VJ Day

Sunk, Captured, Tortured And Starved: Surviving Life As A Japanese POW

A heart-breaking tale of survival …

The horrors of captivity for Allied prisoners of war held by the Japanese is well documented, with POWs suffering immense hardship. Here, for the 75th anniversary of VJ Day, former member of the Blues and Royals James Wharton tells the personal story of his grandfather after researching his family history in the Far East during World War Two. 

 

My grandfather was a Japanese Prisoner of War. 

The headlines are this: he served on a ship that was sunk in the South China Sea. Surviving that, he was taken to the nearby city of Singapore shortly before it fell to the invading Japanese. Becoming a prisoner of war, he was put to work on the Burma Railway, more commonly known as the Railway of Death, and was present at the building of the Bridge over the River Kwai, the film about which he would later detest.

You might think that enough, but no …

Before the war was over he would be sunk again, this time while being transported to mainland Japan as part of the infamous Hell Ship convoys. Saved from the water, he finally found himself working in a mine near the doomed city of Nagasaki, the target site for the second Atomic Bomb. My grandfather James Crumlin was a survivor.

Jimmy’s war ended in August 1945, but his suffering lasted a lifetime.

James Crumlin

Able Seaman James Crumlin - Jimmy. Credit JW

Headlines never tell the full story. Interwoven in his story are many others. Some involve the people he served with, others are about the places his story took him and of the Royal Navy battlecruiser at the centre of his story – HMS Repulse.  

Repulse, by the time 18-year-old Jimmy counted himself part of her crew at the beginning of World War Two, was an aging capital ship that had entered service during the previous world war, a war where Japan were our allies.

She had seen action in that first war, landing a direct hit on the German SMS Königsberg at the battle of Heligoland Bight. In 1940 with my Grandfather James at his battle station, she was even involved in chasing down the Bismarck but had to drop out of the fight for fuel conservation purposes. 

In the Far East, Repulse would be sunk while part of Churchill’s Force Z on December 10, 1941 – three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, and on it, my grandad who had turned 20 only a fortnight prior.

HMS REPULSE, May 1936. Credit: IWM

At the time of her sinking, Repulse was captained by William Tennant. His story is important, too …

Bill, as he was known, was a man people respected. He had survived a sinking already during World War One, when the ship he was serving on, HMS Nottingham, was hit during a sea fight.

Ahead of taking up command of Repulse, Bill Tennant earned impressive medal ware and a distinguished nickname after exceeding hopes and expectations as the Senior Naval Officer Dunkirk at the Dunkirk Evacuations. ‘Dunkirk Joe’ was awarded the Companion of the Order of the Bath for getting so many men off the beaches of northern France.

His men, my grandfather included, admired him a lot.

The creation of the Eastern Fleet is itself a fascinating, but long story. However, in summary it can be described as being reluctantly assembled by Churchill and the Admiralty, in large part due to the need to keep capital ships in closer to home waters for various European war reasons.

By the winter of 1941, it was decided ships would go East after all, and Repulse was ordered there alongside the new HMS Prince of Wales. The fleet was supposed to have its own carrier however this did not come to pass and Force Z, as it became known upon arriving in Singapore in the opening days of December 1941, would have to operate without its own air cover. This lack of aircraft carrier would be fatal for the men of Force Z.

Within a week of arriving at Singapore, naval history would be made by the lose of these two great capital ships of the British Empire. They would become the first ships at sea ever to be lost by an attack from the air, something that may never have happened had the fleet had its own protection by means of an aircraft carrier.

Bill Tennant and his ship were not merely sitting ducks in the sense that once the attack came from above, they could only hope not to be sunk. Far from it.

Bill Tennant commanded his ship gallantly until the end.

The attack on both ships that Wednesday morning were detailed in the 1977 book The Sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse, written by Martin Middlebrook and Patrick Mahoney. In it, Middlebrook and Mahoney included the witness accounts of survivors from both ships.

