Tamajao 241 by Ernest Warwick

VJ Day Special
Lest we forget

World War 2 memories from the Far East, as we fade into history

We had spent two years training for desert warfare and four months at sea, sailing around the world to avoid being sunk by German submarines, never knowing our final destination.

When Japan simultaneously attacked Pearl Harbour, Hong Kong, Malaya, and Siam (now Thailand) early in December 1941, the ill-fated 18th Infantry Division and supporting battle units were on the high seas, wearing light khaki drill. Orders were dispatched from London for the convoy to change direction at once and steam at full speed for the Far East, destination the Island of Singapore.

So it came about that in the early hours of January 29th 1942, the 18th Division landed at Keppel Harbour just as the 17 day bloody battle for the island was about to commence.

As we rushed down the gangways to waiting army transports, we were greeted by waves of Japanese bombers in formations of 27 planes, who were pounding the unprotected city of Singapore. One of the ships in the convoy, "The Empress of Asia", took 6 direct hits on board and violently keeled over onto one side and began to sink. We witnessed scores of young men wounded, many with their clothes on fire, being thrown and jumping helpless into the sea.

Finally our battalion was positioned along the coast as the enemy prepared their final assault and in the short space of time available, the terrible truth dawned on us that what the world had been lead to believe was untrue. In short, Singapore Island was the "Fortress That Never Was".

There was no air support, not even barbed wire on the stretch of coastline where we were situated and the naval guns at Changi were positioned so that they were pointing out to the sea-lanes. This then, was indeed "The Naked Island" that Australian Russell Brandon wrote about in his book.

In the early hours next morning under a ferocious bombardment of shellfire and yet another heavy and relentless air attack, the enemy had landed and the battle raged. At times only a few hundred yards separated us from the Japanese positions and our casualty list grew fast, with many killed and wounded.

At sun up on the morning of Friday 13th February 1942, my battle unit, The Fourth Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment, backed by the Fifth Battalion, The Norfolks and many other units, were actually fighting on the Bukit-Timah golf course in blazing tropical sunshine.
As night fell, bathed in brilliant moonlight, the onslaught continued into a Chinese cemetery, near the Thompson Village.

As dawn broke on the morning of the 15th February, we were fighting in the streets on the outskirts of Singapore; the situation was grim and heart-breakingly demoralising.

Unknown to us at that time, in a three mile radius over 1 million people, mostly women and children were trapped. Food stocks were down to a 48-hr supply and ammunition was dangerously low. Up above, the bombs continued to rain down relentlessly…

A Japanese light tank headed down the road blazing heavy machine gun fire at the troops, killing and wounding a number of men. At the end of the road the tank swerved to the right and began heading back to our positions where we were fighting from the malarial drains in the side of the road. An officer who was with us held up, of all things, a walking stick with a white handkerchief tied on the end and waved it in the air.

To our amazement the tank stopped a few feet short of us. The turret swung open and a voice said in clear English, "leave your weapons, get out of the drains and stand in front of our tank". We were then marched back behind the Japanese lines, ironically to the Bukit-Timah golf course to face a firing squad.

Evening came and suddenly the guns fell silent and the mass bombing ceased. General Percival had surrendered the Island of Singapore to the Japanese Imperial Army.

Then came the first grim task of burying the dead any and everywhere, from lawns, gardens and even parks.
Included among the dead were soldiers from the Japanese forces, British, Australian, Allied troops and Singapore civilians. Blood flowed in the streets of Singapore where notices had been placed at different junctions reading, "Pile your Dead Here". We then had the horrendous task of burying thousands of women and children in mass graves anywhere a space could be found.

Eventually all prisoners of war were lined up under armed guards to commence the 17 mile march to Changi, where chaos reigned supreme.
Daily work parties were sent from Changi to the city of Singapore in over-crowded lorries, to work in the docks loading and unloading ships.

Some three weeks or so later, I became involved in what I have described in my book, "Tamajao 241", in the Chapter called "Incident at the Docks", where I witnessed an atrocity by an armed guard against an old Chinese lady. I intervened by striking the guard, which subsequently resulted in my being punished by being roped to a tree for 5 days and 5 nights without food or water. Just alive, I was cut down, thrown into the back of a pick-up truck and driven to River Valley camp, occupied by Australian POW's. Seven days later I was ordered to stand before the Japanese Camp Commandant to receive further punishment. They threatened to behead me by sword but thankfully, from my point of view, they changed their minds and sentenced me instead to 28 days in a metal tomb at the Japanese punishment centre.

