WWII PoWs Mark Remembrance Week With a Journey Back to the Far East

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33 former PoWs, almost all who are 90 years old, are getting ready to travel back to the Far East for Remembrance week. The PoWs are making the pilgramage back to Singapore and Thailand where they will visit the Japanese prison camps where they were held captive during WWII.

One stop the pilgrims will make is the camp in Thailand where many of the prisoners had worked on the “Death Railway”. This railway is the bridge over the River Kwai. This same camp also helped build a prisoner camp in Singapore. The PoW group consists of six veterans from the Far East, some wives and widows, and family members and assistants.

Not only are the PoWs going to the places of their captivity, they will also attend services in Singapore on Thursday and a service at the Kanchanaburi war Cemetery which is located near the Thailand-Burma Railway Center. The British ambassador will attend the service, which is hosted by the HMS Daring of the Royal Navy, on November 11.

Jim Crossan who is 96 years old, is the oldest veteran taking the journey back to the prison camps. He was held captive for three-and-a-half years.

Crossan said he was asked to go on the trip but he said no. He then changed his mind.  “I have no doubt it will be emotional, it will tear my heart-strings,” he told This is Oxfordshire.

Crossan will be accompanied with his son Robin. He feels that it will help his son understand more about his father’s life. “My son knows everything about what happened, he is the only one who I ever told.”

Crossan adds, “He will be able to see where I was captured, and when we are out there he will know all about everything that happened there. It’s full of interest for him.”

Jim Crossan served the Royal Army Service Corps and was captured only 10 days after he arrived on February 15, 1942.

The Battle of Singapore took place from February 8th to the 15th. The final result was Japan captured Singapore and it was marked as the largest surrender of a British-led military personnel ever in history. Approximately 80,000 British, Indian, and Australian soldiers became PoWs–this all adding to the tens of thousands that were already captured earlier in the war.

“We arrived more or less in time to be captured,” Mr Crossan said, saying it quickly dawned on them that they had no idea when, or if, they would ever return home.

“We wondered how it would ever end. To begin with there was all sorts of rumours flying around, but these originated to keep morale up.”

“You tried not to think about home because you weren’t sure if you would see it again.”

In October of 1942, Crossan was relocated from Singapore to Thailand where he was to help construct the Thai-Burma railway; famously dubbed the “Death Railway” because of the lives lost while it was being constructed.

Crossan recounts the horrors he saw while he was held in the prison camps. He tells stories of men who were beaten half to death and witnessed people who too weak to stand, let alone work.

“I had a great feeling of shame walking past them yet being unable to do anything to help,” he said. ” I think the others did too.”

In 1945, he was finally rescued and was able to return home to his then-girlfriend. The two eventually married.

“First of all I was posted missing believed a PoW, but she didn’t know whether I was alive or dead. But she still waited for me.

“It was a miracle the two atomic bombs ending the war,” he said. “It ended a lot of misery, and helped those of us who needed to get home.”

Crossan anticipates the visit will be an emotional one. “I still get quite emotional about it, I have spent my life trying to forget about it.

“My son knows all about it, and it will help him to dot the is and cross the ts. I wouldn’t have gone without him.”

Another PoW, Cliff Burgess is 93 and will be returning with his wife and two daughters. Burgess was also held captive for three-and-a-half years. When he was captured, he was a member of the Royal Artillery Heavy Anti-Aircraft. He too worked on the Death Railway and then at the Wampo viaduct in Thailand.

When asked about how he feels about the trip, he states: “It will be an experience, I don’t suppose very much will be the same as when I was in a prison camp.

“The memories will be there which will most likely be the cemeteries, where most of my friends are that did not make it back.”

When he was asked about his time while being imprisoned, he said: “You never forget it, you wouldn’t forget it, it’s something that sticks.”

“You had to deal with everything that was going on while you were there and you couldn’t do anything about it. You just had to grin and bear it and take it.

“If you could fight back it wouldn’t have been so bad, but you weren’t able to do that.”

When Burgess was rescued in 1945, he returned home and his brother-in-law helped him get a job on the railways.

The good-natured Burgess joked: “I had helped build a railway while I was in Thailand so I was fully trained.”

The trip i being partly financed by the Big Lottery Heroes Return scheme and they will return home on November 17th.

The PoWs are being escorted by official RBL battlefield tour guide, Gerry Norden. Norden was a policemen who is also a legion branch secretary and a member of the National Welfare and Remembrance Association for Far East Prisoners of War.

He said: “The veterans are very courageous to be making the trip at their age, particularly when you consider the distance, long haul flights, climate and heat that they will be coping with.

“But they are determined to make the journey and pay their respects to comrades who did not return, and it will be very poignant for them at Remembrance time.

“It’s a privilege for me and my colleagues who have planned the tour to be able to help make it possible.”

Evette Champion

Evette Champion is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE