- Contributed by
- People in story:
- John William Close
- Location of story:
- Singapore and Thailand
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 28 December 2005
JOHN CLOSE — JAPANESE POW Part II
Sick with Cholera
A climax came one day when there was a clump of 100 ft tall bamboos with a 6” diameter in the way of the railroad. A Korean commanded John to use his axe to cut the bamboos down. John had already cut two and found them very tough; he decided he might as well run the risk of drinking water straight from the river rather than use all his energy cutting the rest of the bamboos. Normally there was someone boiling water (for 20 minutes) to purify it, but on this occasion there was none available. As a result of drinking the water straight from the river John contracted cholera. At this time his unit was on a 12-day march, having completed a section of the railroad and moving on to a section farther along (there were many units each building a different section of the railroad, and taking about 2 — 3 weeks to build a section). On the sixth day of the march (in August 1943) John realised he had cholera. Most men died after 24 hours with cholera but he managed to march for another two days. Three men were very sick. A Korean was bent on getting the party to the destination dead or alive, and he would have made the able-bodied carry the sick or dead. On the eighth night the Japanese General in charge of the camp at Khato instructed that the three sick men must be left at the camp. (John found the Japanese were more humane than the Korean soldiers working under them.) One Private died the afternoon of arrival, the sergeant the next morning. John was put in quarantine and given the blanket from the dead Private.
After two weeks in quarantine John was sent by boat down the River Kwai to a camp at Chung Kai (Thailand) where any sick POWs were sent. After about a week, and still very sick, he decided he wanted one more swim or wash before he died. He crawled down to the river and floated. By good fortune a boat carrying British Red Cross officers was in the area and two officers had come to assess the situation. By now the Japanese were faring badly in the War, and this was probably why the Red Cross was able to come to Japanese-held territory without harm. They decided to take John on board and called to him to swim towards them. As they dragged him on board, the skin on his right shin bone came away. He had ulcers on his body particularly his stomach. He was taken back to base camp at Nom Pla Duck (Thailand). At this time he weighed only 5 stone and had a long beard. When a Scottish doctor asked him how old he was he replied 29, and the doctor turned to his assistant and said “more like 79”. He was fed on a diet of darl (like peasoup) and 2 boiled eggs. His ulcers were treated with sulphur to dry them up, but he still had one on his back until a few years ago. He went to a Red Cross camp down river and recovered over a period of about three months. He made a pack of cards and learned to play bridge. He cut out 12 cards from one curry box and a friend supplied red and blue grease pencils to write on them. This friend, Bertie Beare, died on 15th August 1945, the day Peace was declared. John made more packs of cards and sold them for a dollar! One of the men had managed to make a wireless and they knew the Japs had lost some ships at sea and knew the Allies were dropping bombs and getting the upper hand.
Last Months as a POW
John never went back to the railroad but, along with other men who had made some recovery, he was pulled out of camp by the Japs and sent to Bankok and from there to Ubon, North Thailand, to help build an aerodrome. This was the second time he would be taken in a cattle truck on a railway for another continuous 6 days and nights journey. At Ubon the work involved digging up sandstone and loading on ox carts and taking it back to the aerodrome site to make the runway. A Thai petrol-driven “steam roller” was used to roll the sandstone. It was now July 1945 and John did just a few days work there. There was a crew from a Japanese aircraft (who had been trained by the British and spoke good English). They asked for a working party and called John over as he was seen to be an informal leader of the men (having been stickman in India). They just wanted to gloat by telling him the latest news from London: that Churchill was out and Atlee was “No. 1” as they put it. These were trained fighting men and they all wanted to take John on in arm wrestling. He beat all of them except one — and he cheated! The Japs knew they were losing the War and the POWs were transferred to other work digging an air raid shelter for the Japs’ protection from Allied bombing. The air raid shelter was covered with trees to serve as a camouflage. When the sirens sounded the POWs ran down to a green for safety as they knew the bombs would not be aimed at open spaces. The aeroplanes, which were B29s, had been bombing the bridges and the “godowns”, which were big store-sheds made of asbestos. The planes dropped messages for the POWs which said “Be patient, be brave, B29”. The POWs were in a compound with machine guns at the four corners. John thought the Japs would have used these to mow down the prisoners if the Allies had tried to free them.
