- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Ernest Henry Boswell
- Location of story:
- Far East
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 05 May 2005
We were called up early in 1941 and were the first 19 year old conscripts and we were off to Blackpool.
After eight weeks we had all passed out and we were sent to Trevone Bay, Cornwall where we joined the 79th Batt. 21st Regiment Light Anti Aircraft RA.
Beginning of December it was off to Altringham station and on the train to Scotland. On the 7th of December 1941 we boarded the Warwick Castle in Guerock, Scotland bound for the Middle East and the desert. We all bunked down and went off to sleep and when we woke in the morning of the 8th we were right out in the Atlantic. We were told the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbour and that the Americans had declared war on Japan and Germany — so overnight it became World War II and instead of our convoy going to Africa it was now diverted to the Far east and our first stop was Freetown, West Africa on Christmas Day.
At the same time the Japanese were coming through China towards Hong Kong and Singapore and down trough the American Islands. Lots of ships were being sunk everywhere including the Prince of Wales.
We went to Batavia and loaded our trucks and guns and tractors on a little old coaster and off we went again down to Timor, all sleeping on the deck. They gave out gallons of rum and some went mad and got drunk and we had to hang on to them and stop them from jumping overboard as by this time there were plenty of sharks about.
When we got to Koepang, Dutch East Timor there was no harbour so on high tide the old coaster crept in until it ran aground and then we unloaded the trucks, tractors and anti aircraft guns as soon as possible because by this time the Japanese were very close and their planes were bombing the Australians at will as they did not have any A.A. guns, just a battery of 8” coastal guns pointing at Koepang Bay. On the 15th of February 1942 we had two troops of men and 8 Bofors and 187 men. We were joined by about 1200 Australians and a few Dutch.
Two days later the Japanese landed 2300 men, tanks etc.
Early on Saturday morning we were told the Japanese were coming through the jungle towards us so we lined up along the sides of the vehicles and loaded our rifles and filled all our clips, five rounds in each and waited. As soon as we got the order we all started firing into the jungle, just anywhere, as we could not see anything. As soon as it was clear we boarded our vehicles and went up the island and this went on until Monday morning the 23rd.
At daylight the Japanese came up, white flag flying and we thought they were giving up but how wrong we were. They gave us until 10o’clock that morning to surrender or be bombed
Anyway we left it to the Australians to make the decision as they were the majority and they decided to surrender, as it was a hopeless situation. There was no chance of any help coming even though it was only 400 miles from Darwin.
We were all rounded up and went to a little clearing in the jungle for our first night in captivity. We didn’t have any water to drink or food so we opened our emergency rations and we ate one square of chocolate. We had lost all of our kit and just had a razor and toothbrush and the clothes we stood up in and a spare pair of pants. We tried to sleep but the mosquitoes made sure that was impossible, we were bitten all over. The next morning at daylight we started on our 25-30 mile walk back down the island towards Koepang.
We arrived at a place called Oesapa Bezar and here we built our shelter out of whatever we could find — leaves off the coconut trees and what undergrowth we could plait together. We tried to sleep but it was impossible with the mosquitoes and all the noise from the jungle and the scorpions. Next morning the Japanese brought a few sacks of rice and barley and weavels and some boilers and we made fires and got some muddy water and in went the mixture. The weavels floated on the top and as the water boiled away it just mixed together and the taste of this was indescribable. We were lucky as this camp was on the beach so we could have a wash in salt water, no soap etc.
After a while the Japanese wanted some drivers to drive the trucks and so about 18 of us were sorted out and sent out with them. It was the Australian officer and eleven of his men and four of us English. We went into Koepang and loaded the trucks with bags of rice and barrels of soya paste and pickled dicon (radish) and cuttlefish bone.
We got some rice to boil and a native hut to sleep in, but the mosquitoes were still there and we were getting bitten and malaria started at this time but at least we had a few quinine tablets at that stage.
