Wednesday, February 15, 2012

He survived Death Railway

When an 18-year-old George Prior came home from work one morning and found his house bombed into a pile of rubble, he was so incensed he decided to take up arms himself.

By Clarissa Oon, Senior Writer
The Japanese had just launched their first air raid on Singapore on Dec 8, 1941. The small Tanjong Pagar house where Mr Prior, now 88, lived - owned by his aunt and uncle - was a casualty of the raid.
The older couple had already been evacuated to India, along with Mr Prior's parents and four younger siblings. His father is Eurasian and his mother, Indian.
Young, idealistic and hot-headed, Mr Prior insisted on staying behind in Singapore and was working as a journalist at the now-defunct Singapore Herald. The St Andrew's School alumnus had escaped being flattened along with his house because he had spent the night at the newspaper office filing his stories.
'I'd lost everything I owned in that air raid. And when you're 18, you think there's nothing you can't do,' he says, recalling the feelings that led him to enlist in the British army's Royal Artillery, an antiaircraft unit which gunned down Japanese planes.
The next few months passed by in a whirl. Assigned to Changi beach, he operated a cannon along with two other soldiers.
'We would cheer every time we hit a Japanese dive bomber and saw it coming down in flames,' he says.
But the British troops were suffering heavier casualties. The bottom line was that they had expected the Japanese onslaught to come from the coast and not overland via Malaya.
After capturing Malaya at end-January 1942, the Japanese advanced into Singapore and defeated the British army - which included Australian, Indian and local troops from Malaya and Singapore - in fierce battles all over the island.
On Feb 15, the British surrendered. Mr Prior recalls the events of that fateful day with a sigh.
'We were told we had to stay put with our units so that the Japanese could count us and send us to Changi Prison. Those who tried to escape were shot.'
Then, along with the other prisoners of war, he had to march through the streets of Singapore, all the way to Changi, the taunts of the Japanese officers ringing in their ears. The total number of prisoners of war was more than 100,000.
Humiliating though it was, 'I will never forget how when we walked through areas such as Chinatown, residents would go out of their way to leave a small bag of rice or a drink of water by the side of the road for us'.
Life in Changi Prison was harsh. Meals consisted of two or three cups of soft rice, topped with a spoonful or two of minced meat. The prisoners were expected to survive on that while doing manual labour such as construction work every day.
But there was worse in store. The Japanese packed him and other prisoners of war onto trains bound for Thailand. They were forced to build a 415km railway from Ban Pong in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in neighbouring Burma (now Myanmar). The prisoners were not given proper construction equipment, only pickaxes and shovels.
'The Japanese had visions of conquering India through the railway,' says Mr Prior, the years having mellowed away all traces of rancour in his voice. Burma and India share a border, and India was then a British colony.
Nearly 15,000 Allied prisoners of war and an estimated 80,000 Asian labourers died from disease, starvation and torture by their captors while building what became known as the Death Railway.
Mr Prior says he was often singled out for a beating by his captors 'if I wasn't properly spading, it's awful when I think of it'.
'They couldn't understand why this dark-skinned guy was with the British Army instead of the INA, which was on their side.' The INA was the Indian National Army, a Singapore-based armed movement of Indians who wanted to liberate India from the British and allied with the Japanese to reach that goal.
War produced other cruel ironies. 'Sometimes, after we had finished building 300m of rail, Allied bombers over Thailand would raze the tracks and we would have to start all over again,' he recalls, closing his eyes at the memory.
Two things kept the young man going. One was his Catholic faith. The other was music.
He was a good guitarist and his fellow prisoners came to know of his talent. 'Some of them stole steel strings and wood from the store shed, and there were carpenters among them who knew how to make a guitar.'
During campfire nights - granted to the prisoners by kinder Japanese officers at the end of a week - Mr Prior would play the guitar and sing.
'I would walk around the camp and sing the popular love songs of the time. When I passed the bamboo huts where the sick lay, you could see from the look in their eyes how much hope and inspiration this gave them,' he recalls.
He survived nearly three years on the Death Railway, until the Japanese surrendered in September 1945.
When that happened, Red Cross officers came to transport the prisoners to major cities in Thailand and Burma.
Once he was certified fit for the rest of the journey, he was sent to Britain to be officially demobilised. He then went to India where he was reunited with his family.
In late 1946, he returned to Singapore. He joined the police force and retired 22 years ago as a lieutenant.
His wife of 50 years, Esmeralda, died six years ago. They have three children in their 50s and four grandchildren.
Despite being tested beyond the limits of what is humanly possible during the war, he has only a simple and very practical piece of advice to share.
'Fitness is the most important thing. I was a pretty good sportsman and this helped me in wartime. So stay fit and treasure good health,' he says.