Tag Archives: Padang

My Father’s Experiences as a POW

By Paul Murray

I have recently published a book, “From the Gaeltacht to Galicia: a Son’s Tale”, which includes, as one of its main themes, my father’s experiences as a POW in Changi between February 1942 and May 1943, his transfer on the prison ship Wales Maru to mainland Japan, and his onward journey to the northern island of Hokkaido where he was imprisoned in six further camps until September 1945. My book follows on from the setting up of a website by my brother Carl in August 2020 called thebelfastdoctor.info where he published the secret diaries in the form of love letters from our Dad to the woman who was to become our Mum.

Paul’s parents on Newcastle Beach in N. Ireland with Slieve Donard in the background (Image courtesy of Paul Murray)

Using the diaries in which, apart from one month, there is an entry every day for 42 months, I travelled to Singapore in October 2017 and on to Japan to follow in his footsteps. This special pilgrimage proved to be an emotional roller coaster but I was so glad that I went as, with the help of a guide and an interpreter, I met numerous historians and museum curators who were able to piece together the story of some of the British, Dutch and American POWs in the ten camps on the island. I even met an elderly Japanese man who claimed to have met my father when he was imprisoned in what proved to be the worst of the camps, Muroran.

My father’s name was Major Francis J. Murray and he was the chief MO as well as the senior CO in two of the six camps on Hokkaido where he was in charge of 350 British prisoners. He was awarded the military MBE when he returned to N Ireland after the war to set up a practice as a GP in a working class area of north Belfast.

Major Francis J. Murray at Chitose Aerodrome near Sapporo, Hokkaido, on 13th September 1945. (Image courtesy of Paul Murray)

During my visit to Singapore, I met up with one of my sisters who flew in from her home in Canada and, together with the son of the country’s former first chief minister in 1955, David Marshall, we re-enacted our dads’ walk from the Padang beside St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral along the route of the 14 mile march into captivity at Changi.

On Hokkaido, Dad was incarcerated for one week in Hakodate, four months in Yakumo, 19 months in Muroran, five weeks in Raijo (all the POW accounts I have read including my Dad’s know this camp as Nishi Ashibetsu), two weeks in Utashinai, and two months in Akabira. The only building still standing on its original site on the island is now a café in what was once the compound of the camp at Hakodate on the outskirts of the town. A television crew from Japan’s national station NHK together with a reporter from a local newspaper covered my visit to Hakodate and Yakumo. Later on my first day at Hakodate, I was taken to a temple which used to be the camp hospital and which has been reconstructed in another part of the town. There is a small plaque in the temple with the names of some of the British and Dutch POWs who died during captivity. Included on it are some of the thirteen men who died on my father’s watch and who are all buried at the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Yokohama. On my visit to Tokyo a few days earlier, I had laid poppy crosses at the graves of each of the men. Our guide at the camp at Hakodate and the Eizenji Temple was Masatoshi Asari, an elderly local historian, who was responsible for erecting the symbolic plaque of reconciliation and for bringing the story of the foreign prisoners to the attention of school children on the island.

My visits to Yakumo where the men constructed an air strip in the summer and autumn of 1943, and Muroran where they provided slave labour in the Wanishi Iron and Steel Works, proved to be equally fascinating though tinged with great emotion when I learnt more details about the tragic deaths of Signalman Stan Faunch at the former, and Private Raymond Suttle among the twelve at the latter.

An extract of Major Francis J. Murray’s secret diary. (Image courtesy of Paul Murray)

My book has a special focus on two Japanese officers whose treatment of the POWs was markedly different. Lieutenant Kaichi Hirate was camp commandant at Muroran and Raijo. Lieutenant Colonel Shigeo Emoto had overall responsibility for all the camps on Hokkaido between March 1944 and May 1945.

The stunning autumn colours of the interior were in stark contrast to the bleakness of the port at Muroran and it was so very special to gather in a clearing in the middle of the woods at Dad’s fourth camp, Raijo, to picture what he called his proudest moment when, on 5 September 1945, he was presented with a giant scroll of tribute by the British and American POWs.

I am indebted to two women from the POW Research Network Japan, Taeko Sasamoto and Yoshiko Tamura, who gave me so much assistance throughout my special pilgrimage to their country. They are among a number of volunteers who are continuing to bring the stories of the Allied POWs in all the camps in Japan to the attention of its people and, ultimately, to a far wider audience with the future publication of a book.

