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York man Walter Stead, 93, speaks of his experience as a Japanese prisoner of war
9:06am Wednesday 11th December 2013 in Features
One of the few remaining survivors of the Second World War’s Death Railway lives just outside York. Over the next two days he finally tells his story to MATT CLARK.
IN the film, The Bridge On The River Kwai, Alec Guinness and his fellow prisoners were well-fed soldiers, dressed in uniforms, all the time whistling Colonel Bogey as they plotted how best to sabotage their handiwork.
But the real picture was very different. One of emaciated men dressed in tattered shirts and loin cloths facing regular beatings as they built a new railway from Bangkok to Rangoon to support the Japanese army.
In fact the treatment meted out was so harsh that Japan’s so called Death Railway is considered one of the greatest war crimes of the 20th century.
It is said that one man died from exhaustion, execution, disease or malnutrition for every sleeper laid.
Walter Stead should have been one of them. But somehow he cheated death every day for the year and a half he toiled in jungle heat to construct the Burma line.
For 70 years, Mr Stead, now 93, has remained silent about his time as a Japanese prisoner of war, but when his son Peter suggested applying for the medals he should have been awarded, it spurred Mr Stead to relate his memories to The Press.
It is an extraordinary tale of cruelty, escape and recapture; of being pursued by snakes and Japanese guards; of witnessing scenes no 22 year old should endure.
But it’s also an incredible account of how one man survived against all odds.
The story begins in 1939. Mr Stead, who now lives in Acaster Malbis with his wife Patricia, enlisted in the Territorial Army before hostilities broke out and when they did, his was a quiet war at first; learning to drive and training recruits how to survive a gas attack.
Then, in 1941, Mr Stead found himself bound for India. It would be his first stint of front-line action, but after no more than two days at sea, the ship’s course was altered.
Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor while Yamashita Tomoyuki’s 25th Army landed on the north-east coast of Malaya.
It was the day war in Europe went global.
Japanese troops began their 70 day charge down the peninsula, averaging ten miles a day. In their wake allied forces retreated to Singapore so swiftly they had no time to regroup.
So Mr Stead was one of the men sent to defend the colonial outpost.
“It was a real cock up, the whole campaign,” he says. “The Japanese were coming down through places we were told were impassable, but they were just getting through.
“The citizens of Singapore didn’t seem to take it seriously at all, though. They complained about people digging trenches on their lawns. It was hopeless.”
Churchill ordered the garrison to fight and die to the last man. But before the final assault, local commanders were given leave to surrender.
The day before Mr Stead and five colleagues had been selected to leave. However, the ship the men were supposed to catch was sunk, so they decided to make their getaway in a rowing boat.
Fortunately a passing Dutch yacht then provided a lift and three weeks later the men landed in Sumatra.
“There we found a junk and, with about 100 others, who had also made their way, sailed up the river until it was too shallow. Then we went on foot for a fortnight over the mountains to the east coast.”
But they arrived 48 hours late. The last boat had gone and the Japanese had landed.
Mr Stead was finally taken prisoner.
“We had to line the road and were herded into an old barracks. Initially they weren’t violent towards us, that came later. But I remember it being my first experience of rice and vegetable soup.”
He would get used to it in Burma, where the lucky ones spent nearly two years building a new railway.
However, the less fortunate dropped like flies and, of the six comrades who escaped Singapore in a rowing boat, Mr Stead was the only one to make it home.
The CO’s batman was first to go. As prisoners the men had no spades to bury the dead, only chunckles, like a wooden hoe, which Mr Stead says couldn’t dig more than a couple of feet.
“I know it sounds terrible, but I remember thinking I’m glad it’s not me. It changes your attitude for the rest of your life. You stop thinking things are important that are not.
“Daily survival, that’s what it was.”
Engineers had estimated the railway would take five years to complete, but the Japanese Imperial Army had a secret weapon; slave labour.
The job was finished inside 18 months.
“As prisoners we were told we had forfeited our rights. We were regarded as expendable labour because part of Japanese military culture was that anyone who surrendered was worthless; a coward no less.”
Mr Stead was there almost at the beginning and worked all the way down. Most of the work involved clearing virgin jungle and cutting down trees, with the most basic of tools.
Then Mr Stead built bridges, he laid sleepers, put up embankments and, for the bridge over the River Kwai, helped to pile-drive hundreds of tree trunks.
Which might come as a surprise to some. The famous iron bridge, we think of, came later. The original had been fashioned from wood.
Apocryphally, perhaps, it is often said that POWs tried to sabotage their work as they went along, but Mr Stead says in reality very little could be achieved and the penalty was too great to risk.
“Dangerous idea, bloody dangerous, it just wasn’t worth it. Sabotage may be alright in a film, but not in real life.”
In any case, torture was common enough, without tempting any more. And, especially for the Korean guards, it was carried out with the merest hint of an excuse.
One punishment involved staking a man with wet rattan tied round his wrists and ankles. As it dried, the material cut into skin and bone, slowly pulling limbs from sockets.
Another was being made to stand to attention in the hot sun wearing just a loin cloth.
“If you moved they would hit you. We didn’t speak their language and they didn’t speak ours, so because we didn’t understand they would beat us.
“Eventually you learned.”
Tomorrow Walter Stead continues his account and reveals how he became a survival expert.
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