Where have all the years gone? An endless question we might all ask at some time or another in our lives on Earth. Thinking back through the relentless march of time, it seems hard to understand that over fifty years have now passed since the dark days of World War 2.
For those of us that fought against the Japanese in South East Asia, Singapore and other areas of the Far East, it was a particularly grim time in our young lives. Having survived the battles, many thousands were to endure three years and eight months of hell as prisoners of war faced with a cruel, vicious and implacable enemy, the Japanese Imperial Army and the Kempi-Tai (the Japanese Gestapo or Secret State Police).
Nowadays as a direct result of injuries inflicted on me I am unfortunately disabled, being partly paralysed and wheelchair bound. Life can be painful and difficult. How many times have I wished I could be the way I was before? This of course is also true of so many others who are disabled and in pain.
In life there is no way we humans can change the course of fate and in the events which follow, but far from feeling sorry for ourselves, we are able to look around and observe others who are in a worse situation than ourselves.
Despite the cruel wartime captivity, I consider myself lucky, so very lucky to have lived on this wonderful earth and survived thus far. Having said that, one of my problems has been the difficulty in sleeping, my prisoner of war experiences seem to be indelibly imprinted on or in my mind: time appears to have made no difference whatsoever.
As I write, it is now Monday 27th June 1994. Yesterday my dear wife Jean and I had the pleasure of the company of another ex-Far Eastern Prisoner of War, George Old, now nearly 81 years of age. During our captivity we met in one of the horror camps 'Tarsoe', situated on the banks of the River Kwai in the fever ridden jungles of Thailand.
When war broke out, George was training to become an artist but like so many others, he was called up for service, which changed all our young lives forever: nothing could ever be the same again!
In the notorious 'Tarsoe' prison camp, under extremely difficult and dangerous conditions, George Old sketched and painted a brilliant record of many grim operations performed by Australian surgeon, Major Moon, on a crude bamboo operating table, often without the luxury of an anaesthetic. Much of the materials used were stolen by me from the Japanese guards quarters.
After the chaos upcountry at the end of the war, George thought he would never see his wartime paintings again. He presumed that maybe with a lot of luck, Major Moon had been able return to Sydney, Australia, with the paintings.
What a joy it was for me to be able to inform him that via another fellow prisoner of war, by the name of 'Bill Piercey', now living in Melbourne Australia, who having read my book 'TAMAJAO 241', and having seen a drawing by George of me, which had been reproduced in the opening pages, endeavoured to get in touch with Major Moon, whom he also knew in the prison camp. A lot of subsequent air-mail correspondence has finally brought a breakthrough in the whereabouts of the missing paintings. I has now been revealed that after the war was over, the Australian surgeon had dug up from the ground under the crude bamboo operating table a hidden metal box which contained no less than 42 paintings by artist George Old in perfect condition.
Unfortunately, Major Moon was killed in a head on car crash driving out from the hospital where he was working as a surgeon. This ironic twist of fate took place some 12-14 years ago. The good news was that a nephew of Major Moon had been in contact with our ex-FEPOW friends in Melbourne to inform us that the wartime paintings have been placed in the national museum in Australia's capital city, Canberra. Needless to say, both George and I were quite exited to hear the good news from afar. Maybe someday in the years ahead young folk will look and learn from these paintings what life was like on the infamous 'SIAM-BURMA RAILWAY OF DEATH'.
My wife and I returned George back to his home on Canvey Island in Essex; it had been a good day. We said our goodbyes until next time and Jean drove our car home.
That night, as so many others, sleep seemed impossible as the events from the past churned through my restless memories. I can remember the bedside clock on the cabinet registering two then three then four a.m. It must have been about that time that I drifted into an uneasy and troubled sleep...
Suddenly, I was back in 'TAMAJAO 241' alongside the River Kwai, miles further upcountry beyond the notorious Hellfire Pass cutting, where we had slaved in earlier months. It all became so vivid, so real. Was this another nightmare from the past?
Four of us had escaped and been recaptured, and were now roped together by our hands. The Japanese officer, via the Thai interpreter, had informed us that as an example to the others, we were to be executed by firing squad at sun-up the next morning, after digging our own graves.
Twenty-year old Bill Slater was next to me, then came Morrie Finestein, twenty-four, Foxy Wright, twenty-three, and I had not long before becoming twenty-four years of age. Lying more or less huddled together on the rough, hard ground, sleep did not come easily. We were wide awake as dawn broke through, outside the early morning mist was lifting from the River Kwai. Our conversation was tense and low key. Each one of us was only too aware that our gang's escapades had come to an end.
