unit finally retreated back to an RAF base called Sembawang in the north of Singapore Island, just a couple of weeks before Singapore fell in February 1942. They were then instructed that all RAF personnel were to be evacuated from Singapore to the Indonesian island of Java. David remembers:

"We got down to the docks in Singapore and we were bothered with heavy air raids from the advancing Japanese," he explains.

"Conditions were chaotic, it was pretty hectic, a lot of the city was burning and there were destroyed vehicles all over the place. I managed to get on to a small boat in the harbour which took us to Java.

Java offers short-term relief

After their frightening experiences in Singapore, Java was initially to be a far more enjoyable experience. David recalls.

"It was like peace time. They had great nightclubs, the young ladies were very friendly and we had a very enjoyable time for two or three weeks until we were ordered to proceed to Bandung to service some aircraft.

"We arrived at an airfield in Garoet but when we got there, there was no aircraft."

In March 1942 the Japanese army invaded Java. A few days later the Dutch army capitulated. David and his unit had no way of escaping the island and automatically became Prisoners of War (POWs).

Torture and executions

David and his unit were instructed to go to an airfield in Tasikmalaya where thousands of RAF personnel had assembled to be taken prisoner by the Japanese. David remembers:

"Parties were selected to work in different places of the Far East and we were sent to Malang to repair an airfield, which we did in five months.

It was in Malang that David was witnessed the brutality which lay ahead.

"Four POWs accused of trying to escape were bought back to the camp and were horribly beaten for a week by the Japanese.

"They were executed - shot in front of us all. I was only 18 at the time. It gave us an insight into the other side of the Japanese character and how ruthless they could be. The whole exercise was performed as a warning to us."

Surviving Haruku Island

In April 1943, David remained incarcerated at Jaarmarkt prison camp in Sourabaya. It was here that his grim struggle for survival really began.

A parade was formed at the camp and over 2,000 so-called 'fit' men, ie those who were not lame or seriously ill at that stage, were chosen to board ships to what was an unknown destination.

"We were eventually told that we were going to be shipped out to Haruku Island near Ambon and that we would receive light work and very good food - which of course was the exact opposite."

The men were herded on to a small ship, the Amagi Maru, where they had to endure appalling cramped and filthy conditions with limited food and water on the two-week voyage.

The group included dysentery carriers and the severe over-crowding on the ship was causing this to spread fast.

"We were packed like sardines into the hold and it took us 19 days to make a journey of three to four days.

"The guards used their bayonets to prod us forward and we realised that we were going down into the hold of the boat. There were men collapsing from heat exhaustion as the temperatures soared to about one hundred degrees and there was practically nowhere to sleep.

"I sneaked into a compartment on the deck of the ship and slept on top of some old rope. It was far more comfortable than being in the hold. In a way, I supposed I travelled first class on my own on that particular voyage compared to the others.

"I had the job of cleaning out the guard's food containers and they left some food stuck to the side, which was very different to the rice we were given. So I didn't eat so badly compared to the other people and what was surplus I shared."

Camp

Hell on Earth

It was the beginning of the raining season when they got to Haruku, where they would remain for over 16 months. David says:

"The camp consisted of a couple of shacks and we put the desperate sick in them.

"We were up to our knees in mud in the vicinity of these shacks and we slept on the earth in the pouring rain until eventually, more huts were built. When you got into these huts, the luxury would have been that you were sleeping a couple of metres from the ground so that you weren't actually sleeping on the sodden earth.

"The first few weeks on Haruku were absolutely desperate and the death rate soared. I lost a lot of good friends.

"Then we were expected to go and work on the airfield. We were given a chisel and a hammer. The airfield consisted of two small hills, the tops of which had to be removed to build the airfield. If you can imagine what you could do with those tools, the whole thing was absolutely impossible and ridiculous. By this time the dysentery and malaria rate had soared to such an extent that 90% of people were infected."

Realising they would never be able to build the airfield without fit men; the work was stopped by the Japanese. To begin with, the prisoners dug trenches to use as toilets but that just spread the disease. They eventually received permission to build a structure over the sea and by the time construction was finished, hundreds of people had died.

"The raining season stopped and out of the shambles we eventually built a very good camp which would have been horrible by anybody else's standards.

