Leonard (“Len”) Gibson was born in Sunderland, County Durham on 3rd January 1920. His parents were Thomas H Gibson and his wife Jennie (née Kirton).
Len enlisted on 8th May 1939, initially with the Territorial Army but with the outbreak of War, transferred to the 125th Anti-Tank Regiment of the Royal Artillery, where he trained and was eventually shipped to the Far East on board the SS Empress of Asia. The ship was sunk by the Japanese Air Force off Singapore, but he managed to get to land where he was captured by the Japanese on 15th February 1942. His service number is 919805. He was liberated on 30th August 1945.
In recent years, he has been awarded the British Empire Medal, but is yet to receive it.
This transcript records his memories before and during World War 2 together with other aspects of his life.
The video is in two parts.
- Part 1 lasts approximately 1hr 22mins
- Part 2 lasts approximately 50 mins.
In addition, there is a sound recording of ‘Monsoon’, Len’s composition while in the jungle. This can be found where he refers to it in the transcript. Time: 2mins 59secs.
Recorded in West Herrington, County Durham on 16th August 2019
[Pauses indicated by ….]
Time codes on film indicated by Hour:Minute:Second for ease of reference between transcript and film on YouTube.
Note: Spellings of place names and proper names may vary, according to common usage in the past or in the present.
Len: Well I was born on the 3rd of January 1920 and the house I was born in has now been demolished because of the slum clearance. So, it was a very poor district and we were surrounded by industry. There was a shipyard just at the bottom of the street and on either side of us, there were trucks carrying coal from the mines down to the River Wear, where they were put into colliers and probably sent down to London.
I must have been quite an advanced child because I was walking at the age of 10 months so, they tell me, and by one I was going along to this local shop. Now I loved listening to that the children roundabout and especially the girls and boys who were playing games and singing and I learnt so many of their songs that I have written I’ve written them down in a book because people have said to me, “This should be kept for posterity”, and so I’ve done what they wanted me to do and I’ve put them in the book.
[‘A Wearside Lad in World War II’ – https://www.cofepow.org.uk/books/a-wearside-lad-in-world-war-ii]
At the age of four, I was ready for school but my mother, she said she loved me so much, she wouldn’t let me go, and I was nearly six before I started school. They mustn’t have realized my potential, because they were surprised when I used to get my …. report from their school, to say I was number one. They didn’t realize it was the top of the class, being a number one.
You see, my father unfortunately when he was a young man, he was blind, and he was just getting his sight back by the time he was 20. So, he didn’t …. he wasn’t fit enough to join the Army or do service and I don’t think he read a book in the whole of his life, and I used to sometimes help him with the …. with his reading of the newspaper. If I were reading a book and I was probably reading the Three Men in a Boat, Three Men in a Boat, and I was really laughing about it, he would look at me and find it strange to think that I could look at black and white and be laughing. He …. it just wasn’t …. but he was a very conscientious man and a very very hard worker.
He wasn’t in employment …. all his life. There were times when, I knew we had to struggle. And he loved music and he taught me to play the banjo when I was ten-year-old and that served me for the rest of my life, because that sowed the seed of my life in music. I worked with him in the same factory for many years and I noticed that when the whistle went, he started to work and he would not stop work until the whistle went to go home.
He would do little jobs at home, making furniture and from an early age, I probably had to hold on while he was nothing in the parallel pins, etc. So, I was able to, when …. when I was asked to write a story in school about my father’s hobby …. Well, my …. I had so much to write about his music, his banjo playing and his joinery, and he was marvellous on a sewing machine …. most unusual, my mother never used the sewing machine, he did everything and during the Wartime, when everyone had to use a gas mask, he made gas mask cases for all the family and even the teachers at school used to say, “And can he make one for me?”
Now, my mother, she was very very conscientious and very religious and a Royalist too. If the Queen coughed, she would get the picture of the Queen and put it in her front room window, and we were brought up to go to ….
Well, I started Sunday School when I was 1 year old, and I didn’t stop till I was 15. But I heard the children singing in the mission hall which was just opposite my Grandmother’s house and I climbed up the steps and joined …. I was there till I was fifteen-year-old. So, Sunday was a busy day for me. I used to go to Church in the morning, sometimes at 8 o’clock, help the Vicar give communion to the people in hospital. Then, there’s the morning service and then Sunday School in the afternoon, and morning service and the evening service at night …. So, I had a very busy time.
