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VJ Day 75: remembering the Far East Prisoners of War

Captain John Barratt of the Norfolk Regiment (C) The Barratt Family

Captain John Barratt of the Norfolk Regiment (C) The Barratt Family

(C) The Barratt Family

This is one Norfolk man’s story of surviving the horrors of Japan’s prisoner of war camps 75 years after the end of World War Two.

Captain John Barratt of the Norfolk Regiment (C) The Barratt FamilyCaptain John Barratt of the Norfolk Regiment (C) The Barratt Family

In the three-and-a-half years that her husband was a prisoner of war on the notorious ‘Railway of Death’, Baba Barratt received just three Red Cross postcards.

On the back of each was a series of questions to which a tick had been applied: I am being treated well. I am well. I am working for money.

After the questions, there was a signature: and it was that one line on a scrap of card that offered the real answers to a young wife waiting desperately for news of the man she loved.

“That signature was all important as Mum could recognise Dad’s hand – knowing Dad was still alive and that there was hope,” explained Charlie Barratt, Captain John Allan Legh Barratt’s son.

End of an ordeal: former prisoners greet their liberators through the barbed wire fence of their camp on Singapore Island in September 1945.End of an ordeal: former prisoners greet their liberators through the barbed wire fence of their camp on Singapore Island in September 1945.

Baba had waited, sustained by no real news for day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year for the news she longed for: that her husband was coming home. By the time she next saw her beloved John, four years had passed.

August 15 is the 75th anniversary of VJ Day which marks both the surrender of Japan and the end of World War Two.

There had been extensive plans to remember and recognise all those who served and sacrificed in the Far East until COVID-19 put paid to large-scale services and commemorations. This anniversary will, in the main, be observed privately or in virtual, online commemorations.

While VE (Victory in Europe) Day marked the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, many thousands of Armed Forces personnel were still engaged in bitter fighting in the Far East. And then there were the prisoners of war held by the Japanese.

Liberated Allied prisoners of war walk lying in the corridor and looking out of cell doorways at Changi POW camp in Singapore, c. 1945. Picture: State Library Victoria Collections/FlickrLiberated Allied prisoners of war walk lying in the corridor and looking out of cell doorways at Changi POW camp in Singapore, c. 1945. Picture: State Library Victoria Collections/Flickr

During World War Two, the Japanese Armed Forces captured nearly 140,000 Allied military personnel in the South East Asia and Pacific areas.

They were forced to engage in hard labour: constructing railways, roads and airfields which would be used by the Japanese in occupied areas or sent to Japan to supplement the shortage of the workforce in mines, shipyards and munitions factories.

By the end of the war, more than 30,000 prisoners of war had died from starvation, diseases and mistreatment both within and outside of the Japanese mainland.

John Barratt passed his Officer Training Certificate while at Gresham’s School in Holt and before obtaining a commission into the 4th Battalion Royal Norfolk Regiment 10 years later in 1938, had been a partner in the family stockbroking firm of Barratt and Cooke.

Homeward bound: newly-liberated British prisoners of war prepare to board a Dakota transport on the first leg of their journey back to the UK in September 1945.Homeward bound: newly-liberated British prisoners of war prepare to board a Dakota transport on the first leg of their journey back to the UK in September 1945.

He married Baba Hore-Ruthven in March 1940 and set up temporary home in Gorleston before the army took the couple to Cambridge, then Scotland, then Blackburn, then Ross-on-Wye.

After saying goodbye to his new wife, in October 1941 John and his battalion left Liverpool and set sail to Halifax, Nova Scotia before sailing on to Trinidad and to the South Atlantic.

Still at sea in mid-December, some men travelled to Singapore while Capt Barratt’s 54th Brigade disembarked at Bombay for training before joining them several weeks later.

As the ship was unloaded at Singapore, it was under immediate gunfire.

Bird’s-eye view: an Allied aircraft flies low over one of the Japanese camps still crowded with prisoners more than three weeks after the Japanese surrender.Bird’s-eye view: an Allied aircraft flies low over one of the Japanese camps still crowded with prisoners more than three weeks after the Japanese surrender.

“The docks were continuously being bombed during daylight but the anti-malarial drains gave us very good protection against anything but a direct hit,” he wrote in a booklet called His Majesty’s Service 1939 to 1945, written in 1983.

The battalion was given a sector to defend in the north east of the island until the Japanese made a landing on the north west coast.

After moving to Bukit Timah, five miles west of Singapore Town, the men met a strong Japanese attack and heavy fighting ensued with no air support for the Allies and plenty for their enemies.

By February 15 1941, supplies were running low as food, water and ammunition had been dumped in order to avoid being captured – the order to surrender was received.

“I managed to grab my kit and get back unnoticed to our troops…I don’t know what my position would have been if I had not taken this action as for the next three-and-a-half years we were to have nothing but what we then possessed,” wrote Capt Barratt.

