Tamajao 241 by Ernest Warwick

VJ DAY 60 YEARS ON

One hero's horror in Japanese prison camps

- An interview from 15th August 2005 -

TODAY is VJ Day and the 60th anniversary of defeating the Japanese in the Second World War. Ernest Warwick was in our "Forgotten Army" fighting in the Far East. He spent three terrible years in brutal Japanese PoW camps. This is his story...

ERNIE WARWICK'S frightened screams regularly fill the night as his nightmares take him back to the battle for Singapore and his hell in jungle captivity. Ernie was just 24 when he and thousands of British troops were delivered into the jaws of death in 1942, in a vain bid to hold back the ruthless Japanese army. Now 87 and wheelchair-bound as a result of injuries inflicted in a Japanese PoW camp, Ernie was serving with the 4th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment when he found himself at the centre of a bloody firefight in Singapore.

Ernie, a butcher's shop manager before the war, says: "It was a bloodbath. A day of horror. One guy knelt to pray and his head was taken clean off. There was just a fountain of blood coming from his neck." When the firing died down Ernie's unit were moved to block Japanese soldiers entering a cemetery. "I opened fire. Thirty rounds and 30 rounds and 30 rounds. I could hear these Japanese screaming. I knew I had hit some."

Two days later he and his comrades were pinned down by tank fire on the streets of Singapore and forced to surrender. Ernie was threatened with execution. He says: "I looked up and tensed myself, ready to die." But he was spared when the Japanese heard at that moment on their radios that British forces had surrendered the island. He was marched to the infamous Changi prison and forced to work on the docks for three weeks.

When he punched a Japanese officer who was whipping an old Chinese woman, Ernie was tied to a tree for five days and nights with nothing to eat or drink. Ernie remembers: "After the soreness of the rope, the red ants started to get to me. "The Japanese had threatened anyone who helped me with death and each morning eight of them would bow to the sun, chant for the Emperor, then come at me with sticks. I used to be glad to fall unconscious." He was taken to the River Valley prisoner of war camp and given seven days to recover before going "on trial." He was told he would be beheaded for striking a Japanese officer -but again his life was spared.

Ernie, who lives near Southend, Essex, says: "They wanted slave labour to build a railway through Siam and I would be in the advance party to work on the first bridge over the River Kwai." First he had to serve 28 days in a "punishment centre. Ernie says: "To the day I die I will never forget it. It was a corrugated hut, 4ft high. You couldn't stand up. There was no toilet and the humidity was terrible. They gave me just a bowl of water and rice each day. "How I survived in that metal tomb I don't know."

He was then transported to the Tamajao PoW camp in the Thai jungle, the first of more than 20 prison camps Ernie stayed in during nearly four years of hell. Ernie recalls how he and three other prisoners formed a "gang" to cause the Japanese as many problems as they could. He says: "It was easy to get out of the camps at night. The guards were scared of the jungle. We were able to pinch things but there was nowhere to escape to. "It was more difficult getting back into the camp. My mate Foxy made animal noises that sent the guards scurrying to their huts and we would get back in.

"We got so hungry we killed snakes and boiled them in a billy can. A Dutchman in our camp caught a beauty but he refused to share it. "In the morning he was dead. It was poisonous and killed him." Ernie was almost caught stealing supplies from a Red Cross shipment which had been meant for the prisoners but the Japanese were keeping for themselves. He says: "I could hear this guard coming. It was him or me. He had a gun and all I had was a piece of string. This guard...he died so quick. I put his body and his gun in the river."

Conditions got worse. Ernie says: "The monsoons came and people died so fast from disease and starvation. "I remember being operated on without anaesthetic for giant jungle abscesses. They put a piece of wood between your teeth and strapped you down."

The prisoners were sent out to work wearing only loin cloths. Those left behind at camp faced death from cholera. Grotesque He recalls: "We would get back and the padre would say, 'Another 23 died today,' and we would have to bury them. "We would have to dig a trench in the pouring rain and just throw in the bodies. There was one guy who shouted that he was not dead and this Jap bashed him on the head with a spade. "The death rate increased so much we had to build a giant bonfire to put our mates on. They were like matchsticks. Their grotesque faces still haunt me. "In the night you could see the bonfires in the distance and you would know they were doing the same thing in other camps."

Ernie caught amoebic dysentery and his weight plummeted from a pre-war 14st to just six. "I could see my heart beating," he remembers.

For the last eight months of the war the US air force activities increased as the Allies regained air strips in Burma. "Unfortunately some of the bombs fell on the PoW camps," says Ernie. "Then came the final attack on the bridge where we were and that is when I suffered the injuries which eventually caused my paralysis. "I could just about walk afterwards, with sticks, but I had been unconscious for three days."

In the depths of the jungle, they knew nothing about the Allies winning the war in Europe, and did not hear about VJ Day until two days after it happened. Ernie says: "The Japanese had halted work on August 15 and for two days we sat about hoping, waiting, not knowing. "On the 17th the medical officer was summoned to the Commandant's hut to be told of Japan's unconditional surrender. "Minutes later, after three years and eight months in captivity, we were told, 'It's all over, lads.'"

Ernie, who married wife Jean after the war and who has five children, seven grandchildren and one great grandson, says: "I have no quarrel with the present generation of Japanese. "They were not responsible for the appalling crimes inflicted on my generation. "So many of my mates died. I remember their courage, their pain, suffering and British spirit. "We must never forget them."

Freed from hell, Ernie and his surviving comrades were flown to Rangoon to a hospital camp. He recalls: "A lot of mates were in a bad way. Johnny, from Nottingham, was near to death." Tears well in Ernie's eyes as his mind transports him back. "Johnny told me, 'We made it, Ernie. We bloody made it. We're going home.' "They were his last words."