A Story of a Merchant Seaman 1942-45
by former British Merchant Seaman Lou Barron (92yrs), now residing in New Zealand.
Recently Lou wrote to Carol Cooper and told her,“ "I have just found this site (COFEPOW) while I was trying to find out some information about prisoners of war under the Japanese in Singapore of which I was one”. He wrote that he left Singapore in February 1942 and arrived back in the UK in the April. Carol then asked how he had become a Far East POW? He wrote as he remembered the events. Lou’s story follows below:
I was a seaman aboard SS Duchess of Bedford. We arrived and disembarked in Singapore on the 29th January 1942 where the Indian troops were disembarked. After, we were told to get the ship cleaned up as we were taking on board 2,500 women and children. The Japanese bombed many of the ships in the wharf, lucky for us we did not get hit, but we received a few shocks.
As the passengers started to embark we tried to help them, it was very sorrowful for them as they were leaving their husbands and fathers behind and for some, it was the last they would see them. Things were in a bit of a flap for a while, but we got away OK.
On the 2nd of February 1942 we sailed from Singapore to Java. The Japs dropped a few bombs but again we were lucky. Little did I think at that time, that I would soon be back in Singapore under very different circumstances.
We arrived at Java safely, picking up some other people, and after a day or so we set off for Colombo. We felt sorry for those women and children who did not have cabins and having to sleep in the troop sections. It was very hot and sticky and there was very little privacy so we, the crew, tried to make things as easy as possible and would take drinks and sweets for them. They would go on deck whenever it was possible and we got to know some of them fairly well.
I remember a family of Mrs Hogg and her daughters and I think her husband was a Sergeant in the Manchester Regiment. We played games and found other ways to help because it was no fun for them. We arrived at Colombo OK and had a few days there. I think they went ashore for a while until we set sail for Durban, South Africa. Some people stayed behind in Durban which made things a bit easy for the rest of the women and children. After we left Durban I think we called into Cape Town, but were only there for a short while. We then left Cape Town for the UK. We still had to go through the danger area of the voyage so we increased speed and had lookouts everywhere because it was here the German submarines were operating. We still tried to keep our passengers entertained.
The weather became cooler as we sailed further north and the seas got a little bit rougher as we neared the UK and we sailed into the Mersey about the middle of April. I was not to know I would be going back to Singapore later that year.
After we arrived in Liverpool I had shore leave and I teamed up with my old schoolmate, who was also a very young seaman. We always said that we would like to sail on the same ship together so we both got a job on a ship called the Gloucester Castle as ordinary seamen. It was a very old ship and had seen service in the First World War. We sailed from Birkenhead on the 21st of June 1942, met a convoy of about 35 ships, just north of Belfast and set off for South Africa.
Just, as we were off to Freetown, Africa, the convoy broke up and we sailed on alone. It was nice warm weather but little did we know what lay ahead. On the 15th July on a pitch black night we were attacked by a German Raider who savagely set the ship on fire, using machine guns, torpedoes and big guns. It was a massacre. Out of 152 people only 51 survived. We were picked up by the Germans, they had guns and lined us up on deck and asked if anybody was wounded. I had a wound in my right hand and the next thing they put a blindfold on me and took me away. Boy was I scared. They took me to their hospital, took off the blindfold and one of the Jerry’s gave me a cigarette and a mug of soup. Then a guy came and looked at my hand, it was very puffed up but he said I would be OK then he stuck a needle in my arm that was all I can remember.
I must say we were not treated too bad by the Germans. The raider sank another three ships whilst we were aboard. It was a bit nerve racking hearing the guns go off and they picked up more survivors. I think we were aboard the raider for about two weeks, until we were transferred to their supply ship, a tanker. It was to be a big change from the raider and it was not very pleasant as they stuck us down the bottom of the hold. I think we numbered about 260. They gave us a mattress, and a not very clean blanket. The food was not very good and when we tried to sleep, the rats would run all over us. I could say a lot more about our time on that ship but that is another story. We were aboard that ship for about 8 weeks and told us they were taking us to Singapore.
