- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Leslie JAMES; Hilda RATCLIFFE; George EMERSON (fellow soldier)
- Location of story:
- Johores Bahru, Singapore; Tipton, Staffordshire; Much Wenlock, Shropshire
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 01 September 2005
The Shropshire Branch of the Burma Star Association march down The Mall past HM The Queen & HRH Prince Philip on the occassion of the 50th Anniversary of VJ Day 1995
"My War with the Forgotten Army" (Part 1) can be found at A5382696.
As we left the airfield at Singapore we saw so many of the poor souls who had been imprisoned in Changi Jail, they looked like skeletons. We thought we were thin until we saw them - I will never forget that sight.
A few yards further on we saw a platoon of airborne troops marching a crowd of Jap soldiers to be interned, one sensed that they would have liked to inflict on them some of the cruelty they had dished out to our lads. I think the officers and NCOs realised this and kept a tight rein on them.
We stayed overnight in Singapore and then made our way to the causeway which separates Singapore and Malaya. Once over this we entered a small place called Johores Bahru. This was to be our home for a while, as we had a lot of work to do. We made our billets in the Sultan of Johores bodyguards barracks and tried to sleep when we could. Our job was to provide petrol for the incoming troops.
Early the next morning we headed across the causeway to the naval dockyards. What a mess the Japs had left this in! The large petrol storge tanks, some larger than a house, were what we focussed on. All the valves and pipes had been smashed along with the larger Chrysler pumps. We had a lot of work to do in a very short time. We worked day and night on very little food and hardly any water as the Japs had polluted most of the water with sewage. This meant a ration of just a fraction over a pint of water for each man which is not much when working in temperatures of 118 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. Our rations consisted of a spoonful of corned beef and 1 hardtack biscuit for midday and the same for our evening meal! (I suppose it stopped us from getting too fat.)
We finally got the plant and pumps in working order and we expected the first sea tanker the next morning. This arrived on time, so we pumped all the petrol they had into our first tank. Now we had the fuel for the first troops to arrive.
From now on we should receive 2 ships a day, but first we had to get rid of all the Jap fuel as it was useless in our trucks. The plan was to empty a tanker then refill it with Jap fuel and send it to Palembang in Borneo, this worked well and we got rid of the bad fuel. We still had to build a large filling station, not only to fill the lorry tanks but also the bowsers to supply in bulk to the units up country. We also had to take turns in manning 2 islands "Pulau Bukom" and "Palau Samba". As near as I can remember Sambu was about an hour by boat from Colliers Quay.
We usually had 2 men on each Island for 2 weeks. Duties included supervision of loading and unloading of the sea-going tankers either to drop anchor and wait for a berth or standby and wait for a pilot. It was quite a lonely job so no one really wanted to do it. My pal and I decided to do it for a few extra weeks but finished up doing 9 months. During this time we twice had to radio to Singapore for help.
On one occassion we had a motorised junk turn up with a Jap crew wanting petrol, they didn't know the War was over by this time so they were escorted back to Singapore by patrol boat. On the second occassion we had a message to say that Indonesians had attacked a neighbouring island and opened fire. This time a platoon of Buffs (The Third Regiment of Foot - Royal East Kent Regiment) arrived and stayed with us for a week. It turned out to be quite funny as they arrived with a Bren Gun carrier and the only transport on our Island was an old bicycle and that was as much as the roads had been made to take. Consequently they could neither land or use them so they had to take them back.
At the end of 9 months we returned to our unit, it was good to be back with the lads. At this time we were having trouble with the Communists, they had already threatened to fire two of our depots and were raiding our reserve supply of fuel which we stored in a number of rubber plantations. These reserves consisted of jerry cans but also a large number of 45 gallon drums. These dumps were guarded by Indian troops but we had to take our turn. By the end of the month the Communists had managed to set fire to one of our depots. In the fire I lost one of my bush shirts in which was my paybook so I needed to have a copy made and signed by our Captain, I still have this paybook although now it is slightly tattered.
An emergency was called and orders came through from HQ for all troops to go out in threes and armed at all times with a rifle and two 50 round bandoleers of ammo.
