This isn’t a beauty post, but a post to remember two very special people I’ve lost from my life.
Twenty years ago today I lost my aunt – age 39 years old. She died of breast cancer leaving behind her wee girlies aged 8 & 13. I’ve never experienced pain like it. I still miss her. It’s so sad she never met her grandsons Scott and Jack 🙁
It’s also 75 years since VE Day. My Grampa was a prisoner of war in Japan so it wasn’t quite over for him yet.
I thought I’d share his experience as it’s so heartfelt. He felt his calling into ministry in the depths of hell. I hope you enjoy….
FROM HELL TO HEAVEN BY RAIL by David W Orrock
I suspect everyone in 54 Infantry Brigade was shocked to find that we were all prisoners of war when Singapore surrendered on 15th February 1942. It had taken us a very long time to get there. We sailed from Liverpool at the beginning of November 1941 and survived the hazards of the North Atlantic to arrive at Halifax, Nova Scotia a week later. There ,to our astonishment, we transferred to American troopships. Once aboard, we set sail on a very pleasant cruise down the East Coast of South America, reaching Cape Town early in December.
After a week of shore leave we continued our journey across the Indian Ocean to Bombay and went ashore for three weeks near Poona. We then returned to Bombay, re-boarded our ships and set sail for an unknown destination further east. In the last week of January we arrived at Singapore the most impregnable fortress in the British Empire. It had taken us three months to get there, and within a fortnight we were prisoners. The Japs, dirty little sods, had not played the game. They were supposed to come in the front door, which was heavily guarded, but instead, they sneaked in the back door which was more or less wide open. Just another proof that ‘natives’ are not to be trusted!
A day or two after we reached Singapore we received a nice message of encouragement from Winston Churchill. In it he said
“It will be disgraceful if we yield our boasted fortress of Singapore to inferior forces. There must be no thought of sparing the troops or civil population and no mercy must be shown to weakness in any shape or form. Commanders and senior officers must lead their troops and if necessary die with them. There must be no question or thought of surrender.”
In other words- ours not to reason why ; ours but to do or die.
Fortunately for us, our commanders and senior officers were not in a heroic mood and we surrendered a week later. I imagine their response to Mr Churchill’s cable must have been, ‘I say old chaps, a bit over the top, don’t you think? What?’ Yet in these last days alot of good men did die for King and Country, and before the end of the war another 13,000 were to follow their example.
In the first week or two of captivity not very much was moving. The great topic of conversation was that because our rations were so meagre and so disgusting no-ones bowels moved for at least a fortnight! So it was with a feeling of great relief that I found myself on a working party down at the docks in Singapore at Keppel Harbour. It turned out to be quite a cushy billet. We dossed in a go- down at one of the quays and turned out each day to load or unload the many ships which were calling to take away the spoils of war. The troops warmed to their task quite quickly once they saw how easy it was for tins of food and articles of clothing to fall off the lorries that came to cart them away. In addition the harbour was full of little boats selling bananas, pineapples, bread and boiled eggs. Life wasn’t too bad.
But by the end of June there came a sudden change, with consequences beyond anything we could imagine or foresee. With little warning we had to leave our go-down and march to the central station where our train awaited us. It was a train of metal rice wagons, normally crammed full with sacks of rice, but now crammed with our sweaty bodies and whatever bits and pieces we still possessed. Off we set again for an unknown destination. During the day, even with the sliding doors wide open, it was stifling, and during the night it was cold and clammy. Twice a day we stopped to be fed – a little rice and a mess tin of watery soup. No water to drink or to wash with was provided, but wherever we stopped local traders suddenly appeared with bananas, pineapples, bread and boiled eggs. By good fortune our train was held up for several days because floods had washed away bits of the track. There was a small creek nearby, where we could wash and swim – though we did not enquire too closely where the water came from.
Eventually about ten days after we left Singapore we reached our destination at a place called Bang Pong about 30 to 40 miles west of Bangkok,we had infact arrived at the Siam base of the railway the Japs were planning to build between Burma and Siam.