When I was about eight, the headmaster at the school said to me, “You, you have a nice voice ….” I didn’t know I had but …. “Go down to the vestry and see Mr. Bevam, the choir master.” So, I find my way to the vestry and he said, “Who are you?” I said, “My name is Len Gibson and he said, “Oh, my best friend’s called Tim Gibson.” So, from then on, he called me Tim, the people in the choir called me Tim, the congregation started to call me Tim and even me Dad, when I was working called me Tim, but I was really Len.
Now, at home, we had a very very strict upbringing, strict in this …. that we had to do things properly. We sat down to a meal. Everyone must be at the table before you could start and we all had to say, “For what we are about to receive, may we be truly thankful. When you’d finished, you could not leave the table until you’d said, “Thank God for a good meal” and “Please may I leave the table?” Unless you said those words, you couldn’t go. And at night-time would, when we were ready to go to bed, we had to kiss our parents and even visit us good night and God bless you before we went. I heard later that when my two younger sisters …. I had three sisters and the two youngest were evacuated to Pickering in Yorkshire and we heard that my two sisters used to say their prayers every night while they were evacuated, and the people of the house used to creep up the stairs and listen to them outside the door, and that, that their parents left prayers would go on for quite a while. Of course, because they had to add then, “God bless the sailors and the soldiers and the, the airmen and especially our Len in the Army …. And …. we had a good upbringing, but we were very poor. I had the three sisters, all younger than me and at times, when my father was out of work, that was really a struggle.
At the age of 11, I wanted …. I had to a teacher for the first time, a man teacher, Mr. Hudson and I loved Mr Hudson, and I’ve said then …. Now, when I went home, I said, “I want to grow up and be a teacher like Mr Hudson.
Well, at the age of 11 and my father out of work, I hadn’t had a chance because you had to …. there were no grants in those days, and it would have cost a thousand or two which my parents didn’t have for me to go to college. Now, choir pay …. we got a shilling for the first quarter and if you were good and you’ve got one shilling and sixpence for the second quarter and so on, and I was very careful with my money and when I got my choir pay, I was in the choir so long and I became head boy and soloist there …. I used to always put some of me money in, in a safe place which was in a shell case with a slot in.
Now, at the age of 11, my parents didn’t know very much about education, and they got a letter saying that I’d passed to go to West Park Central School. Well, they said, “Oh, he’s quite happy where he is and I’ll just let him go.” And the teacher said, “Well, he’ll get a better education ….” and, do you know why they said no? Because they couldn’t afford to buy me a blazer and a tie and a cap, and that’s where my choir pay came in very very handy, because I got a screwdriver, opened up my shell case and there were 30 shillings there which was quite enough to buy a blazer, a tie and a cap ….
Michael: Wow ….
Len: …. and I went to school well dressed. Because I had these, this uniform on. I was the first boy or child in the area to ever pass anything like that, and there’s the …. Well, I was ostracized really, they wouldn’t play with me while I had me uniform on, and they called me a West Park sissy.
I loved going to school but when I was 15, I wasn’t finished really …. things were very very hard, people out to work. Even people with degrees were pushing barrows more or less and instead of finishing the four years at the secondary school, Dad found out that there was an apprentice needed in his factory and they took me away from school to work in the factory.
So, from the age of 15 until when I was 19 and I worked in the factory with my dad.
Len: It was a woodworking factory. Now, whilst in the factory, of course, we heard all the news about what was happening in Germany and Hitler loomed large in our life with …. in the news and it was decided …. Well, I decided that …. I went to see a film and it was a short one called ‘The Gap’ and it was showing that there was a little gap in the …. in the defence and the Germans got through.
So, I thought, “Well, what, we’re after to do something about this.” So, I want to do …. to be ready for Hitler, and luckily, there was this scheme whereby we could join the Territorial Army, and in Sunderland, they decided they would try to make a Sunderland regiment and within of just a few weeks, hundreds of young men from Sunderland …. they were joiners, they were shop workers, clerks, whatever, but within, within no time at all, we had a regiment. It was called this second 74th and then we were promoted to be the, the 125 Regiment and it was a 125 Field Regiment, and then later it became the 125 Anti-Tank regiment.