Able Seaman Baxter (Repulse) said:

"When we heard machine-gun bullets being sprayed along the upper deck by the Japanese torpedo bombers, my god, did we move! As one man we all rushed for cover in the well-hole of the 4-in. gun underneath the breech block.

"We heard the bullets ricocheting off the gun shield but we were lucky as no one was hurt.

"After the firing had stopped we had a look to see what had happened. It was a good job we had that steel plate round our gun and we were behind it, otherwise we would have all been killed."

Captain Tennant’s own account details the plight of his ship and her crew following the first wave of the aerial attack by the Japanese crews. He said:

"The second attack was shared by Prince of Wales and Repulse and was made by torpedo-bomber aircraft. I am not prepared to say how many machines took part in this attack but, on its conclusion, I have the impression we had succeeded in combing the tracks of a large number of torpedoes, possibly as many as twelve.

"We were steaming at 25 knots at the time. I maintained a steady course until the aircraft appeared to be committed to the attack, when the wheel was put over and the attacks providentially combed. I would like to report the valuable work done by all bridge personnel at this time in calmly pointing out approaching torpedo-bombing aircraft which largely contributed to our good fortune in dodging all these torpedoes."

The attack on HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales on Wednesday, December 10, 1941. The splashes either side of Repulse (bottom left) signify bombs exploding in the water, the black plume of smoke depicts the hit on her deck. The wake on Prince of Wales (top) demonstrate the manoeuvring of the ship in response to the attack. This image was taken by one of the Japanese pilots involved in the attack. Credit: NH 60566 Loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, 10 December 1941. Donation of Mr. Theodore Hutton, 1942, courtesy of U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command. 

On Captain Tennant and his herculean efforts avoiding the dropped torpedoes, Middlebrook and Mahoney's book says:

"Many observers have praised the skill displayed by Captain Tennant on this occasion. He had managed to dodge the ‘overs’ from the attack on Prince of Wales and now he managed to avoid every one of the torpedoes dropped by these two Japanese squadrons."

A little after noon and following a lull of 20 minutes, the attack on both ships continued. Prince of Wales by then was in a bad way having already been hit by two torpedoes.

Repulse had thus far managed to get through with relatively minor damage in the form of a bomb landing on its deck (the result of which can be seen in the picture taken by the Japanese pilot above). However, the British luck would soon end. During the follow-up attack, Prince of Wales was struck by a further four torpedoes and Repulse was hit by five. Repulse’s gunners had shot down two enemy planes, killing their pilots, but without air cover both ships were doomed. I know that my grandfather's battle station on Repulse involved the operation of the pom-pom guns, so I take comfort in the fact that enemy planes were shot down by Repulse's gun crews. 

Sixteen-year-old Boy Seaman Heydon (Repulse) retold the heart braking circumstances of his survival in Middlebrook and Mahoney’s book almost 30 years later:

"The only way I could reach up to it was to recruit the aid of the one below, a personal chum of mine, another boy, to give me a push. Unfortunately, having done so, he lost his footing and fell back taking about another dozen with him.

"I still dream of the sight of those people falling, never to make it up again.

"When I slid into the water from the gun deck, I was alone and felt sick at the thought that they had lost their lives to save mine. I still suffer remorse."

Vice Admiral W G Tennant CB, MVO, Flag Officer, Levant and East Mediterranean visiting HMS COLOSSUS in Colombo. Tennant was the commanding officer of HMS REPULSE in 1941 when it was sunk on 10 December by Japanese torpedoes. Credit: IWM.

Repulse went down relatively quickly while Prince of Wales endured a drawn-out process of slowly sinking and being bombed furthermore in the process by follow-up Japanese planes. The attack on the two ships had lasted 90 minutes.

The story of the sinking ends there. Well, almost …

I have tried to imagine the situation and frankly, it’s impossible … shot at from above, blown up by falling bombs and torpedoed from all sides on a ship that was listing heavily to one side.

These things sound like they only happen in the movies, but they happened to my grandfather. Middlebrook and Mahoney discussed in their book that the surviving men found themselves in shark infested waters. It is utterly terrifying.  

