Imprisoned in an horrific war camp

John Pike's dreadful wartime memories might so easily have died with him.

Steven Russell

John Pike's dreadful wartime memories might so easily have died with him. Luckily, thanks to the efforts of his widow, his writing has now been published

JOHN Pike writes well, but it's still hard to imagine the terrible things he witnessed as a midshipman in his late teens and early 20s. Sometimes, words are simply inadequate. Twice the novice sailor escaped with his life when his vessels were sunk in the Far East. He was captured by the Japanese, enduring years of starvation and beatings in prison camps and - perhaps worst - a 1,200-mile voyage on a packed “death ship”. Dysentery was rife and the sun blistered the skins of the unprotected unfortunates clinging to life. More than 300 British and Dutch prisoners perished on that hellish trip.

After the war, John didn't talk much about his experiences. But at the age of about 47 he started committing his memories to paper - producing what turned out to be a book after 20 years of sporadic writing in his spare time. It was finished after he retired; but, sadly, he was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1993 before it could be waved under the eye of a publisher.

“I sent it to one soon after,” says John's wife, Sue. “They kept it for a year, then sent it back - rejected - but said it should see the light of day some time. I'm ashamed to say it then remained in a box in the cupboard.”

After her own retirement, and move to Framlingham three years ago, Sue began creative writing courses. “I was looking for my diaries and old photographs for that, and found the manuscript again - and thought I really ought to try again.”

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She sought advice, now has 500 copies of Bamboo Years, and is as pleased as punch that others can now read about John's experiences. “He'd have been thrilled, too.”

The Japanese embassy apparently wants a copy, as does the Imperial War Museum.

John's story has its optimistic aspects - the resilience of the human spirit in the face of unspeakable torment, and the unselfish compassion man can show to man - but much of it is heart-rending.

He was born in Quetta (now part of Pakistan) in 1923 and his father was in the Indian Army. The teenage John joined the newly-built HMS Prince of Wales in May, 1941, at Scapa Flow, in the Orkneys. The youngest midshipman among more than 100 officers and 1,500 men was struck by the aromas of fuel oil, paint and newly-baked bread.

For him it would be a baptism of fire, literally. The ship joined other vessels to hunt down the famous Bismarck and the Prince Eugen, which looked like “a pair of large, squat, powerful and menacing grey wolves. I will always remember the tingling sensation crawling up the back of my neck as we waited,” John wrote.

He was knocked unconscious as The Prince of Wales was hit seven times. Thirteen men were buried at sea. The Bismarck escaped, but later that month was sunk off Ireland.

In December, after America's Pacific Fleet was devastated at Pearl Harbor, the Prince of Wales set out to find Japanese forces. The crew expected easy victories, but the ship was hit by a torpedo dropped by a plane.

The Wales wallowed at 15 knots, out of control and unable to defend itself. More planes attacked and four torpedoes “struck with shattering explosions in quick succession, when the whole ship seemed to lift out of the water and move sideways”.

Bombs penetrated deep into the ship. “It was at this instant that many of the 300 men who were to die on that day were killed. I heard later that this bomb had penetrated into the cinema flat, which was being used as a casualty station and was packed with wounded and exhausted men. The whole of the mid-ship section below decks had apparently been reduced to a bloody shambles from blast, flash and flying metal in less than a minute,” wrote John.

“I felt terribly lethargic and everything took on a dream-like quality, my mind refusing to believe that the ship was actually sinking.”

He and other mariners plunged into the fuel-oil-covered sea and watched their ship sink. Survivors were picked up by another vessel and taken to Singapore. John had been in the Royal Navy only seven months.

The following February saw him on the Exeter as it tried to run a gauntlet of 400 nautical miles along the coast of Java. “It was to be a bold but forlorn attempt.”

Surrounded by Japanese vessels, Exeter was hit in a boiler room. It was shrouded by smoke and fumes, and the order was given to abandon ship. The sea was strewn with wreckage and men. John was hauled aboard a float. Survivors were picked up by a Japanese destroyer and taken to Soerabaya harbour in Java.

The British sailors ended up in a prison with vile, evil-smelling drains that served as latrines. Men were set to work building a stone breakwater, blows from guards were a daily occurrence, and the diet was pitifully inadequate. Within three months the inmates' bodies had become “sylph-like”.

John developed amoebic dysentery and, not unnaturally, did get depressed. He later paid tribute to older camp-mates Trevor Latimer and Jim Marsh for lifting him out of the slough.

“Years later, I was to come to realise that I was too immature to cope with the mental rigour of imprisonment and it was probably for this reason and not disease alone which was responsible for the high mortality rate among very young prisoners,” he recognised.

Although they didn't realise it, the six months from September, 1942, to the following April - during which John turned 19 - proved their most comfortable period as Far East prisoners of war.

In the spring they were moved to Horuko Island - 500 men travelling in a dark ship's hold rife with dysentery. Prisoners were barely allowed out on deck. Amazingly, no-one died, though many would do so soon after arrival.

Home became a ramshackle, largely-bamboo camp on the slopes of an undrained swamp. Swarms of mosquitoes were a constant provocation, it rained virtually every day, and rations grew even smaller.

By mid-July, men were dying in increasing numbers as dysentery, beri-beri, malaria and exhaustion took their toll. For those who survived, the reward was heavy labour in the jungle.

Jim Marsh, sadly, succumbed in the summer of 1943. “He had been a father to me for more than a year and the sense of loss almost consumed me,” wrote John.

Jim was buried in the cemetery behind the camp, along with the 10 others who'd died that day.

