- Contributed by
- People in story:
- George Brown
- Location of story:
- Basically in the Far East
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 07 November 2003
"Missing, presumed killed in action." It was the second telegram. Six months before another had said that my brother was "missing in action."
Our mother read it and it dropped to the floor. Her face ashen, she said firmly, "No, it's not true. I KNOW he is alive." No tears, no hysterics, just a quiet certainty. I was nearly eleven years younger than George and he was my hero. Dad and he had joined up before the outbreak of war in 1939. He was only seventeen at the time.
Dad spent most of the war at various headquarters within easy reach of home, but George had quite a different war. Starting with a posting to the Orkney Islands, off the North Coast of Scotland, he was soon required to do more "active service" in a much more dangerous area. But even on his way home on embarkation leave, the troopship was sunk and, although hundreds of lives were lost, George was rescued.
Soon he was on his way towards the Middle East. The destination was Bazra, where the oil pipelines were being threatened. It was December 1941 and news that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbour caused a change of plan and the convoy headed for Singapore.
"We knew that stopping the Japs would be a hopeless task," he told me recently. "Our mobile ack ack had to protect the airport and the few RAF fighters, but the constant bombing made that impossible." Sadly he continued, "The battleships 'Repulse' and 'Prince of Wales' blasted the shore with their 16-inch guns, but they were being bombed relentlessly." After over sixty years the memories are still painful. "Those poor sailors had no chance," George said quietly. "We could see them from our position. Both ships were sunk."
There was a long pause before he went on. "We were ordered to destroy our guns and evacuate Singapore. What was left of our regiment reached Sumatra, where there were a few skirmishes before we retreated, making for the coast. Several months later we made it to Jave, dug in and waited."
"We were overjoyed when we saw six Blenheim bombers overhead, but it all changed when hundreds of Japanese paratroopers spilled out of them. They had captured the planes. It was over. We had to capitulate and ended up in a field with machine guns pointed at us. We all thought, 'This is it!'"
He and his comrades were now prisoners of war and George had just turned twenty.
Mum continued with her stoical belief that George was alive and, six months after the second telegram, a momentous postcard arrived at our home. It was just after six in the morning when an agitated, insistent knocking awoke us. The postman was waving the card. "I brought it straight over," he gasped. "I knew you'd want it right away!"
Beneath the Red Cross sign, the card read - "I am safe and in good health. I am a prisoner of war in Japan and am being well treated." The signature "George" was written by his own hand.
"I knew it. I knew it," was all Mum could say. Still no tears, just relief. The War Office confirmation letter arrived the next day.
For months, George and the others were shipped around the Pacific until, finally, they arrived on the mainland of Japan. It was only then that the International Red Cross was given their names and the British Government informed.
Fukuoka was on the North West coast of Kyushu, Japan's southmost island. The journey over the Pacific Ocean had been a nightmare and that nightmare continued for another three years. The prisoners worked down the local coalmine. Escape was impossible. Inland, any fugitive would have been picked up in no time, while to the west, the Korea Strait and the Sea of Japan confirmed the hopelessness of their situation.
Food was in short supply - rice and hot water. The occasional food parcel was consumed by the guards, but on one Christmas the prisoners were given meat - skinned dogs! However horrific it may sound to us, they did eat them and who could blame them? Life was made just bearable by the occasional heavily censored letter from home.
Discipline was harsh, with beatings for the slightest misdemeanour and even the occasional execution for "serious misconduct". On one occasion, and for the most trivial offence, George was made to stand to attention for many hours, arms outstretched, holding a bucket of water in each hand!
The war in the west ended in May 1945, but Mum's comments at the time were bitter. "Why all the celebrations?" she said. "There is still a war on. What about all our boys out east, does nobody care about them?"
On August 6th 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, 150 miles north east of Fukuoka. The prisoners saw the large mushroom cloud as it rose high into the sky. They knew it was something big. "Perhaps they've hit an oil refinery," was one suggestion. A few days later, the second atomic bomb devastated Nagasaki, approximately 100 miles south west of the camp and again they saw the mushroom cloud, but this time there was a silence, an inexplicable eerieness which they could not fathom.
The next morning, August 10th, they knew the war was over. The guards were gone, the gates were open and they were free. But they were trapped - there was nowhere to go. Frequently, American planes flew overhead, dropping supplies, clothing, letters and various other necessities, such as vitamins and medicines, but no ground forces arrived. For weeks they waited, not really understanding why they had not been shipped out.
The authorities were in a quandary. Fukuoka was approximately halfway between the two cities devastated by the deadliest weapon then known to man and no one knew what fall-out the entire area had been subjected to. So the prisoners were left there for a time. Eventually, the ground forces arrived to evacuate them. All they wanted was to get home, but for two more months they were tested for radiation and other possible side-effects of having been in the vicinity of two atomic bombs. Travelling via the United States and Canada, they finally arrived at Southampton.
At 7.30 on the morning of November 20th 1945, over six months after the V.E. celebrations and over three since the Far Eastern conflict had ended, our door bell rang. We were not dressed and the 'reception committee' of friends and neighbours, arranged for noon, had not assembled. George stood on the doorstep, kitbag at his feet and his hat at a jaunty angle. With a huge smile he said only three words, "I'm home, Mum". It was then that Mum finally let the tears of joy and relief flow freely.
Now at the age of 81, George and Ada, his wife of 57 years, have returned to their native city of Edinburgh after living in Canada for thirty five years. He must be one of the few westerners who remember at first hand the dropping of not one, but two atomic bombs.
As for Mum, she never did express the slightest doubt that her son was alive and, years later, when asked about her unwavering faith and hope, her reply was unequivocal. "It was not hope or faith, I just KNEW he was alive."
Sixth sense, extra-sensory perception or just sheer obstinacy - who knows? But one thing is certain, George survived an horrendous few years in his young life and the knowledge that the love and support of his family at home surely sustained him.
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