The P.O.W. camp here was called Nong Pladuk, but we were slow to appreciate how lucky we were to be there. The camp was pretty primitive in many ways but it was well built and there was plenty of room. Not quite a home from home, but compared with many other camps being built further up the railway and in the jungle it was a palace. The work in the sheds at the railway terminus was light and there were plenty people available to do it. We even had a camp canteen. It was run by a local Siamese trader and it had quite a surprising variety of goods. We also had a little club for former members of the B.B., this was the brain child of a chap ,Jim Fraser, a Scottish architect in Singapore before the war. He was a great B.B enthusiast and was responsible for starting the B.B. in Singapore. I don’t remember there being many members or that we did very much, but I do remember the dinner we had one evening. We dined on egg omelettes from the canteen, a jar of strawberry jam and a tin
of Nestles condensed milk. What a binge!
But while we were taking it easy and indulging ourselves, a very grim drama was unfolding along the developing railway line. Steadily week by week more and more P.O.W’s were arriving at Bang Pong from Singapore and being sent up country. The Japs had told them they were going to wonderful new camps that had been built in Siam, camps that were more like health resorts than prison camps. When they arrived at Bang Pong they were faced with reality. They were facing in fact long and exhausting marches of many kilometres deep into the jungle. And if and when they got to their destination they were forced to work a 16 hour day in the ceaseless rain of the monsoon on a starvation diet. Very quickly such clothes as they had were reduced to rags. Their boots rapidly wore out and they were forced to continue their journey and work in bare feet. Bedding of any sort was non-existent. Many of these men were already sick when they arrived at Bang Pong, but that meant nothing to their Japanese masters. To the Japanese a P.O.W who fell ill while working on the railway was guilty of a crime against the Emperor. One such group known as ‘F’ force had a particularly grim time of it. By the time the railway was finished 50% of them had died.
By early spring 1943 there was a tremendous push on to get the railway built as soon as possible. The tide of war was beginning to turn. It was no longer so easy to send supplies to Burma by sea. The railway to Burma was becoming more and more essential to the Japanese army. But by this time the labour force was being drastically reduced by death and ill-health. It was at this stage that many of us still at Nong Pladuk were sent up country to replace these no longer fit to work. For the first 20 miles we travelled by rail in open wagons, tormented by the sparks the wood-burning engine kept belching out. After that the next 60 miles had to be covered on foot along rough jungle paths slipping and slithering all the way in the deep mud always in danger of bruising our legs on the hard rocks or cutting ourselves on the sharp bamboo. Such initially simple cuts and bruises filled us with apprehension because we knew they could so quickly develop into large horrible suppurating ulcers which all too often led to amputation.We struggled along by day, and at night lay exhausted where we fell. No shelter, little food, and no fresh water to wash in.
One unforgettable night as we lay in the jungle outside a P.O.W camp we were grimly aware of an unceasing procession from the camp to the funeral pyres which burned all night. We were deep in cholera country and the corpses they were burning were those of our comrades whose earthly journey had ended in this godless place. In the morning as we continued on our own journey there was deathly silence. Each one of us was preoccupied with his own thoughts.
At last we reached Kinsayock where a deep cutting had to be driven through the thick rock. Cholera was rife in the camp but every possible man had to be in the job. If a man collapsed with illness or exhaustion he was beaten till he got to his feet again. If he couldn’t rise he was left to die – and God help anyone who went to help him. One night I got back to camp to discover that a man had been shot dead because he was too weak to stand up. When I think of hell it is a picture of Kinsayock I see. When at last the cutting was finished those of us who survived and could still work had to endure another 60 mile journey and a repeat of the cruel and vile regime until at last at the end of November 1943 the railway was compete.The P.O.W death toll was 13000-one death for every 28 yards of track.
Just about a month ago a sad little tale appeared in the London Times. It puts in a nutshell what it was like to be a prisoner of the Japanese on the Burma Railway. The story was written in a diary kept
by a Lance Corporal of the Royal Norfolk Regiment.
Beginning in Changi Jail after the fall of Singapore in February 1942 it tells in neat pen and ink writing of swimming excursions, camp concerts and general high spirits. By June 1943 on the Burma Railway the entries appear in spidery pencil notes which tell of forced marches, slave labour and rampant disease. One entry reads “It has rained every day since I have been here. It is hellish. Mud everywhere. Food shortages. Two meals a day. Half a mug of gravy and half a mug of rice.
Two weeks later the entry is “There have been 167 deaths so far this month. The record was 28 in one night. It is simply murder. The poor chaps are stripped and dumped 8 to a grave.
