Heroes Return Blog – Stories from Second World War veterans’ trips


Far East POW inspires UK Lottery campaign by Big Lottery Fund

The amazing story of 93-year-old Far East veteran Jack Jennings is the inspiration for a National Lottery TV advert and UK-wide publicity campaign launched today (Sunday, 4 March).

 

The Devon WWII veteran recently made an emotional journey to re-visit old friends and memories in Thailand and Singapore thanks to a grant from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme.

Jack served with the Suffolk Regiment, the First Battalion of the Cambridgeshire Regiment, and was fighting a fierce last stand in Singapore when it eventually fell to the Japanese in February 1942. 

Jack explains: “After the surrender had been signed we had to just wait for the Japanese to come and collect us. 500 of us were rounded up and taken to sit in a tennis court at the back of a large house. We had to sit there for five days, in the full sun, with water only occasionally and just biscuits thrown over the fences for food.  

We were then moved and put into Changi prisoner of war camp – worn out, tired and starving. The camp was packed by the time our company had arrived, so we had to settle for anything. After a meal of rice and watery soup, we felt better.

Jack Jennings, 93, pictured at home in Torquay (photo credit: Kevin Clifford)

Jack Jennings, 93, pictured at home in Torquay (photo credit: Kevin Clifford)

We managed to get a wash and clean up, before retiring to our hut for a well earned rest. Needless to say we slept that night whatever the discomfort was, sleeping on bamboo slats.

Our officers gave us our daily jobs and when these were finished there was time to wander around the camp to find out who had survived.

The minor injured or sick could attend sick parade, to receive whatever treatments were available. The wounded and the worst of the sick personnel were in the adjoining Roberts Hospital, but this was grossly overcrowded.

The change in diet affected many men, some with sores or upset stomachs, and others showed signs of vitamin deficiency. It was at Changi that I first saw coconut trees, but they were restricted for the Japanese. The result was a great struggle for survival and some couldn’t make it. The cemetery started at Changi, soon enlarged with three or four funerals every day.

Putting on a show

Occasionally in the evenings, when more organised, someone would give a lecture, or we would have a debate. Permission was given to make a stage and put on shows, and very soon the talented ones among us were able to form a good concert party. Musicians found instruments, or made them, to provide the accompanying music.

The result was a top class show which relieved the boredom for a while. Rumours of the progress of the war spread around at these gatherings, but at that stage it was not very cheery.

It was at Changi that I had my first birthday in captivity. Who would have thought that my birthday treat was little more than a helping of boiled rice? The day was just another boring, depressing day with only one thought: “How long were we to be kept prisoners of war, and could we, by some miracle, be freed to get out of this miserable experience?”

Jack Jennings survived the horrors of Changi prison camp (photo credit: Kevin Clifford)

Jack Jennings survived the horrors of Changi prison camp (photo credit: Kevin Clifford)

The prophets in the camp gave us high hopes at times, but each prediction came to nothing. After dark, lying on bamboo slats, trying to get some rest was difficult enough, but with the torment of mosquitoes, lice and the croaking bullfrogs it was worse. Little did we know then that things were going to get much worse.”

Jack was later moved to Thailand to work on the infamous Thai-Burma death railway, featured in the epic film The Bridge on the River Kwai. In the years that followed his release, he returned to his profession as a skilled joiner. He has two children, three grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Of making an emotional return to both Singapore and Thailand with his grand-daughter, Jack says:  “I was able to find and visit the graves of former comrades we also visited the British Embassy in Bangkok and met some notable people. It was important for me to go back to Singapore and Thailand and remember all the men that didn’t come back.”

To find out about the funding available from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme please visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn or call the advice line on 0845 0000 121



Len Andrews Returns to Singapore by Big Lottery Fund
August 23, 2010, 11:23 am
Filed under: Army, Singapore | Tags:

Remembering his wartime service in the Far East, Len Andrews, from Southend-on-Sea will make a Heroes Return 2 trip to Singapore for the first time in 65 years.

Joining up with the Royal Army Service Corp aged 18 Len became part of a demonstration platoon, training soldiers in fire arm drill and assault courses, before moving on, somewhat reluctantly, to a posting as an instructor training troops who had returned from Dunkirk.

He recalls, “I didn’t want to do that, as I hadn’t done anything, and after all those chaps had been through at Dunkirk, what could I teach them? So I volunteered for Burma.”

Consequently, Len was posted to a petrol unit in Rangoon, responsible for the setting up of forward fuel points for the advancing allies. He remembers, “As part of the planned invasion of Singapore we boarded our petrol trucks onto a landing craft, but when got about halfway there we were suddenly ordered to turn back. The second time we set off the same thing happened again only this time we heard that the Japanese had surrendered.”

