Remembering the Pagham man who survived the Death Railway
This story of survival, and the horrors a Pagham man had to live through on the infamous Death Railway, is being told to mark the 75th anniversary of VJ Day, Victory over Japan in the Second World War.
William Henry Hall was a brave man, a hero, and his daughter, Chris Beer has pieced together the tiny pieces of information she could glean from him, information from her mother and his military records to write an account of his years as a Japanese prisoner of war.
The horrors endured in the camps have been well documented and this led to survivors being offered compensation in the early 21st century but it came too late for William, who died in January 2001, aged 80.
Chris said: “You can’t imagine how these poor, sick, starving men must have felt, being worked and sometimes beaten to death in the most barbaric of ways.
“Dad came from Croydon and never had been out of the district, let alone be in the throws of World War Two, so as a young soldier of 20 years old, I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be going on a ship heading for the Middle East.”
William was enlisted in the Royal Artillery in November 1940 at the age of 19 and assigned to 135th (Hertfordshire Yeomanry) Field Regiment after training.
The following winter, he was shipped to the Middle East on an American ship, the USS Mount Vernon. America was not yet in the war but during the voyage, Pearl Harbour was attacked and everything changed.
According to records, William was lost in Malaya from January 12, 1942, and a month later, on February 15, he was captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore.
Aged 22, he was forced to work on the Siam–Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway because more than 100,000 men died during its construction.
Chris said: “He became enslaved to work on the railway up through the jungle, where his living hell began.
“For 3.6 years, he was transported in searing heat with virtually no water or any food, crammed into metal cattle trucks for five days with very ill prisoners on board suffering from severe dysentery.
“Dad was part of D Force and sent overland to Wang Pho camp to work on the viaduct, where many lives were lost due to malnutrition and disease.
“Dad was in nine PoW camps, two of which were makeshift hospital camps with virtually no medicines or humane treatment, as the Japanese refused to give the wonderful doctors any means to treat these very sick men.
“They were herded into Selerang Barracks, where the Japanese and Korean guards, who Dad said were far more barbaric, threatened them to sign a paper to say that no one would try to escape - if they did, they were executed by being beheaded in front of all PoWs to teach them a lesson.
“The Japanese got about 16,000 troops into this camp, where normally 900 were billeted there. They had to dig latrines, so disease of dysentery and tropical illness was ripe. Dad told me the Japs had machine guns trained on them and they had to stand and sleep in the searing heat for four days until they agreed to sign.”
William became ill with malnutrition, like so many others, as they were fed only a handful of rice. He also contracted malaria, which he suffered until he was given treatment in a tropical disease unit at Roehampton Hospital in the 1960s.
Chris said: “It laid dormant until he died of stomach cancer, which wasn’t surprising really, knowing about the effects from this tropical worm.
“Here, he also had plastic surgery on his leg ulcer, which he got from being beaten by the guards with bamboo.”
Chris will be forever grateful to the brave Thai shopkeeper who was mayor of Kanchanaburi and sneaked in food and medicines, undoubtedly saving a lot of lives.
She said: “My Dad told me that for every sleeper laid, a prisoner died. Dad was one of the lucky ones, in his words, being so very sick, to be flown out of the jungle in a Dakota plane to a hospital in Rangoon.
“Later on in years, he told me he would never get over seeing the decapitated heads stuck on bamboo spikes along the route they were marched to work in perilous conditions to build this infamous railway.
“He used to hear the screams and cries from other camps, where women and children were held, too.”
William married Irene in 1947 and they had two daughters, Chris and Lorraine. Like many ex-prisoners, he was plagued by nightmares of his time in the camps, as well as ongoing health problems. He returned to Thailand in 1987 with members of the London Far East Prisoners Of War group and Chris said this enabled him to ‘bury a few ghosts’.