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Allied prisoners of war celebrating their liberation from Changi Jail, Singapore. During the occupation from 1942-1945 Japan treated the large number of prisoners of war with extreme harshness which was only fully realised after the liberation. An estimated 140,000 allied troops and civilians were held by the Japanese during the Second World War in prisoner of war (POW) camps run with a strict brutality that led to many thousands of deaths. See PA story VJ Camp. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Photo credit should
As our thoughts turn to events to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day we should remember the many families in East Anglia had little to celebrate. Derek James honours ‘The Forgotten Army’
While people were dancing and singing across East Anglia in May of 1945, many of our men were being beaten, starved and worked to death in jungle slave camps.
For them the war was not over. Every day was a nightmare.
And while the country was having a party these prisoners of war had family and friends desperately worried about these men being tortured and tormented on the other side of the world.
What was happening to them? Were they still alive? Would the Japanese ever surrender? When they be coming home? And what condition would they be in?
It would be several months, longer for some, before the survivors from the Far East returned home.
Over the years it has been a privilege to have known, and written about, several of these Far East Prisoners of War. Quiet, modest gentlemen who often found it tough to talk about their war…and it was easy to see why.
The pain eased for some as they got back to normal life as the years went by. But their awful memories were still vivid. We heard their stories…and listened in horror.
There was no fanfare and parades when they came home in dribs and drabs, mostly by train stopping off at stations in Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk.
One of them, Cyril Ramsey, told me: “I got to Thorpe in March 1946 and I was so relieved to be home that I kissed the ground.”
Cyril had been in a Sydney Hospital after being released from such cruel captivity. “We had been paraded through the streets and spat at, then put to work in mines. It was hell.”
Today their memory is being kept alive thanks to the likes of the Rev Pauline Simpson, Norfolk’s own FEPOW Chaplain and Secretary/Welfare Officer.
She is following in the footsteps of her father the late Sidney Vincent, who worked on the Thai-Burma Death Railway and was very active in FEPOW affairs and his old unit had their annual reunion at the Carlton Hotel in Great Yarmouth.
Young Sidney was a 19-year-old lad from Topcroft, near Bungay, when joined the 560th Field Company, Royal Engineers, part of the 18th Division, a mainly territorial force drawn mostly from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.
These ill-prepared and innocent young men set sail for what they thought would be North Africa to fight the Germans but ended up in Singapore.
The story is best told through the words of these men and the memories of one gentleman I spoke to in August of 1995 make for uncomfortable reading.
His name was Archie MacDonald who had worked for the Post Office in Norwich but before that…
When Archie – known as Mac – left the country he was given a bible. When he returned four years later he had read it over and over again. He had also been to hell and back.
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“This is one of the things which kept me going. That and my wedding ring,” he told me.
“I was one of the lucky ones. Many of my mates didn’t make it,” said Mac still treasuring his bible and ring.
Born in Oak Street, Norwich he was the son of a Scottish Black Watch soldier who had married a Norwich lass.
Mac went into the shoe trade when he left school and married his sweetheart Ellen. When war broke out he and his mates went off to Sheringham to join the 6th Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment.
“When we arrived in Singapore no-one knew what was going on. We had never fought in the jungle. We tried our best but the enemy was laughing at us,” said Mac.
Before long our men were ordered to lay down their arms and surrender and Mac was among those marched to Changi Prison. “I did get a smack round the head for looking at a guard. I remember that.”
But the true horror of their ordeal was about to emerge – they were herded like cattle into trucks and taken into the jungle to build the railway.
The next two and a half years were a nightmare as Mac explained:
“None of us were sure how long we were there. We tried to survive one day at a time. I was lucky because I was laying the track. Others cutting and blasting their way through the jungle often dropped down dead and were buried in the embankment.
“We were all so angry. We felt lost and betrayed. How could they do this to us? It was disgusting. It is so hard to explain to someone just what it was like.
“We were seriously ill with malaria and dysentery. The guards were cruel and wicked but I never thought I would perish.
“I hid my wedding ring and my bible which I must have more than a hundred times. I got a lot of smacks and saw some terrible, terrible things but I made it,” said Mac.
And he kept his sense of humour.
“At the end the American Air Force dropped some food parcels for us…and demolished our cook house!”
On returning home he had to go to hospital at Roehampton to be treated for hepatitis, malnutrition and other problems.
He made it back to Norwich four years after he left with his bible and his wedding ring, and settled down to married life becoming a father and grandfather….rarely speaking about his war.
Another former PoW Henry Bussey told me about his homecoming: “We were covered in jungle sores, yellow fever, malaria, dysentery, all sorts.
“Eventually we sailed for Great Britain, thinking about the 17,000 of our comrades had been left behind in jungle cemeteries, never to return.
They were the forgotten army.