Ted Freeman

 

Unit : 2nd Battalion The King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.

Served : Burma (captured).

Camps : Rangoon Jail

 

We know very little of escapes of ex-Japanese prisoners and to hear of one, I imagine, must be something worth listening to. So here is my story of this event, 45 years ago, just as it happened. Though it is a bit dated now it was, nevertheless, a grave decision for me at the time.

 

I mention the following because it is really the beginning; I was stationed in Maymyo, a Hill Station above Mandalay in peace-time Burma in March 1941 after being conscripted in 1940. Before being captured I had already travelled much of the country from Mandalay to Toungoo, Nyaunglebin, Pegu and also from Mandalay down the west road to Yenaungyaung (Allanmyo, Magwe and Prome, which is east and west of the Pegu Yoma – a small mountain range). Naturally, I didn’t think of the ominous consequences Yenaungyaung held for me. I also travelled east to Taungyi, Heho and Kentung in the Southern Shan States and on the Thailand Border, having crossed the Salween by raft. The reason I did so much travelling was because I was the driver for a Brigadier with his staff car and this was ultimately the reason for my capture – I used time to immobilise the car. The order had already been given, unbeknown to me, for “every man for himself”, but I was the last to be told, in fact, I was left waiting for the Staff Captain to return to collect money and documents from the car. I delayed a little – a little too long. Meanwhile British and Indian troops crossed the Yin Chaung – a tributary that flows into the Irrawaddy. This was where Japanese troops were waiting, on horseback in the water with their swords and rifles, for stragglers trying to cross the Chaung.

 

I had travelled in a truck with Rajputs for a while, solely on my own. During the retreat from Burma in April 1942, I, along with 6 others, was travelling in a truck towards Yenang-Yaung oil fields when we ran into a mortar attack and the truck stopped – it was the only one moving. There were many, many other trucks nose to tail caught up in this road block, under mortar attack. That is the way things happened in 1942. We scrambled off the truck and dived underneath it as the mortars fell. Two men were seriously wounded. I suffered four shrapnel wounds. We scrambled over and under some barbed wire surrounding some fields but were eventually captured by the Japanese. We were locked up in an empty house along with some others, plus the wounded men, for two days without food or water. The seriously wounded men were a Signal Sgt from the Gloster’s whom I knew well as he was attached to No 1 brigade HQ. The other was a KOYLI. The two men were eventually shot, being unable to stand to face the march we all had to do. It could so easily have been me. Three others were unaccounted for and another Sergeant and myself were the only two survivors. I made signs to the Japanese that there was a wounded man by the roadside, - could I bring him in – and he nodded and I managed to do this. We also met some other men, about 25 of them – Inniskillins and Cameronians who had also been captured and we were all kept in this empty house. After two days we were ordered out and ordered to take off our boots – the laces being used to tie our hands.

 

There were only two battalions of British troops in Burma in the beginning and only four aircraft – Gloster Gladiators – and they were at Magwe, so this gives an idea of the state of unpreparedness we were in. We were marched off 4 abreast down a stony track to Yenang Yaung village, hopping and scrabbling in our bare feet, to another empty house where we were kept for another further two days, still without food. There were also 2 more men in this house who were near to dying. Finally, we were taken to Rangoon jail after being locked up in Magwe jail overnight. In the jail we met more men who had earlier been captured. They were from the West Yorkshire regiment. A number of them had been physically beaten into submission to conform to Japanese orders and so the remainder of us followed suit – we had to. The beatings and humiliations of us all continued for two years on and off, so you can image our state of mind after three years. We learned orders ‘parrot fashion’ in Japanese, but the language was a great problem. There were notices placed around to the effect that anyone raising his hand, for whatever reason, against a Japanese soldier would be shot. There was a man with me in my little party who was crucified upside down before my eyes and left for several hours in the hot sun, simply because he did not bow to a patrolling guard, and there were two men shot in cold blood. Just two examples of the cruelty of the Japanese.

 

One month after being taken prisoner, whilst still in a fit condition, I was taken with 23 others to another part of the prison to become a guinea pig for Japanese doctors. We were subjected to 3 injections of Dengue fever, blood tests and temperature checks. These experiments lasted for a period of 4 weeks. Two men died later but the cause was unknown. The men in the experiments were from West Yorkshires, the Inniskillins, Cameronians and the Glosters. I was the only KOYLI at that time in prison.

