Friday, 25 November 2011

27: Return to Japan – 2006

In April 2006 I received an invitation to attend an investiture ceremony at the British Embassy in Tokyo. Two Japanese ladies, Mrs Taeko Sasamoto and Mrs Yoshiko Tamura who are founder members of the Japanese P.O.W. Network were to receive the award of M.B.E. (Member of the British Empire) for their dedication and hard work in tracing details and final resting places of all British P.O.W.’s who had died in Japan. I became acquainted with these ladies when they visited my home in March 2004.

I decided to accept the invitation and extend my stay to twelve days intending to visit my old camps where I had been held prisoner. When I informed Mrs Tamura of my intentions she asked if she and Mrs Sasamoto could accompany me, I assented, they then arranged an itinerary. Unfortunately my wife was unable to travel with me as she had recently had surgery and not fit enough to travel, so my daughter Angela agreed to accompany me, also a personal friend, Bari Logan.

We booked flights, bought Japan Rail Passes and with the help of Mrs Izumi, who is a secretary of the British Empire, were able to book our accommodation at a hotel quite close to the Embassy, in Tokyo.

My companions and I took off from London, Heathrow Airport at 13.50 lunchtime, Saturday 27th May in pouring rain. Arriving at Tokyo, Narita Airport at 09:10 Sunday morning 28th May after a 10 ½ hour flight, only to find it pouring with rain, but not for long, soon the sun shone and stayed shining for the rest of our visit.

We boarded a Limousine Bus which took us to a drop off point in central Tokyo where we hired a taxi to our hotel, The Grand Arc Hanzomon. I had a pleasant view from my 15th floor room which overlooked the moat and grounds of the Emperors Palace.

Monday 29th May

Early morning, Yoshiko greeted us in the hotel lounge and explained the itinerary that had been arranged for us and to accompany us to the travel agent to pay for our hotels in Hakodate and Kamaishi which had been booked in advance, also our internal flight tickets from Hakodate to Tokyo, Haneda Airport.

First stop was Tokyo Central Station where we exchanged our Rail Pass Vouchers for Japan Rail Passes and made our seat reservations on the Shinkansen ‘Bullet’ trains.

This task completed, we boarded a suburban train to Yokohama where our next stop was the travel agent. Business completed we were driven by Yoshiko to the Commonwealth Cemetery where Taeko was waiting with two newspaper reporters, one from the Daily Telegraph, the other from the Asahi Shinbun, Japan’s number on Newspaper, who then proceeded to question me about my return visit and also of the time I spent in Japan during my P.O.W. years.

The reason for visiting the Commonwealth Cemetery was to see the grave of my friend Bill, who had died during captivity. I had kept his ashes with me until my release then handed them over to be returned to the U.K. In 2004, I learnt that his mother could not bear to accept him home in a box, she had not been informed of his death so was completely shocked, his ashes were returned to Japan.

Leaving the Cemetery our next stop was to a restaurant where we enjoyed a meal and chat after which the newspaper reporters departed. We were then driven to Taeko’s house for the afternoon where we indulged in more food, after a pleasant relaxing few hours we were taken to Yokohama station where we boarded a train to Tokyo returning without problems and back to our hotel.

Tuesday 30th May

It was only a short walk from our hotel to the British Embassy where the investiture ceremony was to start at 17:30 hours. Arriving at the gates we were admitted after the usual careful security checks.

On entering the building I was asked to put my signature beside my name on the list of guests, then escorted to meet the Ambassador, Sir Graham Fry’s wife, a charming lady who informed me I was the guest of honour and would be seated with the award recipients families, then went on to explain the procedure that would follow.

The guests were seated and the ceremony began, the Ambassador speaking in Japanese and an Army member of staff translating at intervals in English. A large group of press and television camera’s recording the event. Champagne followed, food and drinks were offered while people chatted. I was kept very busy by a number of people from the press and several members of the Japanese P.O.W. Network who asked to speak to me. The Ambassador thanked me for coming to Japan saying how much it was appreciated by all the guests and staff. It was a lovely warm evening as guests were able to stroll about in the gardens.

After a pleasant evening we made our way back to the hotel accompanied by fifteen members of the Japanese P.O.W. Network where a buffet meal and drinks had been ordered in the restaurant. They all wanted to speak to me, asking questions, so I was constantly passed from one person to another, it seems they rarely encounter an ex-P.O.W. to speak to, person to person.

