Retracing my FEPOW father’s footsteps: “This was the start of the nightmare Dad had talked about all my life”
- Credit: Charlie and Caroline Barratt
Seventy-five years after his father John had survived the horrors of Japan’s prisoner of war camps, Charlie Barratt followed in his footsteps to visit the Railway of Death.
As he sat on the bank of the River Kwai Noi, Charlie Barratt was starkly reminded of the difference between his visit to Thailand and his father’s time there during World War Two.
“I think back to those words Dad used to say: ‘at night I used to look up at the moon and the stars and just hoped that Mum would be looking at the same moon or stars’,” Charlie writes in a diary he wrote about his trip to follow in his father’s footsteps.
When he visited in January, the anniversary of Victory in Japan day on August 15 2020 was just months away: 75 years ago at the time of his visit, his father John had been a prisoner of the Japanese.
He recalls how for his Mother and Father, looking up at the moon and hoping the other was gazing skywards at the same time was the only method of communication they had, bar a few soulless, Japanese Army-sanctioned postcards.
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It was only her husband’s signature on the three Red Cross postcards that Baba Barratt received while John was working on the notorious Railway of Death that gave her hope she would see him again.
“Sadly, Mum destroyed these postcards at the end of the war. She never wished to be reminded of these dark days again,” writes Charlie.
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Last Saturday, on the 75th anniversary of Victory in Japan Day the Eastern Daily Press published extracts from the memoirs of Captain John Allan Legh Barratt, who was held prisoner for three-and-a-half years by the Japanese.
August 15 marked three-quarters of a century since both the surrender of Japan and the end of World War Two.
While VE (Victory in Europe) Day marked the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, many thousands of Armed Forces personnel were still engaged in bitter fighting in the Far East. And then there were the prisoners of war held by the Japanese.
During World War Two, the Japanese Armed Forces captured nearly 140,000 Allied military personnel in the South East Asia and Pacific areas.
They were forced to engage in hard labour: constructing railways, roads and airfields which would be used by the Japanese in occupied areas or sent to Japan to supplement the shortage of the workforce in mines, shipyards and munitions factories.
By the end of the war, more than 30,000 prisoners of war had died from starvation, diseases and mistreatment both within and outside of the Japanese mainland.
John Barratt of the 4th Battalion Royal Norfolk Regiment left his new wife and Britain in October 1941, sailing to Nova Scotia, Trinidad and the South Atlantic and then to Bombay for training. He was then sent to Singapore.
In his self-penned book His Majesty’s Service 1939 to 1945, written in 1983, John offered a road map for Charlie’s future trip, three-quarters of a century later.
The British surrender on February 15 1941 was met with shock by John leaving his son wondering what might have happened had things been different.
“What the allies didn’t know at the time was that the Japanese were outnumbered by allies and they were exhausted and half-starved themselves having fought their way down the Malayan Peninsular at breakneck speed,” writes Charlie.
“If only HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse had not sunk, if only the US fleet was intact after Pearl Harbour, if only the allies had retained control of the water supply, if only the armaments and supplies had arrived…the allies would definitely have won this battle and the shape of history for the next three-and-a-half years would have changed.”
Ordered to march to Changi, the men were taken to a prison camp where dysentry and fever were commonplace and food and water in short supply.
Relatively quickly, Capt Barratt was told he was part of an advance party headed for Thailand where a railway was to be built through the jungle.
Transported in cattle trucks so packed with soldiers that it was impossible to lie down, the men were forced to march to a transit camp at Ban Pong.
It was here that Charlie’s father saw at firsthand the brutal way that prisoners were tortured: he writes of beatings, rock-holding endurance tests and cruel physical conditions.
Moved to Chungkai and told to build bamboo huts with leaf roofs which would later be used by troops building the railway, days quickly began to blur into one.
It was here that John’s batman, Private Stanley Frederick Giles died of tublerculosis on December 14, 1942, leaving a widow Ethel Margaret of Great Ellingham.
Stanley, forever 25, is buried at Chungkai Cemetery under a simple stone which reads: “Always remembered by all who loved you.”
“Caroline and I visited his grave and placed some flowers in sympathy and respect. Tears flowed, but nothing like Dad and Mum’s tears must have flowed when they also revisited this grave in 1985,” writes Charlie.