“I would have had no water bottled or kit other than what I was then wearing.”

Ordered to march to Changi, the men were taken to a prison camp where dystentry and fever were commonplace and food and water in short supply.

“It was not long before we all realised that to stay alive, every individual had to augment the rice starvation diet with something – bananas, groundnuts, gula sugar, ducks’ eggs and that that these could only be obtained from the local people by having local currency which we had little or nothing of when we landed at Singapore,” wrote Capt Barratt.

Relatively quickly, he was told he was part of an advance party headed for Thailand where a railway was to be built through the jungle to link Thailand with Burma. Transported in cattle trucks so packed with soldiers that it was impossible to lie down, the men were forced to march to a transit camp at Ban Pong.

“It was in this Ban Pong camp that I first saw for myself the way the Japanese maintained discipline by torture,” wrote Capt Barratt.

“In front of the guardhouse at the entrance to the camp they had a local Thai lying on the ground with his legs and arms trussed up as a chicken is before being put in the oven to cook.

“Everyone that visited the guardroom seemed to have a free invitation to boot the poor devil as they passed by him, lying in the dust and under a hot sun.

“I can’t remember how many days he stayed there, but it was cruel to see such torture and be able to do nothing.”

Capt Barratt also talks of beatings, rock-holding endurance tests and cruel physical conditions.

Moved to Chungkai and told to build bamboo huts with leaf roofs which would later be used by troops building the railway, days quickly began to blur into one.

“There was no variation of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter to break the monotony and I cannot remember a Christmas or a birthday,” he wrote.

“We were fortunate to be in a warm climate, but I can remember saying that I would not mind if I never saw the sun again.

“Our clothes were getting tattier but it was essential to keep a pride in our cleanliness. Wood ash was helpful for keeping our teeth clean. I shaved without soap every day and used to keep a Gillette razor blade sharp on the inside of a broken bottle.”

Capt Barratt catalogues life as a prisoner of war. Ensuring water bottles were never drained until they could be refilled with boiled water. Selling his watch in order to raise funds to buy extra food. Checking eggs didn’t float before buying them. The cruel marches carrying kit. The beatings. The torture of animals. The black market trading.

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“The hospital huts in Chungkai were cruel to see,” wrote Capt Barratt.

“They resembled pictures of Belsen that we saw after our return to England. It was wonderful what the doctors did in spite of little or no medicine.

“Fellows lay on the floor with little flesh left on their bones and often as many as 14 POWs were buried in one day.”

Capt Barratt became ill at the camp and was taken to the Tha Makham Bridge Camp where there was an Australian surgeon, Major Hobbs.

Begging to be anaethetised, Capt Barratt was operated on, but “felt everything”, eventually waking up with incisions on his stomach and side, just before everyone abandoned him for the slit trenches when aircraft began to pass over.

“I could see the sky from under the roof of the hut and watched the enormous bombs coming down from a great height praying that one would land on me and put me out of my great pain and misery,” he wrote.

Weeks later, Capt Barratt was recuperating close to the bridge on camp and watched four British planes circle the prisoner-built structure before bombing it.

“We in the camp were so proud and delighted that we moved up the slit trenches towards the bridge and watched everything. I didn’t realise until years after that this was ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ referred to in the film,” he wrote.

On August 6 1945, the American bomber the Enola Gay dropped the uranium bomb known as Little Boy on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

Despite its devastating effects, Japan didn’t offer unconditional surrender immediately, but then two days later, Soviet forces invaded Japanese-occupied Manchuria, violating an earlier non-aggression pact signed with Japan.

On August 9, the Americans dropped Fat Man, a plutonium bomb, on Nagasaki – together, the two bombs dropped in Japan killed more than 300,000 immediately and in the aftermath: Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s unconditional surrender on August 15.

“The bomb will always remain as my Guardian Angel. Others may see it as the wrath of God. It is estimated that up to 18,000 POWs died in the construction of the railway…the bomb only saved those that were lucky enough still to be alive,” wrote Capt Barratt.

Driven to Bangkok airport, the newly-liberated prisoners waited for their place in a British Dakota plane destined for Rangoon and hospital beds.

“I had the greatest difficulty when told I could discard the few remaining rags I had in my kit which had been guarded by me so jealously over so many years in order to stay alive,” wrote Capt Barratt.

“I did keep my officer’s hat with the Britannia badge that I wore right through our captivity.”

Almost four years to the day that he had bade farewell to his new wife, Capt Barratt stepped off a ship and on to home soil at Liverpool, before boarding a train for Peterborough where Baba was waiting for him.

“I hope they did not get too much of a shock on seeing us,” he wrote, “A new life was starting but what all of us had been through can never be forgotten.

