- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Frank Dunn and Frank Fryett
- Location of story:
- Mainly in the Far East
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 13 November 2003
My eldest brother, Frank, left home in Buckley, North Wales, in 1937 to join the RAF as a 17-year-old boy entrant. Already an enthusiastic amateur radio builder, he trained as a wireless operator/air gunner at RAF Cranwell in Norfolk, and was posted on completion to No. 34 (B) squadron which flew Bristol Blenheim Mk I fighter bombers.
Singapore, August 1939
The squadron was posted to Singapore in August 1939 and war was declared as they leisurely flew east, via France, Egypt, the Gulf and India. The following two years were uneventful and punctuated only by routine training flights until December 1941 when Japan declared war on the USA and the Commonwealth. About this time, our London cousin Frank Fryett, who was stationed in a local anti-aircraft battery, told us he had been posted overseas and hinted at a possible meeting with his cousin Frank.
Meanwhile, No. 34 Squadron was fighting the Japanese over Siam and Malaya and, after suffering many ground losses, retreated to the island of Sumatra [Indonesia]. Here brother Frank was involved in the little-known battle of Palembang, when RAF Hurricanes tried unsuccessfully to fight off the Japanese attacks aimed at capturing the Royal Dutch Shell oilfields. Frank managed to escape to the nearby island of Java on the last, overladen boat to cross the strait.
Hospitalised in Batavia, Java
After trench digging in Sumatra, Frank developed a hernia and was treated first in a hospital in Batavia and then in a safer hilltop hospital, inland. He discharged himself from there and joined others trekking on foot over the mountains to a possible escape to Australia. The journey eased when they picked up an Australian Army convoy with the same idea, but disaster struck when the trucks took a wrong turning in the mountains to finish up in a dead end with no possible turn around. The trucks went over the edge into a ravine including the pay truck full of Dutch silver guilders. Arrival on the south coast brought no better news with an absence of escape boats, so surrender became unavoidable.
The prisoners were transported back to Batavia where meanwhile Frank Fryett's troopship had sailed into port only to be captured immediately. He was placed in a rubber plantation camp where, to his amazement, he spotted his cousin, my brother Frank who was very ill with dysentery. Cousin Frank had been a streetwise, Fleet Street reporter before the war and was very daring. He soon riskily bartered eggs and other food from the natives to give to his my brother, which probably saved his life.
Transferred to Japan
Cousin Frank was selected for slave labour transfer to Japan. Vowing to stay together, my brother riskily volunteered to take the place of another airman who sadly died in a later convoy. Arriving eventually in a camp on Kyushu, the cousins were sent to work on coal mine faces with the minimum of food and scant clothing in the bitter winter weather. The men did their bit for our war effort however by sabotaging equipment at great risk to themselves. The Japanese guards treated them badly and tricked the Red Cross inspectors into thinking treatment was good by sitting the men down at a Christmas dinner, which was whisked away as soon as the inspectors left. Frank Fryett was the only one to taste anything!
When American planes started to bomb the mainland, the POWs knew things were changing but, with their camp situated between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they were unaware of the significance of the big explosions in August 1945. When it all ended, they searched the camp and found a hut full of mail from home and Red Cross food parcels, which kept them going until the Americans started to drop supplies in September. Brother Frank was down to 7st 12lb at this point.
Bussed to Nagasaki, after the bomb
Ignorant of the contamination risks they were taking, they were bussed to Nagasaki for transfer to Okinawa in an American aircraft carrier where their body weights quickly increased under US hospitality! After an Okinawa to Manila trip by air, they sailed across the Pacific to Seattle, from where they transferred to a Canadian hospital train. Warmly wrapped for the trip over the Rockies, they arrived in New York to board the Queen Mary (empty of returning US troops), and sailed into Southampton — this was six years after my brother had set out from Norfolk.
While all this was happening in the Far East, at home brother Frank had been posted missing, believed killed, and my father died in 1943 not knowing what had happened to his son. In late 1943 a partly burnt Red Cross postcard turned up and we knew then that he was alive. Others of his friends were not so lucky for, of four close school pals, Frank was the only one to survive the war.
Home, married and continued service in the RAF
Frank resumed his friendship with his pre-war girl friend Eunice and they married in February 1947, coincidentally on the anniversary of Singapore's fall. Frank completed his 22 year RAF engagement but could not somehow sever the link and worked as a civilian radio repair inspector at RAF Sealand until his retirement.
They live near Chester and he still contacts ex-POWs from his radio room, which ironically is equipped with Japanese products! In 2002, at the age of 82, he won the annual RAF Cranwell trophy for promoting amateur radio communication between the Club's members. My souvenir of these adventures however is a game of 'Monopoly', which he picked up on that awful Liberty ship crossing of the Pacific in 1945. Of course the money is all in dollars and one rides on the B and O Railroad and walks on the Boardwalk!
A more detailed, four-page version of this (with a 1945 photograph) is available on email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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