John worked on the Death Railway where from the 250,000 men who laboured to built the transport link, almost 100,000 died.
When Charlie made the same journey as his father had made to Ban Pong, the circumstances and method of transport were a world apart.
John had crammed into a dirty rice truck, travelling for four-and-a-half-days with soldiers taking shifts in order to sit down for a few hours – there was no space for everyone to sit.
“When Caroline and I arrived at Ban Pong station on a lovely bright day with blue skies and not a cloud to be seen…the tears flowed and flowed,” he writes.
“This was the very start of the nightmare that Dad had talked about all my life. I was standing upon the exact spot that he stood and yet he had no idea what was in store for the future.
“Our lovely guide cradled me like a mother hen as I broke down. She understood. She had seen it all before, so many times.”
Making their way to the site of the camp where his father spent four months building huts for new arrivals and working on sections of the railway, Charlie and Caroline saw a courtyard lawn next to a temple.
“There were no signs of the atrocities that had taken place, in fact there were no signs at any camps, or on the Railway itself, as if nothing had ever happened,” writes Charlie.
He then marched 55km through tropical monsoon mud to the infamous Chungkai camp which housed around 11,000 prisoners whose work included the two bridges across the River Kwai.
Charlie stood at the spot where his father described being beaten with rifle butts after refusing to help a Japanese truck that had become stuck in mud. John described the beating: “I thought my time had come. One just had to take it and hope, for they are such sadists, that any flinching or cowardice would only increase their delight in their torture.”
Following his father’s journey to Tha Khanum (and staying in a tented camp at Hin Tok to see the notorious Hellfire Pass, a railway cutting built with forced labour and named because prisoners were forced to work through the night under red lights) Charlie also recalls a fascinating story regarding a life-saving operation he had at the Tha Makham Bridge Camp carried out by an Australian surgeon, Major Alan Hobbs.
Dealing with a suspected twisted bowel, Dr Hobbs had to operate without anaesthetic but was able to carry out the tricky procedure without recourse to his usual surgical aids.
John wrote to Dr Hobbs after the war to thank him for saving his life and later found out it took three years for the letter to arrive. Dr Hobbs replied, but by this time, John had moved and the letter went astray.
“They were both disappointed and thought that they must have died due to their prisoner-of-war days,” writes Charlie, “however, Dad’s operation and the bridge bombing must have had a very profound effect on Hobbs to the extent that when he was preparing for a visit to England in 1977, Hobbs got out his old correspondence and wrote again.”
This time, the letter was forwarded and when Dr Hobbs came to England, the pair were reunited, 33 years after the life-saving operation.
“The meeting was the most emotional day of my life,” Charlie recalls.
In the Kanchanaburi Musuem, there was a plaque honouring Dr Hobbs: “What a story if Dad’s photograph hangs somewhere nearby, to say ‘Hobbs saved JALB’s life” – they really will be reunited again then.”
After his trip, Charlie reflected on what he had seen and learned about his father’s time as a prisoner-of-war.
“I still find it impossible to imagine leaving my wife to sail off for war in an undisclosed country for no time span and no knowledge of whether we will ever see each other again,” he wrote.
“Mum was only 26, married for 15 months…and yet except for three nondescript postcards with Dad’s signature on, she had no idea if he was alive or dead. She was there to meet him on Dad’s return, many wives and girlfriends had made other lives, and who can blame them?
“Dad was 29, a stockbroker in Norwich going into battle with gun and bullets firing in a tropical country 8,000 miles from home. It is incomprehensible, and yet it happened.
“We must remember Mum, who always said she had a good war, except for Dad being away. She was not going to sit down and mope, she got on with it, devoting her life to the war effort throughout by driving canteens for the Church Army and wining one of the very few military MBEs awarded to a lady.”
After an emotional rollercoaster of a trip, Charlie said being in the place where his father had spent three-and-a-half-years as a prisoner had given him a newfound understanding of what he had been through.
He stressed that the family were aware that John was one of many to have suffered imprisonment during World War Two and that his story echoed that of thousands of others, many of whom had never come home.
In the closing lines of his diary, he writes: “I now understand every step of the journey. Dad you said you were lucky, but you always made your own luck and you never forgot your men.
“Of course your greatest piece of luck was to marry Mum, who was waiting. We shall never forget you.”
* In memory of Captain John Allan Legh Barratt, 1912 – 2002.