About a month later, John contracted dysentery again and “resigned myself to death”. Friends nursed him through as best they could, using meagre rations and a string of stories, and somehow he regained strength.

Prisoners lost track of time - John's 20th birthday passing unnoticed in the November - as the routine became rain, 10- to 12-hour work parties, harassment, ritual beatings, disease, starvation and death. “I functioned like some ghoul, emaciated with a distended stomach, head shaven and dressed in tattered remnants of trousers, battered cap and wooden clogs on my feet . . .”

At one time in the new year, 1944, 1,300 men - more than half the original workforce - were too ill to work.

In the summer they were transferred to Ambiona Island, where conditions were slightly better. Then, in September, 500 British and Dutch prisoners - John calls them “the living dead” by this stage - were loaded onto a ship.

Packed like sardines, they were forced to stand or crouch on deck. By the second day at sea, men were dying of exposure and lack of water. Trevor Latimer was claimed by beri-beri and, on one day, as many as 22 men perished.

At one point the ship stopped at Macassar for 40 days, but the prisoners were not allowed off. During that interminable wait, 150 men died - an average of nearly four a day.

The 1,200-mile voyage from Ambiona back to Soerabaya took 67 days - averaging less than walking pace. Just over 300 British and Dutch prisoners died en route. By late November, then, less than a couple of weeks after John's 21st birthday and on his 1,020th day in captivity, the prisoners were back in their old prison.

The following year, as the allies advanced and Germany surrendered, the FEPoWs were moved again. About 6,000 were held in a dreadful cramped camp, where they feared being massacred once the Japanese realised dishonourable defeat was inevitable.

The atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki early in August. On the 21st, inmates were told there would be no work that day. It became clear Japan was throwing in the towel. Thankfully, the feared massacre never materialised.

John managed to sweet-talk passage on a plane to Singapore and thence to New Delhi, where he hoped to meet up with his family. He was met by his brother, who explained their father had died a year ago in Assam - obviously a great shock to a young man still reeling from incarceration and his first tastes of freedom. After a while he returned to England.

“At the end of a war he joined a mad Irishman and they had a mule between them, and went gold-prospecting in Brazil! He lived on beans and rice for two years,” laughs Sue, as she continues the story from the point where her husband left it.

John went to Imperial College and qualified as a hydrologist, working in Malawi for the Overseas Development Agency. He then joined the United Nations Food and Agricultural Agency in Rome, which is where the couple met.

They travelled extensively: to Botswana and then Iraq in 1971, where for more than two years John was project manager of an experimental farm south of Baghdad. Life could be very tough, Sue admits. “There were shortages for months of all the basics: rice, sugar, eggs. We chased the egg lorry all round Baghdad!”

In 1974 they moved to Doha in Qatar, where they spent nine very happy years, setting up farms. “It was an exciting time; the money was coming in, though not to the extent it was later. It was a fantastic place for opportunities.”

Sue, born in Bury St Edmunds but used to frequently upping sticks because her father had been in the army, wrote about cookery and gardening for the English-language newspaper Gulf Times for about five years.

“I loved the souk so much, and the fishermen were just a hoot: sat on these slabs, with all their fish around them, and fag-end hanging out, bare feet all over the fish you were going to buy! I got to know all the Arabic names for the fish. The radio station started up and they asked me to go on before the eight o'clock news and give a market report each morning. So I did that for quite a while.”

Spending two-and-a-half years in Bangkok was a complete change - John there to work on flooding problems.

During their time in the Middle East the couple bought a house at Friday Street, Rendlesham - a safety-net “because you never knew when you would be thrown out at 24 hours' notice”, explains Sue. On the doorstep of RAF Bentwaters, it was rented out to American service personnel.

The Pikes moved there in 1985. “I spent 10 years as a Red Cross first-aider in Woodbridge. I was also matron at Woodbridge School for seven years, both of which I very much enjoyed,” says Sue.

She lived at Friday Street until the year after John's death, moving to Woodbridge, where her daughter was at school.

She says John never spoke about his wartime experiences. “He talked about his father's war - he was gassed in the Somme, though survived into his 80s - but he never ever talked about his war.”

Understandably, John found groups of Japanese people difficult to deal with. “I think he said in the book that he couldn't bear to go to Kachanaburu” - the site of the bridge on the River Kwai - “because it was full of Japanese tourists. But in Bangkok he had two Japanese on a project team and they got on OK,” says Sue.

“I can't say they were his favourite people en masse. On the other hand, much to my surprise, he bought a Japanese car when he came back to England!”

JOHN Pike had one adventurous life. During his time in Malawi he did a lot of rally driving, winning many cups. “He won against King Hussein (of Jordan) one year!” says Sue. “They were the two biggest rivals, apparently, and King Hussein always won - but not on this occasion! We've got a lovely signed photo from him.”

Then John took up windsurfing in Dohar, when he was about 55. What with all the exotic locations, it sounds as if life was never dull, then. “No, it was wonderful!”

IN August 1941, after John's ship The Prince of Wales was repaired following its fight with the Bismarck and other German vessels, it welcomed Winston Churchill aboard. He was taken to Newfoundland for talks with US president Franklin D Roosevelt. “We did not know it then, but this meeting was to forge the Atlantic Charter, a declaration of common aims between Britain and the United States,” wrote John.

John bumped into the great man one evening after coming off watch. “He was staring gloomily at the wild sea, his hands deep in his black bridge coat and his cap set squarely on his head. He looked at me quizzically and then said 'How old are you, boy?' I told him and he merely nodded and gave an encouraging smile.”