It was the early hours of the morning before this happy gathering came to an end. I was pleased that my companions and I had a free day ahead of us, needless to say, we did not intend to rise at the crack of dawn.

Wednesday 31st May

During the day we took a stroll around part of the perimeter of the large moat that surrounds the Emperors Palace gardens, I then sat in the shade of trees enjoying the tranquility before returning back to the hotel for another rest followed by a meal out that evening.

Monday, 21 November 2011

26: Adventurous Journey Home – Part 8.

England, at last!

It was another grey morning when we finally docked into Southampton. The Captain had done well; crossing in just four days and ten hours, not far short of its own record. Some Americans on board told us this happened with every crossing. The Captain would cruise to America at a slower pace, so as to conserve fuel, then burn what he had saved on a fast return to England.

Coming ashore, nothing seemed to have changed. There were just a few railway people on the quayside. We were instructed not to enter buildings as the customs men were there and would go through our bags. We were then directed to where the trains were waiting. Before long we were on our way to RAF Cosford, near Wolverhampton, and were informed by RAF personnel that if all went smoothly we would be on our way home that night. It was a great feeling knowing that our long journey was almost over. I longed to reach home after an absence of almost four and a half years.

Cosford was well organised and was ready for our arrival. We were passed through the various departments as quickly as possible. We each saw a doctor who gave us yet another check over and asked us a few questions about our health. Then a kit check and on to another department to receive our travel warrants and timetables. Lastly, we lined up at the pay desk to receive a sum of money; part of our back pay. I can’t recall exactly how much, but it didn’t really matter, we were home. The station personnel told us that if we wanted to know the whereabouts of any RAF pals we had left behind, they would willingly try to trace them. I left the names and numbers of two pals that I would very much like to trace.

One Final Walk and Home

A telegram was sent to each of our homes telling our parents of our expected arrival times. We said our goodbyes and away we went. So much had happened, so many experiences that really there was little to say. It was late at night by the time I arrived at my destination. My father was waiting on the platform to greet me as I climbed down from the train. There were no taxis available, so we walked home. I didn’t mind as I wanted the opportunity to familiarise myself with my new surroundings.

Half an hour or so later, as we approached our home, I could see a large banner across the front of the house with the words ‘Welcome Home Frank’. Once indoors, I found all my relatives had assembled to welcome me home. My Mother said she knew I didn’t like any fuss but had to put out the flags because all the parents were doing the same when their sons came home and she didn’t want them to think that she didn’t care about her son. She promised that they would be taken down in the morning. Questions were being thrown at me from all directions for the next three hours. Then everyone finally dispersed, after I had promised to visit them all over the next few weeks.

Trying to Adjust to Normal Life Again

I realised the very next day that it was going to be very difficult to get back to my old lifestyle. I felt very much alone. My friends, who had been my constant companions before I joined up, had all married and moved away. The first few days I spent taking long walks, assuring myself that everything would soon be fine and I would be able to settle down once again to leading the normal happy and contented life I once knew. Although I felt lonely, I actually needed to be alone while I tried to sort out my feelings.

I was due back at RAF Cosford in January after eight weeks leave so I was looking forward to meeting up with some of my old RAF pals. In the meantime, I decided to write to Bill’s mother. I mentioned early in this story that my mate Bill had died in Hakodate. I first met him in the hut when we were posted overseas; he and I left our friends behind and were given a cabin together, so we chummed up. We hadn’t much in common other than that we were both keen on motorbikes.

I wrote to Bill’s mum offering to pay a visit. I received a reply from Bill’s sister saying her mother had no wish to see me; she couldn’t understand why I had survived and her son hadn’t. Bill’s ashes, which I had kept and handed in on my release, had been safely delivered. His sister invited me to visit her at her home in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, as she needed to know the full details of his death. I did my best to explain.

After the visit, I decided to get away from home for a time and make the promised visits to all my uncles and aunts. My cousins, of course, were still in the forces. One of my first visits was to the parents of my best pal. He had intended volunteering for service with me, but his parents wouldn’t let him. Nine months after I joined up I spent a weekend with him on leave; telling him that I had volunteered for overseas service. He was now living in Oxfordshire, with a wife and child and still serving in the RAF. During my conversation with his parents they mentioned another family who were still awaiting news of their son. I told them that he had died in Java in 1942 but they shouldn’t mention this to anyone; I wanted them to hear the news officially in the proper manner.