The next day we went off up the island towards Soe. We were given a natives hut to sleep in and found some mosquito nets so we put a little petrol over them and we had a better night, it stunk of petrol but it was better than being bitten.
We started getting tropical sores and maggots started to get into them and eat the pus so that helped to clean them. I got them in my armpits and I can’t explain the pain with all the work and sweat.
When we went back to Koepang each time we tried to stop at Champerlon for water and here the Australians had their stores so we used to get a few cases of baked beans and cheddar cheese. As we passed the camp at Basapa we tried to stop and throw them over the fence but after a while the Japanese would not let us stop at Champerlon or at the camp fence so we could not help them anymore.
In Atamboea we had an old trading shop for our billet, which was alright as it had concrete floors so we could sprinkle it with petrol which helped to keep the insects at bay, especially the scorpions. We used to do the cooking etc for two days at a time and we used to go out looking for wild chickens and small wild boar. One day three Australian planes came over and they dropped their bombs and the only place they hit was our billet and another in the square so we had to go farther up the track and had to build our little kitchen again and places for us to sleep but this place was full of fleas and lice and mosquitoes and in the mornings they were all around the seams of our nets.
Our next step on was to a place on the coast called Hellelulic and here the sea was full of big jellyfish. Here we were put in a church and I was stung by a scorpion and the Japanese doctor cut it up the finger in four or five places to make it bleed and get rid of the poison. It worked well but the cuts took a while to heal, as by this time we had no medical supplies. After a few journeys back and forth we stocked the place up and then we went back to Atamboea and up and down to Koepang. This was very hard work as the bags of rice were about two foot square and very rough and not easy to grip.
In August we went back to Koepang and boarded the Dai Nichi Maru. We were put right down in the bottom of the holds and during the nights the rats were running over us. We had buckets of rice lowered down to us on ropes.
We were very pleased when we got to Sourabaya, Java. We were then herded like cattle into the trucks on the railway with just enough room to stand up. There were no seats and it was stinking hot in the trucks with just a few spaces for the air to come in. We were very pleased when the train started to move as it got the air moving. This journey was the full length of the island and up to Batavia once again. There was no water or rice and the heat began to tell its tale and after many hours we arrived at Batavia and were again herded along to an ex Dutch army camp. Here we did get some water and a little boiled rice twice a day but after a few days we were herded along to a harbour where we boarded another old ship and down in the holds again. We arrived in Singapore and were sent to Changhi Prison where we were given some water and rice and we were able to wash ourselves and I cannot explain how that felt.
For the next few days we had injections two or three times a day but no one knew what for and forms to fill in that we were being well treated. All lies but we had no option. It was lie or a beating.
After a few days we were marched back to the harbour again and waited it out. In the channel was the Dai Nichi Maru which we recognised as it had a large 101 on the bridge. This old ship was built in Glasgow and sold to Japan for scrap. It tied up by the side of us and once again we were herded down into the holds.
We got out into the China Sea and the holds were battened down. This voyage was so bad that we were throwing the bodies over the side to the sharks. This went on until the engines broke down. We were all very sick and after three days of this they managed to get a bit of movement and we crept up to Formosa and tied up there for several days while the engines were repaired. This spell was our saviour.
After leaving here a few of us had to go to the boiler room to stoke the boilers. After a few days we docked at Kushu.
Our guards were regular army for two days and ex army from China (disabled) the third day and although we had to do just as much work on these days we never got beaten up like the other two days. We had one guard called Winghi who had one arm and the other one was useless and in the summer time we used to sneak into the sweet potatoes when he gave us the sign and dig some out and take them back to him and he used to cook them for us and long white radish which were not very nice but it all helped. These days were very cold and frosty and he used to have a fire we could sit by.
The next day we boarded another train and up to Kumamoto where we went from the station to the camp.
Even when we were working we still got the rifle butt around our bodies and all we heard was “speed’o” or “hurry, hurry, hurry”. The work at Kumamoto was digging the hills and putting them in the valleys. A days work was fifteen truck loads a day each. One truck was 4 ft wide and 6ft long and 2 ft 6 deep and we had to fill them to a point and could not go back to camp until every one had filled their fifteen trucks. It was daylight till dark every day levelling the ground for Kumamoto airport.