I had lost my school mate when he went down with the ship, but only being a young guy, a couple of older guys looked after me. When we landed in Singapore the Japs would only take 50 of us. Together with the couple of older guys, I was picked to go. We said goodbye to the other guys who was going to Japan, then the Japs loaded us into a couple of trucks and off we went.
They took us to ‘Seletar’, the ex-Naval base and did not trouble us at all but that was to change. We got off the trucks and they lined us up. A Jap officer got onto a stage and in very good English gave us a talk that we were to be under the Japanese Navy and if we did not obey them we would be punished. And if we tried to escape we would be executed! They then put us aboard an ex Chinese river boat called the ‘Tun Wo’ and six Japanese sailors. The idea was for us to get this ship into working order. They did not seem too bad to start with, but all we had to eat was one small bag of rice full of weevils and a bag of split peas. They said we could catch fish. They gave us a couple of fishing lines but there are not many fish in the Johor Straits. They used to line us up on the top deck for ‘Tenko’ role call as they hoisted up the Japanese flag and we had to bow down to it. One of the Japanese could speak a bit of English so we asked him if we could have more to eat. The next day at Tenko he said we had insulted the Japanese by asking for more food and we had to be punished. They lined us up and one of the Japs had a rope, we had to step forward with our hands raised and he then gave each of us three smacks across the rump. That’s when we knew what they could be like.
We were to spend a few months on this ship, but we did get some more rice - how I hate that stuff; it was third grade rice and we also got a few veggies. We got to meet a lot of other POWs, some from ‘Repulse’ and some from ‘The Prince of Wales’. We used to take turns each rowing the Japs ashore. One of the Japs was a bit older than the others, his name was Nonaka, I think that’s how it was spelt, but he was not too bad and he used to give me a cigarette. Sometimes he wanted me to teach him how to speak English, so I taught him some words - that was to save me getting a few hidings. I taught him a lot of swear words but it was to be a short lesson as they shifted us to a place called ‘Loyang’, it was to be a better living place but it did not get us away from the Japs.
Loyang was an ex Royal Navy base and there was a jetty that the Japs used for their different jobs for the Japanese Navy and they wanted us to do some work helping them. We refused. They said no work, no food, so we worked on a go slow. There were a number of barracks and we were in one of them and with us we had a larger number of POWs. We had a guy who had been a rubber plantation manager who could speak Japanese pretty good. The other barracks was full of Jap sailors, they used to give us a bit of a hard time when they came back from Singapore drunk, one of their tricks was to line us up into two lines facing one another and we had to hit the one in front of you, if they thought you were not hitting enough they would come along and hit you.
Loyang was not too bad, as we could get showers and there was a bit of wild food around. There was a big swamp not far away and one day we chased a big lizard down the monsoon drain, they are pretty big drains and we caught it. One of the guys said let’s eat it, it was just like chicken. We also had snails on the menu and other things. Some of the grass was OK. The only thing was the Japs got a great delight in making us do things in front of the native people. It was to be our home until about October 1944 then they shifted us to ‘Changi’ Jail and that was when things got worse.
We were put into Block ‘C’ Floor 3, it was mostly Merchant Seamen, Royal Navy and a few Air Force guys in there. We were six in a cell, the place was very crowded, the hygiene was nil. The rice was cut down but when we went out on working parties we tried as much as possible to get some form of food and black market was all on the go, but if you got caught it was not very nice. We did manage to get some things with the help of the local people. They were very good to us and they suffered very badly, the Japs gave them a terrible time. I did not think the Japs could be so cruel, but I would like to say that there were a lot more POWs worse off than us.