Len: I went to come for a fortnight but it lasted six years because while we were at camp which was the 26th of August 1939, Chamberlain went across and got a piece of paper, or came back with a piece of paper and said there was going to be peace in our time but a couple of days later, we were declaring War.
[Chamberlain’s peace in our time was 30th August 1988. War was declared on 1st September 1939]
So, my fortnight turned into six years and I really enjoyed Army life, and one day on, on parade early morning, about 500 on parade, all present and correct and then they shouted out, “Fall out, Lance Bombardier Gibson.”
I forgot to say that by the time I was 19, I had a stripe and, and because I was so good, I got the stripe and I was given twelve older people to look after and train, which was rath…. rather a job when I was only 19, and they were all married men. However, they said, they called me out and said, “Right get your kit packed, you’re going to Catterick.”
Now, believe me before the War, Catterick was like …. nobody wanted to go to Catterick. And, it was January February time and when I’d got to Catterick, it was covered with ice and snow, it was more like Siberia and I had a job to find the room, well, where the lectures were just to take place. When I did find it, I opened the door and looked inside, and they were all officers standing there. So, I thought, “I’ve come to the wrong place.” So, I was about to go find somewhere else when a group of Sergeants arrived and they said, “No, this is it.”
Now, there were Officers, there were Sergeants and me, one stripe on my arm. I felt so inferior, and when they said, “Where do you come from?” I said, “Sunderland.” “Oh, where’s Sunderland?”
They looked down on me, but I had the last laugh. When the, when it was leisure time, the Officers went to the Officers’ Mess, the Sergeants went to the Sergeants’ Mess, and I was in a mess all by myself.
Anyhow, after five weeks, I’ve got back home and there was a letter. It was from the head tutor and in huge letters right across the top, it said, “Well done youngster. Despite being the youngest in age and the lowest in rank, you’ve come out the highest in marks.” All my marks were above 95 percent.
Len: So, I had the last laugh …. Sunderland …. I beat the Lanarkshire Yeomanry and all the rest of the fancy ones. Unfortunately, all my work there at Catterick was of no avail because a division in Norfolk needed an Anti-Tank Regiment and we were a Field Regiment, so they said, “We will change you from a Field Regiment to an Anti-Tank Regiment.”
Signallers, surveyors and people with brains were not needed, so I was rather disappointed to be an Anti- Tank …. Another disappointment, I was dying to go abroad. We got into a liner called the Strathaird, and happily, I was going abroad but in the North Atlantic in a terrible storm, we collided with another liner called the Stirling Castle and we had to go back to Scotland. Another disappointment.
They sent us down to Liverpool where there …. there was a blitz and we put out fires at night-time and I thought, “Well, I’m not doing very much. I wanted to go abroad, and I wanted to fight and here I am just putting fires out.”
And I noticed in Lime Street Station in Liverpool, there was a big notice saying, “Your country needs you! Young men wanted to be trained as pilots.” Yeah, I thought, that would be just nice for me, so, for …. with, without telling my superiors in the Army, I went down to Cardington in Bedfordshire to be interviewed. Now, I thought I’ll be interviewed, perhaps lasting an hour and then I would get back to my unit and they wouldn’t miss me, but they kept me down in Cardington for three days. So, I was really a deserter from the Army.
Now, after three days, they gave me a sheet of paper saying, I had passed fit to be trained as a pilot in a two-seater night fighter. Well, I was over the moon.
My mother wasn’t very pleased about it, but I don’t know whether I should tell you this, but there was another lad there wanting to do the same. He was a lad from, he said, “Waaaalsend”. I think that’s Wallsend near Newcastle and he was worried because he had such a thick accent. He thought the interview board wouldn’t understand him, so the airmen round about said, “Can you say ‘actually’? [in posh voice] If you can say ‘actually’, you’ll be all right.” Well, poor lad, he couldn’t say ‘actually’. So, he didn’t get through.
Now I wrote a poem about him, would you like to hear it?
Michael: Yes please, yes.”
