The prisoner of war who kept a book of the dead

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When Prince Philip attended the funeral of Japanese Emperor Hirohito in January 1989, many former prisoners of war found old wounds re-opened.

During World War Two, around 300,000 civilians and allied military personnel were held prisoner by the Japanese and, by the time the war was over, a total of more than 30,000 POWs had died from starvation, diseases, and mistreatment within and outside of the Japanese mainland.*

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As such, the Duke’s attendance at the funeral of the man who led the Japanese throughout the war was seen by some as a slap in the face to the men and women who had suffered and died.

The feelings were compounded by the fact no one from the royal family had attended a memorial service for the people who died in the bombing of a passenger plane over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Bill Jones, of Langley Green, endured four brutalising years as a prisoner of war and, as Prince Philip prepared to attend the funeral – where he pointedly did not bow before the coffin – he shared his story with the Crawley Observer.

The powerful report started: “Bill Jones holds the diary he took to hell and back. Its tattered sepia pages are testimony to the crimes of animal barbarity perpetrated on starved, broken men by their Japanese captors during the last war.

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“Bill kept a toll of those who died deprived of dignity by torture, starvation and disease. He knew his name would join the neat columns of the dead if it was discovered by the guards.”

Bill was 68 when his story appeared in the Observer. He said he was so weak in the last few days of incarceration he could not write of the horrors he believed the world quickly and conveniently forgot.

He said: “How can I forgive after what they did?”

The report continued: “At the end of the war all he had to show for four brutalising years was a brass medal, £76 compensation and recurring nightmares. Soldiers who die slowly from beri beri and ulcers in enemy camps win no hero medals.

“Yet, in Bill’s eyes, the man responsible for the suffering is today exonerated from blame. The name Hirohito wells anger, hate and remorse in his heart.”

Bill, who lived in Denchers Plat, recalled how, on his first day in captivity, a guard killed a dog which had the temerity to bark during a ceremony to venerate Hirohito – who was seen as the descendant of gods.

One-in-five of his fellow prisoners went on to die before the prisoner of war camps were liberated at the end of the war.

The report continued: “They were starved, beaten, shot and worked to exhaustion on pointless, demoralising schemes. Men who collapsed from hunger and fatigue were beaten where they lay by guards who delighted in sadistic punishments.”

Bill admitted there were times all he wanted to do was die – he saw it as his only way out.

He said: “I remember lying down once to die. My mates would not let me do it and they kept picking me up. It was so bad.

“They made us live in a hell. They were animals. I was so hungry I ate rats. I was just over seven stones, five stones less than I was when I was taken.

“When someone was so badly beaten that they could not have their rice, we would ask them for it. That is what it was like. It was survival.

“There was no such thing as medical supplies after the first few years. Everyone had problems with ulcers on their legs. Some had nothing to take them out with so they were scraped out with spoons. They weren’t put out or anything – they were totally conscious.”

The final days before liberation proved to be just as dangerous as all that came before.

With the camps not marked on maps, the prisoners found themselves being bombed and shot at by their own aircraft.

Bill was shot at as he worked in a rice field and several POWs were killed by a food package which was dropped by American forces.

And, while thoughts of revenge against their captors were always in the minds of the prisoners, they were simply too weak to act on them.

The report added: “But the most sickening episode of all was when they were told the war was over.

“They were lined up by the commandant and were forced to listen to, and then sign, a statement which said they had been treated humanely.”

Bill, who clearly had more strength left than he had feared, refused to sign and just walked back to his hut.

The report concluded: “A few days before the Americans arrived, they were moved to a nearby school and the more emaciated were fed. Bill said: ‘They tried to cover up everything’. The bedraggled band of survivors were taken to the coast by the US Marines and put on a waiting aircraft carrier.”

Bill said: “They put food in front of us when we got on board. We tried to eat but we couldn’t. Anyone who did ended up in agony. Our stomachs could not take anything.

“Tell me, could you forgive anyone for that?”

Source: Forces War Records

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