It's funny how many of us remember some of the funnier things that happened rather than the more gruesome. One I remember well - I had been out on night patrol so in the morning I was trying to get a few hours sleep (my bed was an old door on 4 tins) when I it started to rock I woke up, when I opened my eyes I nearly fell ot of bed. Sitting on the bottom of my bed was a very large Orang-utan rocking back and forth surrounded by a crowd of the lads laughing their heads off. The animal's keeper was with him, it was funny after, but not at the time.
It was now 1947 and although I had enlisted for the duration of the War the Government in their wisdom had made a new law changing this to the duration of emergency and as Malaya had been under emergency since 1945 one could not argue the point.
At last in March 1947 I went to Nee Soon Transit Camp to prepare for going home. One of the main things we had to do was to attend what was called "Boat Call". This was a parade they had three times a day to let us know when a boat was due and who was going on it, it was very important that we did not miss any. I was at Nee Soon for 6 weeks but in that time in addition to still doing guards and fire pickets we also had to get issued with thick khaki uniforms for our return to a colder climate in England. At last the day we had all been waiting for arrived, it was time to pack our kit and board the lorry that would take us to the docks. In a way it was sad, as I was the only one from our unit leaving because I had done more service than the other lads, they had to wait a little longer.
We arrived at the docks and caught sight of the ship which was to take us home, the "SS ONTARIO", a 27,000 ton troopship which would be home for the next 6 weeks or more. It seemed more like 6 months as we called at Ceylon and Port Said, but the next stop was England.
We docked at 5 a.m. on a cold morning, we were so near but yet so far as they did not let us disembark until 7 p.m. that evening. We were rushed onto a train and sped off throughh the night reaching York at 5 a.m. the next morning. We had something to eat before going into the demob stores to get our civvy clothes. Just before we did the RSM asked if anyone wanted to re-enlist, I said he must be joking and hurried into the stores. I was in luck for a change and was one of the first in the stores to choose a suit, shirt, tie and mackintosh. It took me about 20 minutes then I went to York Station to wait for the train that would take me home. I just could not believe that I was going home after almost three and a half years away.
I had not been able to let anybody know I was on my way home so everybody was surprised to see me. Mum was delighted and offered to show me where Hilda had moved to, Mum left me at the gate, I knocked on the door, it opened, Hilda was speechless. I cannot describe the look on her face she was truly flabbergasted. I had 2 weeks leave, we spent this time visiting friends and relations.
Hilda had put a deposit on a house whilst I was away so we decided to get married around Christmas; it had to be Boxing Day because Hilda's family had a business and this was the only day they had free. As we were married in the same year as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip we were invited to Buckingham Palace in 1997.
In spite of saying I would join nothing again - not even a Christmas Club - I joined the Staffordshire County Police Reserve, as a serving officer in charge of a sub-station. I served for 17 years and was promoted to the rank of sergeant; I enjoyed every minute of my service. I went into engineering for a few years until I suffered a severe heart attack, after several strokes we moved to Much Wenlock. Much Wenlock is a smashing place, very old and steeped in history and the people are very friendly.
We have had a very happy life, we have 2 adopted children Jennifer and Andrew. We have 4 grandsons, 2 grandaughters and 2 great-grandchildren.
I am the proud owner of the Burma Star Medal and in 1995 when they celebrated the 50th Anniversary of VJ Day in London, I marched with the rest of the lads from our branch of the Burma Star Association up the Mall where the Queen and Prince Philip took the salute. What a wonderful day, one which we will never forget. This was the day when we were not the "Forgotten Army" a title we carried for a long time. Our monthly meeting of the Burma Star Association is a chance for us all to have a chat and a drink after the meeting. We are all getting older and our numbers are getting less but we are still comrades who will help each other and always will.
"WHEN YOU GO HOME, TELL THEM OF US AND SAY,
FOR YOUR TOMORROW, WE GAVE OUR TODAY"
Note: This story has been extracted from "The Life and Times of Les James" written by my daughter in 1999.
Story: This story has been submitted to the People's War site by Shropshire Library Service on behalf of Leslie JAMES (author) and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
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