The stone memorial commemorating the loss of HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales on December 10, 1941, at NME, Staffordshire. Credit: PE

Jimmy and the other survivors were rescued by the smaller ships in the fleet and were taken back to Singapore to recuperate after their ordeal.

At the very least, it meant those men had some sort of Christmas while individually trying to cope with the loss of so many shipmates.

Some 508 officers and men of Repulse had been lost, almost half her crew. Two days after the sinking, the crews of both ships were officially disbanded, and for a while the men found themselves somewhat at a loose end.

The purpose of Force Z’s mission on the day of the deadly attack was to locate and destroy troop carrying ships travelling west towards the coast of Malaya. With the operation lost, the Japanese were able to land somewhat unchallenged and over the course of just two months, they had moved south through thick jungle towards the island of Singapore.

So impassable was the route undertaken by the invading Japanese, the northern side of Singapore Island was massively under-defended ... the British just did not expect the attack to come from that side of the island. During the first week of February 1942, nine weeks on from the sinking of Repulse, Jimmy found himself in the middle of the Battle for Singapore.

At Singapore, the survivors of the ships had been sorted into essentially two groups: those who could return to the UK and those who could not. Jimmy had fallen into the latter.

Morale among those left in Singapore was reportedly very low. Many, like my grandad Jim, had been sent to Singapore after a turbulent year or so operating in the Atlantic which had involved action against the Bismarck. When they had arrived in the Far East, unknown as it was their fate, they were met with the worst action faced by Allied forces in the region throughout the war.

During the weeks leading up to the Battle for Singapore, Jimmy and his buddies were areal bombed frequently where they were billeted. And matters would turn yet more worse.

The passed-down family account of how and why Jimmy fell into Japanese hands is based upon a story that he was being treated for a minor injury at a medical facility on the island when Singapore fell.

But without hard evidence, it’s difficult to be absolutely clear as to the exact circumstances. Middlebrook and Mahoney explored the subject of what happened to the ships’ survivors at the end of their book, The Sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse, and in it they say:

"Singapore fell ten weeks after the sinking of Repulse and Prince of Wales. The Admiralty ordered all naval personnel to get away before the final defeat, and those left behind were mostly Royal Marines and wounded seamen."

That being so, it is possible that another passed-down section of Jimmy’s story stands up to plausibility … that he was being treated (for a septic hand injury) at the Alexandra Hospital, a British Military Hospital ran by the Royal Army Medical Corps – the scene of the Alexandra Hospital massacre on Valentines Day, 1942.

The massacre is described on the Singapore government website, Singapore Infopedia:

"For about one hour, three large groups of Japanese soldiers attacked the hospital.

"They went from room to room shooting, bayonetting and beating up doctors, orderlies and patients indiscriminately.

"They even killed an anaesthetised patient who was still lying on the operating table. About 50 men were killed in this first round. Around 3:30 p.m., 200 men were rounded up, tied into groups of eight and forced to march toward a row of buildings some distance from the hospital.

"The gravely injured were not spared and were killed if they fell along the way."

It is said that those who could not freely climb out of their hospital beds were shot or bayonetted by the Japanese soldiers moving from room to room within the hospital.

It is a shocking, and difficult story to hear, and for many of us it will not be possible to comprehend such mindless violence. The Singapore Infopedia article goes onto say that many of the men taken away from the hospital were shot the following morning by their Japanese captors.

The process of becoming a prisoner of war for Jimmy and the many thousands like him when Singapore fell, which included almost all of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders (who had absorbed many of the surviving Royal Marines from Repulse and Prince of Wales – quickly becoming known as the Plymouth Argyles), was to be interned at a Singapore prison called Changi Jail.

The Japanese turned the prison into a POW camp, housing both civilians and military captees until the end of the war.

It was a cramped site, initially holding 3,000 prisoners in a space that was originally built to house just 600. Later, they would add a nearby British Army barracks to the site and the number of prisoners increased to a staggering 50,000 by the end of the war.

Jimmy spent a little over six months in the squalid, cramped conditions of the jail in summer 1942 before being transported by rail north to Thailand where he and many others were to be put to work on building the new Burma Railway … the Railway of Death.

The Burma Railway, also known as the Railway of Death connected the Andaman Sea with the Gulf of Thailand and allowed the Japanese a route through the jungle instead of shipping in the danderous sea lanes of the region, heavily patrolled by Allied vessels. 

The reason for building the 415 km railway line through the rainforests of Thailand and Burma, a frequently mountainous terrain, was to provide the Japanese with a supply route from the west for their newly conquered empire.

Once finished, the railway line would connect the Andaman Sea with the Gulf of Thailand, and thus remove the need to risk ships on the much longer journey via sea. To build it, the Japanese split their POW slaves into two groups.

One was sent to the north west of Burma to start digging their way through the jungle southwards, the other group was put to work digging their way north from the south eastern Gulf of Thailand. The two groups would eventually meet in the middle.

Ronsi, Burma. c. 1943. Prisoners of war (POWs) building a bridge on the Burma-Thailand railway. Credit: Australian War Memorial (Donor A. Seary) - P00406.035

Jimmy was part of the southern group, starting their mammoth task of carving through the thick jungle and the hard rock of mountains with little more than their bare hands. They were treated appallingly.

Frequently tortured, whipped to the bone, stripped of dignity, abused and starved.

So many died during the building of the railway, it is said that one man gave his life for every wooden sleeper that was laid.

This is what humans are capable of doing to each other.

Three "fit" workers at Shimo Sonkurai No 1 Camp, standing outside the camp hospital. Credit: Australian War Memorial - P02569.192

The jaw-dropping plight of Jimmy and his fellow POWs while building the Railway of Death is described in full in the hard-hitting book, Surviving the Sword: Prisoners of the Japanese 1942-45, by Brian MacArthur. The book runs to almost 500 pages and includes graphic descriptions, sketches and images of the experiences of the prisoners of war. One such passage is this:

"The ambition of the Japanese engineers was - in one sense – awe-inspiring. With one set of prisoners working in Burma and another much larger group in Thailand, the railway was to be driven 258 miles through some of the most hostile territory on earth, irrespective of the cost in human lives. ‘In Burma all the dread agents of fell disease and foul death lay in wait,’ the historian of the British Army Medical Services wrote later."

A FEPOW (Far East Prisoner of War) in captivity at a camp on the Burma Railway. 

In another chapter, MacArthur says:

"As they laboured on the bridges, the men were constantly harassed by the guards. When asked to describe the guards’ behaviour after the war, Toosey (the senior British officer among the POWs) quoted a sentence from Red Star Over Asia by Edgar Snow: ‘Nowhere in the world was sadism practiced with greater efficiency than in the Japanese army.’ The normal form of punishment in the Japanese army was corporal and violent. Even the despised Koreans (employed as guards) had written instructions that they were entitled to kill the prisoners without reference to higher authority."

"‘Every form of cruelty that an uncivilised mind could invest was used on the prisoners,’ said Toosey."

Burma-Thailand Railway. c. 1943. Prisoners of War (POWs) carrying sleepers in Burma, about forty kilometres south of Thanbyuzayat (probably Beke Taung). Credit: Australian War Memorial (Donor A. Seary) - P00406.026

Immediately following this passage in Surviving the Sword is a terrible description of the torture carried out on a group of men who had been caught steeling tools to sell to local Thai inhabitants. I am unable to repeat it here.

The Japanese had earlier assumed it would take the building of the railway some five years, but once they had secured the vast supply of slave labourers following the fall of places like Singapore, they reassessed this to 18 months.

It took my grandad and his fellow captees thirteen months to carry out the building of the railway.

Ronsi, Burma. c. 1943. Funeral of a prisoner of war (POW) who died during the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway. Credit: Australian War Memorial (Donor A. Seary) - P00406.031

I wish I had the chance to discuss this with him today. I know that torture was a feature of captivity that Jimmy experienced … the passed-down story is that for a petty misdemeanour his captors hammered bamboo shoots behind the nails on his fingertips.

