Lancashire veteran recalls horror of being Prisoner of War

Former prisoner of war, 97-year-old Jim Crossan, talks about his experiences ahead of the 70th anniversary of VJ day.
Former prisoner of war, 97-year-old Jim Crossan, talks about his experiences ahead of the 70th anniversary of VJ day.
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Second World War veteran Jim Crossan will never forget the day he became a prisoner of war.

The British stronghold of Singapore fell to Japan and 62,000 Allies were taken prisoner. More than half would eventually die as POWs.

“On February 15, 1942, firing stopped at 4pm and that just hit us,” recalls Jim, now 97, reflecting in the living room of his Warton bungalow.

“We were now Prisoners of War, to the Japanese of all people, and that felt like the end of the world.”

Having already survived the Dunkirk evacuation and near misses from enemy gunshots in France, Jim and the rest of 55 Infantry Brigade Group Company sailed into Singapore under heavy bombing on the Felix Roussel following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.

They arrived just 10 days before surrender came.

“We thought we were going there to help hold the line,” said Jim.

“But there was no air cover at Singapore like there was in Dunkirk. The (Japanese) had control of land, sea and air. We had a week in the line and then became a rifle platoon.

“You carry on, day by day and I was going to make it if I possibly could, but one of my friends turned to me and said: ‘You know Jim, I have an awful funny feeling I won’t make it. And he didn’t.”

In October 1942, Jim was moved to Thailand to work on the Burma railway, one of 60,000 Allied prisoners of war forced into the construction over the next three years.

They toiled for 20 hours a day in 100F heat, malnourished and diseased. They had poor equipment, few rations and were beaten by their guards if they stepped out of line.

The tortuous scenes have been recreated in films such as Bridge Over The River Kwai and in the 2013 biopic, The Railway Man, based on the real-life experiences of Eric Lomax, who was in the same camp as Jim.

Jim said: “I haven’t told a lot of people about all this, but it’s the 70th anniversary and it’s the time to now.

“For a long time I wanted to forget all about it.

“When I got home I wasn’t keeping very well and had repeated attacks of malaria from what I had suffered in the previous three years.

“None of us talked about it. In Eric Lomax’s book, he mentioned that his first wife said he wasn’t speaking to her, and when I read that I got to the next page before I realised that my wife Jean had same the same thing to me. We’d have our evening meal and wash up, and I’d sit there staring at the fire.

“Jean said, ‘You have to speak to me, even if it’s what’s the price of eggs today’. That’s what made me realise and it broke the seal.”

Following the British surrender, the platoon were marched across the island to a camp on the north-east coast. Jim said: “We were left alone there for some weeks and never saw any (Japanese).

“I tried to make myself a bed and one day, when I bent down, I went blind for 20 to 30 minutes. It turned out it was sunstroke beating down on the back of my neck and I’d had nothing protecting the nape of my neck.”

Jim and his fellow prisoners worked on both the iconic wooden and iron bridges over the River Kwai.

He said: “We used pile drivers to ram the pillars into the sea bed. There was no machinery, all the labour was from POWs.

“We had a three-leg trestle with a big block and tackle and a rope passed over it. We had people on the ropes pulling this thing to the top and then letting go. That had to be done in unison else you’d get your hands burnt on the rope, so we sang in Japanese 1,2,3,4 and let go on four.”

During construction of the wooden bridge, when the wooden pillars were being built, Jim and a friend were working together on one section, when his friend dropped a knife into the river.

Jim said: “We had to go and tell the (guard) using pidgin English and hand motions, which is how we communicated with them.

“We knew he would get a kicking over this. He pointed to me and made a gesture to go over the side.

“I climbed down the scaffolding, thinking this would be a doddle because I used to dive for pennies in the baths at home. I stayed down for quite some time and I wasn’t being harmed, but we couldn’t find it.

“He’d punished us, but if he’d not done that, he would have given us a physical punishment, anything from a slap to a kicking. Beatings happened all the time, sometimes we didn’t know what it was for.

“In the early days of building, the wooden bridge we’d occasionally get a half a day’s break. At this one time there were four of us in a hut playing bridge and another reading a book when in came a green guard and we had to get up and salute.

