- Contributed by
- Neal Wreford
- People in story:
- John Swann
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 18 April 2005
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We were stationed in England at different places - namely:
Gorleston Holiday Camp
Hawick in Scotland
and then to the boat in Liverpool.
We sailed in November, 1940 to Halifax, Canada, and changed to American liners with an American escort. We sailed via Trinidad to Ceylon, then on to Cape Town and Bombay.
We were bound for Basra to guard the oil, but it does seem that because the Japanese were coming down to Malaya, Singapore was our destination.
The local inhabitants escaped on our ships with escorts, of course. There were no planes and no naval compliment.
I was one of thirty in the Signal Platoon and we gathered round for a singsong the night before we went into action.
The Japanese cut our lines at one point and I was one of four chosen to repair them. We just managed to get the job done when we were fired on. I got behind a big tree but as we were soon going downhill we managed to get out of the line of fire and back to headquarters. We were in action ten days when we were told to lay down our arms. I threw my rifle in the river. We seemed to be in good battle order but the order came to "lay down your arms, every man for himself." The next day we heard the Japanese had cut the water off for all Singapore, evidently they did the same in Hong Kong.
Being taken Prisoner of War our first job was to dig up the golf course to make a shrine for the Japanese killed in action.
Next we were transported - thirty to a cattle truck, and to keep it clean we had to hang the chaps out to use the toilet.
This journey took some time and then we had to march through the jungle, three hundred to a camp, so that each squad made a portion of the track. I worked with Harry Wickers, he is now in Australia but we keep in touch to this day.
We were given a basket between two, and two handles. We were in a chain gang and carrying soil and depositing it to make a base for the railway lines. Food was rice three times a day, and vegetable so-called "stew' in the evenings, after a hot day in the sun.
The Bridge on the River Kwai was built by sheer brute force. Trees were sawn at the bottom or dug out and a rope was attached to the tree top and pulled down by sheer weight of numbers. In fact, one tree prodded a school friend, Ernie Outlaw and he was blinded in one eye. Then the trees were shaped for a bridge and knocked into the ground by again pulling on a rope with a sort of weight on the top.
I was at Kanscanbure and when the railway was complete and we were transported to Nakhon Nayok I was one of the first to ride on a train over the Bridge which, indeed, swayed somewhat!
As the clothes wore up it was just a case of wearing a g-string. A hat was a must.
We did have tea with no sugar or milk every hour. Water came from the River Kwai or fresh rain in the monsoons.
Because of the three months of rain and the smoke in the cookhouse which was unbearable, vacancies occurred, so I volunteered for a job in the cookhouse and after being down to seven stones in weight I managed to survive.
We were paid ten cents a day and five cents bonus, paid every ten days. We built our own hut and five of us pooled our earnings, so if one was sick, the rest carried him.
I was at Tarsoa and the camp butcher. Sometimes we had a pig to kill or snakes, or not very often a beast of some sort, mainly for the Japanese.
We had Korean guards. The Japanese were just in charge. One day Motearmar said, "Butch - you come." And took four of us across the river in a boat and shot a buffalo. It was pulling a Thai's cart, the Thai remonstrated, but to no avail. We proceeded to pull the beast across the river, but we could not lift it out of the water so I had to stand waist high and gut and dress it in the river. It was enormous, but we hung some of it on trees in the jungle and the sun dried it so the flies could not infect it. There were thousands of flies. I cooked it in a Klolly for about twelve hours so it was tender and as it lasted about four days all the camp had some meat with their rice and jungle stew!
Eventually I was given a job in the Japanese officers' mess - the three of us and one boy from Malaya. They were given decent food and their cooks were changed every three months. Once we were given some prawns and crabs to peel and the Korean cook said "Altogether finish!" , so we threw all of it in the bin. When 'mishi' time came they thought we had eaten it and we all got a smack. In their army the senior rank hits the one rank below across the face. If they hit us they stood us in the river so we could not move.
