Gunner Derek Gilbert
Unit : 148th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery
Served : Singapore (captured).
I was a member of the Territorial Army from 1938 to 1945 and before the war we used to meet in the TA Drill Hall in Dunstable. From October 1939 to January 1940 I was stationed at Lowestoft and from there I was posted to Hawick in Scotland with the 148th Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery. I then went to a camp on Lord Derby’s estate at Knowsley and from there to Monmouth where we helped out on a local farm. Whilst there, we were visited by King George VI, and to my surprise he was wearing make-up. (Perhaps to hide how ill he looked?)
In 1940 we embarked on HMS Andes (?). It was her maiden voyage and sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia. There we embarked on the liner Wakefield and proceeded to Capetown where we stayed for 3 weeks, then onto India, spending some time at Poona. While there we played hockey and were issued with equipment for the desert. We then sailed to Singapore (January 1942), being bombed and machine-gunned on the way, but we had no support. It was on my 21st birthday that we disembarked and moved up to a pineapple grove with the Ghurkha Rifles. Four of our 25-pounder guns were lost in Singapore harbour when the boat they were on was bombed and sank.
We were in action for 3 weeks. Then the Japs cut the water supply and Singapore surrendered. We were lined up at the side of the road and watched as the Japanese marched in. We were marched up to Roberts Barracks at Changi and after two weeks I was put in a working party to clean up Singapore. There were dead bodies everywhere; the stench was awful. Our first job was to put 12 bodies at a time from a lorry into plastic sacks. The Japanese trucks were full of Chinese boys who had been made to march down towards the sea and then machine-gunned. 7,000 were massacred.
At Singapore station we were put into steel trucks – 36 men in each truck, standing room only. We travelled for 5 days with only one stop every 24 hours and given only boiled rice and water. Two of the men got dysentery and one died. We had one day of rest at Bangpong then had a 125-mile route march through the jungle during the monsoon. Those who fell sick were dragged into the jungle and shot.
At camp Wampo we started work on the railway, working for 16-17 hours a day. We had almost no food. My brother only lasted for 10 months in those conditions and died of beri-beri. We ate snakes and baboons and rats, grilled on sticks of bamboo like kebabs. I tied a lizard to my bed to eat the bugs but eventually I ate the lizard too. In a year the railway was completed but we spent another 18 months in the camp maintaining the railway, before we were moved to Ubon in North Thailand. Here we built a runway for the Japanese Air Force, before being made to dig an enormous pit. If the Japanese had been attacked we would have been shot and buried there. The atom bomb saved my life and millions of others.
At the end of the war the Canadian Air Force landed on the runway and took us to Rangoon, 36 men on each plane. I weighed only 5 stone, 3 pounds. I had weighed over 14 stone at the beginning of the war. It was November 1945 when we sailed back to England.
When I worked on the Burma railway, one of the guards was a Korean Sergeant-Major; we called ‘Tiger’. In 1943 I had to go into the camp hospital; each morning one man from the hospital would be picked to go to work. One morning, although I was suffering form dysentery, I was picked. That day, because I did not ask the guard’s permission to go to the toilet, I was punished and made to hold a sleeper above my head. My knees began to give way and the guard stuck his bayonet into my knee, leaving me with a permanent injury. I dropped the sleeper, which caught the guard’s foot. He knocked me to the ground and beat and kicked me as I lay there. But I always thought I would survive.
For many years after, I was very bitter against the Japanese and for 48 years I never spoke about my experiences as a POW. Then the MoD sent me to see a psychiatrist at the Luton and Dunstable Hospital, who told me that I needed to talk about what had happened to me during those years. I began to talk and after that my nightmares disappeared.
Some years ago my son was working in Tokyo and invited me to visit him; I would not go, I still hated the Japanese people. But five years ago in 2000, a Japanese lady visited our Association at Woburn Sands and persuaded two of our members to go with other Far East ex POWs on a reconciliation trip to Japan. During the visit I met two former prison guards. One of my former guards had been sentenced to life imprisonment but had been released after 11 years. He went down on his knees and asked for forgiveness with tears streaming down his cheeks. For a time after that I corresponded with a Japanese Officer. I have now completely forgiven the Japanese for what they did to us, but I cannot forget.
On my visit to Japan, I talked to schoolchildren about what it was like to be a POW and the teachers encouraged me to tell the children exactly what happened. At the end the children were all in tears.
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