A Fate Worse than Death

Back to the index and start of 'Sailors Tales'


John Dykes now begins to recall his 31/2 years of forced labour under the barbaric Japanese.


On docking in Singapore, I thought we'd be making our way to the city itself, as this was a fate that befell a lot of my fellow prisoners, as in a matter of an hour or so small launches came alongside some of the boats and took the lads ashore. As for Fred and myself we stayed on our ship, we weren't told our destination, and although the naval guards seemed a bit more relaxed than their army counterparts, none of us were going to risk a beating by trying to find out our next port of call.

After a short while the familiar outlines of Selitar Naval base loomed on the horizon and I soon realised we were going to dock there, unbeknownst at the time this was to be our last sea journey for a very long period. Within minutes they literally bundled us off the ship and no sooner had we landed than they put us straight to work. By now I'd realised it was hopeless to complain and I valued my life too much to ask for a short rest before starting my duties. Initially the guards seemed to leave us alone and our first task was to repair the air raid shelters that'd been damaged during the battle for the island. Ironically you may remember that the number issued to me by the Japs was 21 and this was also the number of men in our group. 

The first thing that started to get to all of us was the lack of food, they made us work for an unbelievable number of hours each day and the only provisions we were issued with was a small amount of rice. It takes little imagination to realise how quickly this would soon wear all of us down. If you add the fact that we started to catch all types of illnesses tallied with the constant injuries from the beatings the guards had started to inflict on anyone for no apparent reason. The picture that appears is of a group of men living in terrifying fear for every single moment of every day. You may say, why not try and escape?  We did think of this on numerous occasions, but escape to what? The Japanese Empire was expanding by the day; we knew this because every time they scored another success, the guards would gleefully inform us. Therefore it's obvious that they were conquering areas faster than we could have walked across them. We literally had nowhere to run to. And I have to add that after being put through this purgatory for several months it became a way of life. 

By now some of the lads had already died, but the Japs didn't care a toss for them, they treated their deaths in the same way, as we'd swat a fly. Their only concern was to have their work quotas met and if this meant we were going to die in the process, then so be it. They had thousands more captured prisoners who could be brought into replace those that had died; we were the cheapest and most convenient form of labour available to them and they were going to make sure we gave our last ounce of strength to their cause. Whenever they became bored, with their surroundings the odd act of brutality would pass the afternoon for them and I have to admit that I couldn't honestly see a way out for any of us.

One day we were told to go to the harbour, the old Minesweeper we'd sailed in on was still tied up, and through a mixture of sign language, accompanied by pushing and punching we got the message they wanted her steamed up ready to sail. No one had any idea what was truly happening as once under way we were kept under cover. The heat was appalling and in our general condition of health this journey drained us even further. Although I never knew at the time, we were going up the coast of Malaya, our final destination being to work on the most infamous of places that existed during the war with Japan, the Burma Railway. Some of the experiences I went through during this part of my young life, I'd still rather not discuss. Suffice to say it was one of the hardest times of my captivity and I will do my best in trying to give the reader a small insight into what we went through.


First of all we went to a series of small camps, situated in dense areas of jungle; our job being that of a forward clearing team. As such the main tasks we performed were to firstly clear the proposed route of the railway and then lay down the initial foundations for later work parties to lay the tracks on. It was sheer hell and the guards were the most ferocious we'd so far encountered. 

I'd already had a couple of bouts of Malaria and it was to become a frequent visitor to me for the whole of my time in captivity, eventually I contracted this terrible disease 17 times before being released. Our first clearance duties lasted for several months and it has to be remembered that we carried out this work with the most basic tools available. If you didn't have a shovel or similar then you'd have to use your bare hands, for if a guard saw you holding back, your reward would be a rifle butt full in your face or sometimes even worse. We worked with some captured army lads and the death rate amount our group was starting to mount alarmingly, eventually the Japanese relented to a degree and sent us back to a large camp, I think it was called Kamburie. Whilst here we were at least given some time to try and patch ourselves up, this was fortunate as my health was now at its lowest point, I'd caught Amoebic Dysentery as well as Beriberi. If it hadn't been for the loyalty and help offered by Fred I'd never have pulled through. 