Len: This is in his vernacular.
When I was just a nipper, I never thought about talking,
I just opened me moooth, the words would come out, that was easier than eating or walking.
When I was five, I had to gan into the Infant School. Miss Bishop was a tartar.
D’ye nar, she’d never say that biyoots were boots and waaater must be water.
While we persevered with her, it really didn’t matter
Because we would say the proper words to her than gan and plodge in our boots through the waaater.
In junior school, we met Miss Rain, hoar diction was fantastic.
She rounded her vowels and mouthed diphthongs with lips that seemed elastic.
When we passed eleven plus, we stopped pronunciation.
We had nee time for fancy talk and secondary education.
That was Maths, oh Algebra and the Industrial Revolution.
And we spoke a few words in French and quite forgot English elocution.
Then when we stopped school and started work, we found that all talk rough
And if we said words the proper way, they’d said you were a poof.
Then came that War with Hitler and full mobilization
And ah had a gun and dee me bit to save the British nation.
I wanted to be a pilot and I went before the Board,
And I passed first class in everything except for just one word.
So, I served six years in the Army and I’ve seen the War reet through,
And I’ve always worn the khaki when I wanted to wear the blue.
And the army bioots are killing us and me socks are ringin’ with waater
But I’m getting demobbed a week today, so, ‘actually’ it doesn’t bloody matter!(Composed by Len Gibson)
Michael: Well done, Len, well done. [Laughing]
Len: So, after the three days, I got back to my unit which was stationed near Stockport and luckily, they hadn’t missed me, because they were all getting ready. We were due down to Avonmouth to go abroad again, and I was so pleased. At last we were going abroad.
In Avonmouth near Bristol, we boarded the Aronsay, a liner …. a rough passage up the Irish Sea into the Clyde where we joined another convoy and set out …. they said we were going to North Africa. I said that’s nice, nice and warm. They said we were going to North Africa. Now, I said to the lads, “If you look at the map, the British Isles is up there and North Africa’s down there, so should, we should be going that way, but we were going that way.” I said, “We’re going to Iceland instead of North Africa.”
Anyhow halfway across the Atlantic, our convoys changed because the escort vessel left us, and we were taken over by the American Navy. What a sight to see the cruisers, destroyers and they came and they escorted us but the Halifax, Nova Scotia. We went down the gangplank along the quayside and up another gangplank and discovered we were on an American ship and the Americans weren’t in the War at that time.
So, we were on this ship called the Joseph T Dickman, and they looked after us very well on this ship. Of course, getting into Halifax was an eye-opener for us because we’d been used to the blackout in England and when we got to Halifax harbour at night-time, all the lights along the quayside, the lights on the ships, the lights on the town …. it was, it was like going to the Illuminations ….
Len: On this ship, we called in at the Puerto España …. Port of Spain Jamaica [actually Trinidad] …. then, we crossed the line and we were heading for Cape Town but just before we reached Cape Town, Pearl Harbor happened and people on the ship, the Americans …. oh, they really …. they felt it really, I mean, they’d been happily taking us to War, but now they were in War themselves.
We had four days in Cape Town, and the American Navy left us. And we then had one British Cruiser called the Dorsetshire, took us across the Indian Ocean to Bombay.
We had a marvellous Christmas dinner in the Indian Ocean.
As I say, the Americans left …. they treated us very well. We arrived in Bombay around about New Years’ time, and then we went up country to a place called Ahmadnagar and we did some training there. Then came back to Bombay and on the quayside, we were expecting this, this American ship again but instead of that, there was an old ship there called the Empress of Asia. Now, it was an old ship, but it carried troops in the First World War.
Our Colonel went aboard, had a look and he said it wasn’t fit for us, but I think Churchill told him it had to go.
So, we boarded this ship, the Empress of Asia and set off for Singapore.
Instead of going to North Africa, Pearl Harbor had happened, the Japs had happened and now we were going to Singapore. On the 4th of February , I was awakened by somebody talking …. Incidentally, I should tell you, if possible, I always slept on deck, up above. I didn’t sleep at all and this voice woke me up shouting, “Get a move on Asia or we’ll have to leave you. Get a move on Asia or we’ll have to leave you.”