“I don’t remember being told about the bomb until a bit later. We didn’t know then what sort of destruction it would cause, I don’t even think the governments knew, and we were all quite shocked by the devastation.”

Eventually Len’s unit pressed on to Singapore, even though the Japanese had still not formally surrendered. As they sailed into Singapore the landing craft had to manoeuvre down a channel between two tapes to avoid the many mines which had been laid by the Japanese. Len recalls: “Suddenly the steering went wonky and the craft drifted off and broke through the tape heading straight through the minefield. We all just leaned over the sides looking for mines, and I don’t think we fully realised the situation. We were young.”

However, after sending out a distress signal, the craft was brought back under control and came safely into Singapore. He said, “There was quite a lot of destruction and very few British troops around. At the formal Japanese surrender taken by Lord Mountbatten a number of Japanese officers handed their swords to our commanding officer, one of which was given to me, and which I still have.”

Billeted in the basement of a Post office and bedded down on huge bales of silk, Len had his 21st birthday. He said: “We did think about celebrating with a drink but thought better of it as the local alcohol was lethal and we had heard that some blokes had been blinded by it. How the locals managed to drink it I have no idea.”

Set to work building a fuel supply line from Singapore up through Malaya and into Kuala Lumpur, Len recalls: “We had Japanese PoW’s unloading the oil drums. I was only a Lance Corporal, a lowly petrol driver, but the Japanese prisoners, many of them officers who were well above my rank would salute and bow to me. They were very subdued. It took a while for me to get used to it, but I did.”

Also while in Singapore Len remembers the release of allied PoW’s from the infamous Changi prison. He said: “It was pretty horrendous the condition they were in. The only thing they could take was small amounts of milk to gradually help them rehabilitate. Later they did executions at Changi and hung many Japanese. We were invited to view the hangings but I declined, though some people did go.”

Len’s war service finally came to an end in 1947, he recalls, “I couldn’t wait to get home.”

Now aged 86, Len will soon re trace his steps to Singapore for the first time in 65 years. He said, “I don’t think I could have made this trip without the funding and I am very grateful to the Big Lottery Fund.”

The Big Lottery Fund is continuing to ensure the efforts of Second World War veterans from across the UK and Ireland are not forgotten through its Heroes Return 2 scheme, awarding grants for ex-servicemen and women to return on commemorative trips back to places across the world where they saw action. Veterans or their widows/widowers are still being urged to apply to the initiative, which remains open for applications until January 2011. If you would further information please visit



Mrs J M Wainwright visits the Far East by Big Lottery Fund
July 23, 2010, 2:00 pm
Filed under: Army, Singapore | Tags: ,

My husband served with the 125th Anti-Tank Regiment, or “Sunderland’s Own”, and was sent to Singapore after the Japanese entered the war. His ship, Empress of Asia, was sunk in Singapore harbour and the men had to swim ashore. They had no equipment and were split up to join other regiments wherever there was a spare gun. My husband was sent to Bukit Timah Ridge where he found himself pinned down and unable to move because of sniper fire. He was rescued by the swift and brave actions of a Gurkha soldier and was able to return to his comrades. When Singapore was taken over my husband was captured by the Japanese and set to work building the Burma-Siam railway. This railway is sometimes referred to as the Railway of Death as conditions were so harsh. Many men died, and are buried at Chung Kai cemetery. In 1984 my husband and I joined a trip to Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong – this also included a visit to Chung Kai cemetery and a trip down the River Kwai on the River Boat Hotel. We celebrated my husband’s 64th birthday on that trip and he died a few weeks later. His ashes were interred at Chung Kai and what was to have been a “once in a lifetime trip” for me has become an almost yearly visit to say hello and leave some flowers.



War veteran to fly to Burma to honour dead comrades by Big Lottery Fund
March 25, 2010, 10:12 am
Filed under: Burma, Far East, Heroes Return | Tags: , , , ,

Read this moving BBC article as David Norman Davies plans on returning the Burma to honour his fallen comrades: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/8586591.stm



Return to Okinawa by Les Wills by Big Lottery Fund
February 18, 2010, 4:49 pm
Filed under: Japan, Navy | Tags: ,

“In January 2010, aided by a grant from Heroes Return 2 my daughter Elaine (who acted as my carer) & I visited Okinawa for the main purpose of seeing the Peace Memorial Park in the Mabuni area of Itoman City which is situated in the south of the island & near where the final battle of Okinawa took place. The park enjoys a spectacular view of the rugged & beautiful coastline on it’s south-east border.

The former Ryukyu Government initiated the creation of the park on the site & following Okinawa’s reversion to Japan in 1972 full scale construction of a public park was started. The park covers some 120 acres & has many facets of the war on Okinawa e.g….a computerised information centre, National War Dead Mausoleum, Prayer Area, Peace Memorial Museum, Peace Prayer Memorial Hall, Peace Ceremony Zone, Flame of Peace, Memorial path & The Cornerstone of Peace, unveiled in 1995, the names of over 240,000 war dead regardless of nationality or military/civilian affiliation are inscribed there-on.