Our rations here were a teacupful of sloppy rice or barley in the morning and midday was a ball of rice, about the size of a tennis ball and at night it was a little rice or barley and a little fish soup, bones and everything. Fourteen to a bucket.
The weather was very cold and some were getting frostbite and gangrene and pneumonia.
We worked every day, all over Christmas, wet, dry or snow. On these days we began to eat anything — snakes, crickets, frogs, gudgeon and very small fish
These days were very bad, but worse was to come — more beatings and press ups and outside the guard room there was what we called the “dog box”. These were like a dog kennel just big enough to crawl in and every one that was unlucky enough to get put in usually died in there but if not within a few hours of getting out. Some nights we would get back to camp and we were made to stand to attention for an hour or so on the parade ground and during the winters this wanted some determination. They used to walk up and down the ranks looking to see if you were moving your lips and if they thought we were muttering that was a beating.
We worked on this ground levelling and after that we had to break the rocks and place them as level as possible ready for concreting. When we were finished this at Kumamoto in November 1942 we were moved to a place called Kashi.
Where we were filling the valleys on this site there was a lot of little streams and here we used to find frogs and gudgeon. In this camp the ground was full with fleas and we had to roll them off of our legs before we got under our blanket.
One night now and again if we were fast enough we got a bath!!! 200 men and two tubs filled with water and a fire underneath and if you weren’t first the water just got dirtier and dirtier with six or seven of us in at a time.
Food was always a tricky problem to share out. The fish soup was made up of the whole fish thrown in the water with soya paste and a little salt but it was a strict rota — who was first out of the bucket one day was last the next and so on. The last three or four only got bones, gills and eyeballs. Everybody’s eyes were on the serving out.
After a few months we moved on to what was to be our last camp. Here we were working on the land growing watermelon, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, ridge cucumbers and many other things in the paddy fields — rain or shine. We were told, by Winghi that the two tunnels in the rock we had dug were for us if the Americans landed on Japan. This was getting very close as the big bombers were coming over and on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima the Japanese started grouping and talking and we had to be extra careful now because the beatings were getting more regular.
One day we were working and we saw the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. We heard it and saw the mushroom go up and we thought they had hit an ammunition dump. We knew the way they were acting that it was good for us and the next day, we worked again and that was it. The guards disappeared whilst they could except for Winghi. He knew he was safe, as he had done so much for us.
The next thing to happen was the B29s came over looking for the camps. The bomb bay doors were open and out came the pallets of food and medicine on parachutes.
After a few days and a few more parachute drops of food we had some Americans come into the camp from Okinowa and then it was time to leave.
Two or three of the planes had the bomb bay doors closed but not fastened and the men layed on them and as we made our way we saw our fellow POW’s fall down into the ocean as the bloody doors had opened. They had survived three and a half years of suffering.
Arriving in Okinawa we were all given new clothes and had a good bath and soak, the first one for three and a half years and then we had a medical. I weighed 6st 5lbs. We had a nice bed to sleep in and insect free. After two days we were flown to the Philippines in the bomb bays of the B29s.
Then onto the American troop ship the Admiral Hughes and up to Victoria, Canada.
After two or three weeks we set off again to Vancouver and then by train right across Canada at Halifax we boarded the Ille de France and over to Southampton and home via Liverpool Street.
When I got off the train at Waltham Cross station I walked out of the station with my kit bag well loaded and there was a policeman with his bicycle. This was about 11.30pm and he came up and asked where I was going and I asked him if he could get me a taxi. He said there were none around but he said that there was a local companies staff bus due he told me he would ride up and stop it and wait until I arrived and off on the last part of my journey arriving home at midnight on the 31st October 1945.
I had not let anyone know that I was on the way home, as I did not know what to expect. Anyway May and I fixed our wedding day for the 22nd December 1945.
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