“I thank God for my deliverance. But ‘God helps those who helps themselves’.”

Son Charlie explained that his father would have wanted to pay tribute to all the soldiers who found themselves as prisoners of war.

“Dad was just one of many territorial soldiers in a similar situation, many of whom suffered a great deal more than he did, or lost their lives,” he said.

“He was one of the lucky ones – there are many Norfolk families whose loved ones were taken prisoner at Singapore and they were all heroes, every single one of them.”

John Barratt, who had two sons, Charlie and David and a daughter, Anita, returned to Thailand in 1985 and visited the cemeteries to see the comrades that didn’t come home and spent time in the place where he had been kept as a prisoner for so many years.

“If it were not for the beautifully-kept cemeteries and the bridge, all would now be forgotten,” he wrote, “except by those remaining ex-Railway prisoners-of-war who can never forget.”

Capt Barratt attended a 4th Royal Norfolk Regiment Reunion Garden Party on July 7 2002 with several of the lifelong friends he had worked alongside on the infamous railway.

Two days later, and two day before his 90th birthday, he passed away peacefully, his beloved Baba at his side.

His officer’s cap, which had witnessed so much pain and suffering and travelled with him throughout the war took pride of place at his service.

We will remember him.


* Japan joined World War Two on December 7/8 when its armed forces attacked America’s Pearl Harbour and the British colony of Malaya

* On February 15 1942, General Percival, the British commander, surrendered Malaya and Singapore to his opponent General Yamashita

* Prisoners were initially held in very large camps in cities such as Changi, which was the largest camp throughout the war

* Bam Pong was the southern base camp for the Siam-Burma Railway

* Diseases of malnutrition and crowding such as beri-beri or dysentery took a constant toll. Mosquitoes were unavoidable, and malaria was rife. Some locations suffered huge fatalities from cholera.

* The average prisoner received less than a cup of filthy rice a day, an amount so meagre that gross malnutrition could lead to loss of vision or unrelenting nerve pain

* About four per cent of Allied prisoners died in captivity in Germany or Italy – for prisoners of the Japanese, this figure was one in four who died

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Alone on the Road, a Trucker’s Long Haul as America Fights the Virus

Like so many other long-haul truckers, pumping wares of a gasping economy through the arteries of the nation’s highway system, Darrell Woolsey sees the changing landscape through his windshield.

Self-isolated in the cab of his 2016 Freightliner, a twin mattress behind him and the world out front, Mr. Woolsey moves from one load to the next, one truck stop to another, a game of dot-to-dot to keep business churning.

In the past two weeks, as the coronavirus spread across the country and forced most everyone into hiding, Mr. Woolsey picked up recycled plastic from Jack Daniel’s in Tennessee and delivered it to Trex, maker of composite decks, in Virginia. He carried massive steel buckets for Bobcat excavators from North Dakota to Georgia. He hauled rolls of brown paper from Alabama to Texas, radiator coils for furnaces and air-conditioners from Virginia to Iowa.

He wonders if the truckload of trees he picked up at a Tennessee nursery and delivered to five Home Depots in Minnesota and North Dakota got sold and planted before the storm of coronavirus hit.

For now, he will keep on trucking, rumbling through these times in a diesel-powered cocoon of glass and steel, a Lhasa apso named Rusty by his side, Clorox wipes on the dash. He and other truckers are bringing the goods so that the rest of us can stay put.

Mr. Woolsey does not know when he will go home to Cheyenne, Wyo., where he has a wife and three children.

“I’m quarantined, even though I’m moving around,” he said. “So I might as well keep working, as long as I can.”

ImageAlone on the Road, a Trucker’s Long Haul as America Fights the Virus

Truckers are already familiar with the type of self-isolation now facing millions of Americans — being confined to small spaces, disconnected from family and friends, unsure what the days ahead will bring. Loneliness is part of the job, even as the world passes by.

Interaction is limited to waves and gestures, some pleasantries with shipping clerks, small talk at the truck stop.

Almost all of a day’s 24 hours, awake and asleep, are spent in the cab. When he is parked, and closes the curtains to the outside world, he is in full quarantine. He calls home. He cooks on his George Foreman grill. He watches DVDs. He posts videos to his YouTube channel. He sleeps on the little mattress.

“I live in something smaller than a jail cell all the time,” Mr. Woolsey said. “I hear other people complaining, and I’m like, get over it. There’s lots of us living like this all the time, coronavirus or not.”

He is not sure how long he can outrun the virus, or its effects on the trucking business. Fewer overseas shipments into the ports mean fewer trucks needed to haul them into the nation’s interior. Slowing production and falling revenues for American companies will trickle into the thinning bloodstream of transportation.