I was invited to a dinner at the Conservative Club laid on for ex-P.O.W.’s like myself. The dinner was fine until I discovered I was the only Japanese P.O.W.; all the others were from Germany and Italy. They had lots of funny and amusing stories to tell of incidents that took place while they were in captivity. I’m afraid I could not recall one incident that was in the least bit funny or amusing, so I felt a bit of an odd one out.

My mother mentioned a young workmate who I vaguely remembered from the early days. We had both worked for a large building and decorating firm specialising in hotels and public houses. I was decorating apprentice and he, Henry, was a plumber’s apprentice. He left when he was eighteen, because of the poor wages, and went to work in a factory. He was a big strong lad and when called up joined the Royal Marines. Landing in France on D-Day, he was hit in the head and neck by shrapnel from a mortar shell. He was now a church caretaking living in a one-bedroom cottage close to the church with his wife and child. Henry’s mother had asked for me to see him, hoping it might help him in some way. When I did visit him I fond it quite an ordeal; he looked normal but there the resemblance ended. He had great difficulty when trying to speak and when he did managed to say anything he sounded like a backward child. He memory was impaired and I could see by his face the struggle he was having in trying to remember who I was. I found this very distressing but stayed with him all afternoon, hoping to see some improvement. Regrettably, it just didn’t happen.

Young Lady in the Office

I was kicking my heels by now, willing my eight weeks leave to end. I realised there were not too many people my age around; they were mostly under eighteen or over forty-five. I thought I might pay my old firm a visit to see if any of my old workmates were still around. I went to the office and spoke to the young lady who told me some of the chaps were decorating a dance hall in a hotel nearby. I went round there and, on entering the dance hall, received a very warm welcome. I enjoyed a cup of tea and a long chat with my ex-workmates, which left me feeling happy and relaxed. I asked who the young lady was in the office and whether she had a boyfriend? I was told “No!” They told me she was eighteen years old and at the moment she wasn’t interested in boyfriends. After a couple of dates they always seemed to make a nuisance of themselves, which I could well understand. I thought she was gorgeous and I found out her name was Lena. My mates went on to say that they had told her not to bother with the chaps because I was on my way home and was the one for her. As I took my leave from them I was asked when I would be returning to work. I wasn’t too sure about that!

Before making for home, I decided to pop back to the office to ask Lena out. To my delight, she accepted. Three months later, on our way to a former P.O.W.’s wedding, we changed trains in London and found ourselves passing a jeweller. I asked he “Shall we get engaged?” and she replied “Yes!” So, we popped in and I bought her a ring. We were married in the Parish Church six months later when Lena was nineteen. I had celebrated my 26th birthday the day before. It was, I must say, much to the disapproval of our respective parents. My mother felt that she had lost her son for the second time and Lena’s mother thought she was far too young, but grudgingly gave her consent after a bit of coaxing, we are still happy and contented after 65 years of marriage, so it could not have been a bad decision.

When my leave was up I returned to Cosford and found the information I had asked about my two pals was waiting for me. Once had been to North Africa and Italy in charge of an airfield fire appliance and had survived the war, we met up later. The other who said he would wait for what he had volunteered for, reached his ambition and became a Spitfire pilot. Taking his first operational flight on an offensive sweep over France at the time when the German FW 190’s ruled the skies, he had been shot down and killed. I felt terribly sad at the news. He was such a lovely chap who, before joining up had worked at Liberty’s store in London. I remember that he had taken me along there to meet some staff when I spent a weekend leave at his home.

I have a lot to be thankful for, I survived the war and here, the Memoirs of my war experiences end.

Next: Return to Japan – 2006

Saturday, 12 November 2011

26: Adventurous Journey Home – Part 7.

From Canada to The United States of America

On the last day of our journey across Canada, our steward pointed and said, “Niagara Falls over there”. The train slowed down and we crossed into the United States of America at Buffalo. Along the way, three of the locomotives had been disconnected; they weren’t needed once we had left the gradients behind. The remaining one was replaced at Buffalo with a new locomotive with New York Central on it. The journey continued, passing through more densely populated areas of small town America. some of the names I remember hearing of before; Rochester, Syracuse and Albany were some of them. Finally, we reached our destination; Newark, New Jersey. Our journey had taken five days and four nights and passed through some of the most spectacular country I had every seen.

