By Ray Withnall
February 1945. We arrive in Ubon north-east Thailand and ordered to build an airstrip for the Japanese. We’ve been prisoners for 3 long barbaric years.
June. Work on the airstrip is going well. Not too demanding. Local Thais tell us the war in Europe is over.
July. A plane flew over the camp and dropped leaflets with news the allies invaded Japan. Is that really true? The guards are on edge. Next day when we’re ordered to dig trenches across the airstrip. Is it to stop our planes from landing, or have we dug our graves? We’re anxious.
Early August. The Japanese tell us we don’t need to work but they’re as confused as us. Some are friendly, all of them less demanding. Something is in the air.
15 August. Today we saw the guards in a panic burning papers. Rumours that the war is over spread through the camp.
18 August. We’ve been uneasy for the last 2 days. RSM McTavish ordered everyone onto the parade ground. We were called to attention and Major Chida Sotomatsu, the camp commandant, made an announcement. It was translated:
‘The Greater East Asia war has ended. You must carry on as you have been for some time until your own people come and take you over. I, as camp commandant, wish to thank you all for the good work you have done for me in the group. Higher officials have given out certain orders and it is my wish that you all adhere to these orders in a soldierly manner. I am still responsible for you all until I can hand you over to your own people. Outside work will cease as from tomorrow. Inside work as far as the I.J.A. are concerned is also finished, but work will have to carry on as before for your own benefit. Do your work as exercise. Those of you who are fit must keep fit. Those who are sick must do their utmost to get fit as soon as possible.’
We are free!
24 August. We were stunned at first. We are free but stay in the camp. Local Thais generously bring us food and drink. They’re organising entertainment for us; cinema, dancing, sports, even horse racing. The Thai army spoke to RSM McTavish, but they couldn’t tell him when we will be leaving.
25 August. Colonel Toosey arrived this evening. We gave him a tremendous reception. He said he had been worried about us, but relaxed when he saw us in good shape.
27 August. British officer Major Smiley arrived early this morning. He tells us he’s been in Thailand since May training the Seri Thai resistance. When the Japanese surrendered, he came straight to Ubon. He stayed undercover in case of Japanese revenge attacks. His radio operator contacted HQ to requisition supplies. We need decent clothes. The Thais send in more food.
28 August. Colonel Toosey sent the 20 sick men back to Bangkok with the 4 Americans. No news of our departure. We are organising football with the local Ubon team. We now have a radio and listen to the BBC. We go into Ubon but back before curfew.
22 September. It’s been five frustrating weeks waiting to go home. But we are now on the move. The Australians and 250 of the British have gone. The rest of us go in 2 days. Feeling sorry for the hundreds of Dutch who can’t go home because of fighting in the Dutch East Indies.
(The Dutch are trained in firearms and tactics in anticipation of fighting the insurgents. They eventually leave Thailand in February 1946.)