Sandwell Men and the Death Railway.

In commemoration of VJ Day.

The recent appearance in the mainstream media of a story about David Lean’s 1957 movie, the bridge on the River Kwai, should have reminded us that Saturday is VJ, or Victory over Japan, day (August 15, 1945, in Japan, and because of time zone differences, August 14, 1945 in Britain). This year we will be commemorating 75 years since the Japanese imperial Armies surrendered to the allied armies, over three months after the German surrender in Europe. They won’t commemorate it in the US though until 9th September, the day the Japanese actually signed the surrender documents!

David Lean’s film told the (highly fictionalised) story of British prisoners of war who were forced to work on the railway the Japenese were building from Singapore to Rangoon, through some of the thickest jungles and steepest ravines in the world, in order to provide support for their proposed attack on India in 1943. The film was based on a book by French author Pierre Boulle, who also wrote The Planet of the Apes, a book which has been filmed numerous times. Boulle had first-hand experience of the war in the Malayan jungle, having been recruited by British special forces (the SOE) in 1941.

I’ve managed to track down some men from Sandwell’s towns who fought in the Far East, and I thought I’d remember three of them in particular today who were forced to work on the railway, and who never made it home. I know there were many more Sandwell men who fought, and died, in the Malayan and Burmese (now the Republic of the Union of Myanmar) jungle.

Building the railway

The British base at Singapore had fallen to the Imperial Japanese army after a two month campaign in the Malayan Jungle and a 7-day seige, on February 15th 1942. 80,000 British, Australian and Indian soldiers surrendered, to add to the 40,000 who had been captured during the fighting in the jungles north of Singapore. All were initially imprisoned in make-do camps (often initially no more than barbed wire cages) at Changi on Singapore Island, which is today the location of Singapore’s massive international airport. Visitors to Singapore passing through the airport however will struggle to find any reference there to the Prisoner of War camp.

The camps at Changi were notorious for poor food, lack of medicine, appalling sanitation and the brutal behaviour of the Japanese guards. Disease was everywhere, with outbreaks of Cholera, diphtheria, beriberi and dysentery ever present. From July 1942 the Japanese began to move groups out of the camps, to work on the railway project and support infrastructure (ports, roads, airfields) all over Japanese held territory. But most men from Changi went, initially at least, to work on the railway in the Burmese and Malayan jungle, cutting and moving lumber, cutting tunnels, digging cuttings, building embankments – and of course building bridges.

In April 1943, a group of 7,000 Australian and British POWs, all rated as too ill to be part of working parties, were moved from Changi camp. They made up what the Japanese called ‘Force F’ and were told they were being moved to an area with better food supplies. After a 600 mile rail journey and a 200 mile march through the jungle, they arrived at Sonkrai, a transit camp from where work parties of the fittest men were sent to where they were needed.

Gerry Tipton from Cradley Heath

This was as far as Private Gerry Tipton, an army reservist who had lived in Cradley Heath before the war with his wife Dinah, got. Jerry had transferred to the 4th Batallion Suffolk Regiment early in the war, and arrived in Singapore on 29th January 1942, during a Japanese air raid, following a rather circuitous journey from England via Nova Scotia, Trinidad, Cape Town and Bombay. His unit was marched off the transport ship and straight into the jungle, where they fought hand to hand against the Japanese until the surrender two weeks later. Jerry died on June 17th 1942 and was one of hundreds of men from Force F buried at Sonkrai. He was 24 years old.

William Arthur Truman from Cradley Heath

Sapper William Arthur Truman, also from Cradley Heath, had enlisted in the Royal Engineers at the start of the war and arrived in Singapore on January 13th 1941. His unit was engaged alongside the 4th Suffolks, and suffered huge casualties with about a quarter of its 120 men killed before the surrender. Sapper Truman was part of Force F as well, but survived the march into Malaysia, and was one of a working party sent to lay tracks through the ‘Pass of the Pagodas’ on the Burma/ Malaya border. He died here on 9th October 1943, and was buried in the camp at Kami Sonkrai. He was 23 years old.

Leslie Hancox from Smethwick

Leslie Hancox was born and brought up in Smethwick, where he lived with his parents at 117 Raglan Rd. Leslie had volunteered early in the war and was assigned to the 148th field Regiment Royal Artillery. (The Bedfordshire Yeomanry). Gunner Hancox set sail with his regiment from Liverpool in October 1941. Originally destined for North Africa, the Japanese bombed Pearl harbour in December 1941 and the convoy he was on diverted to Singapore. Much of the voyage was then spent changing the camouflage paint on the regiment’s vehicles from dessert khaki to jungle green. Landing in Singapore in January 1942 on the same day that the last FAF units were evacuated to Java, Leslie was part of Force H and died at Sonkrai on August 23rd 1943. he was 25 years old.

Thanbyuzayat war cemetary

After the war, in December 1945, British ‘concentration’ parties scoured the jungle and removed many of the dead to a new cemetery, at Thanbyuzayat. Gerry, Arthur and Leslie were all buried here with full military honours, and their families notified of their fate and their last resting place. Thanbyuzayat is in the remote southern mountains of Myanmar, and I gather very difficult to get to today. But I think we can remember these three, and the thousands of others who never made it home, on Friday. And perhaps once or twice throughout the coming year. I think they’ve earned that.

More information from the Imperial War Museum about life for Prisoners of War in the East – copy and past the link

You can also learn more by watching this documentary with accounts from those that survived.

Meet some survivors and guards in the 2014 documentary

Published by Sandwell Museums & Arts

Sandwell Museums & Arts Service is a local authority organisation part of Sandwell Council. We have some fantastic heritage buildings to visit with fascinating stories to tell as well as a lively programme of events, activities and exhibitions each year between April and December.

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