However, It wasn't long till the Japs had us moving out again and this was to be the general run of things for many months to come. Mind you, we did have one light-hearted moment during this time at the expense of a Jap guard in charge of the men who kept the pressure on our team. He thought he was a real important bastard, but we found things to laugh at him over and one of these points still stays with me. He'd constantly walk up and down our line whilst we worked, always dressed in a white cotton jacket with a white hat, to us he looked like an ice cream salesman, so we christened him Mr Whippy. Because he had no idea what was meant by the terminology all the lads began openly greeting him with this comment whenever they saw him; he loved it and seemed to take our nickname as some kind of show of respect. Every day it was 'hello Mr Whippy, okay Mr Whippy.' And all the time a big smile came on the bastard's face whenever he heard the words. 

However, our joke eventually backfired thanks to a breed of men who, though serving the Japs, were even more barbaric on occasions than our captors. A Korean guard overheard our comments one-day and wasted no time in telling him that he was the brunt of our joke. He went crazy, hitting out at any men in sight for a good 10 minutes. It was carnage as lads fell to the ground injured by his stick, eventually he stopped and we picked ourselves up, and tried to carry out our work although most of us were in a trance like state. 

A memory of my time on the Railway that's still vivid to this day happened when we had gone to a small camp after another exhausting time in the jungle. A Jap guard had a newspaper and he was having a great time in showing the contents of it to Fred and myself. There for all to see was a photograph of our old ships under attack from the Jap planes that eventually sank us. I can still remember the huge arc Repulse was steaming in; he thought this was a great joke and laughed at our expense for some time after. For myself (and I think it was the same for Fred), all it did was to bring back memories I had of my old ship and the mates I'd lost. For since being taken into captivity my only thoughts had been of survival, that was certainly a very black day for both of us.

Our time on the Railway finally drew to a close; as usual we had no idea where we'd be going, but the difference now was, we no longer cared. Even death couldn't be any worse than the way we'd lived for the last 12 months. At the time of our relocation we'd have felt in a better frame of mind if true reason for our transportation had been known, but this was impossibility. None of us would even dare think that the allies had started to turn the tide of war. Admittedly, you'd hear the odd rumour to this effect, but I tried not to listen as I usually found that strong and bitter disappointments would normally follow. But the actual reason for our move was, the Japs were sending more troops from guard duties to replace the massive losses they were sustaining in the war in Burma, so they couldn't afford the manpower to run so many smaller camps. Therefore, we were on our way back to Singapore as it would be easier for them to contain us if we were in larger groups, instead of being spread out in smaller detachments throughout Malaya. We ended up at a place called Loi Yang, a naval storage yard on the Straits of Johore. The work we carried out here was perhaps the most physically exhausting I ever undertook, as we had to load huge Japanese barges with underwater electrical cable; the procedure for this was as follows.

The cable would arrive by sea onboard Jap merchant ships, wound onto huge wooden drums, we'd have to pull it off the drums by hand and pack it onto barges. This procedure may sound relatively straightforward, but I guarantee this wasn't the case. The first thing that has to be remembered is we'd been in captivity for almost 2 years and our body weight had dropped to less than half of what it was before our capture. Add to this the severe malnutrition and different diseases we'd constantly be fighting and you get a clearer picture of our terrible physical condition. Secondly the cable itself had a very hard texture to it, I suppose this would give it some protection whilst underwater. The effect this had on our hands was to literally tear our palms to pieces, as we had no gloves or any other forms of protection. Some days our hands would get cut to ribbons for the whole of the 12-14 hours we'd be working, and it was also impossible to have any respite whatsoever from the wrath of the guards as they'd be breathing down our necks all day. Even on the railway you could sometimes keep out of the way for a few minutes; at Loi Yang this was impossible. 

The worst beatings we received whilst doing this work was when groups of fresh young Japanese naval recruits would come to the docks to assist us in our work and I use this phrase (assist) in the broadest sense of the meaning. The recruits would pull the cable off of one ship and we off another and it would become a one sided race. It was obvious they'd win for reasons that are clear to anyone, but the guards would then have their excuse for administering the most fearsome beatings any of us had previously experienced. They told us we must keep up,
'they can do it, so you will do it too'. It was a nightmare and we'd cringe whenever the recruits came onto the jetty. I don't know how I survived, as some days it was almost impossible to eat the pest-ridden rice we were given, my hands being so swollen and painful, I could hardly pick anything up. The regime persisted with absolutely no let up for months and we did the same job every day without fail; It was truly terrible and appeared in some ways to take more out of me than the Railway had previously done. 