But I do not know why this happened, I do not know what Jimmy’s apparent crime was to necessitate such a dreadful response by his guards. It is a piece of the story that is sadly missing.

A surgical operation in progress in the operating theatre at the prisoner of war (POW) hospital camp. Of the 896 operations which were performed here there was a mortality rate of 18. Credit: Australian War Memorial - 157874

The Hell Ships is a section of World War Two history that gets little attention nowadays. I suppose when there is so much awful history being written day after day, some stuff is bound to be forgotten. The Hell Ships fall into this category, but they really should not.

The Hell Ship found its name thanks to the conditions those who were transported on them had to endure. They were described by survivors as being inhumane. The Japanese used the ships to transport their captured prisoners of war around their empire, taking the emaciated men to places such as Taiwan, Manchukuo, Korea, Sumatra, Siam or in the case of Jimmy, mainland Japan to continue slaving their labour.

There were over 250 vessels that made up the fleet of ships known as the Hell Ships between 1942 and the close of the war and as such, trying to pin Jimmy down to a specific vessel at first appears to be difficult.

But, because there are facts I know about him, such as the dates he was occupied with the building of the railway, the fact his transporter ship was attacked and sunk by Americans and that he survived to be put to work on the mainland near the specific city of Nagasaki, the list of possibilities shrinks dramatically to just a few. And when you closely examine the circumstances of those few ships, you can whittle down the list further by taking out those which had no British POWs aboard or those where circumstances do not quite fit Jimmy’s story … and quite remarkably, there are just two possibilities. Jimmy’s Hell Ship was either SS Kachidoki Maru or the SS Tamahoko Maru.

Kachidoki was torpedoed by US submarine Pampanito on September 12, 1944. It was moving as part of a convoy carrying some 950 Australian and British Prisoners of War. After the vessel was sunk, the surviving prisoners of war, 520 of them, were transferred to another ship which took the men to the mainland.

The other ship, Tamahoko, was sunk three months earlier and was carrying 772 Allied POWs (of which 197 were British). During the attack, carried out by the submarine USS Tang, 560 were killed. The survivors were left to die in the water but were picked up the next morning by a passing whaling ship.

This civilian vessel took the rescued 212 men to Nagasaki, where they were interned at the Fukuoka 14 prisoner of war camp.

Tropical ulcers forming on the lower legs of two unidentified members of "F Force", on the Burma-Thailand railway. Due to lack of medical supplies, many prisoners of war (POW) working on the railway would have to have their limbs amputated without anaesthetic. Credit: Australian War Memorial - P02569.190

The story as known among my family becomes a lot scarcer in detail once Jimmy boards the Hell Ship, aside from the few facts already outlined.

So, to sure up what is dangerously close to being lost, I decided to spend considerable time hunting down evidence of Jimmy’s final year of the war. I started with the prisoner of war camps situated in Japan. Stubbornly, I did not think there would be too many … I was very wrong.

A key factor felt by many of the Far East survivors in the years and decades following the war was that their experiences seemed to take a back seat when thought of alongside those survivors of the European conflict. Common discourse to this day places more emphasis on those who fought on the beaches of Normandy than those who suffered on the Hell Ships off the coast of places like China and Taiwan.

Ask yourself, do kids learn about the suffering of our grandparents in the Far East during World War two in their school curriculum?

On mainland Japan there were over 130 prisoner of war camps in operation until the close of the war in August 1945. The purpose of these camps was to house the captured slave labourer POWs, putting them to work in industries aiding the Japanese war effort while so many of their own young men were away fighting the war. Typically, this included the mining of minerals and production of metals for munitions.

A list of the many camps arranged by region was compiled after the war and used as evidence against the Japanese officials who were responsible for heinous war crimes. In addition, notable historians have dedicated much of their lives compiling materials to help keep the story of what happened in the Far East alive.

