“I wished a bomb would land on me and put me out of my misery”: John Barratt’s time in a WW2 Japanese prisoner-of-war camp
- Credit: (C) The Barratt Family
This is one Norfolk man’s story of surviving the horrors of Japan’s prisoner of war camps 75 years after the end of World War Two.
In the three-and-a-half years that her husband was a prisoner of war on the notorious ‘Railway of Death’, Baba Barratt received just three Red Cross postcards.
On the back of each was a series of questions to which a tick had been applied: I am being treated well. I am well. I am working for money.
After the questions, there was a signature: and it was that one line on a scrap of card that offered the real answers to a young wife waiting desperately for news of the man she loved.
“That signature was all important as Mum could recognise Dad’s hand – knowing Dad was still alive and that there was hope,” explained Charlie Barratt, Captain John Allan Legh Barratt’s son.
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Baba had waited, sustained by no real news for day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year for the news she longed for: that her husband was coming home. By the time she next saw her beloved John, four years had passed.
August 15 is the 75th anniversary of VJ Day which marks both the surrender of Japan and the end of World War Two.
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There had been extensive plans to remember and recognise all those who served and sacrificed in the Far East until COVID-19 put paid to large-scale services and commemorations. This anniversary will, in the main, be observed privately or in virtual, online commemorations.
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 passed his Officer Training Certificate while at Gresham’s School in Holt and before obtaining a commission into the 4th Battalion Royal Norfolk Regiment 10 years later in 1938, had been a partner in the family stockbroking firm of Barratt and Cooke.
He married Baba Hore-Ruthven in March 1940 and set up temporary home in Gorleston before the army took the couple to Cambridge, then Scotland, then Blackburn, then Ross-on-Wye.
After saying goodbye to his new wife, in October 1941 John and his battalion left Liverpool and set sail to Halifax, Nova Scotia before sailing on to Trinidad and to the South Atlantic.
Still at sea in mid-December, some men travelled to Singapore while Capt Barratt’s 54th Brigade disembarked at Bombay for training before joining them several weeks later.
As the ship was unloaded at Singapore, it was under immediate gunfire.
“The docks were continuously being bombed during daylight but the anti-malarial drains gave us very good protection against anything but a direct hit,” he wrote in a booklet called His Majesty’s Service 1939 to 1945, written in 1983.
The battalion was given a sector to defend in the north east of the island until the Japanese made a landing on the north west coast.
After moving to Bukit Timah, five miles west of Singapore Town, the men met a strong Japanese attack and heavy fighting ensued with no air support for the Allies and plenty for their enemies.
By February 15 1941, supplies were running low as food, water and ammunition had been dumped in order to avoid being captured – the order to surrender was received.
“I managed to grab my kit and get back unnoticed to our troops…I don’t know what my position would have been if I had not taken this action as for the next three-and-a-half years we were to have nothing but what we then possessed,” wrote Capt Barratt.
“I would have had no water bottled or kit other than what I was then wearing.”
Ordered to march to Changi, the men were taken to a prison camp where dystentry and fever were commonplace and food and water in short supply.
“It was not long before we all realised that to stay alive, every individual had to augment the rice starvation diet with something – bananas, groundnuts, gula sugar, ducks’ eggs and that that these could only be obtained from the local people by having local currency which we had little or nothing of when we landed at Singapore,” wrote Capt Barratt.
Relatively quickly, he was told he was part of an advance party headed for Thailand where a railway was to be built through the jungle to link Thailand with Burma. 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 in this Ban Pong camp that I first saw for myself the way the Japanese maintained discipline by torture,” wrote Capt Barratt.
“In front of the guardhouse at the entrance to the camp they had a local Thai lying on the ground with his legs and arms trussed up as a chicken is before being put in the oven to cook.
“Everyone that visited the guardroom seemed to have a free invitation to boot the poor devil as they passed by him, lying in the dust and under a hot sun.
“I can’t remember how many days he stayed there, but it was cruel to see such torture and be able to do nothing.”
Capt Barratt also talks 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.
“There was no variation of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter to break the monotony and I cannot remember a Christmas or a birthday,” he wrote.
“We were fortunate to be in a warm climate, but I can remember saying that I would not mind if I never saw the sun again.
“Our clothes were getting tattier but it was essential to keep a pride in our cleanliness. Wood ash was helpful for keeping our teeth clean. I shaved without soap every day and used to keep a Gillette razor blade sharp on the inside of a broken bottle.”
Capt Barratt catalogues life as a prisoner of war. Ensuring water bottles were never drained until they could be refilled with boiled water. Selling his watch in order to raise funds to buy extra food. Checking eggs didn’t float before buying them. The cruel marches carrying kit. The beatings. The torture of animals. The black market trading.
