Tag Archives: Commonwealth War Graves Commision

Doctor Behind the Wire

Jackie Sutherland, author of Doctor Behind the Wire: The Diaries if POW, Captain Jack Ennis, Singapore, 1942-1945, writes about how she uncovered the identity of who sketched her father as a POW in Singapore.

The answer was there all the time!

The search began in an attempt to find out more about the artist who sketched my late father, Captain Jack Ennis, while a POW in Singapore. No more was known other than the signature ‘F.J. White’.

Sketch of Captain Jack Ennis, image courtesy of Jackie Sutherland

Reading through lists of FEPOW gave several possible identities but then, quite by chance, as I leafed through papers on my desk, the sunlight caught a tiny reflection on the back of the sketch.  Graphite – pencil – on the dull brown paper, a page from a photograph album.

There, in my father’s small spidery writing, he had noted ‘Drawn by “Willie” White in January 1944 at Selerang after a hockey match’.

This was a name I had come across while transcribing my father’s diaries – but it had never occurred to me that ‘Willie’ might be a nickname. Sadly, my father had also recorded Willie’s death (from illness) in May later that same year.

Following the trail from the Commonwealth War Graves Commision website, I was able to find out more about this remarkable artist. F. John White (nickname ‘Willie’), a trained commercial artist, had enlisted with the Sherwood Foresters (Nottingham and Derbyshire Regiment) and with the 1/5th Battalion, was captured in Singapore. During his time as a POW he was very involved in theatre productions, designing posters and scenery as well as acting.

To quote from my father’s diary (on a production of Aladdin) ‘Young (John) Willie White of our Mess made up as a wonderful princess, very, very pretty girl. Steve Campbell sent up a bouquet of flowers after.’

‘Willie’ John White must have drawn many portraits. As  Capt G K Marshall wrote in his Changi Diaries.’

‘25th January 1944. Had a sunbathe on the roof and later sat for Willie while he did a portrait of me. He finished it by lunchtime and made a very good job of it, the best I have seen him do.’

Willie White’s portrait of my father was only recognized 75 years after VJ Day, which makes me think how many more portraits and sketches of our relatives are waiting to be discovered?


Doctor Behind the Wire, by Jackie Sutherland

Although other books have featured Jack and Elizabeth Ennis, this is the first complete account of their story – from meeting in up-country Malaya (the rain forest, the orchids) – to their marriage in Singapore just days before it fell to the Japanese, and then through the long separation of internment.

Published here for the first time, Jack’s diaries record the daily struggles against disease, injuries and malnutrition and also the support and camaraderie of friends. enjoyment of concerts, lectures, and sports, Ever observant, he records details of wildlife.

The inspiration for the ‘Changi Quilts’, the story of the Girl Guide quilt (now in the Imperial War Museum) is told in words by Elizabeth, written after the war.

Elizabeth’s former employer, Robert Heatlie Scott, distinguished Far East diplomat, was also POW in Changi, much of the time in solitary confinement or under interrogation by the Japanese.

The individual experiences of these three persons are dramatic enough – together they combine in an amazing story of courage, love and life-long friendship.

You can pre-order Jackie’s book through the Pen and Sword website here.

Researching my Uncle John Purcell

By Hilary Purcell
John William Purcell (known to family as Jack). Image courtesy of 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’.

John William Purcell seen front row, right. Image courtesy of Hilary Purcell.

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. 

Image courtesy of Hilary Purcell.

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’.

Uncle Jack’s original POW index card. Image courtesy of Hilary Purcell.

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.