One such man was the late Roger Mansell, an American academic who rigorously researched camp by camp the respective activities that occurred. His wealth of research, significantly for me, included rollcalls of the men liberated from the camps at the end of the war.

After a lengthy trawl through records lasting some hours, I found my grandad’s name listed on the rollcall records of a camp near Nagasaki. Finding his name among so many affected me. It was as if his name had been sat there for decades waiting to be found. I informed my mother immediately, whom like me cried. With the discovery of his name in the records, the specific camp, labour duties, movements and the key activities of Jimmy’s last year of the war suddenly opened up to me. It is information I value dearly.

The roster of Fukuoka 25 upon liberation by US Forces in August 1945. James Crumlin is listed at no. 77. Credit: Mansell.

My grandfather was taken to the mainland, as previously known, and he was put to work near Nagasaki. But for the first time I know precisely where that was. I also know that he definitely was on board the SS Kachidoki, one of the two ships earlier identified, but now I know what happened in the days following this ordeal too.

After the ship was hit by torpedo on September 12, 1944, Jimmy spent two days in the sea awaiting to be rescued. During this time, the surviving Japanese soldiers fought off the POWs from life rafts, causing further deaths. A vessel arrived and saved only the guards. A day later, another arrived which picked him up and took him to the nearby Chinese island of Hai-nan. Following that, they were transported on to Japan arriving at Moji Harbour near Nagasaki, on September 30, 1944.

The next day, Jimmy and the other captees were sent on a train 40 miles away from Nagasaki and then marched to a camp that was hitherto unused. The camp was called Fukuoka 25.

The Fukuoka 25 camp blueprint. Credit: Mansell

This event was captured in the diary of Captain RD Wilkie, 2 SSVF, the superior Allied officer responsible for Jimmy and his fellow prisoners. Today, his diary of life at Fukuoka 25 sits in the National Archives at Kew, London. Below are some excerpts. 

31/9/44       

Entrained early morning for new camp. Received good meal on train. Arrived mid-day and marched to new camp. Hot bath was ready and afterwards received an issue of good warm clothing. Underpants shirt, jacket, trousers, towel (face). A good meal was waiting for us. Then signed a non-escape form under Capt. Wilkie’s authorization (following precedent at Changi, Singapore). Quarters: - Capt. Wilkie, Medical Officer (Capt. Matheson) and Adjutant (Lt. Miller).

10/12/44     

Visit from civil and Army officials from Japanese Government. Object to give facilities for letter writing. From conversation with them letters obviously desired for propaganda purposes. Wireless broadcasts radio recordings and cabled messages promised to selected men. Usual attempts to get us to admit animosity against the Americans for the torpedoing incident.

20/12/44     

No. 1075311 Gnr. Goodchild, B.J., 155/Fd. Rgt., R.A., gaoled for four days by I.J.A. for laziness at the factory and failing to obey an order given by a Japanese overseer. Whole party punished by being made to kneel on the parade ground because a tap was broken.

25/12/44     

General Holiday. Service followed by games. Lunch and boxing. Dinner and then a concert. Evidently desired us to enjoy ourselves.

The Japanese guards responsible for Jimmy and his 500 fellow Fukuoka 25 inmates were less barbaric than those on the Railway of Death, but there was still frequent violence enacted on the men, and severe punishments for dalliances of rule breaking.

Thanks to the diary of Captain Wilkie, there is a trusted record of the important events concerning the group of prisoners Jimmy spent the last year of the war with. In the detailed passages of life at Fukuoka 25, a clear picture is described of what captivity looked like and reading those accounts 75 years on has brought a strange happiness to me.

This story needed to be told.

Burma or Thailand. 1945. An emaciated Australian prisoner of war, Corporal Reginald Lloyd Harvey, 2/26 Battalion of Sandgate, Qld. Credit: Australian War Memorial (Donor B. Theobald) - P01433.020

At the start, I discussed that Jimmy survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki because he was underground working in a salt mine. Well, I now know that the factory was a metals plant and the POWs were used as slave labourers in the production of calcium carbide – a strong mineral used to create strong metals for tools. This included work at a coal mine, not salt.

