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From RAF boy apprentice to prisoner of the Japanese

by Amanda Johnston

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Archive List > Royal Air Force

Contributed by 
Amanda Johnston
People in story: 
Eric Stanley Johnston
Location of story: 
Java and Haruku
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
04 December 2005

Like many of his generation, my father had to grow up quickly in the lead up to WWII. Within six years of joining the RAF at the age of 16 as a "Trenchard's Brat", he was to find himself facing the wrath of a brutal and often irrational enemy in Japanese POW camps.

Born in Toxteth, Liverpool in 1920, the third of two brothers and two sisters, his father was a chief butcher on the White Star Line ships sailing to New York. Eric was already embarked on a technical course when he attended the Toxteth Technical Institute for his secondary education, and in 1936, at the age of “sweet 16”, he signed up as a Royal Air Force ‘boy apprentice’ (as he used to describe it) and began a three-year training at the No. 1 School of Technical Training at RAF Halton in Buckinghamshire. He elected to train as a Fitter/Armourer and training for this continued at RAF Cosford in 1938. There was also a spell at Eastchurch in Kent.
All RAF boys had a nickname in those days and his moniker became the somewhat unimaginative but typical “Johnny”, which stuck long after the war to the extent that I was unaware of his real name being Eric until I was quite a way through childhood!
Two of his ex-Halton buddies also told me that his nickname was “Tech Johnston”, an ‘accolade’ which he earned because he preferred reading technical manuals and publications as opposed to the ‘blood and thunder’ novels which were popular at the time — a classic case of one’s work and hobbies being one and the same.

One interesting anecdote he once told me was that, one day he and his fellow trainees were busy at their tasks in the Halton workshops when they were asked to stand to attention. In walked three German officers in full regalia. Imagine their shock and surprise. I thought that I had imagined this but I have checked with Halton's "34 Club" founder and archivist and he tells me this is a fact. I believe that it was 1937 and included Generals Milch and Modell. Apparently it was an official 'fact-finding' tour of RAF bases and other military installations which did of course, have the blessing of the British Government, although there were those in their midst who were wary of the German motives!

Eric always spoke very fondly of his days at RAF Halton, where there was strict discipline but plenty of camaraderie. When his ‘class’, the 34th Entry, graduated in August 1939, it was of course on the very eve of war in Europe. They were in many ways a ‘doomed generation’. Many of the widows of the Great War were now to wave goodbye to their beloved sons to meet whatever fate awaited them on battlefields across the world.

He left Halton at the rank of Corporal, was promoted to Sergeant in 1940 and became a Flight Sergeant in September 1941. I know from Eric’s RAF papers that he volunteered and was specially recommended for training as an Airman Pilot, and can only assume that this was not followed up because of his lengthy technical training. His first posting took him to 24 MU, Tern Hill on 16th August 1939, and this was followed by his transfer to the Middle East on 9th November 1941 and assignment to 211 Squadron on 11th January 1942.

I am not sure of the history with regard to the addition of 211 Squadron’s “new boys” and I can only assume that the sorely decimated strength of the Squadron, having suffered severe losses in Greece, had to be made up from new blood rather quickly given the new theatre of war opening up in the Far East. In any case, Eric first embarked for the Middle East where the Squadron was then based, and on 16th January 1942 the ground crew of 211 and 84 Squadrons left Helwan to board the HMT Yoma bound for the Far East. As we know, they never made it to Singapore which was already on the verge of surrender towards mid-February 1942. Instead the Yoma was forced to dock in Oosthaven on Sumatra with the intention of transporting the men to the P2 (Palembang) airfield. Their stay there was short as the Japanese paratroopers began to land around 14th February. The men were moved on once again to the island of Java where their various fates awaited them. Subsequently captured by the Japanese and becoming one of Churchill’s “Stayed Behind in Java”, his time spent as part of 211 Squadron was therefore extremely short but momentously eventful.