Although the small bamboo hut in which we were held was guarded, during the early hours one of our fellow prisoners had managed to crawl on his belly to push a hole in the side of the hut and leave a piece of paper and a broken half pencil which by good fortune landed right by my hand on the uneven ground. Outside it was rapidly becoming daylight. I whispered to Bill "I can see enough to scribble a message on this scrap of paper. It's our last chance, our last goodbye. Maybe I can yet find a way to let our folks back home really know what happened to us". Bill mumbled "You're mad as ever, mate."
I Hurriedly scrawled: "We are being
murdered because we escaped, to all our wonderful mums, so sorry we're unable
to return. We love you all, your sons, Ernie, Bill, Morrie and Foxy, Fourth
"How the hell you gonna get that out to anyone?" demanded Bill, I thought fast before replying; "Dunno yet. There must be a way, and I've got an idea."
Feeling in the soil, I found a small round flat stone, around which I carefully folded the note, and determined to keep it clenched tightly in the palm of my right hand, come what may. Outside the bamboo hut the early morning tropical sun had broken through. We could hear the guards chanting their morning monologue as they faced the sun, bowing low to the God Emperor...Hirohito.
Instinctively, we knew our time was short. The voices of the guards drew closer. Then there was silence. A sound of crunching feet outside the entrance to the hut warned us that someone was approaching. Then came the order: "All prisoners come out."
Still roped together, we struggled to stand upright, then walked barefooted to stand to attention in the morning sun. Paraded in front of us were twelve armed guards, under the command of smartly dressed lieutenant Hiramatsu, known to Allied P.O.W's as the Executioner, who always looked the part with his sword dangling from his side. Alongside, bowing and taking orders, was the brutal and hated evil sergeant Yamanoto. Beside him stood one special guard who had four spades balanced on his shoulder.
Overhead, the deep blue sky highlighted the dark green vegetation surrounding the P.O.W camp boundary, which was dotted with exotic wild orchids and an abundance of colourful tropical flowers. Down to the west lay the broad expanse of the river kwai, shimmering in the valley, twisting and turning as the clear waters rushed downstream in a never-ending torrent. Camp commandant Captain Suzuki took the salute from his wooden platform on the dusty parade ground and looked with contempt at the four pathetic prisoners of war paraded before him. I still had the hastily scrawled note wrapped round the small stone in my clenched hand. After much more bowing and saluting, all was ready.
Orders were given for the firing squad to march the helpless victims out of 'TAMAJAO' to a clearing five or six hundred yards or more to where the execution would take place.
Under the direct threat of machine gun fire, all other prisoners of war were ordered not to speak or move as in silent horror they witness the four roped men marched forward with heads held high out out of the camp gates in a swirl of dust.
Outside the camp boundary it became necessary at one stage to walk in single file through overhanging close jungle vegetation. It was at that moment I was sure I caught a flash of yellow amongst the deep green. It rushed through my chaotic thoughts that possibly it might be the Buddhist priest who spoke English, with whom I'd had previous contact on earlier occasions when I had been outside the camp on a night mission with three of my gang.
This was no time for thought or reason. In desperation, I pretended to stumble and hurled the note and stone into the bushes. Flashing through my mind was the wistful thought that the unseen Buddhist would recover it and pass it on to the Thai underground movement. This all happened so quickly that the guards did not notice anything.
Suddenly the path widened and we emerged into a large sized clearing, shaped like a giant horseshoe. This then was the execution site. The officer in charge rapidly shouted out his orders. Suddenly the four of us were cut free from the rope and chain and given a spade each, with the order to start digging our own graves.
There was no choice as we sweated and dug to a depth of two or three feet, when sergeant Yamanoto yelled: "All men stop." Then indicating that now one man must stand to attention at the foot of each grave, ready to die. Grim faced, covered in dirt and sweat, we stood as ordered. Not a word was uttered. The four of us were well aware the price we had to pay for escaping. No-one revealed their thoughts or fears as we defiantly faced our executioners. Officer in charge, Lieutenant Hiramatsu, stepped forward, smartly saluted, then proceeded to point some ten feet to the left of the firing squad.
Standing to attention, he gave an abrupt command to the sergeant, who in turn, bowed low to the officer, saluted, and gave the order in a loud voice: "Prepare to fire."
Six soldiers dropped to kneeling position, whilst the other six remained standing.
"Remove safety catches," was the next order. We all heard the distinctive clicks. Ready to die, I tensed myself and looked to the heavens...
At that moment the vivid scene faded, as I slowly awoke from the nightmare. In a cold sweat and a state of disbelief, I lay trembling, looking upwards. The deep blue tropical sky disappeared, to be replaced by the white ceiling. I was alive, safe and back home!
Will it ever end? For me, and so many others who survived the grim years as Japanese prisoners of war, the events of World War 2 are now a part of history, but as long as we live, our memories will remain. To have survived thus far, who am I to complain? As I open my eyes each new day, I consider that in this wonderful world I have so much to be thankful for!