We saw the guys that came back from the railway and they looked terrible. The Japs had started to build an Airstrip, where the modern airport is now. In those days it was mostly swamp country, we had to work 12 hours a day, the beatings increased and things did not look so good. Malnutrition was starting to take effect and most of us had some illness, beri- beri, dengue fever, malaria, dysentery plus a lot of skin complaints. We used to wear what the Japs called a ‘fundoshit’ a linen ‘G’ string but it was good in the very hot and sticky weather. The death rate was getting higher all the time and it was touch and go for some of the POWs.
We were getting short on rice and the Japs were getting even nastier, we had to salute the Jap guards, but tried to keep our spirits up by singing as we marched out to the strip. Matters were getting very serious, American bombers started to come over and we knew that things were turning against the Japs. We knew there were secret radios in the jail but we heard so many rumours we called it ‘bore- hole news’ after the toilets that were dug in the yard of the jail.
We badly needed some medical supplies to help the lack of hygiene as we had body lice and other things wrong that I cannot mention. We had nick names for most of the Japs like ‘the ice cream man’, ‘the bamboo man’, ‘the trumpet player’ and a lot more. The Japs must have known that the British were going to invade Malaya and Singapore they then had us digging tunnels and trenches getting ready for the invasion. On one of the working party that I was on, there were six of us digging a tunnel so we would go as slow as possible, but the Japs would scream out ‘ speedo speedo’, then they would take over to show us how fast we should go. It was the only time we could have a rest but one time it did not go to our way, the head Jap took to us with his bamboo stick and laid into us then the other Japs to also have a go. This would have been about a week before the Americans dropped the atom bomb. But we did not know it then, it was to be a bit later on before we learnt about it.
We knew things were getting pretty hot for the Japs on the last working party, although we did not know it was to be the last one. About midday the guards told us we were to go back to the jail but it still did not come to our minds that the war was over. A couple of days after, planes flew over and dropped leaflets telling us to stay where we were as help was on the way. Then next the British dropped paratroopers not far from the jail. This was to be our happy day. Then they dropped medical teams. All the Japs had disappeared, then in the next few days things got really busy as more of our people started to arrive. Lorries were sent to the jail from Navy Warship HMS Sussex, and they picked a few of us up and told us they were taking us to their ship. I was lucky to get in that lot, so was one of the older guys, Tommy Davies, who had lost some of his eye sight.
The medical people gave us a going over, they had rigged up showers and sprayed us with some stuff, I don’t know what it was. Then they weighed us I was just over 6 stone. They then graded us into different lots and six of us merchant seamen were to be on the first ship home. This was about two weeks after the big bomb.
When we arrived at the wharf, HMS Sussex was there. The sailors took us aboard the ‘SS Monawai’’ and they could not do enough for us. They took our arms and took us down to the mess deck. They said they were going to give us a good feed but the first thing I saw was a big loaf of bread and a tin of plum jam. I said to Tommy about it and he replied let’s get into it. It was to be the first bread we had in over 3 years, boy was it good. Then the sailors brought in eggs and chips, but our stomachs couldn’t take it and it was to be awhile before we could eat a big meal. The Navy guys gave us shorts and shirts and also a lot of other things we also had a beer. It was to be the best voyage I have ever taken, they really looked after us and it took 29 days to reach the UK.
As we sailed up the river Mersey and saw the 'Liver Birds', tears come to our eyes. There where crowds of people and flags flying, bands playing. I was dying to get home as we had been posted as 'dead'. My mother told me this when I got home. The Red Cross people took me home and I can still remember the street with a banner saying “Welcome Home Lou”. There was not a soul in sight as I got out of the car but the next thing I was mobbed then my father came out, then my mother, all of us were crying and that was it, I was home!
I went back to sea after I had been home after the war and sailed on a couple of ships. I was very restless and I could not settle down. In 1947 a ship I was on came to New Zealand and I loved it, but I still felt I was not happy. Then after a while I met this girl and that got to me. We have been married 63 years and blessed with a loving family. Since I have been retired my wife and I have done a lot travelling having visited the UK five times as we have a daughter who lives there, but I still love New Zealand.