Time was now moving on and it was obvious to me that the war must at least be at some kind of stalemate as the guards couldn't be heard taunting us as they'd previously done for the first 2 years of the war. We also began to notice fewer and fewer guards on duty as the weeks went by. It was now getting to a point where they were becoming very short handed, although this had the effect of making the ones left behind even more brutal. 

One day the message came through that we were being moving to Changi jail, It was now to be filled with just military personnel, as the civilians had been moved to other camps. After months of sheer hell at Loi Yang we were off to our final destination. Some lads seemed to be quite happy over this, as the Japs could lie all they wanted about the war, but we felt it was going the way of the allies. However, quite a few of us realised a more sinister side to our move, one that would haunt me for my entire duration in this hellhole. This being, if the allies landed on Singapore and the Japs weren't for surrendering they'd have all the prisoners in one confined area and should the need arise it would take a matter of seconds to lay waste to every last one of us. I had no doubts at all that they'd do this without pausing to draw breath. 

On arrival at Changi, Fred and myself made sure we billeted together, although maybe the use of that word for the cell we slept in for the next 18 months is incorrect. As it was in no way comparable with any billet I had during my time in the forces. The cell was originally designed for one person, but we had to share it with two other men, both Marines, one off the Prince of Wales and the other from the barracks in Singapore; thankfully they fitted in well with us and the remainder of our original group of 21. There was only one bed and again its a misconception to call it this, as it comprised of a row of bricks cemented to the floor, with a raised piece of concrete on one end that was to supposed to resemble a pillow. We tossed up to see who'd have this first class accommodation and Fred won. This was to be his berth for the rest of our time in captivity.

As far as toilet facilities went we did have a hole in the floor, but you couldn't use it as the waste wouldn't flush away and this would only encourage even more flies and nuisance insects into the cell. I think the most distressing problem with sleeping on the floor, was that after you'd been dozing for a while you would always get woken up by the bites of the fearsome bugs that lived in the walls and floors. These creatures actually bored into the mortar, only coming at night. The trouble was if you inadvertently covered the entrance to their nest, they'd eat into your flesh whilst trying to come to the surface. This caused all of us even more discomfort as the wounds would always turn septic, thus making it impossible to sleep on the side that had been bitten. In contrast the vast majority of the officers had taken over the Atap huts, situated in the grounds of the jail. They'd chosen to segregate themselves into these areas, and it was one of the many bones of contention I was to have with these men during our time in the jail. 

Our group had stuck together through all the hard times being fortunate to have a man with us whose ingenuity and intelligence saved all our lives on numerous occasions. He was Russian, his family having left their country at the beginning of its Revolution subsequently he'd finally ended up as an engineer in Malaya and once war was declared he joined that country's navy as a reserve. His true name was Siberian Akoff, but we knew him as Sibby. We had to keep his nationality a secret from the guards, as they'd have killed him immediately, for they hated the Russians. I have to say that he was without doubt the most intelligent and resourceful man I ever met and always seemed to keep one step ahead of the Japs. 

The main work we initially carried out was to build the original airport of Singapore; the present day one is actually situated on the same site. This all had to be reclaimed from the sea, and again this was accomplished with the bare minimum of mechanised tools. We had to work on a three-shift system, which consisted of a party that would leave for the airport at first light. The next shift left a few hours later and finally the last shift would set out shortly after these two, but would stay on site until darkness fell. Only the most able bodied men could do this latter shift and surprisingly I never saw many officers going on it. However, this was of no concern to the Japs as all they were interested in were men in the field.

I'm not speaking out of turn when saying that on numerous occasions I saw ordinary servicemen have to leave their sick beds to make the count up to the level the Japs wanted. Also on the same occasions we'd walk past the Atap huts that housed the officers and some, not all, could be seen exercising their self appointed right of sitting in the shade whilst very sick and dying men did their work for them. This same elite of the British forces would also make sure they had their fair share of the food we were issued with. As the Japs had a policy of no work no food, this in effect meant if you were in the sick bay, as far as they were concerned you could die of starvation. The onus to help these men would then fall onto all of us and our ration of rice would be less to give them some chance of survival. 

