The Far East prisoners of war who remember '42

The POWs arrived on Japan’s snow-covered northern island of Hokkaido wearing their ragged tropical uniforms of shorts and thin shirts.

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Bill Marshall’s hearing is poor. His eyesight is wavering. But his memory is as sharp as it was the day his war finally ended on 15 August 1945, 70 years ago. Among the things he remembers are leaflets falling from American planes with news of Japan’s surrender, being fumigated before leaving the prisoner-of-war camp in Yawata and a few weeks earlier seeing nearby Nagasaki after it had been flattened by an atomic bomb nicknamed “Fat Man”. He remembers the long journey home via Okinawa, San Francisco, Nova Scotia and the “Queen Lizzie 1” to Southampton, and how much he weighed after all the beer and candy en route – five and a half stone. He remembers trying to forget it all.

“We never talked about it, which was a good thing in a way,” Marshall, who is 97, said one recent morning at his home in Waterlooville, near Portsmouth. “If you thought much about what happened you’d go bonkers. It was years of wasted life.”

At first, the war was an adventure for the young engineer from Shrewsbury. Having volunteered for the Royal Air Force, Marshall was sent to London, where he learned to operate a plant that produced oxygen for high-flying aircraft. By night, he pulled people out of houses bombed by German planes.

In early 1941 he was posted to an airfield in the British colony of Malaya. Within months of his arrival, the Japanese invasion began. Marshall and six colleagues stole a truck and headed towards Singapore. They escaped on a convoy of ships to the Dutch East Indies – now Indonesia – but were surrounded by Japanese troops and held along with other British captives in a former civilian jail infested with lice and bugs. Work was punishing and the food measly. Malnutrition-related disease was rife, from beriberi to scrotal dermatitis: “strawberry bollocks”, in POW-speak.

At the end of 1942, the prisoners were herded into the holds of boats bound for Japan. “They called them hell ships,” Marshall said. “A lot of people had dysentery and died.”

Bodies were boxed up and tossed into the sea under the orders of Japanese guards who would beat their captives without provocation. Yet it is the memory of a guard who kept a pet monkey and sliced its tail off for no reason that has stayed with Marshall longest.

The POWs arrived on Japan’s snow-covered northern island of Hokkaido wearing their ragged tropical uniforms of shorts and thin shirts. Marshall was put to work, first as a stevedore, then in an iron ore mine. Escape was impossible – “We were on an island!” – but he and other Allied prisoners saw it as their patriotic duty to keep their productivity low and mischief high, stealing the guards’ bento boxes of rice and cabbage as often as possible.

Marshall stopped speaking for a moment. “I hope I’m not boring you with this?” he said. Assured he was not, he retrieved a green file of yellowing documents. A telegram dated 23 April 1943 – more than a year after he was taken prisoner – informed his mother he was “unwounded in Japanese hands”. On a card headed “Imperial Japanese Army”, he later wrote: “Just a few lines to let know I am still in the running.” A further card read: “I am at present feeling fit, and moderately happy, and the good thing is, time goes pretty quickly.”

In reality, he was cold, hungry and tired of being physically abused. “The Japanese were a cruel nation then, basically a feudal nation,” he said. “They treated their own people the same. Officers beat NCOs, NCOs beat soldiers. We were at the tail end.”

For thousands of captured servicemen, the horrendous conditions, and the lack of food in particular, was too much. A third of the Fepows (Far Eastern prisoners of war) never came home. Marshall always knew he would but is modest about his fortitude. “Being a short bloke, maybe I was fortunate in not needing as much to keep me going.”

After the war, Marshall married, had children and carried on with life. (His wife died 16 years ago and his eldest son, who is 70, lives in a care home. Marshall still lives by himself.) Only when he neared retirement did he reach out to his former “comrades” from the Yawata camp to co-found the Java Club – the largest remaining Fepow organisation in the UK today. The aim was for the members to look after each other and the widows of those who died in the Far East campaign.

“We always felt like the forgotten army,” Marshall said. “For things like D-Day, the whole country goes wild. But on 15 August, not much goes on. That’s why we kept the club going, to let people know what happened.”

As each year passes, there are fewer Fepows to tell their stories. Marshall’s club has 85 former POWs, aged 90 to 104. Some of the Fepows still hate the Japanese, he said, but he is more forgiving. “I say you cannot blame the kids for the sins of their fathers, so no bad feelings at all. I’ll tell you one thing, though, I have never bought a Japanese car.”

For more information visit: thejavafepowclub42.org

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 13 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Battle for Calais