“Trucking is just booming, and we’ve got to move stuff to restock Costco and Walmart and all the grocery stores,” said Todd Amen, chief executive of American Truck Business Services, which provides financial services for drivers. “That’s happening right now,” he said. “It just depends on how long this lasts.”

By at least one gauge, the industry appears to be holding steady. Travel Centers of America, which has more than 260 truck stops in the United States, said that its sales of diesel, which powers most large trucks, had a double-digit spike in early March.

Sales have settled in recent days to “positive low-single digits, year over year,” chief executive Jon Pertchik said. Predicting the next few weeks, he said, is difficult.

“We’re struggling to put any certainty into an uncertain time,” Mr. Pertchik said.

There are more than three million truckers in the United States, according to an industry trade group, the American Trucking Associations, and about 1.8 million of them are classified by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as operators of heavy trucks or tractor-trailers.

That includes all types, from dry vans making short hauls to tankers carrying liquids. Intermodal truckers carry shipping containers on their backs, from seaports to inland distribution centers. Reefer drivers haul refrigerated products of all kinds.

Mr. Woolsey, 52, is among several hundred thousand truckers who own and operate their own vehicles. He leases his truck and trailer to a company called Turquoise Trucking, based in Iowa. It finds him loads, stays in touch with him through a dispatcher, and gives him 85 percent of the negotiated rate. He pays the expenses, such as fuel and maintenance.

He is also a childhood friend of mine. He worked as a disc jockey for a long time, owned a small radio station in Wyoming, then started over again about a decade ago as a truck driver. He always loved to drive. We had not been in touch for years when he texted last weekend.

“Don’t know if this is still a good number for you,” he wrote, and it turned out he was in Little Rock, waiting to deliver a load of paper, at a time that most of us were sheltered in place.

Truck drivers are on the move, maybe more than workers in any profession. Social distancing is only a problem when you stop and get out of the cab, which might only be a couple of times a day.

“It’s only when I walk past a couple of people to go use a bathroom, or interact with a shipper or receiver,” Mr. Woolsey said. Truckers, at least male truckers, save empty bottles to limit their bathroom stops, he said. Maybe now more than ever.

But if they contract the virus, truckers can spread it over long distances. And truckers represent an at-risk group — mostly older males, typically with more underlying health issues than the general population. They are more than twice as likely to be obese and to smoke, studies suggest. Few have health insurance.

Mr. Woolsey is more concerned about the coronavirus affecting his family, not him, but he has noticed the precautions unspooling across the country.

He first noticed that truck stops had stopped using “rollergrillers,” those self-serve hot-dog cookers, a couple of weeks ago. Their dining rooms began closing to everything but takeout. Fast-food places were limited to drive-through orders, no help to a trucker.

Weigh stations seemed to be waving truckers through without as much personal contact as usual. Shippers and receivers were closing their waiting rooms to truckers, posting signs to ask them to stay in their cabs while goods were loaded and unloaded.

At Super Radiator Coils in Richmond this past week, they asked truckers to take a squirt of hand sanitizer when entering the office.

Even if Mr. Woolsey is the last trucker on the highway, there are federal limits on how far he can go — generally, 11 hours of driving in a 14-hour window each day. Driving time is logged and inspected.

He split the 1,000 miles from Virginia to Iowa into two shifts, pulling over to sleep through an afternoon. Rested, and with his legal clock reset, he drove through the night to deliver coils — “probably the innards to an A.C. unit or something,” he said — at the Lennox factory in Marshalltown, Iowa.

Most of the trips the past two weeks earned him $2 a mile, pretty standard and about double what he needs to cover costs.

But one run last week, a load of flooring headed from Georgia to New Jersey, was canceled at the last minute. The trip to Iowa earned him about $1.29 per mile.

“When that flooring load canceled on me, I thought maybe they just don’t need flooring right now,” he said. “But that low rate this week? I don’t know.”

But Mr. Woolsey is determined to see how the economics play out. His world bends with the elasticity of supply and demand. Maybe shipping will slow. Maybe truckers will park themselves.

He was waiting in Mobile, Ala., last week when another trucker said he was giving up and going back home to wait out the coronavirus.

“If there aren’t that many loads out there, but still a lot of trucks wanting loads, the rates will plummet. And I won’t make much money,” Mr. Woolsey said.

Traffic in American cities has almost disappeared, but he is a master at avoiding traffic anyway. The sensation that the country was shutting down struck him in the dark of rural Tennessee, where all-night gas stations were closed.

“It’s the middle of the night that things feel a little more ‘Mad Maxy,’” he said.

Last we spoke, Mr. Woolsey was somewhere west of Sioux Falls, S.D. He had dropped off a truckload of fertilizer and was arranging three more loads before the weekend.

The curtains were open, the sun was shining, and Rusty was riding shotgun. Not everyone in this country was staying in place.

Niraj Chokshi contributed reporting.