If you pricked your leg on bamboo it soon turned septic and part of your leg would be sawn off, but the Medical Officer did have a special, enclosed space for this with a small green mesh. My ulcer got as big as half-a-crown, and I stood in the river to wash and little fish attacked the wound, and ate all the puss. I was lucky because the Red Cross dropped cigarettes and thalidomide tablets and one of these cured my ulcer.
Eventually the railway was completed. It cost twenty thousand lives and the men were transferred back to where the railway was started.
I heard a local chap, a twin named Dougie Miller, was very ill with beri-beri, so I went to see him and he was lying on the floor. I stood near his feet and he knew my voice, but he said "John, come near my head," because his belly was all swelled up through malnutrition, and of course he could not see me. He lived a few days.
Stan Marshall, who was a real character, also had beri-beri and asked me to take him into the jungle and wrap him in his blanket and leave him there. He was a gem of a chap from Nottingham and a comic, and a good footballer.
Another friend of mine from Mutford - John Sturman - had cholera. This was so contagious you had to take yourself into the dense jungle and wait to die as Stan Marshall.
Captain Gripper in our platoon took his men in their tanks through long grass where the Japanese were hiding and Earnest Asworth, who worked at the Eastern Coach works had his throat cut with a sword.
A few days after we surrendered our first job was to bury all those killed in action. At twenty-two years' old it was not very nice.
Our first job in captivity was to dig up the golf course at Buka Tima and build a shrine to the Japanese killed in action. John Bartram made up the words for a song which is now in the Norfolk Museum in Norwich. It was set to the tune of "The man who broke the bank in Monte Carlo."
As we stroll along the Golf Course
With an independent air
You'll hear them all declare
He must be a millionaire
With ten cents a day and five cents bonus
The Japanese to feed and clothe us
We're the boys who built the shrine at Buka Tima.
A few days before the surrender we stopped for a night's rest and were told to dig a trench in two's. My friend, Walter Stone, and I chose the front birth and proceeded to dig until nightfall. We had to take turns to keep guard for two hours during the night and each pair had to sit in our trench, so we were changing trenches all night. At first light I said to my comrade that we should move to our trench and sleep. This was 7.00 a.m., at 7.30 a.m. a shell hit the place we had just left and killed Private Harry J. Smith from Gillingham. He had recently married a young lady from Thurlton. I searched the war memorials near Beccles for fifty years, and eventually located it in the church at Thurlton. My grandson, Jason, has recently been on honeymoon and visited the War Graves in Singapore and found Harry's name there.
Things seemed to get a bit easier and when the atom bombs were dropped the Japanese all fled the camps and we were left to our own devices. I was transported to Nakhon Nyok where we were to await our troops. The first chaps we saw were an Officer and his batman, when they descended by parachute, and his first words were -"Hello chaps" and he proceeded to put his monocle in!
We were dropped provisions and given money from the Red Cross, with cigarettes and medical supplies and were allowed to get a ride in a longer cart to the nearest village.
We were a group of seven and six went to the brothel! I just stood there waiting - it was next to a theatre. A lovely Thai actress, Sonia Chiraponda, said to me "Soldier, you no go in bad house. You come." Jack turned up and we went into their place and they fed us and waited on us 'hand and foot' as the saying is, every day. When we were due to leave for Bankok, Sonia said "If you stay with me in Thailand I will keep you forever and you will never work again." However, I had married while on embarkation leave. We left in a truck for Bankok, then flew to Rangoon where we got a boat for home.
On the boat, the Ormonde, I met a member of the crew who was at school with me, called Tommy Trundle. He lived just around the corner from me.
My best friend was Wally Stone - we were born within two days of each other and were together during our time in England and captivity, but we got separated on release.
My wife was a leading WREN and stationed at the Bethel Church, opposite the fish market in Lowestoft. When the train arrived at Lowestoft she was at the station to meet me with all her friends. It was a pleasant surprise and so nice to be home. My mother-in-law arranged a party for me at the Marquis of Lome public house in Carlton Road. It had a nice big room for events.
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