No one had a problem with this, but we did have a problem with any able-bodied officer who wouldn't carry his weight on work duties whilst still eating his full ration of food. I have to add that this travesty of justice was to happen on numerous occasions, and it's a point I have never forgotten about Changi. I had to think very deeply before bringing this to light, and if people who weren't prisoners of war choose to disbelieve me that's fine. But I am not prone to lying and have felt the need to state this fact, not from malice on my part, but rather in memory of all the poor souls who died because of the callous and uncaring attitude shown by these so-called men. Finally I have to add that certain officers conducted themselves in a fine manner during their internment; and they also found the actions of these men despicable.

After we'd been at Changi for several months the death rate was at the highest point since my capture, disease being even more widespread than before. I'm certain a lot of men started to lose the will to live. This was where my friendship with Fred and also the rest of our group helped to a tremendous degree, as we always pulled each other through the rough patches. It was about this time that we were told to sign a no escape form, I couldn't see a problem with this as there was still nowhere to run to. For god's sake we were on an island that was full to bursting point with Jap troops, we wouldn't have lasted a day on our own and so I signed with no regrets. Some of the lads took one glance at the form and refused to put their names to it. The Japs didn't give it a second thought and before I could blink an eye one of them pointed his rifle and shot three of them dead. 

The food situation had now become chronic as the rations were being constantly cut, our group decided we'd have to find an extra source of food. This would be very dangerous operation, but the alternative would be starvation. The reason for our dire straits was that we'd been fed on a diet of rice, with no food supplements of any kind for almost 12 months. This had robbed our bodies of essential vitamins needed for basic survival, and I think it must have been Sibby who devised a way to obtain some better quality of food. The plan went like this. Say for instance it could be Fred and my self's turn to bring food back, we'd leave in the middle of the night through holes in the perimeter fencing. This was simple enough, as there was hardly any patrols on the edge of the camp. We'd then make our way across the airfield that we hadn't long finished working on and force our way into the storerooms, situated on the actual grounds of the airfield. The inside of these was full of twine, various tools and also bags upon bags of rice, we'd steal whatever had been requested by the third party involved and make our way the 3-4 miles down to Loi Yang. 

Situated near this town were some makeshift huts, adjacent to the fields where our rice was grown, the people who worked the fields lived in these dwellings and were of Chinese origin. At a prearranged point in the rice field was half a 45-gallon oil drum that we'd managed to obtain. It was under some shrubbery and couldn't be seen even if you were right on top of it. Inside of the drum (left by the villagers) would be eggs, sometimes the odd pieces of chicken and basically any type of food that was impossible to obtain in Changi. In return we'd leave the twine, tools or whatever else they requested from us. It was a very worthwhile exercise as the food supplements received from the villagers certainly eased our plight. And without the genuine trust and friendship of these Chinese I'm certain I'd never have pulled through. Thankfully none of us were ever caught during our nightly jaunt and its also a good job that the allies did release us in the end. If this hadn't happened I dread to think of the consequences from the guards when they'd have eventually reached the bags of rice in the middle of the pile that we'd been constantly pilfering from. 

The Japs still gave no let up with anyone and I have no true recollection of the exact date of this occurrence, but it happened when we'd been taken off the airport and put on work duties in the harbour of Singapore. We were working in the same area as a lot of Chinese labourers who always seemed to have an even worse time from the guards than we did. The men who were in charge of us at that time were some of the most brutal I ever saw. All day they kept shouting at us not to talk and even though no one spoke they still kept hitting out with heavy sticks. Mind you our plight was nothing compared to what they had in store for some of the Chinese men in their supervision. 

We had to work late in the evenings as they seemed desperate to get this job finished and on the evening in question it was going dark when we left. From what I'd seen during the day the Chinese had done as much if not more work than we had; this is what I find unbelievable in the actions taken by these sadistic bastards. The following morning we were marched down to the docks and the sight that befell us was to say the least, horrific. At the entrance to the gates were steel poles and on top of these were the heads of some of Chinese who'd been working in the docks the previous day. They were left there for the full duration of our work duties in the harbour and we had to walk past them every morning and evening. We never found out if they had been caught doing some indiscretion, but if they had, they were certainly never given a chance to plead their case. As I recall this act of sheer brutality by the Japs I have to admit that far from being shocked, we more or less accepted it, knowing full-well they couldn't have cared less for the life of any prisoners; at the time it was all you could do to pray you weren't their next victim.