Collecting our packed kit bags we left the train and entered the station. We were then escorted to a ferry, which was within walking distance of the station. The ferry was crowded and busy but the service was frequent. Once the required number was on board we were on our way to the city of New York. A short way into our crossing we saw our ship, the Queen Mary, in the distance. With eagerness and some trepidation we left the ferry and walked to the ship. The last stage of our journey was about to begin.

The Greatest Liner Afloat

On boarding the Queen Mary, we were presented with a ticket showing our cabin and deck number. I was in for a shock. Everything was such a contrast to my trip on the MV Athlone Castle when leaving England in 1941.

The MV Athlone Castle was a liner that, before the war, sailed between England and South Africa. On that trip, Bill (my friend who died in the Hakodate POW camp) and I were given a cabin for two with wardrobe, cabinet and washbasin. The headwaiter had played a tune on a small dulcimer to announce that meals were being served. The only concession made for conversion of the MV Athlone Castle to troop carry was the installation of long tables in the dining room to replace the normal ones. We had enjoyed a nine-week cruise to Singapore back in 1941.

But now, on the greatest liner afloat, I was dumbfounded. Our cabins had been stripped bare and filled with metal bunks, four high on each side of the cabin. They were constructed from tubular frames with steel mesh stretched across and a thin mattress on top. The only standing space in the cabin was between the bunks. Fortunately for us there were only four of us in our cabin so we each had a spare bunk where we were able to place our kit. When seated for our evening meal we were given all the information that they deemed necessary. As we entered the dining room I had noticed a wall covered with a relief map showing England and America with the Atlantic Ocean between them on which was a model of the Queen Mary supposedly showing the ship’s passage. I had seen this on newsreels in cinemas before the war when the media had been shown around the interior of this huge liner. We were told that apart from the working crew on board, the Americans were now running the ship. On its return trip from England, having deposited us ashore, the ship would be packed to capacity bringing home 15,000 American servicemen; an uncomfortable trip I would imagine. We were told that they would be served two meals a day; one at 10:00 am and the other at 4:00 pm; we on the other hand, would get three meals!

Once again we were informed, no pay: Britain was broke. We would not, therefore, be allowed ashore. They were unable to say when we would be sailing but it would be as soon as the ship was refuelled and the provissions were brought on board. I felt that the sooner this trip was over the better! After a good meal that evening, most of us walked around the decks looking at New York’s skyscrapers and the lights. That evening Air Chief Marshal Tedder, General Eisenhower’s deputy during the European war, visited us; he walked around the decks talking to groups of us, questioning us about our experiences. He apologised for the lack of cash but told us that books, magazines and newspapers were being brought on board to occupy us.

In the daylight the streets of New York seemed a long way from the docks. Our only view was of warehouses and a three-tier road, which disappeared into the distance. An American soldier guarded the gangway onto the quay. Time dragged as we either walked around the decks or lay on our bunks. After dark some of the airmen went down the gangway and spoke to the guard. He explained that he had orders not to let anyone past but, if they climbed over before they reached him, he would look the other way. The few that did get ashore were treated to drinks but were unable to get into the city centre without a taxi so they decided not to bother.

The Queen Mary set sail after three long days giving us a look at the Statue of Liberty as we headed for the open sea. Looking back, the skyline couldn’t possibly be mistaken for anywhere else in the world. The ship was very stable as we ploughed into the rough seas. We were well into November by now with grey skies and the weather quite chilly. We were all longing to reach Southampton; it seemed a lifetime since the war in the Far East had ended on August 15th, now three months ago.

Friday, 4 November 2011

26: Adventurous Journey Home – Part 6.

Up early next morning, kit bags packed, we were off down to the docks to board a ship for a two and a half hour voyage to Vancouver. My emotions were rather mixed. I desperately wanted to go home but felt sad at leaving the people who had been so kind and generous, helping us ease our way back into society.

