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I grew up in ‘the gateway between England and Wales’, in the city of Newport in Gwent. It was a place renowned for its industrial heritage, yet when I was a teenager in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s it was suffering like the rest of the nation from the Great Depression following World War I. Therefore, employment opportunities at the factories where I sought work were non existent.

I decided I had to make a go of things so I left my home town at 16 to look for work. I managed to get jobs in a variety of places all over the country, from Bristol to Oxford to Dagenham. Firstly I worked at government labour camps and later on the belt line at car manufacturing factories that were mass producing Morris and Ford cars. The work was generally very intensive and my employers exceedingly strict but it wasn’t a bad way for a young lad to live, I learnt the meaning of hard work and it certainly did me no harm!

I was then called up to the army on Wednesday 19th June 1940 firstly joining the Irish Fusiliers and later The Royal Army Ordinance Core. One day in 1941 we were taken at 4am down to Avonmouth in Dorset where we boarded a troopship called ‘the Aronze’ and we sailed around the coast up to Liverpool where we joined a convoy. The next day we left to travel across the North Atlantic to Canada. We were very lucky because we were protected from the German submarine ‘wolf packs’ by the weather which was exceptionally bad at the time.

Upon arriving in Canada we went to Halifax in Nova Scotia. We aborted our original decision to get to the Middle East because the Germans had blockaded the Mediterranean thus we decided to travel down the American coast to Trinidad and then across the South Atlantic to Cape Town in South Africa. Where England had been dark, cold and depressing when we left; Cape Town was bright and warm and was not suffering the turmoil and heartache of war.  The South African people were exceedingly friendly and many of us got offers to desert, which given the beauty of the place would have been an understandable offer to take up. However, no one that I knew of did, it would have felt like too much of a betrayal to everyone back home who was relying on us.

We then carried on to Bombay in India. From here we were put aboard a dilapidated “old coal burner” called ‘The Empress of Asia’ that was meant to take us to Singapore. When we were still 20 miles away from Singapore we were attacked by 3 bombers. I was stationed on ‘B’ Deck at one of the Bren guns and could do little as they flew over and did a damn good job of machine gunning all our life boats. They then dropped 4 or 5 bombs on our ship and it went up like a paper torch. As great plumes of black smoke billowed around us we were told to abandon ship as we had only a short amount of time before it sank. I told my friend Pat Reagan that I was going to jump over the side and that he should come with me. Sadly, he refused and was killed soon after.

The survivors, about 50 or 60 of us, were stranded in the ocean for about 4 and a half hours clinging to a metal raft that had been thrown off the ship. Eventually, we were picked up by an old Indian gunboat upon which we stayed until night time when it was safe for us to finally to be taken into port at Singapore. Yet the Allies were fighting a losing battle, we had no air support, were heavily outnumbered and the 2 big ships that could have been the saviours (‘The Repulse’ and ‘The Prince of Wales’) had both been sunk. Therefore, it was no surprise when the Japanese took over Singapore when we had only been there for a fortnight.

We were captured in February 1942 and sent to Changi, which was the main POW camp in Singapore. In May 1942 we were told by our captors that we were going to be taken by train to a ‘Land of Plenty’, namely Thailand. It turned out to be a land of very little as far as we were concerned. We were used as a labour force for building the railway between Burma and Thailand. I had worked in 7 or 8 of the camps by the time the railway was finished and the conditions in all of them were appalling, there was barely any food, no clothes, boots or army kit. We had to make our own sandals out of bits of wood and wore only a loincloth to conceal our modesty whilst we worked. We were treated abysmally by the Japanese; to them our lives were worthless and they did not recognise the Geneva Convention. I do not want to go into detail about the various humiliations and atrocities that went on as the memories are too painful. However, they never succeeded in breaking our spirit.

Thousands had died by the time the railway was completed. This was also due to malnutrition, starvation and the killer diseases that were around, such as typhoid, cholera and malaria. There were also no medicines or bandages and we were forced to pilfer in order to survive. Things were so bad that out of roughly 6000 men in a camp; only 500 of them would be fit enough to work.

It was now approaching the end of the war and we were marched across Thailand towards the Cambodian border to a camp where the Japanese were preparing to make a last stand. It was around this time that we started hearing whispers and rumours that the Allies had defeated the Germans and that it was only a matter of time until the Japanese surrendered as well. Some fellows had illegal wirelesses on them that they were sometimes able to pick up news broadcasts on. We went to great lengths to keep our precious wirelesses hidden as being caught with one meant certain execution. I even remember one man who worked as the batman for the camp commandant who hid his wireless amongst his boss’s kit, which was an incredibly daring thing to do.

On 17th August 1945 the rumours escalated and a chap from Oxford told me that he had heard from a native that a bomb had been dropped on Japan and that the war was over. We did not know that the war had actually finished on 15th August and we went to bed that night barely able to sleep through wondering if we were finally free men once more. Yet the next morning was a time of joyous celebration because when we woke up the guards had all fled. For the first time in 3 and a half years our buglers played the ‘reveille’ rather than the Japanese bugle call. I can say undoubtedly that that moment was one of the highlights of my life. We were eventually given transport to Bangkok 6 to 8 weeks after the end of the war and from there to Rangoon in Burma and then on a troop ship to Ceylon and then through the Suez Canal before going home. It is amazing how the human body can recuperate after undergoing so much adversity and trauma, for during this time my body, with the help of medicine and good food started to heal itself.

I moved to London but back then it was extremely hard to find accommodation. I ended up living in Kingsway underground station at Holborn, I had to go down 2 escalators to get to bed! There was a hostel between the platforms which I stayed in, but it was hardly a place for heroes. Everyone down there was in the same boat, we were all former service men who had come back from the war and for one reason or another had fallen on hard times.  Eventually I went back to Wales and married a girl from my home town and got a job working for aluminium firm where I stayed for 35 years working my way up to the position of foreman then supervisor.

When my wife passed away I lived on my own for 4 years but then decided to move into The Chelsea Pensioners Hospital. I am very happy here; we are fed three meals a day and treated very well. Most important to me is that I am able to retain my independence and come and go as I please. Apart from getting married I would rate it as the best decision I have ever made.
 
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