To the day I die, I will never forgive them for the nightmare of pain and mental torture that followed. 50 years on I can only say that the mental anguish remains.

Suffice to say that having survived the heat, filth and degradation, a few weeks later we started on a nightmare cattle truck journey "North to Thailand" (Chapter 2 in my book) and on to Bang-Pong. Here a sickening atrocity was witnessed as a group of Thai women were caught throwing fruit to us starving prisoners. The guards went berserk, roping six or seven of the women together, back to back. They began by slapping and punching them until the whole group collapsed on the ground crying, screaming and begging for mercy. At this point I could see that at least two of the women were obviously heavily pregnant.

The guards continued to prod them with bayonets, it seemed that there was blood everywhere. To make matters worse, the guards seemed to be enjoying their evil treatment of these helpless women,

Then came the terrible march towards the ancient city of Kanachanburi and beyond there the tropical forest leading into the fever ridden jungles of Thailand. The relentless march continued further into the jungle where we established POW camps at different stages alongside the River Kwai. By now we were bare-footed and without clothes, wearing only loin cloths, starving with malaria, dysentery and with other tropical diseases beginning to take their toll. The future outlook was grim to say the least.

There were many bridges over the River Kwai, although the world only seems to know about the giant steel spans at Kanachanburi made famous by the brilliant but fictitious 1957 film, "The Bridge on the River Kwai".

From the wooden viaduct at Wampo, the Deck of Cards Bridge at Hintock, up and beyond Hellfire Pass, the infamous railway snaked along the banks of the river towards the gateway into Burma, via the Three Pagoda Pass. At the wild jungle POW camp Tamajao, yet another almighty bridge was constructed not to cross the river, but to curve around the side of a craggy mountain, half in and half out of the river. This bridge cost many POW's their lives. Chapter 16 in my book is called "Escape" and relates the story of seven prisoners of war who had made a brave but futile effort to escape and had been recaptured. They were forced to dig their own graves before being executed by firing squad. I was among those who were to witness their cold- blooded murders.

To add to our starvation and abject misery, the tropical monsoon season arrived and it seemed to rain forever, day and night. That made no difference to the work on the railway as the Japanese engineers and armed guards forced us to carry on slaving as the rains poured down relentlessly. Suddenly a cholera epidemic broke out and the death rate increased alarmingly. The Tamil natives, who were also working alongside us, died in their scores. Mass graves had to be dug in the sodden rain and the bodies were then simply thrown in and then rapidly covered over with the soil.

The situation became so serious that even the well-protected Japanese guards were scared of becoming contaminated and kept well to the background whilst the burials were taking place. In the end there was only one way to dispose of the dead quickly and that was by incineration. Wherever we could see in the distance at night large bamboo bonfires burning, we knew that they were carrying out the same grim tasks as ourselves. Accustomed to death, we picked up the pitiful matchstick bodies of skin and bone without any ceremony and cast them into the flames. There was a sickening vile stench of burning flesh as the bodies contorted, twisting and jerking in a grotesque way. Often it would seem that their sunken eyes were staring at us. Their ghosts will haunt me forever.

So the appalling misery continued. It seemed ironic that our survival was threatened as our own aircraft commenced bombing the railway, during which many prisoners were killed and wounded. Unknown to us, while we were working on the borders of Burma deep in the jungle, the atom bombs had fallen on Japan and stopped the bloody war that they had started.

1942, the prisoners of war enter "Death Valley" to build a railway, known throughout the world now as the infamous "Siam to Burma Railway of Death". This cost the lives of 16,000 young British troops, 8,000 Australian, Dutch and other Allied troops in addition to 110,000 Thai, Indian, Malay, Burmese and other natives.

In my book "Tamajao 241" you will read about true comradeship and the amazing courage of helpless prisoners of war who went to hell and back.

Although fifty long years have now passed, it all seems like only yesterday. As you turn the pages you will wonder as we often do now, how any one of us ever survived the horrors so that we could reveal to the world the grim facts behind the building of the "Railway of Death" and the appalling inhumanity of the Japanese and Koreans during World War II.

Ernest Warwick
Author. EX.F.E.P.O.W.

The above article was written in August 1995.

For the record, Ernest Warwick served in the Fourth Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment. HQ Company. Intelligence Section for the duration of World War II.

He was awarded:-
The 1939-1945 Star.
The Pacific Star (For the Battle of Singapore).
The 1939-1945 War Medal.