By Hilary Purcell
My paternal uncle John William Purcell (known to family as Jack) served in the Royal Signals (service number 2589375) as a dispatch rider. He became a Japanese prisoner of war and sadly didn’t return home. I started to research my family history about 15 years ago. All I had was a box of photos and letters.
One letter, dated 10/2/41, was from a family in Cape Town, South Africa, who entertained Jack and his pals en route to Singapore. They wrote ‘Jack is a fine fellow, very fit and enjoying the journey’.
In 2008 I had a holiday in Thailand meeting up with my daughter living in Australia. Having done only a minimal amount of research I realised we should take the opportunity to fly up to Bangkok for a few days and go up to the cemetery in Kanchanaburi. With information from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission giving his grave location, we made a visit. I was very moved at the peacefulness, tranquillity and how beautiful it was kept.
Since then, working at Neston High School I was pleased to be involved in Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine’s Far East prisoner of war (FEPOW) project. Several departments including English, Art and Design and Technology contributed to Secret Art of Survival project, creating a wall hanging, artworks and a replica bamboo dentist chair, respectively. It was also a privilege to attend a thought-provoking yet beautiful service to commemorate FEPOW, on 17th November 2019 at Liverpool Parish Church of Our lady and St Nicholas.
During the FEPOW project I met Professor Gill and Meg Parkes. Meg was keen to see my treasured photos and letters including Uncle Jack’s original POW index card. Through Meg I was put in touch with FEPOW researcher Keith Andrews who was able to give me further information and another contact, Terry Manttan, the manager of the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre (TBRC) in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Terry was able to translate the index card for me:
‘The front of the card shows us that he was captured in Singapore and would have been held initially in Changi POW Camp. In the Number box we see the characters for Malai POW Camp Roll 3, which I believe would have been River Valley Road. The Malai characters have been crossed through and replaced by the one for Thailand POW Camp 1. This means he was transferred to Work Group 1 (Allied terminology), or Camp 1 (Japanese terminology) on the Thai-Burma Railway’.
Not long after, I was delighted to receive an email from Terry, via Keith.
‘One of those strange and unexplainable things that keep happening… today I was reading a man’s memoirs while researching another fellow and came across a reference to Johnny Purcell. Of course this rang a bell, and on checking it turned out to be the man I just sent you the info about’.
THAILAND SLEEPER AND RAIL LAYERS
Extract from…………BURROWS, NORMAN WILLIAM, L/CPL 2589933
‘Then came the cholera. Johnny Purcell, another DR, was the cleanest man you could imagine, always kept himself smart, and his mess tin was always sparkling. We went to bed that night and we were now …………under canvas. Twelve of us in the tent, and by the morning Johnny Purcell was dead, and three others were in agony with the cholera. You can imagine how we felt – the Japs were in a real panic’.
You can imagine what I felt when I read this little snippet of information.
Terry told me both men, Norman and John, were Signalmen:
‘It follows that John (Jack) Purcell would have most likely been with them from Singapore on the same train which left on 9th November 1942. This was one of the trains that got stopped in transit by the flooded railway in southern Thailand before going on to Ban Pong. As they got to repair the international train line on the way they ended up becoming the specialist group of “sleeper and rail layers’.
These men arrived at Kinsaiyok in July 1943. Cholera hit the camp and Jack was taken ill on 6th August 1943, died on 7th August and was cremated in Kinsaiyok camp. I believe his remains were reburied 6th April 1946 at Kanchanaburi CWGC cemetery in plot 8 H 48.
A very moving letter of condolence sent 3rd January 1946 from his sergeant, Thomas Woodhouse, was received by his mother Barbara Purcell.
‘It may ease you mind considerably if I told you that I knew your son practically from the capitulation until the time of his death and during that time he was in excellent health and spirits, fed well owing to his efforts in bartering with natives ‘.
I wonder how much of this is true.
My research has been an emotional journey, the more you learn the more you want to find out. I consider myself very lucky to have been to Kanchanaburi to pay my respects and I hope to return sometime to have a personalised pilgrimage led by TBRC returning to his known locations.