As the main part of the Cornerstone of Peace, the monument walls spread out in concentric arcs from the Flame of Peace at the centre of the Peace Plaza. The 117 monument walls are shaped like folding screens, 69 walls have five folds, 48 have three folds for a total of 1212 faces with space for 250,000 names.

The names are grouped under either Japan or Foreign Countries. Our monument wall is in Row D (in the same row as 14,000 from the USA) and contains the names of 82 men who were killed serving with the British Pacific Fleet. The heading on the wall reads ” THE UNITED KINGDOM of GREAT BRITAIN and NORTHERN IRELAND” Those named are in alphabetical order with full given names added and read across the wall. The walls are about seven feet square, white lettering carved into what appears to be a very highly polished black marble.

The park is a key tourist site so not only acts as a place of remembrance but also has large grassy areas, away & apart although not physically separated where families can picnic, play ball games & enjoy various other recreational activities By the size of the car park & other facilities it looks as though it is frequently used. Considering land is at a premium the size of the entire Peace Park is astonishing.

When we visited it was a warm day, (20 degrees – shirt sleeve order), there were a few visitors (it was a week-day) which seemed to be mostly groups of school children & students. It is tended by a small group of women gardeners who do an excellent job for everything is as neat & tidy as possible.

I suppose I can best describe it as if you walked through Hyde Park & then followed into an adjoining Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.

The Peace Memorial Museum  is new, huge & carries an immense amount of information of the Battle of Okinawa on picture, video, film, artefacts, art displays & written testimony from survivors. As well as the displays there is facilities for research & educational activities.

On the 23rd June (Okinawa Memorial Day) each year. veterans, bereaved families & other individuals come to participate in a memorial service held in the Peace Ceremony Zone. I am not sure if any veteran’s organisation from the BPF has ever been invited to attend this ceremony. Other than their names there is nothing visible to indicate where or how the men served or met their death. This incidentally is common for all those recorded throughout the Peace Park.

My thoughts as I stood beside the names were that although nearly 65 years ago it could have been the day before or even that morning when just hours after the invasion started we were hit by the kamikaze plane. The images of that morning, perhaps a bit frayed around the edges are I’m sure still with us all.

To get to Okinawa we flew to Hong Kong & then across to Naha City airfield on the twice weekly service. Naha is the capital of the island with over a million population. We stayed at a hotel in the city & for our visit we chose to travel by the local bus transport. The buses run every 20 minutes from Naha to Itoman City but the bus from there to the park only runs on an hourly basis. The whole journey takes about 2 hours. However it does stop right outside the park. It’s  the same coming back only in reverse order. On their buses you receive your ticket on entering & pay on leaving having to tender the exact fare.

The visitor numbers to the island in 2008 were over 5 million from Japan but only 188,000 from elsewhere in the world. Like many other places on entering the country you are finger-printed & photographed.

The climate is sub-tropical & is much the same as in Hawaii.”



Fergus Anckorn talks about his experience during the Second World War by Big Lottery Fund
January 27, 2010, 2:41 pm
Filed under: Singapore | Tags: , , ,

Watch Fergus Anckorn on the BBC’s HARDtalk programme talking about his time spent in Singapore and Thailand during World War II.

Fergus returned to the Far East in November 2009 with a grant from Heroes Return



Last hurrah for WW2 veterans by Big Lottery Fund

Second World War Royal Navy veterans from across the UK are flying out to Singapore and Malaysia next week (28thJanuary) to pay their respects for the final time to the comrades that lost their lives in the Pacific. The veterans are part of a 127 strong party from the British Pacific and East Indies Fleets Association

It is the final time the veterans, most now in their 80s and 90s, are travelling as a group to pay their respects in Singapore and on the Malaysian island of Penang.

One member of the association making the trip is Mr Victor Gray who lives in Plymouth and first joined the Royal Navy in September 1943 just after his 18th birthday.  Victor, who is now 85, was chosen to be trained as a specialist radio operator, intercepting the enemy radio transmissions and in 1944 travelled to the Far East on the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious via the Mediterranean and North Africa.

Victor explains: “We went to India and became part of the East Indies Fleet.  We then set sail for Palembang and in a battle with the Japanese over two or three days we managed to destroy a third of the Japanese oil supplies. After that we travelled down to Sydney where we joined what then became the British Pacific Fleet. It was so hot, you could fry an egg on the flight deck and I actually saw that done more than once.

To find out more about Victor’s story and the Heroes Return 2 programme visit our programme page

http://www2.biglotteryfund.org.uk/pr_220110_uk_hr_last_hurrah_for_wwii_veterans