The final entry on December 1943 reads”At the present time, having a bad spell with malaria.” Nine days later, at the age of 28, Bill Smith died from beriberi and tuberculosis. Bound in a piece of hessian from a kit bag his diary bears the inscription, “To my darling Ida whose love has helped me to endure these troublous times through which I am passing.”
The railway experience was indeed hellish. But perhaps the hardest of all to bare was that though piles of letters from home arrived at the camps we never received them. Like many other wives and parents of prisoners, only after the war had ended did Bill Smith’s wife get any news of her husband. The news was that he was dead! Mrs Smith died 4 years ago at the age of 78 without ever knowing about her husbands labour of love which if the Japs had ever found it would have meant instant execution.
That is a brief outline of my terrestrial journey, but let me also tell you about my spiritual journey, because without the latter I do not think I could have survived the former. I had a very conventional Church of Scotland upbringing. It was very douce, very middle of the road, and very unexciting. But when I started work in a large council office all that rapidly changed. I worked with another lad called Andy about two years older than myself, and Andy put a completely new shine on things for he was full of fun and full of personality. Every day we had to do the filing of the personal files of all the train drivers, bus drivers and conductors in Glasgow. I don’t know how many there were but it always felt like a million to me. There was a very long wall in the office covered with pigeon holes where the files were kept. I was bored stiff but Andy treated it like the console of a gigantic cinema organ. He danced up and down the whole day long pushing one in there and pulling another out here, beaming and singing all the time , ‘Trust in the Lord and don’t despair, he is a friend so true, no matter what your troubles are, Jesus will see you through.’ You see Andy had not long before been converted and he was full of it. At first I took a very dim view of all this carry on. It wasn’t my cup of tea at all. But Andy was irresistible. On Sunday mornings he helped at the Children’s’ Free Breakfast in a wee mission hall, down in Plantation beside the docks, and very soon I was doing it too. He was a member of the Christian Endeavour Society – a jolly crowd of likely lads and bonnie lassies – and soon I was a member too. They all said that Jesus was their Saviour, and I followed suit. At the Glasgow Fair I went with them to Campbelltown for a seaside mission and I came back having learned something I never knew before – I knew what I wanted to do with my life – I wanted to be a minister. Or rather I believed that was what God wanted me to be.
But the road we travel in this life is seldom smooth and often twisted. I got a new job. I lost touch with Andy and his friends and took off in a different direction. Perhaps I was still a christian, but the flame was burning very low. But during the next five years something strange kept happening. At the strangest times and in the most unlikely places a voice within me would say ‘God still wants you to be a minister’ each time it soon passed but I still couldn’t get rid of it.
God is like that I think. You can turn your back on him and walk away but the next time you turn round, there he is again right beside you . You just can’t get rid of him. There’s a little jingle that tells the
story – you probably know it:-
“Last night when I came up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today – I do so wish he’d go away.”
When we became prisoners I thought we would have lots of time on our hands and I decided I would take this time to sort out this business of God for good and for all. But I didn’t get very far because I soon found that it is impossible to prove that God exists. It is just as impossible to prove that God does not exist. In other words, the question of God is an open question and will always remain so. That is the way we were made. God created us with the freedom to decide for ourselves whether we believe in him or not. God does not compel us one way or another. But, thank God, neither does he abandon us or wash his hands of us. As a well known hymn puts it,
“Perverse and foolish oft I strayed, but yet in love he sought me, and on his shoulder gently laid and home rejoicing brought me. The Good Shepherd and the Lost Sheep”
During my time in Nong Pladuk I “came home.” I met a very fine army chaplain called Christopher Ross. He didn’t argue with me or pressure me in anyway. He didn’t have to. The man he was was the evidence that could not be denied and I made my peace with God and promised that if I survived, I would become a minister. It wasn’t a bargain with him, it was a surrender to him.
But again, the way ahead was not easy. But I found that God was travelling with me. The morning we left the camp with the funeral pyre we passed a bamboo cross someone had set up on a little hummock and as we passed I heard a voice inside me saying, “I am the resurrection and the life, he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” (John11 25-26). In my ardent youth I had often puzzled over how a man in the first century who had died on a cross, could possibly do anything for me in the 20th Century. But now I knew that Jesus who died on the cross was that very moment doing something for me that no one else could do – he was giving me Hope.
