Piecing together the journey of a Prisoner of War

William Dickinson (back row first on the left) on route to Singapore in 1941
William Dickinson (back row first on the left) on route to Singapore in 1941
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William Dickinson never spoke of his time building the Burma Railway. But, two decades after his death, his documents and photos begin to tell their own story, as NATALIE WALKER writes

For decades, the traumatic experiences of men who suffered at the hands of the Japanese army to build the Burma Railway had gone unspoken.
It was only in recent years that British soldiers, known as Prisoners of War (PoW), began to discuss what happened in the camps.
One such camp prisoner, William Dickinson, of Bamber Bridge, had kept his memories to himself, as they were too painful to disclose.
But 23 years after his death, family members are piecing together what happened through letters and reports which document his travels and experiences.
His nephew, Greg Eastham, of Ashton, says: “My uncle never spoke about it, so I know very little. He obviously had a lot of mental scars,
“His sister, Rachel, had kept hold of all his records and so I had a look through.
“I had his army number and discharge papers and tried to find out more by going on historical websites, but couldn’t find much.
“But from the documents I have, I have been able to build a picture.
“William joined the Territorial Army when he was 19 or 20 and moved to the Royal Artillery as a gunner.
“He was in the 88th field regiment.
“He moved to France in 1939 as part of the French
Expedition Force.
“He fell back to Dunkirk as part of the rear guard
action and taken off the beach as part of the last troops to be evacuated,
“He was taken to Malaya in Singapore in 1941. In 1942 he was captured by the Japanese Imperial Army and sent to Changi Jail.
“It was used for political prisoners and allied soldiers were housed in military barracks. A total of 50,000 troops were captured at one time there.
“He then got moved to Malai POW Camp 1 in Thailand, and transferred to Camp 2 to build the Burma Railway.
“He was liberated in 1945, after being held captive for three years.
“After liberation there was a need to process PoWs for medical needs.
“He was like a skeleton when he came home. He was so mistreated. He had hardly any food – he was so malnourished.
“His discharge papers say he had hypertension, dysentery and malaria.
“He had lost part of his finger as he went to pick something up in the camp and a Japanese soldier cut part of his finger off with a bayonet.
“He had to have dental treatment when he came home.
“Papers show William came back through Bombay and Sri Lanka in September 1945.
“He had his leave extended until December 6 and
arrived back in England that month.
“He was formally discharged with exemplary conduct in April 1946.
“He was lucky to survive. It beggars belief how the prisoners came back. They had to fit into normal life the best they could after experiencing those brutal conditions.”
Amongst William’s items were camp money tokens, which Gregory describes as Monopoly money.
He adds: “In his letters home he said he got paid for working on the railway, but he wasn’t.
“It was slave labour. They got what I saw as Monopoly money. It was camp token money to buy things in the camp shop. But I don’t know what they could buy as they were being starved.”
William’s family had also saved telegrams and postcards from him, which,
although very brief, indicated he was doing well.
In standard issue postcards, where the prisoners had to delete where applicable, he stated he was working for pay and he was in good health.
In telegrams, during his journey out to Malaya, and on his way back home, he told his family not to worry as he had arrived safely at his designated destinations.
On his return, William, who was the eldest of eight children, married his sweetheart, Alice Clifford, in 1947.
Although they had a long and happy marriage they never had any children.
He worked at Cuerden Hall military establishment in the officer’s mess and was later a caretaker at Brownedge St Mary’s Catholic Club.
He was also a volunteer green keeper at Brownedge St Mary’s Catholic Club and enjoyed that until he died in 1994, aged 78.

William Dickinson

William Dickinson

The Japanese Imperial Army decided to build the Burma-Thailand railway following their defeat at the Battle of Midway in June 1942, after which the Japanese
navy could no longer guarantee the safe passage of supplies to its armies in Burma and New Guinea.
The railway connected Nong Pladuk in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma. It was expected to enable the Japanese to move 3,000 tons of supplies each day from Singapore and Bangkok to the Indian border.
In early 1942, prisoners of war (PoWs) began clearing undergrowth, felling trees and making embankments and cuttings, using little more than picks, shovels and hoes. In June, the Japanese started moving Australian, British and Dutch PoWs to Burma and Thailand for the start of construction.
Living conditions were initially bearable, but the start of the monsoon in late May 1943 brought cholera and cut off supplies for some PoWs, who starved while
being worked to death.
From that point on, those who worked on the railway suffered under the most barbaric conditions, including long hours of intense heavy labour with minimal food and water. They suffered dysentery, malaria and tropical ulcers, which were rampant throughout the camps.
It became known as the ‘Death Railway’ because of the thousands who suffered and died while forced to work. Parcels from the Red Cross and families were withheld. Escape was nearly impossible. Camps were hundreds of miles from
Allied territories and scattered across the Far East.

Telegram written by William to his family

Telegram written by William to his family

William (right) before he moved to France

William (right) before he moved to France

Letter to William's family informing them he was a prisoner of war

Letter to William's family informing them he was a prisoner of war

Newspaper clipping

Newspaper clipping

William with his wife, Alice

William with his wife, Alice