 

The food in prison consisted of rice and dahl (split peas), later to improve to rice and watery vegetable stew. This was our staple diet for three years and I worked it out at over 3000 meals of rice for each man. Incidentally, the food we were given during the guinea pigs stage was rice and jagri lumps (a form of solidified raw sugar), but day in day out, year in year out, the food was the same – steamed rice with a few vegetables. Hard labour, short on food, short on clothing, no material things such as string, paper, nails or even forks, simple basic things, anything at all – anything except what we were able to obtain ourselves, but gradually books began to appear due to our own efforts in stealing and thieving. Water we had to obtain from a well. Later due to bombing raids the electricity and water supply broke down so we carried on in pitch darkness after 9 p.m. for two and a half years.

 

After two and a half years the Japanese decided to pay us for our labour, 1 rupee per month due to the ‘Spirit of Bushido’ – a Japanese mythical spirit – a sentiment similar to our own self consciousness to do things right. This money all went into a main fund and we were able to buy cheroots and then share them – about one per week each, and we broke them into little pieces and packed them into bits of paper – any sort of paper, which we rolled into tubes and stuck down with rice to make rough cigarettes.

 

We used to sleep on three planks of wood which were supported by two blocks of wood, but there was no bedding at all of any description until later when we were given washed hessian rice bags and a few blankets which were full of holes. Later on more KOYLIs arrived having been captured earlier at Moulmein, and I had to go with them. We slept on the wooden floor and that was how things remained until the very last; just sleep and work, sleep and work and be ready to jump if a Jap appeared.

 

The days didn’t vary much. It was work all day, supper at 8 or 9 p.m. Food didn’t vary either. It was always the same – sweepings up of rice with maggots and mouse droppings; rice for breakfast and dinner; and rice with watery vegetable stew for supper.

 

After six months in the prison, the officers who were captured in early 1942 were released from solitary confinement. There were about 16 of them, including three doctors, two of whom, among other things, eventually successfully amputated a leg of each of two of the prisoners, with any anaesthetic. They also attended to all kinds of other illnesses – jungle sores, cholera, dysentery, beri beri etc as best they could with no medicines of any sort. Lice infected everybody about this time, but we eventually overcame that problem.

 

Finally, after enduring the rigours of three years of Japanese prisoner of war life, the Commandant ordered 200 men, fit and not so fit, to get ready for a march on 29th April. The 29th April – that was the fateful date - the date when the Japanese began to evacuate Rangoon, a process which was to continue for a week or more. I had just completed my 3rd year as a prisoner of war and during the early part of my captivity I used to lie awake at night thinking of how I would try to escape if a certain situation arose. This situation did arise on 29th April – very similar to the one I had so often thought about.

 

Before commenting on events, just a few more words on life as a prisoner. Generally speaking it was very rough indeed – degradation, illness and death for some and not a scrap of any material thing whatsoever, the only thing we owned was our skin. We had tropical sun, flies and hard labour. Rice was our food, cooked the best way we knew how – which was a failure every time in the early weeks. Later on we became perfect – myself included – cooking rice for 200 men three times a day in near naked conditions. There were no such things as plates, we used corrugated iron cut and hammered into shape with a large stone, very primitive indeed, and my first meal for 4 days was a rice-ball eaten off a banana leaf. We used tin cans for water etc but later on we were given mess tins.

 

Work was hard, mostly digging always with the sun beating down, but the main thing was to try and keep well. Where there was life there was hope – though faint that was then – still always there. For many choosing life with hope was a bad bet with sickness and death as their companion. It would have been better for some to have died quickly rather than to suffer their illnesses.

 

Towards the end of 1944 prison life became easier, (but up to then it was quite terrible) no doubt because of organisation by the Japanese, British and ourselves. Even so, we had become well organised before then, under the circumstances, with bits of the basic material things of life taken from places where we worked. But 1942, 1943 and 1944 were grim years indeed.

 

The Japanese occupied all the land up to India and escape was totally impossible. During the latter part of 1944 we heard from local Burmese of the British advance into Burma, but we got very little news of any sort except Japanese propaganda. Not a word about Europe. The British attack in Burma was over some of the world’s worst terrain – mountains and formidable rivers, jungle and swamp – all of which were 800 miles from us. Eventually, one million men and arms gained the upper hand against 11 Japanese Divisions and the tide was turned, which brought our men, after having made gigantic efforts, with substantial loss of life, towards the Plains of Burma, south from Mytchina and Mandalay.