However, immediately after the Americans dropped the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese captors scarpered and on 15th August 1945 Japan surrendered. Some of the British sergeant majors and senior officers went into Ubon and bought rice and vegetables “on tick” for the men. They wrote notes for the local suppliers saying the British Government would pay. They had probably been given permission to do this over the radio. A lot of men went off to find female company and sarki! One of John’s friends, George Bright was going to join them but knowing he was happily married, John called him back and George realised it would have been a mistake. The men remained in the prison camp for a further six weeks until 28th September 1945 when Colonel Toosey came to Ubon to rescue them. They were given cards to write to send home but they were only allowed to write that they were OK and not to give much other information. Col. Toosey had brought a train with enough carriages to take all the men of the 18th Division and he organised their departure from Ubon to Bankok. They were on the train 3 to 4 days and nights, and it was now that John saw some derailed trains which he felt was due to the POWs attempt at sabotaging the railway they had been forced to build. They were also travelling on a good section of railway which had been built by the Swiss before the War. On the journey John was brought to the fore to sit beside Col. Toosey; John thought this was because his sergeant major had sometimes sought his opinion as someone who had made the best of the situation as a POW. John and 3 other men asked Col. Toosey “give us a song”. At first he said he couldn’t sing but they urged him and he was persuaded to sing “My Bonnie lies over the ocean”. Through this personal contact, John came to admire Col. Toosey. The men stayed in Bankok in Nom Pla Duck Camp until they could be flown to Bombay in a plane that held only 25 people. They stayed in a camp in Bombay until a merchant ship arrived to take them to Columbo in Sri Lanka. It was the ship’s last voyage before it was scrapped. All the men were given 1 lb of tea. From here John travelled to Liverpool, landing on 11th November. The first thing he did was to buy a poppy to mark Remembrance Day. He was given a ticket for the train to Newport. Coming in to Newport, the train didn’t come right into the station, so he had to walk on the track with 2 kitbags and a haversack. The porter called him a taxi to take him to Debden. The Government had guaranteed his passage home, but he had to pay the 5/- taxi fare — so the Government didn’t quite complete its guarantee! Later John wrote a letter to the Army saying “Still in uniform after so long - wot, no suit?” He got a reply from someone with a sense of humour “Wot, no patience?”
Initially John did carpentry in a rehabilitation centre. He carved a low drop-down gateleg table; now aged 31, he designed it exactly the same as one that he had made when he was 12 and which his father sold for £5. He was out of work until June 1946 when he got a job at a gas works in Saffron Walden. His job was stoking a coke fire to produce water gas combined with coke gas. He did this for about 4 years. He then became self-employed cutting trees around Debden which was to do with tree conservation. He worked with a friend from his boyhood (the keeper’s son). They thinned the woods so only one sucker was left to each original tree so that the sucker would grow into a full sized tree. They cut the trees into 2-foot long blocks (6”x 6”, 6”x 5” and 5”x 5”) to make pit chocks to support roofs in coal mines. Other wood pieces were sent to make chipboard in Nottingham. John did this work from 1951 to 1959 when Acrow came into the market and made jacks which took away his livelihood.
Looking for new employment, John saw an advertisement for a Lorry Driver working for the Council. He applied but was told the job had been filled, and instead he was offered a job in Bridge End Gardens which was much more suitable for John. He arrived at 7.30 a.m. on the first morning and worked with someone else, but after that he was left unsupervised for the next 20 years! When his boss Mr. Fitch retired, John became Head Gardener on 16th July 1966. He grew seedlings in two old greenhouses at the top of the Gardens where the public was not allowed. Then he and his men distributed them among the town’s flower gardens on a handcart. He worked seven days a week tending the plants in the Gardens, even on Christmas Day. In the colder weather his main job was making sure the boilers were working to keep the greenhouses warm. Even after he retired in 1979 he maintained a great deal of interest in the work in the Gardens. He called over on a daily basis in the summer months and the staff were pleased to pick his brains knowing of his vast knowledge. John was interviewed for the Hidden Gardens TV series, and also met Prince Edward when he visited the Gardens in 2003.
It was while working at the Gardens that John met Dorothy whom he married in 1962. They were happily married for 35 years, living together in Bridge Street, Saffron Walden until she died in 1997. John enjoyed good health until a few months before he died, but in spite of his failing health, he refused to leave his home in Bridge Street to go into hospital. He died on 1st October 2005 shortly after his 91st birthday.
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