And when I looked over the rail, there was this destroyer called the, the Exeter, and the Naval Officer was shouting through a megaphone, “Get a move move on or we’ll have to leave you.”
[HMS Exeter had been at the Battle of River Plate in late 1939]
Well, we couldn’t get a move on, we were going as fast as we could, and they left us. Now mad …. as I say my, my …. I loved being out in …. on the deck and right in the bow of the ship ….
…. and on this particular day, the 4th of February, it was a marvellous day …. lovely, warm and so clear and the sea so calm. I looked over. I could see the bed of the ocean below and I loved geography and I loved being abroad, and I was thinking to myself, “What a lucky fellow, I am.”
And then 27 Japanese planes came over and my luck nearly stopped then, because they dropped bombs and …. just on either side of me, clusters of bombs, huge spouts of water and deep thuds on both sides ….
How on earth, one didn’t come in the middle and, and hit our ship, I don’t know, it damaged both sides of the ship though, so close, and me being in the bow of the ship, I watched it all.
Now, we’d escaped. Those planes went on and we had a mutiny on board. All the stokers …. they downed tools and came out, up on deck and the captain, Captain Smith had to go and talk and get them to go back. Meanwhile, our Colonel said, “Any volunteers to go and stoke?” Well, nearly all of us volunteered to go and stoke but it wasn’t necessary.
Of course, the Japs then knew where we were and on the 5th of February, they sent in their, their, their fighters and their bombers, and for about two hours, they tried to hit our ship, the Empress of Asia and at last, they sent some pumps through the deck, through the Officers’ Mess, right down into the stokehole and set fire to the ship which meant that most of our guns etc and our equipment were in the middle of the ship, and we had to crowd into the bow of the ship to escape the smoke and the flames.
Meanwhile, there was a rare battle going on because, once the Japs had set fire to our ship, they started to go and attack the other ships. A ship nearby was called the Felix Roussel, and on it were the Northumberland Fusiliers. Well, they were a machine gun regiment, and they gave the Japs just as much as they gave them and …. the Japs still managed to get through and start a fire on the Felix Roussel. One plane started the fire, the next plane came down, dropped a bomb in the water tank and helped to put the fire out, but what a sight it was, to see the planes coming down …. all the, the firepower, the tracer bullets from the, the Northumberland Fusiliers …. a terrific battle and then, the Exeter came close to us and the Jap planes started to try to sink the Exeter, and I’ve never seen the ship go through the waters, that the way the Exeter did. It was like a little greyhound and quickly to the port, quickly to the starboard, dodging bombs as they hit the water.
So, the Exeter did …. escaped but later on I heard that a few days later, they sank the Exeter off Java and one of my friends was on it, and he said the eh, the Japs sailors that picked them up treated them very very badly. I thought there would have been a sort of camaraderie among those, you know, sailors and sailors but he said he found a really bad time.
So, there came a time when the Colonel and the Captain, they stood on the bollard and they said, “Right, we’re going to have to abandon ship,” and he said, “There’s a …. In the distance there, you can see black smoke. The Captain tells me that that is Singapore and the Japs of just bombed the oil drums. Now, I want all, all of you to go overboard and swim in that direction.”
Now, I couldn’t swim. Everybody either jumped over, or there’s some bits of rope, and I managed to get hold of a piece of rope and lower myself down so far, and then I had to drop into the sea.
One thing pleased me when I hit the water, it was warm. I’d never learned to swim because I couldn’t stand cold water, but the water was warm.
Now, the lads who could swim soon left me. I was doing all the, that I’d learnt, land drill. I used my land drill to me …. and whilst in the sea, I looked at that smoke and I thought, “Well, I can see the smoke now but when it goes dark, I won’t be able to see it,” and then I thought to myself, “Now, I wonder if I can swim one mile in one day. It could take me a fortnight to get to Singapore,” you know and all sort of things crossed my mind and I was wondering what my mother would think if she could see me there in the water.
Now, I don’t know whether I was making headway or whether the ship would …. was drifting but I looked back at one stage and there was the Empress of Asia in the distance still, burning and when I looked around, I couldn’t see anybody else.