 

Time and work went on unceasingly, until on 29th April we set off on this march, most of us unshod, some half-dressed in various rags of clothing. I wore a Dutch army jacket and Rangoon fire service denims which had been given to me by a fireman at Rangoon Fire Station. I was well clothed in comparison to some of the others, but always you had to look after yourself. A motley crowd we looked to the local people who saw us go – 200 raggle-taggle British flanked by Jap guards. Most of the men were barefoot but we had been so long like that it made little difference. I was lucky, I had boots which I treasured and they were given to me by someone who knew he would not have need of them where he was going. I could still nevertheless, like all the others, have managed without them.

 

Behind us was the prison with its ugly high walls and rows and rows of two-tiered long buildings which had been our place of incarceration for 3 years. I didn’t look back. Incidentally the place was hit eleven times by the RAF and American bombers, killing British and Japanese alike whilst we were there, and we had to rebuild the thick walls which were demolished in the raids. - We only had a vague idea of our destination but my mind was made up. I was not going to be taken across the Sittang River if we were intended to go to another camp out of the bottleneck of Rangoon. (The Sittang River was where a company of KOYLIs were left on the wrong side of the river after an officer had ordered the bridge to be blown up and they ended up in Rangoon jail with us).

 

The going wasn’t hard and we took turns at hauling the handcarts loaded with Japanese belongings and any bits of our own piled on top. We were never told the reason for this march by our captors, and I assumed afterwards that we were to be used as hostages if things became too difficult for the Japanese in their retreat, bearing in mind the important thing that Rangoon is situated at the tip of a Peninsular, and to have a hope of getting out they must travel 40 miles to the main north/south road to Pegu – an important junction. Also, I found out later, there were 30,000 Japanese troops north of Rangoon between Nyaunglebin and Toungoo trying to join the main body across the Sittang River.

 

We plodded on our way quite cheerfully in the hot sun enjoying the tropical scene – it was a welcome change from the harshness of the prison. The march begin at 9 a.m. and was uneventful until late afternoon when we were spotted by an RAF reconnaissance plane – air activity had greatly increased – and sure enough RAF strikers followed later with some light bombing – they obviously thought we were a Jap column of some sort. Orders came for everyone and everything to take cover in the ample foliage of the semi-jungle which came down the roadside. Guards and prisoners worked hard to get everything under cover. We certainly did not want to get shot up by the RAF now.

 

Further raids followed, but by now the day was wearing on. I decided to have a look around our immediate countryside to see what the chances might be, and at the right moment I slipped away. I travelled a short distance through the undergrowth, tingling with excitement. Then I saw one of our men lying in a hollow in the ground terrified of the air strikes, so I jumped in with him. He was calling out hysterically “I’m not staying here” and he asked if I would “go” with him. Another plane came and, although its bombs fell wide, upset this man even more. In a flash, I made up my mind.

 

It was dusk now and I made my way back to the column and told my immediate friends that I was going that night, before the march began again. So, in full view, I rifled the Japanese baggage for what I could lay my hands on and managed to get several packets of Japanese cigarettes – I didn’t know for sure what they could be used for. Then I paused for a while and looked at the faces of the man I had seen and slaved with for three years. They were looking at me and probably working out what my chances would be. Some men said “good luck”. They probably thought that there would be plenty of Japanese in the hinterland making their retreat – they were right too, we had passed several small groups on our march out. Then a voice called out “Can I come with you Ted”. It was a friend with whom I had worked a great deal. I was glad as I knew him to be reliable and one of the best – he was one of the original soldiers captured earlier at Moulmein in 1942 – but my original plan had been to go alone.

 

I said “all right, but go and get some more cigarettes.” Another pause whilst this took place – the guards could not see everybody – then we were ready to go. The men were looking all the time and wondering. Then two more men, very good men too, were prepared to take their chance in an escape bid and asked me if they could come as well. Once again the comedy of stealing cigarettes (but comedy it was not) was secretly carried out, though each man had to take the risk of getting them himself; it was not for me to be the only man to do it. In the prison camp, one gets to know who are reliable and who are not. These three men were reliable and that made three KOYLIs of which I was one, and one Cameronian.

