Private Tom Marks was taken captive by the Japanese but believed a dose of diptheria picked up in the POW camps saved his life

Private Tom Marks - a Far East prisoner-of-war who survived and returned to Suffolk

Private Tom Marks - a Far East prisoner-of-war who survived and returned to Suffolk - Credit: Archant

Tom and his mates would meet by the Deben in Woodbridge for a sing-song and a laugh.

Tom's battalion, the 4th Battalion The Suffolk Regiment, B Company

Tom's battalion, the 4th Battalion The Suffolk Regiment, B Company - Credit: Archant

Then the war began and the singing stopped. Steven Russell hears about a prisoner of the Japanese whose throat infection probably saved him from Burma’s ‘railway of death’.

Mike Simmons has done us proud this year, sharing his father’s memories of VE Day and now another veteran’s story of duty, courage, endurance and survival in Singapore, Malaya and Thailand.

Private Tom Marks was captured by the Japanese and held as a prisoner of war. Afterwards, the modest Suffolk Regiment soldier counted himself one of the lucky ones ? able to return to his home county when so many couldn’t.

Near-neighbour Mike didn’t know Tom that well but was pleased to help him collate his memories of those awful years and forward them to the Suffolk Regiment Museum.

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“Tom was a Woodbridge boy and worked in the building trade. He did not marry,” he says. “Tom told my wife Jane that before the war he and friends would meet by the river wall and sing songs and have a good time. Then the war started and the singing stopped.

“I asked Tom how he was treated by the Japanese. His reply was interesting. He said ‘I towed the line and was not physically assaulted by the Japanese.’”

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Tom died on February 14, 2012, at the age of 92. “He would be so pleased to have his war years in the EADT,” says Mike.

Here then, in his own words, is the story of Thomas Frederick Marks, who signed on at Chelmsford in October, 1939. He was 24.

“A friend of mine joined in May, 1939, as I had my medical,” Tom told Mike. “He went through Dunkirk, came back and was put in the 4th Battalion Suffolk’s. He died in Thailand in 1943. His name was Percy Crane and he lived in Kingston Terrace, Woodbridge. We had gone to school together.”

Tom gave details of his long period of training and exercises in Lowestoft and Norfolk, then on to Scotland, Lancashire and finally Hereford. “Whilst we were there, King George VI inspected the whole battalion.”

And then on the move again. “We knew we were going abroad, but not where. After going by train all night we came to what we were told was Liverpool. Our passage across the Atlantic was rough. I was seasick for four days and as we came to calmer waters we were met by American warships and escorted to Nova Scotia, Canada.”

On to Trinidad, then four days in Cape Town in December, 1941. “We should have gone to the Middle East, but trouble began in the Far East after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Malaya so they held us back. I think the convoy was split in two, half going to Mombasa and then on to Malaya. We on the Wakefield went to India and arrived in Bombay about 5th January, 1942.”

They reached Singapore at the end of the month, living “in some tatty tents under rubber trees. Then we went to the golf course, dug in on top of a slope, and were blasted directly it went dark. (Japanese) had been watching us all day. Nobody had bothered to tell us they were there.

“We moved over a stretch of water into a wooded area and were hit by artillery shells and I remember someone shouting ‘They are our own guns.’ Someone had made a ball’s-up!

“We never knew where we were. When it ended we were somewhere near Singapore, having been taken there by boys from another regiment. Eight of us were in a house. The rest of the company had left after daybreak.

“Some boys came along and said they were being chased by the (Japanese), who were only a quarter of a mile away. It must have been the next day, February 16th, we marched to Changi – about 15 miles. For a time we lived in Roberts barracks in Changi. But when the Japanese moved the wounded and the sick from the hospitals in Singapore we lived in whatever was available. (I forgot to mention we had surrendered on the 15th February, 1942.)

“English food soon ran out. Then we started on what was to be our staple diet for the next three and a half years, rice and green stew.

“Several working parties had gone to Singapore to Harpy Valley and Bukit Timah and the docks, clearing the streets of rubble caused by earlier bombing. On May 9th it was our turn and a mixed number from different regiments ended up in a camp at Thompson Road. Our work was on broken cars and lorries taken off the streets of Singapore to a large field where some of our boys were given tools to dismantle them.

“Being non-drivers, our gang had to move the sections to their proper heap and burn all the wood. Items saved were engines, wheels, springs, steering columns, petrol tanks, axles and drive shafts. We stayed there until July, 1942. We were then moved to the Chinese High School, where we met mainly with Norfolks and Suffolks, as well as a few men from other regiments. Many of those we met would die in Thailand in 1943.

“Our work at the school was cleaning all the motor parts that came from our last job at Thompson Road. Then they were painted. God knows what happened to them after that, apart from the engines, which went to the racecourse and were overhauled.