We arrived in Vancouver about three hours later and disembarked in two separate groups. One group to travel on Canadian Pacific Railways and the other on Canadian National Railways; I was to board the latter. After a short walk each group were settled in their respective trains, which were to travel, by different routes across Canada to our destination, New York in the United States of America. Our train was the largest I had ever seen with twenty-two coaches pulled by two locomotives. Our coach was comfortably warm with double-glazed windows and two settee type seats facing each other with two of us to each settee. There was also a pull down bunk above the window that formed part of the roof by day.

During the evening, whilst we were at dinner, the steward unlocked the pull down bunk and made that and the settees into beds ready for us to retire. I had the bunk. I felt a surge of excitement as we pulled away from Vancouver. As we left we could see the Rocky Mountains and soon we would pass through them. Vancouver was a surprisingly large city with lots of small towns and suburbs. But in no time it seemed we were in the mountains running along tracks cut into the mountainside with our speed decreasing as the train started to climb the steep gradients. As I watched from my coach window, which was near the front of the train, I could look back along the whole train, which by now had acquired two more locomotives. We now had two engines at each end of the train which I could see winding itself gracefully around the curves of the mountain with columns of black smoke and steam rising straight up from the locomotive’s funnels. The scenery was breathtaking, with snowy mountains, fir trees and riverbanks along which the track sometimes ran.

At the end of our coach there were washing facilities, toilets and showers. After dinner which was served in the dining coach, we sat on our beds chatting for a while before turning in. The rhythm of the train soon rocked us to sleep although we were half wakened occasionally by the unfamiliar sound of the train whistle. In the morning we found that we had passed through Calgary during the night. The steward told us that we would shortly be stopping at a town called Medicine Hat for a change of driver and fireman and to allow the train to refuel. There would, he said, be a further five stops along the way where we would be able to dismount for an hour to stretch our legs and have a look around. We would be alerted to return on board by the train’s whistle and bells which would sound at intervals ten minutes before the train was due to depart.

There was snow on the ground as we chuffed into Medicine Hat, the train bell ringing just like a small church bell. It was a small station without a platform. As the coach door opened, the metal floor hinged up revealing steps down to the trackside. I had donned my hat, greatcoat and gloves to face the weather but my first breath of air told me where my lungs began and ended. It was freezing with snow crunching underfoot. I decided to have a look round the nearest locomotive and noticed that the Company’s name had been removed from the coaches and had been replaced by a sign saying ‘Armed Forces Sleeper’. On the locomotive’s tender I read waster capacity 6000 gallons, coal 16 tons; an enormous amount I thought. I was told later that they also used 600 gallons of oil, which was sprayed into the furnace with the coal, the coal was fed into an opening in the tender floor, crushed in a worm drive then blown into the furnace under pressure with the oil.

Outside the station was a large log building with general store emblazoned across it’s front; some of us decided to go inside. A large iron barrel stove stood in the centre of the room, the remainder of the store being packed to capacity with everything imaginable, all one needs in this frozen climate. I’d never seen so many commodities in one place and could have browsed for hours. Instead, I thought I would explore some of the town, walking down a couple of side streets. There were no other shops in sight, the general store obviously being the main supplier to the local populace. The only inhabitant I encountered were some men wearing hats and earmuffs, lumber jackets and thick trousers and strapped knee length boots. It was a visual geography lesson for me but I decided I needed to get back on the train to enjoy its cosy warmth.

Next stop Moose Jaw; a similar journey, similar town except for the weather which was horizontal snow and freezing wind. I wasted little time in hopping back on the train. The scenery was also changing as we journeyed on with the countryside becoming flatter. We then reached the prairies, the wide-open spaces, which took a day and a half to cross. At one of the stops some English girls, who had met and married Canadians, were waiting to meet the train. They all talked of the loneliness, with no neighbours nearby. Three of them were so desperate they asked if they could join the train and travel home with us. I must say I had some sympathy with them because I was desperate to get home and could hardly wait for the journey to end.

The view from the train was just mile after mile of grassland with bushes here and there, of course this was November and the wheat and cereals must have been harvested, the occasional farm scattered the horizon, I felt that to live such a lonely life with no near neighbours and not another human being in sight would be hard to bear unless born into this vast lonely world. We did not stop at any of the large cities having pas Winnipeg about half way through our journey and now as we neared the end sped past Ottawa and Toronoto.