Fukuoka 25 lay 39 miles to the north east of the hypocentre of the August 9 Atomic Bomb at Nagasaki. In Captain Wilkie’s diary, his account of the event details that he and the men spent much of the day harbouring in a bomb shelter at the factory, much unaware of the impact the American action had had on the inhabitants of the city, or the fact that it was a historic event for humanity itself. Jimmy had survived the atomic bombing not because he was underground – which he may have been – but actually because he was 39 miles away from the hypocentre of it. I am really glad to have this information in the clear manner it now is.

In another account written many years later, Gordon Highlander Cpl Alastair Urquhart described the blast from the bomb, 39 miles away:

“The blast from it keeled us over and there was a hint of panic among the Jap guards.”

Over the course of the next six days the events happening politically between Allied powers and the Japanese high command went on with the inhabitants of Fukuoka 25 knowing very little.

Captain Wilkie’s diary details the scenes in the factory when the surrender was announced on the radio, an address given by the Emperor which was the first time his voice had been heard by the population of Japan. This was VJ Day.

15.8.45           

At the factory today about 1200 hrs. there was a radio broadcast after which the Nip. workers were assembled and addressed by the factory official. In the middle of his speech he broke down and cried. When the siren sounded a little earlier than this the men were told not to worry that American planes would not bomb Nip. workers, and women did not take cover on this raid. No work was done in afternoon.

The war was finally over for Jimmy and the thousands of other captured prisoners of war in the Far East.

A week after the surrender, members of the American Navy arrived at Fukuoka 25 and released the men, initially to Nagasaki where matters such as delousing were seen to.

At this stage, we do not have an account of Jimmy’s movements back to his family in Belfast. But we know it took him three months.

One man who has written an account of the journey home was co-habitant of Fukuoka 25, Cpl Alastair Urquhart. In his detailed description of the long route home, he described stopping at Manilla for some time, before journeying on to Honolulu, Hawaii. From there the majesty of the Golden Gate Bridge is recounted as he sailed under it.

The men were then transported across America before boarding a ship at New York, the Queen Mary, before crossing the Atlantic to Southampton. The ship docked on November 17, 1945 … three months and two days after the war had ended. It was a long route, but on the way the men had been well fed and the health improved.

I cannot begin to imagine the joy in his mother’s heart when 24-year-old Jimmy knocked on his old front door on Leonards Street, Belfast, a day or so later.

After the action of battle, the sinking of his great ship, his capture at Singapore, the internment, torment, torture, the starvation and the brutality … Jimmy was finally home.

Group portrait of Japanese war crimes suspects, formerly guards at prisoner of war (POW) camps, interrogated by the War Graves Commission survey party whose task was to locate POW cemeteries and grave sites along the Burma-Thailand railway. They also took the opportunity to recover equipment and documents which had been secretly buried, under instructions from senior POW officers in the graves of deceased POWs. Credit: Australian War Memorial - P01910.004

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of Victory over Japan, the Imperial War Museum has launched a new exhibition called Voices of War, a collection of first-hand testimonies from those who experienced war in the Far East, including a Japanese school mistress who was living in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped. Another witness to the end of the Second World War was British Prisoner of War Sidney Lawrence. The Collection includes his solemn spoken words:

“I remember saying to the Japanese ‘what have we done to you?’ The tears rolled down his eyes and he said, ‘what have we done to each other?’ And from that moment I felt at one with them.”

Days after the sinking of Repulse, Captain William Tennant was returned to Britain and soon afterwards promoted to Rear Admiral. A year later he was mentioned in despatches for his part in Operations at Madagascar and for D-Day was responsible for the building of Mulberry Harbours - something he later took a CBE for. In 1948 he was made an Admiral and two-years later became Lord Lieutenant of Worcestershire. He died in Worcester in 1963.

In the 2017 Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk, Bill Tennant was portrayed on screen by the actor Sir Kenneth Branagh.  

