The only rank-and-file British prisoner incarcerated in the infamous Sandakan prisoner-of-war camp to survive World War II, Les Mockridge has died in England at 81.
Born in Taunton, Somerset, Leading Aircraftsman Leslie Henry George Mockridge lived with his family in the village of Trull. In February, 1939, before the outbreak of hostilities in Europe, Mockridge joined the Royal Air Force.
In June, 1941, he was posted to overseas duty and arrived at Kuala Lumpur in Malaya (now Malaysia) the following August. Four months later Japanese forces attacked Malaya, forcing the Allies into a fighting retreat.
Shortly before Singapore fell on February 15, 1942, Mockridge and a large number of RAF personnel were evacuated to Java, only to be taken prisoner on March 8, following the collapse of the Dutch East Indies. After spending six months in various Javanese PoW camps, Mockridge and several hundred British prisoners were transferred to Singapore.
In early October he was one of a party of more than 800 PoWs shipped to Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) in British North Borneo (now Sabah), to provide slave labor to build an airstrip. Malaria caused an unacceptably high death toll and in April, 1943, the Japanese transferred the remaining prisoners to Sandakan, on Sabah's east coast, where 1500 Australians PoWs were already at work on airfield construction.
The various groups were kept stricfly segregated, but the Australians, who had built a radio under the leadership of Captain Lionel Matthews, managed to pass news items to their British counterparts.
But in July, 1943, the Australians and their flourishing camp underground movement were betrayed, resulting in the arrest of Matthews and a number of other Australians, and the removal of almost all British and Australian officers to the main PoW camp at Kuching, Sarawak.
In October, isolated and desperate for news, the British other ranks drew straws to decide who should fake an illness serious enough to warrant medical treatment at the Sandakan town hospital.
Mockridge drew the short straw. By avoiding a bowel evacuation for some days, he developed severe abdominal pains, resulting in his admission to hospital. The Japanese medical officer diagnosed appendicitis and removed Mockridge's perfectiy healthy appendix, under local anaesthetic.
Although the operation was successful, Mockridge and his nursing orderly, Aircraftsman Thomas Wilson, were not permitted to return to the camp. Aware that they had been "contaminated" by coming into contact with some of the Australians arrested for taking part in the underground movement, the Japanese ordered their removal to Kuching, where the camp administration, fearfiil of spreading the "contamination", placed them in the officers' compound.
Mockridge throughout his life expressed his admiration for the Australian PoWs with whom he came in contact, particularly Lionel Matthews, with whom he shared a passion for scouting.
He described Matthews, who was executed by firing squad at Kuching in March, 1944, as "the bravest man I ever knew". Of the 824 British PoWs sent from Singapore to Jesselton and Sandakan, only 31, all of whom had been transferred to Kuching, were alive at the war's end.
Thirty were officers; the sole other-ranks survivor was Mockridge. Tom Wilson had died on August 14th, 1945, the day before Japan surrendered.
All British prisoners incarcerated at Sandakan perished. Of Sandakan's 1793 Australian prisoners, only six survived by escaping.
Liberated from the Kuching camp by the Australian 9th Division on September 8th, 1945, Mockridge returned to England, arriving at Southampton on Armistice Day. He arrived home against the background of a jubilant peal of church bells the entire population of his village turned out to celebrate his safe return.
In the last few years of his life, Mockridge suffered from motor neurone disease but he dealt with this debilitating illness with the same fortitude and cheerful disposition that carried him through the dark days of his imprisonment.
The psychological scars of his captivity and the memories of those whom he had left behind remained with him until his death, five weeks short of his 82nd birthday.
He leaves a widow, Betty and two children
Lynette Ramsay Silver is the official historian, 8th Australian Division Association and author of Sandakan - AConspiracy of Silence.