Cover of From the Gaeltacht to Galicia: a Son’s Tale by Paul Murray

As for my own book, it is available for purchase in paperback form at thegreatbritishbookshop.co.uk  Any money I make from it will go to the arthritis charity NASS.

Nine lives and two tins

By Mike Appleton

To have almost no possessions except for the rags one stood up in, must have been a truly harrowing experience. This I believe explains the two tins shown below, which were with my father, Johnnie – Sgt J. G. Appleton 27 Sqdn RAF (pre-capture briefly attached to RAF HQ Communications Team) – throughout his time as a POW in Sumatra, as he moved from one jungle camp to the next. The fact that he brought them home and kept them all his life speaks volumes about their significance.

The discoloured tin held tobacco and matches. There were still shreds of tobacco in it when I was young. It also held a wad of occupation money. The Gold Flake tin held a Japanese toothbrush, with its bristles stained bright red from using tree bark as toothpaste (this has gone missing), some letters and his Japanese ID badge. On the right is his RAF insignia and on the left another badge which I don’t recognise, can anyone tell me what this is?

My father John Griffith Appleton (1917 – 2009) served in the RAF for 32 years (1935 -1967). During WW2 he was first stationed in India before flying down to Malaya. As the Japanese invaded from the north, he fled from one bombed-out airfield to the next and then, in a hazardous rush, to Singapore. During the invasion of the Island he was a key member of a team that, up to the last moment, kept open the communications links to India and Java.

On the night of 13 Feb 1941 Johnnie was ordered to leave with his team. They boarded the S.S Tien Kwang bound for they knew not where, and being exhausted, fell asleep on the deck. The next morning, they woke to the sound of low flying aircraft starting their bombing run and within moments the ship was holed, listing and there were many casualties. Another ship nearby the SS Kuala suffered a similar fate. Following the order to abandon ship, Johnnie managed to swim towards Pulau Pompong Island and being unhurt assisted in helping the wounded and disposing of the dead.

After several days and a hair-raising journey in a junk, he landed in the mouth of the Indragiri River on the East coast of Sumatra. There was then an arduous traverse of Sumatra to the West coast and Padang where it was hoped they would be taken off by a Naval ship. No ship arrived and instead they simply waited in limbo and trepidation for the arrival of the Imperial Japanese Army.

For the next three and a half years Johnnie was in a total of 10 camps in Sumatra, with progressively harsher regimes and ever-increasing levels of privation as the war progressed. The culmination of the experience was a year building the railway linking Sumatra’s east and west coast ports. This line was forged through virgin jungle with basic hand tools, in adverse climatic and disease-ridden conditions. The irony was that the track was completed shortly before the Japanese capitulated and was never really used thereafter. It is now in ruins and reclaimed by the jungle.

In 1999/2000 Johnnie compiled a detailed memoir describing his and fellow prisoners’ hardship and ill treatment. What is remarkable on reading his account, is not just that he survived, but that he did so with no lasting physical impairment and outwardly no mental issues. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did relate stories and describe events, in particular about living in the jungle and the various wild animals encountered – and eaten! His explanation for survival seemed to involve using the hard work and squalid conditions as a challenge. He had the determination that however bad he felt he must rise and work hard all day.

At one point a Japanese camp commander called him out from a daily parade and, instead of beheading him for some minor misdemeanour, which was my father’s expectation, awarded him a tin of sugar, a reward for having worked 100 days without a break. Other contributory factors he offered were, the responsibility undertaken for looking after the RAF contingent, prior experience of living in Asia, an extensive inoculation programme when he was being trained pre-war and, being a boy scout!

Towards the end of the war it is clear from his account that survival was very much in the balance as the effort to overcome extreme beriberi and starvation became overwhelming. The descriptions of the excitement experienced as SOE operatives literally dropped out of the trees and liberated the camp, is thrilling to read. It does also appear that the RAF, within the knowledge parameters of the day, re- PTSD etc., did do much to ease him back into fully operational service as a ‘regular’, and promoted him several ranks to make up for lost time and in recognition of the responsibility he had taken on in the camps organising his RAF colleagues.

For many years post-war Johnnie played a role in his local FEPOW branch and acted as treasurer.

Johnnie Appleton, carrying a FEPOW Federation wreath, Manchester Cathedral, late 1990s (©courtesy M. Appleton)