"At that time, I must have been down to six or seven stone. If you were lucky or clever, you might get on jobs where you could obtain extra food. You learnt what kind of wild vegetation was edible and you also stole from Japanese stores. You could also trade with the natives illegally. I traded tobacco for food.

"We lost around 500 people building that airfield in Haruku. During the worse periods, you would get as many as a dozen people dying in a day and you would have mass graves. When I went back 40 years later, every person had a headstone."

With good reasons, David would rather forget his 21st birthday on Haruku.

"I had my front teeth knocked out by a cruel guard we nicknamed Rat Face because of his distinctive features. I'll never forgive him for doing that.

Dodging bombs on Ambon

On 1 August 1944 the party was moved to Ambon where David worked unloading ships whilst dodging constant attacks by American bombers and fighter planes.

"We would unload cargo from a ship onto small boats and take it back to the shore. On one occasion, we were about 200 yards from the shore and I saw this P-38 American twin engine fighter coming in.

"Our boat went flat out and hit the shore. We scrambled off the boat and hid behind a tree. As we got behind the tree, the aircraft opened up and destroyed the boat. That was a close one. Every day when you were in work, there were those kinds of dangers.

"On one occasion, I was looking at an American bomber as it was flying past the boat about 50 feet away from us and one of the crew was looking at me behind a machinegun. I could see all his features for a flash as he passed - and he didn't open fire."

Back to Java

When the Americans invaded one of the neighbouring islands, the Japanese decided to retreat and take all the prisoners back to Java where their nightmare had begun.

The prisoners arrived on an island called Muna between Ambon and Makassar, where they were isolated for six months with very little food. The death rate was 50 per cent death rate due to malnutrition and disease. The only work the prisoners could do was to try and plant food to supplement their diet. If the food grew, the Japanese would take the best part of it.

The men were then taken to Makassar Island where they spent three months from April to July 1945 before heading off in a small boat back to Surabaya in Java. The war was over by this point, and after arriving in Batavia (Jakarta), on 17 August 1945, David walked out of the camp a free man. Recalling his first steps as a free man, David recalls:

"Despite warnings to the contrary, I walked out of the camp.

"It was dangerous outside because the Japanese had given the Indonesians guns and they wanted to reclaim the country back for themselves. I went out to a Dutch women's camp and I then went to get my friend Smithy from the camp and told him there was a better place outside than being stuck in the camp."

Life of Riley

"We went out and we lived the lives of riley. We didn't have much money so I went down to the docks and loaded this big American car I'd obtained with textiles and we made a pile of money.

"Eventually, we were running a night club with two bands and we entertained incoming troops. I remember an RAF officer who was attending one of the evenings we put on. He was so happy he wanted to return a favour. So, when he left for Singapore, he sent a message to my parents to tell them that I was still alive. That's the first time they had heard anything about me in five years."

"We were loaded with money and we had a fantastic time. When it got too dangerous in Java, we spent money on visiting Singapore and then went to Rangoon, Mandalay and then flew to Calcutta where they put us up in a fantastic hotel. In Calcutta, I came down with Malaria again and I decided it was about time we went home. I wanted to see more of India, so we went by train from Calcutta to Bombay travelling in first class."

A life full of adventure

In Bombay, David sent half a dozen food parcels to people that he knew in the UK because they were short of food.

"I got on a troopship and came back to the UK. On the ship, I won a boxing competition which I was surprised about given the condition I was in at the POW camp.

"My life has been full of adventure. When I got back to Liverpool, I'd practically got back to my original weight. I would say that 99% of POW's most probably wanted to go home after the war. I must have been an unnatural kind of guy. I thought to myself, I'll never see this part of the world again - I need to make the most of it."

This year the Java Far East Prisoners of War Club (FEPOW) 1942 received an award of £21,000 from the Big Lottery Fund's Heroes Return 2 programme. This helped survivors make a poignant return to the Moluccas Islands of Ambon and Haruku in Indonesia. A special reunion event was also held back in August this year in Warwickshire which 89-year-old David Harries attended.

The Big Lottery Fund is urging veterans who have not yet been able to travel on a Heroes Return 2 grant to apply now for funding under the extended scheme, which closes in January 2012.

More information and details of how to apply for a Heroes Return 2 grant are available by calling 0845 00 00 121 or visiting www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn.

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