Changi Jail, the hideously wicked POW camp on Singapore Island where Grandad James was kept for six months in 1942, is today a maximum-security prison.

The Burma Railway remains active to this day, although many of the bridges built with the slaved labour of the POWs have since been replaced. During the 13 months of its construction, 102,000 allied prisoners of war perished. 

During the three and half years the Japanese used Hell Ships to transport captured men around the Far East in the most squalid conditions imaginable, more than 20,000 POWs lost their lives, most of these were drownings following attack by Allied submarines.

The site of the Fukuoka 25 camp is today a built up, well populated area in the industrial city of Omuta.

I have tried to locate information on Captain Wilkie, the Australian officer responsible for Jimmy at Fukuoka 25, but all I was able to learn is that he returned to Australia after the war, no doubt to settle down.

I would like to learn more and will when time allows spend some time looking into his later life. It is clear from his diaries held at the National Archives that he ran a tight ship and cared for the men under his command significantly … I wish it was were possible to thank men like Captain Wilkie. 

Cpl Alastair Urquhart, who was two years older than Jimmy while based in the same camp and who has written very eloquently about his experiences as a POW, lived a long life. He died in 2016 at the age of 97. Tellingly, Alastair Urquhart wrote this in 1994:

"There was no counselling for the Japanese prisoners of war and I finished up in Strathcathro Hospital for three months, being allowed home for weekends if I wanted to. Sometimes I did but often stayed.

"The scars were to take years to heal but never completely."

Burma Railway Memorial, NME, Staffordshire. Credit: PE

At the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, England, a remarkable construction of a section of the Railway of Death has been reassembled using real materials brought over from Burma. It is a fitting tribute surrounded by peaceful nature.

Also at the Arboretum lies the commemorative stone of the two great ships, Repulse and Prince of Wales, which remembers those men lost on December 10, 1941.

Section of railway at National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire. 

After the war, my grandfather married his childhood sweetheart Gladys … my dear old Nan.

They lived in Liverpool, as Gladys does to this day, and Jimmy continued to go to sea until much later on in his life, as part of the Merchant Navy. Between them, they brought up five children. I am the youngest grandchild, but behind me are many, many great-grandchildren. 

In 1991, Jimmy returned to the Far East for the 50th anniversary of the sinking of Repulse. While there he was taken along with other survivors to the spot where the ship lies under water off the coast of Malaysia, and to other notable places important to his story including Changi Jail and the Burma Railway.

So vivid were the memories, Jimmy was able to immediately walk up to and point out his old sell at Changi Jail.

On the way home Jimmy fell ill and according to my mother was never the same again. I have many memories of my childhood in the 1990s when Grandad Jim would come to our home in North Wales and stay for a week at a time. He never spoke about the war.

James died in 2002 when I was fifteen, and a year before I joined the Army. At his funeral, which had an excellent turnout, I was extremely proud to act as a pallbearer. His ashes are buried in Walton cemetery, Liverpool.

James and Gladys Crumlin in Liverpool in 1996. Credit: PE

The IWM’s Voices of War collection is available online via their website https://www.iwm.org.uk

Thanks to the Australian War Memorial for supplying images and  the permission to use them. Thanks also to the US Navy - Naval History and Heritage Command for supplying the image of Repulse and Prince of Wales under attack.

An extensive collection of Allied POW records are searchable via the 'Centre For Research – Allied POWs Under The Japanese' at www.mansell.com/pow-index.htm

The memoirs of Alistair Urquhart are viewable online at www.far-eastern-heroes.org.uk/Alistair_Urquhart/index.htm. He also authored the book The Forgotten Highlander: My Incredible Story of Survival During the War in the Far East.

The Sinking of The Prince of Wales and Repulse by Martin Middlebrook and Patrick Mahoney was first published in 1977 by Pen & Sword.

Surviving the Sword: Prisoners of the Japanese 1942-45 by Patrick MacArthur was published in 2005 by Time Warner Books.