 

It was quite dark now and we slid away separately into the undergrowth, to meet again further in as arranged, well away from our guards and fellow prisoners, picking up the man hiding in the hollow on the way. The men said later they were surprised I took him. We lay low in the heavily wooded countryside within earshot of the column. Eventually we heard shouts and knew they were ready to continue; we had just made it! The shouts could have been our names, we couldn’t tell and no one came looking for us. Soon we were alone - but free. It was a good feeling, even if apprehensive.

 

The night was dark, but there was enough moonlight for us to be able to see and we had only gone a little way when we heard a whistle nearby. An RAF sergeant appeared. He too had been in the column but he had not long been a prisoner, not browbeaten as we had been for three years; just a few weeks. Could he come with us he asked. That made six. I asked him if he could tell us which the North Star was, he did so and I decided we would go in the opposite direction back towards Rangoon, but not by the road – that would be asking for trouble.

 

We set off in our agreed direction, single file, then we came upon the road we had marched up 12 hours earlier. We gave the road a good look over from the trees and crossed over carefully and quietly and began our walk into – we did not know what. With three years of Japanese prisoner of war life behind (at least for four of us) we were very careful indeed. We didn’t want to bungle things now. Despite our anxiety I was thrilled. Freedom of a fashion. But, had we jumped out of the frying pan into the fire?

 

We made our way through semi-jungle then we skirted a small plantation until we were brought to a halt by reaching a small river. We turned and followed the river, using a little track by the side. The night was very dark now. Soon we reached a village and dogs began barking so we stopped and looked carefully in that direction. We didn’t know what to expect. After a little while, after looking carefully over the place, I suggested that the five of us who could speak any Japanese words should go boldly through, talking loudly in Japanese, to give the impression to the villagers that we were Japanese soldiers passing through. This we did with grim humour, and we carried on. We were to learn later from the Headman of the village that we were taken for a Japanese patrol. Through the village and on. Very soon it would be daybreak and then we could look around, but Rangoon was our target and that was about twenty miles away.

 

As first light appeared we could see we were in flat country. One of our party decided to try and get himself a drink of water, so he climbed down the embankment to get one. He stepped into the river – right up to his thighs in mud. That was an anxious moment, but with help from his friend he managed to get back to firm ground. No water – but much wiser. During this episode a long canoe came into view with several villagers on it calling across in Burmese not to drink the water, so within a short while, people in front and behind us would know there were six nondescript Britishers in the vicinity. However, events were ‘so far so good’.

 

Later, whilst we were resting by the river, a lone villager passed us without saying a word. None of us could speak Burmese, but he must have had the shock of his life. He must have reported our presence because later, another villager came out to us and told us to go back with him to the village - the one we had passed through in the night. We did, and were told how very dangerous it was as Japanese groups were continually passing through. We were told this by the Headman who was called Ma-e-tin ad his wife was called Ko-ni. Quick explanations followed and he said he would give us food and drink and shelter but it was very dangerous for us, and for him. We understood.

 

We were kept for nine days in this village in a Basha (a bamboo bungalow on stilts), which was a meeting room for the village and it is the same all over the country. Night approached and inside the room it was pitch, pitch dark, so dark we were unable to see each other, but there was a small window space cut out of the wall to let the night air in. It was a vantage point for escape if necessary. During the night we could feel the silence, black and heavy.

 

We heard a Japanese patrol enter and leave the village. They were very near our hiding place – actually underneath it – and we listened to their voices. We were very scared, it is no use denying it, but eventually they moved off and the same thing happened again the next night. We were all prepared to go through the opening in the wooden wall if we had to. This was simply a desperate thought in a desperate situation – the window was twelve feet above the ground but someone had found rope.

 

In the inky blackness inside, each had his own thoughts, and mine went to saying the Rosary. I had managed to get them while working in a building somewhere in Rangoon. Good fortune stayed with us again that night, and once more we thankfully listened to their departing footsteps. These troops were on the run and making their way in the same direction as we had been when we moved up the road, their intention apparently was to cross the Sittang and Salween Rivers and on to Malaya or Thailand.

 

We were still not out of the wood. Six more days and nights we were to stay in the village and we were not allowed outside the building, so we were still not really free. The days were hot and dry and the nights pitch black and there was very little we could do, and the little Burmese lady, Ko-ni, kept bringing us rice and vegetables to eat. They were risking a lot by harbouring us.