The next few months were full of anticipation, as everyone knew the allies were trouncing the Japs on all fronts. But still no-one knew what to expect and I was deeply worried that our captors could include us in their own suicides, if they had no option, other than to surrender. One day our dreams and wishes came true, but even this wasn't the clear-cut manoeuvre you'd have thought it should have been. The word had gone round the camp that Japan had been bombed very severely on a couple of occasions, although none of us could have imagined exactly what was meant by this message. But on I think, August 15, 1945, our guards who had tortured, abused and made our lives a living hell for 31/2 years picked up their guns and pulled the gates of the jail too. Unbelievably they'd gone en masse into their own barracks, having been ordered to intern themselves. When I think back to my emotions, I recall being both elated and petrified, as none of us knew what would happen next. 

After an hour or so the tension was terrible and Fred said to me
'Come on Dykesy let's go outside.' This could have been a grave mistake on our part as nothing had been officially announced as to what was happening. I'm still not sure how the guards would have reacted if we'd been seen outside of the compound, I certainly couldn't have seen them giving us any mercy even though they'd apparently surrendered; thankfully we didn't see any of them. So if it was true and the war was over; there was only one place to visit, the Chinese camp in Loi Yang, and this is exactly what Fred and myself did. As we approached their huts they were pleased, but not overjoyed to see us, but as we told them of the goings on in Changi they loosened up and began to hug the pair of us. Then we had our first good meal in over 31/2 years and the pair of us shared it in the very best of company, the men and women of that village who kept us alive for all that time. No food since has tasted better. 
We stayed with the villagers for a couple of hours, then said our farewells and headed back to Changi; things still hadn't altered. The guards were still in their barracks and we still couldn't figure out what to do, although a lot of the other lads had done the same as Fred and myself and walked out of the camp to thank others who'd helped them whilst they'd been in captivity. We went back to our cell and sat and waited. It must have been an hour or so later when I looked through the bars in our cell window and saw three parachutists dropping down to the jail. 

The whole place erupted and anyone who could run, did just that to the front gates. I distinctly remember my next comment; and quite a few other lads heard it, as I didn't whisper my words. As we waited for the men to walk through the front entrance I said
"The first one of our lads to walk through these bloody gates I am going to kiss his ass". With that the soldiers came into a tumultuous greeting; one of them walked in our direction. He was obviously very emotional and as he got nearer one of our lads told him of my promise. He laughed and said something like. "Where is he then?". Everyone looked at me, still in fits of laughter so I said. "Are you a bloody scouser?". He replied. "Yes" so I retorted "Well you can bloody forget it then!". He couldn't move, and I thought he was going into convulsions however, after composing himself he came over and almost broke me in two with a hug. 

All of us in this book have spoken of special moments; I myself have several, but this is by far the best one. We all thought this jail was going to be our tomb, but now with one fell swoop we'd been given our lives back, the majority of us were still young lads who'd seen nothing but death and misery for all this time. Now we could prepare ourselves to live again. It turned out that these first troops to come into the jail were supposed to be Medical Staff. I very much doubt it, they looked more like Commandos or similar to me and I could see they were becoming progressively angrier on seeing the condition of some of the lads. It's a shame they weren't given a free reign to administer some reprisals on our behalf to those bastards who were still alive and well in their own barracks. 

It's somewhat strange to remember this point, but when I was first captured the guards that could speak some English would always say
"You British are cowards, Japanese never surrender. They will die first" It's funny but I never heard about any of these bastards committing Hara-kiri when they surrendered. I would have gladly held the knife for any of them. 