“The hospital huts in Chungkai were cruel to see,” wrote Capt Barratt.
“They resembled pictures of Belsen that we saw after our return to England. It was wonderful what the doctors did in spite of little or no medicine.
“Fellows lay on the floor with little flesh left on their bones and often as many as 14 POWs were buried in one day.”
Capt Barratt became ill at the camp and was taken to the Tha Makham Bridge Camp where there was an Australian surgeon, Major Hobbs.
Begging to be anaethetised, Capt Barratt was operated on, but “felt everything”, eventually waking up with incisions on his stomach and side, just before everyone abandoned him for the slit trenches when aircraft began to pass over.
“I could see the sky from under the roof of the hut and watched the enormous bombs coming down from a great height praying that one would land on me and put me out of my great pain and misery,” he wrote.
Weeks later, Capt Barratt was recuperating close to the bridge on camp and watched four British planes circle the prisoner-built structure before bombing it.
“We in the camp were so proud and delighted that we moved up the slit trenches towards the bridge and watched everything. I didn’t realise until years after that this was ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ referred to in the film,” he wrote.
On August 6 1945, the American bomber the Enola Gay dropped the uranium bomb known as Little Boy on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
Despite its devastating effects, Japan didn’t offer unconditional surrender immediately, but then two days later, Soviet forces invaded Japanese-occupied Manchuria, violating an earlier non-aggression pact signed with Japan.
On August 9, the Americans dropped Fat Man, a plutonium bomb, on Nagasaki – together, the two bombs dropped in Japan killed more than 300,000 immediately and in the aftermath: Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s unconditional surrender on August 15.
“The bomb will always remain as my Guardian Angel. Others may see it as the wrath of God. It is estimated that up to 18,000 POWs died in the construction of the railway…the bomb only saved those that were lucky enough still to be alive,” wrote Capt Barratt.
Driven to Bangkok airport, the newly-liberated prisoners waited for their place in a British Dakota plane destined for Rangoon and hospital beds.
“I had the greatest difficulty when told I could discard the few remaining rags I had in my kit which had been guarded by me so jealously over so many years in order to stay alive,” wrote Capt Barratt.
“I did keep my officer’s hat with the Britannia badge that I wore right through our captivity.”
Almost four years to the day that he had bade farewell to his new wife, Capt Barratt stepped off a ship and on to home soil at Liverpool, before boarding a train for Peterborough where Baba was waiting for him.
“I hope they did not get too much of a shock on seeing us,” he wrote, “A new life was starting but what all of us had been through can never be forgotten.
“I thank God for my deliverance. But ‘God helps those who helps themselves’.”
Son Charlie explained that his father would have wanted to pay tribute to all the soldiers who found themselves as prisoners of war.
“Dad was just one of many territorial soldiers in a similar situation, many of whom suffered a great deal more than he did, or lost their lives,” he said.
“He was one of the lucky ones - there are many Norfolk families whose loved ones were taken prisoner at Singapore and they were all heroes, every single one of them.”
John Barratt, who had two sons, Charlie and David and a daughter, Anita, returned to Thailand in 1985 and visited the cemeteries to see the comrades that didn’t come home and spent time in the place where he had been kept as a prisoner for so many years.
“If it were not for the beautifully-kept cemeteries and the bridge, all would now be forgotten,” he wrote, “except by those remaining ex-Railway prisoners-of-war who can never forget.”
Capt Barratt attended a 4th Royal Norfolk Regiment Reunion Garden Party on July 7 2002 with several of the lifelong friends he had worked alongside on the infamous railway.
Two days later, and two day before his 90th birthday, he passed away peacefully, his beloved Baba at his side.
His officer’s cap, which had witnessed so much pain and suffering and travelled with him throughout the war took pride of place at his service.
We will remember him.
* Japan joined World War Two on December 7/8 when its armed forces attacked America’s Pearl Harbour and the British colony of Malaya
* On February 15 1942, General Percival, the British commander, surrendered Malaya and Singapore to his opponent General Yamashita
* Prisoners were initially held in very large camps in cities such as Changi, which was the largest camp throughout the war
* Bam Pong was the southern base camp for the Siam-Burma Railway
* Diseases of malnutrition and crowding such as beri-beri or dysentery took a constant toll. Mosquitoes were unavoidable, and malaria was rife. Some locations suffered huge fatalities from cholera.
* The average prisoner received less than a cup of filthy rice a day, an amount so meagre that gross malnutrition could lead to loss of vision or unrelenting nerve pain
* About four per cent of Allied prisoners died in captivity in Germany or Italy – for prisoners of the Japanese, this figure was one in four who died