One day at Kinsayock I chanced upon some verses from Romans chapter 8.” Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress or persecution or famine nakedness or peril or sword?” I looked around me and suddenly realised they were all there before my very eyes – tribulation, distress, persecution , famine, nakedness, and peril. There was even a little Jap swaggering about with a sword at his side just itching for an excuse to use it. There they all were and we were completely at their mercy. They could do whatever they liked with us. But here in Gods word it said there was something they could never do to us. They could never separate us from the love of Christ. And once again, in my own heart at least, I felt a man again and not a slave God had given me back my self-respect. Nothing could separate me from his love.
After Kinsayock when I discovered my ordeal was not yet over, that I had another 60 miles to go and face again the persecution famine and nakedness – the lot, I felt it was more than I could bare. Like Paul I prayed to God to take it away and spare me. But in 2nd Corinthians 12 (9) I got the same answer Paul did –
“my grace is sufficient for you.”
“My strength is made perfect in weakness,” God said to me,”when you are at your weakest,
I am at my strongest.” And at the end of the day I found indeed that his grace had been sufficient to see me through to the bitter end.
The railway was completed just before Christmas 1943 and a couple of months after that we returned to Nong Pladuk – in the mercy of God travelling by rail. At the end of May I joined a party that was going to Japan. We returned by rail to Singapore and were quickly embarked on a rusty old ship which by some miracle carried us slowly to Japan via Manila and Formosa and there we remained till the end of the war. We were lucky to reach Japan and we were lucky to leave it alive because in June’45 it became obvious that they had already made arrangements to massacre us all if mainland Japan was invaded. But for the atomic bomb we would all have died. But that is another story.
I would like to close with a word about the bible. In both the Old and New Testaments it contains the Word of God which God speaks to each of us in a unique way. As I have told you it spoke to me in Siam in times of trouble and distress, and some of you know how clearly and directly it spoke to me a year or two ago in an agonising family crisis (Robin’s heart attack). Sadly a lot of people today never read the bible, they say it’s too difficult – they can’t understand it. Yet for generations simple folk in Scotland read it and loved it because in it they heard God speaking to them.
Many years ago I stood beside the death bed of an old Saint. All her days she had scrubbed floors and washed stairs to give her children a better chance in life than she had had.”Mother, the ministers here,” said her daughter. “Would you like him to read you something special form the Bible?” With almost her dying breath the old saint whispered – “It’s all special”.
The Bible had been her source of comfort and strength all her days. She was certain it would not let her down at the end.
When you read your Bible, don’t read to sit in judgement upon it. Let it sit in judgment on you. Don’t read it with your head ; read it with your heart, a humble and open heart. As Rabbie says in his epistle to Davie-
“The heart ayes’ the part – aye that makes us right or wrong”
INSCRIPTION ON FRONTISPIECE OF RONALD SEARLE’S BOOK – ”TO THE KWAI AND BACK”
I am indebted to a friend for the gift of this wonderfully accurate record of what it was like being a Far East P.O.W. Ronald Searle’s experience is almost identical with my own. He was in 53 Brigade, I was in 54 Brigade. He was 21 when he sailed in October 1941, I was 22. He sailed in the Mount Vernon, I was in her sister ship USS Manhattan. When he went to Mombassa, I went to Bombay (Mumbai) and it took us a little longer to get to Singapore. We landed there on 31st January 1942. While he stayed in Changi till May 1943. I was there for only 6 weeks before going to Keppel Harbour to work on the docks. The party I was with went to Siam (Thailand) in September 1942 so we were among the first to go and had the good fortune (comparatively) to be kept at the base camp, Non Pladuk, till March 1943 when we were sent up country to work on the railway. I think we went by rail to TAMARKAN (near Kanchanaburi where we visited the war memorial), but from there we had to walk – to Kinsaiyok. The sketches and descriptions on pages 102-107 tell exactly what it was like on that journey. Kinsiyok was the most hellish place I have ever experienced and pages 108 -115 and 122-127 are accurate in every detail.When the cutting at Kinsayok was completed we marched further to Konkuita where we remained till January/February 1944. In March 1944 we returned by rail to Non Pladuk and in May I went to Singapore in charge of a party of 200 and from there we sailed to Japan. We spent the last year of the war in Funatsu, Gifuken, high in the mountains. It was harsh, and bitterly cold in winter, but never, even at its worst, as bad as we had experienced on the railway.
D.W.O. 22nd April 1986