Unfortunately, my father died in 1989 when I was still in my early 20s so I never had the opportunity to discuss the details of these times with him. It is only in more recent years that I have been able to fill in the details thanks to the many ex-FEPOWs I have been fortunate enough to meet who have described the circumstances and conditions of the time they spent as prisoners of war.

The situation on Java in the last part of February and the first week of March is unclear in terms of individual movements, but it seems that 211 gathered at a tobacco plantation in Poerwokerto. Some were lucky enough to board the very last boats going out of Tjilatjap, such as the Tung Song. Eric’s name cannot have been on the list and at Tasikmalaya in Central Java, along with thousands of others, he began 3½ years of cruel captivity at the hands of the invading Japanese on 8th March 1942 . However, his notes show that he was ‘re-captured’ on 24th March 1942, so I can only assume that in the spirit of the RAF and 211, he and some others ‘melted away’ from the groups at Tasikmalaya to try to make it down to Tjilatjap, but as we now know, the final boat that was ever going to make it had already sailed.

The first camp at Semarang in northern Java, where there were 200 RAF men must, in retrospect, have seemed like a veritable picnic to what was to come later. There were 200 men sent to build an airstrip — 100 in each of two huts. This draft is described in the books “My Life with the Samurai” by Tony Cowling, “Prisoner Doctor” by Dr. R. Philps and “The Emperor’s Guest” by Don Peacock.

Later, in April 1943, large numbers of men were marshalled at Jaarmarkt Camp in Sourabaya, Java. Eric was one of 2,070 sent on a draft to the Moluccan or ‘Spice’ Island of Haruku. Docking at Ambon in early May 1943, just before his 23rd birthday, they arrived on the muddy shores in the monsoon season to find that they were to build their huts from bamboo and set up what meagre facilities they could. A full account of this and the other Moluccan drafts is given in accurate and stark detail in the excellent book, “Spice Island Slaves” by Prof. Leslie Audus, but I will continue with the bare details here. The British commanding officer requested permission from the Japanese to build a latrine over the sea to avoid the spread of disease. The refusal of this request meant that the overflowing latrines and the generally cramped and foul conditions of the makeshift camp led to a general outbreak of dysentery, which along with the other diseases from which the men were suffering — malaria, beri beri and diphtheria to name a few — along with the general state of malnutrition, saw to it that of the 2,070 men who arrived on this draft, around one fifth died within the first few months. On top of all this, we have yet to mention their reason for being there. They were forced by the Japanese to hack an airstrip out of the coral of the island in order to build an airstrip (allegedly within range of Australia). The weakened state of the men meant that, six months into the draft, there were only around 300 to 400 anywhere near “fit” enough to go on the working parties to the airstrip.

When they were eventually allowed to build the sea latrine some months later, the dysentery epidemic was brought under greater control and the death rate slowed down. The Japanese sergeant responsible for this atrocity, Gunso Mori, was later held accountable for this and other war crimes at the post-war Far East War Crimes Tribunal and was hanged in Singapore in 1946, along with the camp commander, Lt. Col. Anami. It has been estimated by Prof. Audus that sadly only 40% of those sent to toil as slaves on Haruku would have returned to the shores of England in 1945, and Eric was fortunate enough to be one of them.

Eric was released from Tanjong Pagar POW camp in Singapore on 5th September 1945 and returned home to the UK by ship, the HMT Almanzora, arriving home in October 1945. Following his repatriation procedure and medical examination at RAF Cosford, he remained in the RAF until 1950 to complete his 14 years.

Eric died in November 1989 having passed on little of his experiences to his family, as is so often the case. As we are all well aware, this was a modest generation, achieving great feats in ensuring freedom for us — the subsequent generations, without discussing or dwelling on their bravery and suffering. I am therefore grateful to all those who have helped me to piece together his story retrospectively from the scant information that I have in my possession.

Amanda Johnston

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