The next few days were spent with all the formalities necessary to find out exactly how many of us were left alive in the camp. It was reassuring to know that once your details were on paper, within 24 hours your family back home would be informed. We also had a visit by Lady Mountbatten, I've decried some officers during my story, but this lady showed deep concern for all of us and truly did her utmost to hasten our return to Britain. After a couple of days we were allowed to go onboard the British warship HMS Sussex, the stokers made such a fuss of Fred and myself; we even had our dinner with them in their mess. This brought back memories of our lost ships to the pair of us; sadly we were different men to those that had swum in the South China Sea some years ago. Life had made us harder. The stokers on the Sussex were upset and to some degree shocked to see the amount of food we both ate, they'd given us our favourite meal of bangers and mash, but our stomachs were now so small, we could only manage half a sausage each. 

At one point the authorities tried sending me home before Fred. I was having none of it and told them in no uncertain terms; 'I was staying put till they got a draft for the pair of us'. I'd been at his side for my entire term of captivity and wasn't going to be parted from him at the final hurdle. Eventually we were sent onto a merchant ship named the Almonzora. It was an old tub, but we didn't care; we were on our way back home. 

The journey was to take several weeks and I have one marvellous recollection of it. As mentioned earlier, my time in Changi destroyed a lot of the faith I had in the officer class of our country. But for one officer this didn't apply. I think I'm correct with the location of this incident. It was in Port Tufick and I was in the mess hall when a Lieutenant came in and shouted.
"Is there a Stoker Dykes in here" I piped up "Yes". He came across with a message in his hand. I unfolded it and I still remember the first words although the rest of it is not quite so clear these days. It began: 

"Dear shipmate, I am sorry I cannot be here in person to meet you, but I have to go on fleet manoeuvres with the 8th Cruiser squadron, I sincerely hope you are okay and if any other shipmates are with you from Repulse, can you send them my best wishes". Signed, Rear Admiral Tennant.

I couldn't believe it. He was still the same nature of man I'd served under on Repulse and I never had trouble accepting authority from men such as him. It was the finest honour he could have bestowed on me and I've never forgotten it. We eventually arrived back in Britain, but the ship broke down before it could reach its planned destination of Liverpool, so we ended up in Southampton. After an examination by Naval Doctors we were sent on our separate ways. Fred and myself were never to lose touch up until the day he sadly died. Its an understatement to say he was a good man. Words cannot express the way I felt about him. Only in the circumstances that we endured can you see the true character of a person, Fred's came shining through without a blemish, I will always miss him, for he is irreplaceable. 

On my return home, I had a hectic few weeks, I had a girl friend (now my wife) and we spent a lot of time together. One thing I knew for sure was I had no intentions of returning full time to the Navy I wouldn't be able to take the discipline, so I wrote to the Admiralty informing them of this. But for the time being I kept getting issued with notes from my Doctor to prolong my stay at home. Finally I had to return. It was just after Christmas 1946 when I went to Lime Street Station to check up on train times and low and behold, who did I see doing exactly the same thing? None other than Reg (Slinger) Woods and his wife; it was marvellous to see him fit and well, and to this day we meet monthly at the RNA club in Broad Green Liverpool for the Association meetings. Mind you, I still give him stick over him making me help out with getting O.D. Gallagher onboard the skippers barge when Repulse sunk.

I left the Navy early in 1946, its just as well because I would have had mixed emotions if I'd signed on for a few more years when first of all the Malayan conflict, quickly followed by the Korean war brought the British once more into the fray. My problem would have been dealing with Koreans; the vast majority of our guards whilst in captivity were from that country and in many ways they were worse than the Japs. And in both these conflicts we were fighting one of the only true allies we had in the Far East during the war, the Chinese. The sincerity of people in power always has me bemused.

However, I'll end my story on a good note. You remember a great friend that Fred and myself had during our time in Changi namely Sibby. Well he was from a well-to-do family, but on returning to his homeland he never forgot any of our group and in the late 1950s contacted all the remainder of us and treated everyone to a big reunion in London. He also paid all hotel accommodation and food bills, This proves the old saying 'true friendship never dies'. I hope this allows people to realise just how strong the human spirit can be, especially when it allows you to overcome the atrocities that we witnessed. 

The friends I made in Changi and in particular Fred, were the greatest men I ever met and the sailors whose friendship I had whilst on Repulse were a breed apart (Tommo and Spud). I have no problem dealing with the Japanese airmen who sunk our ships that fateful day of December 10, 1941. It was war and we tried to kill as many of them as possible. In the end they won the battle, if they'd so wished they could have killed countless hundreds more when we were helpless in the water, but they let us be for whatever reasons best known to themselves. 

As for the animals who killed tortured and maimed many of my fellow prisoners of war whilst we were defenceless and at their mercy. I feel nothing, but total contempt. I also hope they all to a man they have had wasted lives, as they weren't fit to walk this planet in the first instance. 
I dedicate my story to all people who were prisoners of the Japanese.
'Ours was a war we could not win'.

dykes96.jpeg (35737 bytes)

John Dykes pictured in St Nicholas Church Liverpool after attending the 1996 Memorial service. He is an irrepressible character and is one of the proudest men I have ever met. Pictured alongside John is
Bernard Doolan, who sadly lost his eldest brother on Repulse.

A note from the webmaster:

Sadly, John Dykes died on 18th April 2002 after an illness.


From the first moments John Dykes spoke of his capture, we are drawn into the feelings of a man confronted with suffering and degradation on an unprecedented scale. As his tale unfolded I feel to some extent, we became accustomed to the conditions those incarcerated in Changi had to endure. By means of comparison I have been fortunate in locating one of the first men to meet these poor souls after their liberation from the infamous jail. His name is Des Francis, at the time he was a Royal Marine Bandsman onboard the Cruiser HMS Sussex. As we sit in the comfort of our homes we should be aware of the fact that the sights Des saw when entering the POW camps in Singapore some 52 yrs ago have never left him. In the final pages of this book he lets the reader into thoughts he has never previously discussed. 

We arrived in Singapore about three days after the surrender of Japan. At the time I'd no idea our band would be playing for any POWs, as it was the normal course of action for us to be forewarned of any concerts we'd be playing whilst in port. On docking I began to hear rumours regarding the physical conditions of men from the liberated camps. Although I'd be lying if I were to say these comments unduly concerned me. I don't mean this in a callous way, but I'd served through an entire World War and all participants had seen death and slaughter on a huge scale; therefore in certain ways I felt impervious to human suffering. 

Later on that first day we received orders that we'd be playing for all the POWs in every camp in Singapore, I think the first concerts were in some of the civilian internment camps. Some of the people were thin and all of them had no real clothes on their backs, but I'd seen worse than this in other parts of the world during the war. I can't honestly remember which night we played Changi, but I should have realised things were different here. As officers from the Sussex warned us very strongly, to not, under any circumstances give the men any chocolate or other sweets as the consumption of such items could quite easily mean death for the men concerned; their digestive systems being unable to cope with such high levels of sugar. I regarded this as just a small precaution, although I soon had my eyes opened beyond belief. 

The first thing that struck me when entering the camp was the terrible smell; on attempting to recollect it words honestly fail me, its been stated by other people who visited camps throughout the world that they could smell death in the air. I can't find more fitting words, the place was infested with all manner of insects and vermin and the poor souls who'd lived in this filth for the length of the war were totally oblivious to it. All the band agreed that it was the most difficult concert we ever played, and I have to add that I'm not a man prone to emotional outbursts, but I could feel my eyes welling up as these poor men applauded us as we finished each piece. After playing our final number we went amongst them, but it was difficult to know what to say and I felt nervous when shaking their hands because they were all so frail I was truly scared of hurting them. After this night some of the lads began spending time on our ship, mainly just for a bite to eat or for a chat. In some ways I felt better when talking to them in a more relaxed atmosphere as I could see the Japs hadn't succeeded in breaking their spirits. Although for some it was sadly too late; they were so-far gone from illness even our Medical Staff could not save them; they died whilst still within the confines of Singapore. 

I think this was the hardest thing of all to come to terms with, when after years of untold misery, freedom finally beckoned, death took them from us, it was so sad to watch. For myself I will never forgive the Japanese for what they did to these defenceless men; it upset immensely to watch these murderers march through Singapore, once they became prisoners under our army, for they returned to their homelands with the blood of non-combatants on their hands. In my eyes they are neither men nor animals; thankfully, they are a breed I never had the misfortune to encounter again. In conclusion, I have to say that I have nothing but total admiration for all the prisoners I was to see whilst in Singapore. Theirs was the worst war of all and it was an honour for myself to play for them.

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The unconditional surrender of the Japanese at Singapore.




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