Tag Archives: River Valley Camp

Remembering Len Gibson, BEM

Len Gibson, BEM
3 January 1920—31 July 2021

Image and obituary courtesy of Clinton Leeks.

Len was a proud Sunderland man through and through. Born in one of the world’s great industrial cities, he had a lifelong passion for the power of education to improve one’s circumstances. He also had a passion for music, which was to help save him and others in his time of greatest trial. And he was a born story-teller all his adult life, to his friends and comrades, to the generations of children he taught, and to the historians and researchers who increasingly beat a path to the door of his bungalow in the Wearside village of West Herrington which he loved and in which he ended his days.

Born to hardworking god-fearing parents, he had three sisters and attended West Park Central School. He already loved music and was a chorister at Bishopwearmouth Church, becoming the senior boy and soloist. Leaving school during the Great Depression, he found work alongside his father in a timber factory. But he above all wanted to be a teacher, and took evening classes studying Science, Maths, English and French.  When years later this writer asked him what other than music he mostly taught in his later career, he smiled and said “just about everything, really.” He also found the Empire Theatre had cheap tickets for operas. He attended “Madam Butterfly”, and cried. Whenever he heard it again in later life, it still brought him to tears.

With war looming, in early 1939 he joined a new Territorial Regiment of Artillery and trained as a signaller. On 1 September 1939 the Regiment was called to active service, and in 1940 reconstituted as an Anti Tank Regiment and moved to home defence duties in Norfolk. There followed over a year of moving around the UK, until finally on 28 October 1941 the regiment embarked at Avonmouth to cross to Halifax in Canada, and then again headed round the Cape of Good Hope to Bombay. En route Len entertained with his proudest possession, his banjo. And en route they also heard of the attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941.

On 4 February 1942 Len’s convoy was attacked eight miles from Singapore by Japanese aircraft and all were forced to abandon ship. Len, a non-swimmer, floated in his cork lifebelt towards a boat which hauled him and others aboard and took them into the chaos of the last days of the defence of Singapore. On 15 February Len and his unit learned of the garrison’s unconditional surrender, and Len entered 41 months of Japanese captivity.

The details of that harrowing time are recounted in Len’s memoir “A Wearside Lad in World War II.” He was moved first to Changi, then to the River Valley Camp to work clearing debris from the city. He had lost his precious banjo when his ship sank, but now built a new one from scrap materials, and later built a guitar which he taught himself to play. He also began to compose music.

Len playing the guitar on VJ Day 2020. Image courtesy of Clinton Leeks.

On 24 October 1942 began the long rail journey to a series of camps in western Thailand, where Len and his work battalion were to construct the Burma-Siam railway. Len would later recount the daily horrors in his typical understated way—stifling heat, forced labour with few tools, a poor and highly inadequate diet of rice, tea, and “gippo” (basically hot water with added scraps), sickness, voracious insects, vermin, and beatings by the guards. Len like his comrades contracted typhus. He also had his appendix removed, without anaesthetic, by the legendary surgeon “Weary” Dunlop. Len kept himself going, and his comrades entertained, with his guitar music. He was by nature a forgiving man, but he said later to this writer “I cannot put in my book everything that happened, because it’s meant for my family. And I cannot forgive the Japanese what I saw them do to my friends.”

In April 1945, when Japan was clearly losing the war, Len and those of his comrades who had not died on the railway were moved to Khiri Khan in the Gulf of Siam, and thence into the interior, to work on completing the cross-isthmus Mergui Road. He said he found conditions much worse there than on the railway—poorer food and much more sickness. But he survived. On 15 August Japan surrendered, the guards were seen busily burning records, and Len and other survivors were marched back to Khiri Khan. At the end of the month a British officer arrived at the camp and began the long process of getting Len and others home. He travelled via Rangoon (where the day his ship left local radio played “Monsoon”, a piece he had composed during imprisonment) and the long sea voyage back to Liverpool, and recuperated in Ryhope General Hospital in Sunderland. There he met a lovely nurse called Ruby Pounder, and married her.

After the war Len achieved his ambition of becoming a schoolmaster, and for 17 years was Headmaster of Hasting Hill School in Sunderland. He and Ruby, who was to pre-decease him, had a son David and a daughter Jennifer. He always retained his love of music. He loved family gatherings: Jennifer described to this writer a gathering of over 90 in the extended family, where Len appeared as a sort of Pied Piper, entertaining everyone. He also remained committed to Far East POW organisations like COFEPOW, visiting the sick and needy and appearing at regular veteran gatherings throughout the North-east.

As he grew older interest seemed to grow in the experiences of so many young men who had fought in the Far East War 1941-45. Len was tireless in addressing groups in his factual understated way, “telling it how it was”. He had an endless fund of tales from the time in the camps which brought the story home to listeners young and old; of course he was never without his guitar, and some music to play. He was awarded the British Empire Medal in 2009, and as a proud Sunderland man opted to be invested by the Lord Lieutenant at Sunderland City Hall.

Len at his 100th Birthday Party. Image courtesy of Clinton Leeks.

Finally he was amazed by the historians who came to see him to record his experiences. He gave his last interview, shortly before his final illness, just three months ago. The historian wrote afterwards that he was struck by Len’s power of recall, his sharpness, and his positive attitude, to which along with his love of music the historian attributed Len’s survival when so many others had perished in the camps. Len said to him:

“I’ve had a wonderful life. I wouldn’t change a moment of it.”