“We did this, but he did nothing, so we went back to playing bridge and so on. Then this Japanese let a roar out and took three of us outside. We were lined up and the chap on the left was belted in the side of the face.

“I told him to say thank you in Japanese. Their thinking was that you’d done something wrong and you had to be corrected and thank them.

“So this poor chap had to day thank you after being smacked in the face.

“You couldn’t retaliate though, even though you might want to, because they’d have an army around you.”

Eric Lomax was a fellow prisoner at the Kanchanaburi camp in Thailand when guards found a radio receiver and a map he had made of the Burma-Siam “death railway”.

He was made to stand for long hours in the burning sun. Stamped on, he had his arms broken and his ribs cracked with pickaxe handles; later he was water-boarded, with his head covered and water pumped into his nose and mouth to make him feel as if he was drowning. At night he was confined to a cage. A doctor who examined him later said there was not a patch of unbruised skin visible between his shoulders and his knees.

Jim said: “We could hear the howls of pain as they were getting battered with pickaxe handles. But our commanding officer told us not to do anything, it was over and done with. He said if we did anything at all, it would only bring something back on the rest of the camp.

“But as we approached them, he said to us he’d give us the order to march, like we were back out on the parade ground. It was head up, chin in and shoulders back, and when we came up to them it was eyes right, and we were looking over at the poor blighters. They were scattered on the ground and right at the front was Eric Lomax. He had two broken wrists as well as broken ribs, but he struggled to get up and tried to salute us back.

“I almost felt a sense of shame at having to walk past and not doing anything to help.

“When I later met Patti, Eric’s wife, she told me that what we did cheered them up. It took me 68 years to realise what we’d done had that effect.”

Life was also physically tough on prisoners because of the paltry food issued.

Jim said: “Sometimes there was a scrap of meat or dried stinky fish in jungle, but we were working very hard and it wasn’t enough.

“We hated them because of the treatment we got. There was no need for it and people were dying because they weren’t getting the vitamins.”

Weeks before the war came to an end, Jim was among 1,000 men sent from a camp in the South of Thailand to a job making a road from Kerikan to Mergui, Burma.

“Men were dying at an increasing rate and three of my best friends died with just 10 days to go before the war finished”, said Jim.

“We had to bury them, and it wasn’t easy digging through hard ground and roots.”

He added: “War finished on August 15, 1945, but in Jungle Camp No. 5 on the Mergui Road we weren’t told until Saturday, August 18.

“There were only 26 left of us out of 200. Not all had died, though a great many had, but others were sent back sick.

“The chap who acted as clerk was told to go to the Japanese quarters. I can still see him as if it were yesterday, standing in the doorway and saying: “If any of you are interested, the war’s over”. And that was it.

“We all laughed at him and he had to convince us that we were free and would have to get ourselves out of there.”

With only a billet cart, the remaining men filled it with their things and took it to camp four, then went back for their sick.

Jim managed to walk to Kerikan, where there were members of the British special forces and they were able to fly to Rangoon and home via boat through the Suez Canal, Mediteranean and home.

For many years after war ended, Jim struggled to return to a normal life, and kept up a hatred for the Japanese.

He said: “After the war I went back to my previous job as an engineer but I had no concentration, I had problems. I had to give it up and get something else and was lucky to find a job in the firebrick industry. You just get on with things, then six or seven years ago I got speaking to this Royal British Legion couple and they were telling me about this trip to the Far East. I didn’t feel like going back, but my son Robin always had a keen interest in history and I realised that I’d be cutting Robin out of the trip if I said no.

“We went in 2013 and the feelings were mixed, because all the memories of my colleagues came back and other mates who died, and I felt so lucky that I made it.”

Jim is now planning a return visit to Thailand in October with his family.

He said: “I hated the Japanese to begin with, what they did to us was unforgivable, but like Eric Lomax, in the end there comes a time when it has to stop. Hate’s a cancer and if you let it, it will ruin your life.”

• The parade in London Jim is taking part in has been organised by the Royal British Legion and involves a commemoration event at Horse Guard’s Parade, a parade through Whitehall to a reception, then a flypast over Horse Guard’s Parade.