“During this time Captain Whystock Crundell had paper red and white roses made to mark Minden Day. [It remembers regiments’ involvement in The Battle of Minden, in Prussia, in 1759 ? during the Seven Years’ War.] I brought mine back but over the years have lost them.

“As usual, after two or three months we were on the move. This time we moved to Sime Road. This had been a camp before the war. There were wooden huts but as usual very few mod cons. Not sure what we did there but we left for Changi December 29th, 1942.

“The old huts were made of bamboo and riddled with lice. Other boys slept in tents. It was at this time we had booster inoculations; later we found out why.

“On April 28th, 1943, we left for Thailand, leaving Singapore railway station in steel box-cars, about 28 men to a car. As far as I can remember we had four days and nights on the train, trudging the whole length of Malaya into Thailand to a place called Bampong, which was not a very nice camp. We stayed there for the rest of the day.

“Directly it got dark we set off marching, with a 10-minute break every hour, and continued to march until daylight. We did four night marches, every one similar. Stop at a camp during the day and march at night. When we got to a camp, I had a very bad throat, could hardly swallow and went sick. The (enemy) had said the sick could stay behind, probably saving my life as my mates marched through the rains and finished up at camps where they had to work on the railway.

“Cholera then struck, with other diseases. One in three men died. My throat got better and within a week I was in the dysentery hut, where I stayed for 14 days. At a medical I was pronounced fit and was sent back up country.

“One chap I met was a corporal in the Cambridgeshire Regiment. He sold my mosquito net on the black market. I was there for 10 days and my throat got bad again. I went sick and was seen by two Dutch doctors. They said it was serious and I ended up in the diphtheria hut for three weeks.

“One day the medical sergeant came and said we were being moved. We ended up at Kanchanaburi, now one of the main war cemeteries. We did various jobs in the camp. A gang of Australians did grave-digging as the death rate was about 15 every day. All deaths were due to disease and malnutrition. My job was to burn all the gear the poor boys died in. Old blankets, groundsheets and capes.

“There was no water in the camp; it was brought in twice a day in an army bowser, just for the cookhouse. There was no electricity and just holes in the ground for toilets, with little shelter. We had a great deal of rain at this time and everywhere was mud.

“At one end of the camp were housed Chinese and Indian workers who had no medical care. Their dead were just dumped into a hole in the ground. I saw a poor little boy with an ulcer the size of his shin. All he had for cover was a banana leaf. No medical assistance from the (enemy).

“In the camp was a Major Fagin, an Australian medical officer, who had carried out many amputations under very primitive conditions. We struggled on.

“In the middle of 1943 we moved to Sime Road, Singapore, by steel trucks on the railway. Sime Road camp was where we had been previously; since then, a lot of boys had died in Thailand. The previous boys had rigged an outdoor shower and one of the first things we did was to wash our blankets, which soon dried in the sun.

“Our main task was hauling wood for the cookhouse and we used a new road that had been cut for that purpose. We loaded our wagon, which was a wooden back of a lorry ? no engine ? just hauled by 10 or 12 men with ropes and two with poles, steering on either side. It was hard work pulling up the hill back to camp.

“During one storm a boy was electrocuted as we were having rice under a lean-to. He had an old army groundsheet on and leant against a rice grinder that was live. The boy died shortly afterwards. It would have been February, 1944.

“Early in March we moved back to Changi and into the jail. We soon settled in the jail, with three men in a cell designed for one. At least the cells were not locked and we could move where we wanted.

“We were sent to work on the airstrip that was being made a mile from the jail. Our job was to level out the soil that was brought in on a narrow-gauge railway. One of the diggers that excavated the soil was made by [Suffolk firm] Ransomes. Driven by steam, it never broke down.

“We left the jail at 07.30hrs and returned about 17.30hrs. We were lucky. Some engineers had installed showers in the courtyard of the jail, so we all had a shower after work. We could also have a shave and a haircut. A Norfolk boy I only knew as Harry shaved us with an old army eating knife, honed down to the sharpness of an old-fashioned cut-throat razor. Darky Coleman cut our hair. These were paid for by the (enemy) taking a little money from the small wage that we were paid.

“We never used the toilets in the jail or the cells in case of blocking the system. Instead, bore holes were dug in the yard and then covered over. This was repeated and didn’t have any effect on health, and kept flies away.

“Coming back to camp one afternoon, a British officer quietly told us that it was all over but to say nothing. We were out at work for three more days before the (Japanese) told us.

“Soon we were heading home from Singapore on a Polish ship, MS Sobieski. We sailed through the Mediterranean, collected mail at Gibraltar, then through the Bay of Biscay, and arrived at Liverpool on the 20th October, 1945. I had returned to the same port that I left in October, 1941.”

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