 

One morning, very early, we were roused and told to run to a chicken hut across the paddy fields. A young boy showed us the way and then left us. We ran across the dry soil and into a hut, and that is where we stayed, with the chickens, for several hours until mid-morning. I remember standing there on the floor in the gloom, when several of us shouted out in chorus. We were being bitten by huge red ants on our bare feet. We shook them off and tried sitting on shelves or chicken roosts or anything where our feet were off the floor and trying to be quiet at the same time. We held our breath and ticked off the minutes, waiting for the boy to return to tell us it was safe to return to the village. When we got back, we told our hosts that we wanted to go back to Rangoon but we were still forced to remain there. Perhaps they were negotiating with a village further away in our direction to take us, and we found out afterwards that this is what they had been doing. These were dangerous times for anyone harbouring Britishers.

 

Twice more the race to the chicken hut took place and twice more we spent the night there, until the boy came to tell us it was safe to return. There must have been look-outs. One time was a false alarm but three nights in the hut was something of an experience.

 

We had been nine days in the village – its name was Thandin – and events were moving very fast although we knew nothing. We asked the Headman to be allowed to go and he finally agreed – he was probably relieved to see us go. He asked us all to sign our names so he could give them to the Army when they came. We did this and made our grateful thanks and set off – this time with a guide.

 

Along the river bank we went, feeling good and in high spirits and crossed over to the other side via a foot bridge into another village where there were quite a number of Burmese villagers about, some with rifles, and it must have been a big surprise for them to see six ragged Britishers, the first they had seen for several years. They probably knew of our presence and the reason for being there as no doubt their neighbours in the other village would have told then, and also the ones in the canoe. We gave them the remainder of our cigarettes and it made our presence easier and as we moved off they called something after us in Burmese, but we didn’t answer them. We had previously given some of our cigarettes to the friends in the first village and we also gave some to our guide, so the cigarettes came in handy after all.

 

Soon after passing through the second village our guide said he would have to leave us. He pointed out to us the railway line which was a little way further on and would take us back to Rangoon 20 miles away. We thanked him very much and continued on and then we walked towards the railway line, climbed the embankment and over the rails and down the other side. A wonderful feeling of exhilaration filled us. After three years we finally were on our last lap to freedom.

 

We walked fast, through the morning and into the afternoon. The hot sun blazed down on us and we talked occasionally and joked a little. We were very keen on getting back to Rangoon where we hoped to meet the 14th Army. We reasoned that all the Japanese would have left the City and as mentioned before, events were moving very fast, of which we didn’t have any knowledge whatsoever. Back in the prison we had heard via local Burmese, whilst we were working outside, that Mandalay had fallen to the British and Indian troops. Mandalay was 400 miles away and that was a long way indeed, but the Emperor’s army was in retreat and the British and Indian soldiers moved very fast after Mandalay as we were soon to find out.

 

Towards mid-afternoon, still walking very quickly, we passed Indian soldiers dug in, in their forward positions. They must have had us in their sights for quite some time as we were the only moving objects for miles. They greeted us with welcome smiles, but what a sight we must have looked. We laughed and waved back and kept on walking until met by an astounded British officer who couldn’t believe his eyes at seeing us. He took us to the Field Officer in charge who showed great surprise also. We were warmly welcomed and after telling our story rum was handed out all round. They asked if there were any Japanese around. We said no, not at least as far as our last two villages were concerned. The date was 8th May 1945 – 10 days after we left Rangoon. Up to then it didn’t hold any significance for us. The officer asked us if we knew the date. We replied “no” and they then told us it was VE day but we knew nothing of what had been happening in the world apart from bits we heard whilst working in the City.

 

We were later given clean field uniforms and then we burnt the clothes we had worn for so long. We were finally free and the war was over for us (but not in other parts of the Far East – there would be another three months of hostilities yet) – we were new men – and free.

 

Soon after, we went aboard transport planes in twos and we flew off from a makeshift air strip. I was the last to go – I was no longer in a hurry – and so our journey to India and England. Looking down from the plane I could see the rich green of the Burmese jungle and the parched dry earth of the paddy fields. It was my last view of Burma where I had spent the last 4 years and 9 months. I couldn’t help but think how my circumstances had changed.

 

I flew to Chittagong via Akyab then to Madras, Poona, and Karachi, then to somewhere in the Middle East – I could tell by the smell of the camels – landing at night time and departing early in the morning. Then to Palestine, Cyprus and somewhere in France and so the Sussex in England. We must have been given some preferential treatment because everything was done so quickly and efficiently. All the flying was done by transport planes.

 

I was indeed, finally, free.

 

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