You know, the sea’s a lonely place when you’re out there on your own. So, I just kept swimming, turning on my back and having a rest and turning, and at last I noticed a boat in the distance.
Well, my heart started to beat. If only I could reach that boat. I nearly wore myself out heading for this boat, thinking it might leave before I get there, and then, after about an hour or so, I noticed other people in the water were going in the same direction, that probably had the same, same thoughts as me.
And I reached the boat and two sailors dropped a rope down and I sat in the rope and they just lifted me up onto the deck and sent me down to have my burns seen to and I thought it took ages before that ship got us to Singapore. I realized then if I’d had to swim all the way, it would have taken me more than a fortnight by the time I reached the harbour at Singapore.
I was only wearing a shirt and in the pocket was my Army Pay Book, nothing else. It was draughty on the quayside wearing just a shirt, and some lovely Chinese ladies, beautifully dressed, were trying to give us cups of coffee. Well, I didn’t know whether to drink the coffee or not. And anyhow, a lorry came and took us to some billets, and we were given one shirt, one shorts, one boots, one socks, one handkerchief, all green and ….
On Singapore, there were only four anti-tank guns and we were the crack troop in the Regiment, so we got them. We should have had about 48 anti-tank guns, but do you know where they were? They had gone on another ship to Java, so the rest of our Regiment were given rifles and had to become infantry on Singapore.
We were sent up to Serangoon and we put our gun ready there, and then we heard that they were surrounding us, and we were needed in Bukit Timah road.
Well evidently, the Japs were coming across the causeway from Malaya and they were going to come down Bukit Timah road, so, my anti-tank gun was the …. in Bukit Timah road and we will be the first to contact them when they came down and then we had the other three anti-tank guns.
Well, the Japs sent a balloon up, so they could spy on us from a balloon. We could do nothing about it. We were bombed. We were shelled. We were mortared and …. we were in a private house garden …. we had our gun, ammunition there. I think there were 300 rounds of ammunition under a tree and one of the mortar bombs from the Japs hit the tree and missed our ammunition. We were lucky, so, the fighting went on for 10 days and still …. I sat on my gun all the time. I was that, I was the one that fired the gun.
Now, on an anti-tank gun, you’ve got to use your eye, your two feet and your two hands, because you traverse with one hand, you elevate and depress with the other, you look through the telescope for your enemy and with your face, you pressed to fire the gun.
Well, I sat on that, waiting and waiting, as I said. One of our officers was sniped and killed, another, Arthur Thornton, had his hat blown off his head, and that after about 10 days, things quieten down.
We wondered what was happening and somebody said, “We’re capitulating,” and we wouldn’t believe them. Now, there’s a young man, he was a …. a bank clerk in Singapore and he had some of the young Singapore lads were in the Singapore Volunteers, and he had these lads with him, and he came up to me, he says, “We’re capitulating but we’re gonna fight on, will you join us?” So, I was ready to go and join them when a cavalcade of cars came down with the Japanese flag. It was was the Japanese General going down to get the capitulation.
Some people said, “Why did you capitulate?” Well, we were running out of water. We were running out of ammunition and the Jap General had said, if we didn’t capitulate completely, he would slaughter every human, every European in …. on the Island.
So, they told us the Japs are all little fellows that wore glasses and marching down the street, all these, some of them I’m sure were six foot. Hundreds of Japanese …. And I took my firing pin out of my gun, put it in my shirt pocket and I said, “The sooner I get to that canal, I’ll throw it in there.” Then came the order, we all had to make our way to Changi.
Well, depending whether you were two miles from Changi or 20 miles from Changi, you had to walk there, and gather at Changi. There wasn’t much at Changi in those days, except it was a civil prison. I don’t think I ever saw it, because there was the land roundabout.
[Len was captured by the Japanese on 15th February 1942]
We were there for a few weeks, and then we were sent down to River Valley camp in Singapore and for a few weeks we had barrows and shovels and we tried to clean up the debris in Singapore, which was an eye-opener for me because I could see the way people lived, with the people going around selling …. ice cream and the lady going round with a palanquin and making meals on the streets, and selling them, and ladies getting under taps and, and washing themselves, and bathing and …. oh …. and then we came to one place where there were some railings and there were some heads of Japanese …. of Chinese lads that hadn’t pleased the, the Japs. The Singapore [Straights] Times, the newspaper, was changed to the Syonan Times [The Shonan Times and The Syonan Shimbun] and it was full of propaganda.
