VJ Day 75: How a Barking prisoner of war survived a Japanese labour camp
- Credit: Lesley Clark
While many were celebrating the end of the Second World War in Europe in the summer of 1945, the battle was still continuing on the other side of the world.
The daughter of a Barking prisoner of war has called on people to remember the 75th anniversary of VJ Day, which will be marked this Saturday.
The battle continued in Asia until Japanese forces surrendered on August 15, after the Allies had tried to push them back through the continent.
Many soldiers who had been captured in the earlier stages of the war were still being worked, starved and badly treated by the Japanese - including Lesley Clark’s father William George Ellmore.
Known as Bill, he worked for the family coal company until he was conscripted into the army in 1941, at the age of 19.
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In December that year he boarded a ship bound for the Middle East, where he would serve as a gunner and driver with the 21st Light Ack Ack Regiment.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked, the convoy was rerouted to the Far East.
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They landed in Java, in what was then the Dutch East Indies, and Bill’s battery helped defend airfields in Java. But in February 1942 Singapore fell, then the following month so did Java.
Bill was taken with his comrades to a transit camp in Batavia, now Jarkarta, where they had to unload ships at the docks.
In April 1943 he, along with 3,000 others were taken by ship across to the Moluccan Islands. Some were then taken to Haruku, but his group had to march across the island of Ambon for two days in the monsoon and upon arrival build their own camp.
They were set to work to build a runway out of coral with just one cup of rice to eat each day.
They had to use primitive tools to clear the trees and cut the coral back while many were also suffering from malaria and dysentery.
The Japanese thought that a man should fight to the death, so anyone who became a prisoner was seen as lower than low and treated as such.
The runway was not completed by the time it was bombed by the Allies, and Bill returned to Java on a ship in May 1944.
On it, someone stole a fish to share with his comrades but everyone was hauled on deck to watch him be beheaded for his crime.
Another ship was torpedoed by the Allies, with all the 546 prisoners on board dying in the water, and another saw half its passengers die from disease.
Of the 3,000 who originally went to the Moluccan Islands, only 1,000 survived to return to Java, and many more died in before they were repatriated.
Bill spent some time in a military hospital on his return to Java to recouperate, then spent the rest of the war in Bandung and Jakarta.
He returned to the UK in October 1945, where he would meet his wife-to-be Patricia, now 91 and still living in Barking. The pair married in 1947 and went on to have three children.
Lesley, who lives in Ongar, said: “Some think VJ is a celebration of atomic bombing, which it is certainly not the case.
“The Japanese at the time were given ample opportunity to capitulate but refused to do so.
“They planned to kill all the prisoners held by October 1945 and had they not surrendered, hundreds of thousands of Allies and Japanese would have died in the ensuing fighting.
“Even as the Emperor was preparing to read the declaration, his troops were storming the palace to try to stop him.”
Veterans who served in the battle against Japan, as well as their widows and families, are supported by the Java Far East Prisoner of War (FEPOW) Club, of which Lesley serves as chairman and treasurer.
She said: “We must remember those who fought, not to glorify war, but to show appreciation of the freedoms we have today thanks to them.
“On VJ Day, we like to honour all those who were still fighting, suffering and dying in the Far East until the very end of World War Two.”
Bill never spoke of his time as a prisoner of war and Lesley only built up a picture of his experiences through her research after he died in 1989.
Many were told not to speak about it as it would upset the families of those who had died in the war, and some of those that did have since said they were not believed.
For more information about the Java FEPOW Club and the experiences of soldiers such as Bill, visit thejavafepowclub42.org