We were tired of hearing and seeing, learning of all the marvellous things the Japanese were doing, and it was depressing really, and the lads in, were losing heart in River Valley camp and a few of us, Sunderland lads, we said, “Should we form a concert party and try to cheer people up? Well, there was three of us …. By this time, I should tell you that my dad taught me to play the banjo when I was ten. I played the banjo with him and my sister, and concerts for churches …. I took my banjo to the Army with me. I played it in Scotland, Wales and went abroad with me, and of course, when the Japs set fire to the ship, my …. my banjo was still there, and in Singapore, I was missing my banjo.
And so, I decided to try to make one, and the nearest thing I could make to a banjo was a guitar. Then I had …. I had to learn how …. I knew they had six strings, so I made a guitar using Japanese telephone wire for strings and stealing bits here and there.
Made the guitar and then I didn’t know how to tune it up. I knew how to tune a banjo, but not the guitar. By this time, we were on a different job. We were on the hillside and we were cutting into the hillside, probably a hundred of us in a line with our chunckles [a spade like tool only used like a pick-axe] digging into the hillside and throwing the soil back behind us, and I said to the lad next to me, “Do you know how to tune a guitar?” Well, he looked at me as though I was crazy.
So, when the Jap wasn’t looking, I moved into the next space and said, “Do you know how to tune a guitar?” I think I worked away about two dozen people and then I found a lad, he was a regular from the East Surrey Regiment, and they had been in Singapore sometime. He’d married a Chinese lady who played a guitar. So, Hook, he could tell me how to tune a guitar. He says, of course, you’ll have to know about major chords.
Next time I was out breaking off, “Do you know what a major chord is?” And once more, I worked my way down the line until I met this man, he was an organ player from Taunton.
“Oh, yes of course! Do, mi, so, do.” Well, I could have kicked myself, because in the choir, before we ever sang or practised, we had to sing “Do mi so do so mi do”. Up a semitone, “Do mi so do so mi do.” Up a semitone. I had sang major chords by the thousands. So, I learned how to play them on my guitar and in no time at all I joined with these two lads, especially one called Conlin, one called Carney.
[Charles William Carney and Michael Conlin]
Now, little Carney, he was always laughing, so, he was known as Chuckles Carney, and he told stories, funny stories. He was just the lad, I wanted, and Conlin, he worked, he did so many daft things that everybody called him Jester. So, there were Chuckles Carney and Jester Conlin, the three of us worked together and we devised a concert and for the co…. the end of the concert, I wrote some words which were in tune to some BBC programme that had been on the radio, Saturday night programme, and it was “We three,” and so, at the end of the concert the three of us are on the stage and we sang:
We three, we’re not apart, we’re a perfect company. Joe Stalin, (he was on our side then), Winston Churchill and me.
We three, we’re doing well, (we weren’t you know), in the air, on land and sea, Joe Stalin, Winston Churchill and me.
We’ll beat the Boche army and drive Hitler barmy, just wait and see,
And in the Pacific, there’ll be losses terrific of the mythical Jap navy, you’ll see.
We three will set you free, soon at home you all will be,
With Joe Stalin, Winston Churchill and me.
Me? Franklin D Roosevelt.
This was all done to try to …. Little did we know, those words “We three will set you free soon at home”, we still had three more years to go, and one third of those lads that were at that concert would never see home, because roughly, if you were a prisoner of war, you had out of every three, one would …. ….
My son was just saying to me a fortnight ago, “Dad, I’m glad you didn’t become a pilot, because you only had one chance in two.” He says, “Whereas, you earned one chance in three of dying.”
So, so that was Singapore. The Japs came up to us ….
By the way, the three of us, we …. from somewhere who got a piece of paper and on the piece of paper was written, “These three men are allowed to collect firewood for the Japanese cookhouse”. I went to the Jap lines and pinched one of the hand carts, and we went to the barbed wire and this sentry. He looked at the paper. Poor lad, I don’t think he could read Japanese, never mind English, and they let us out. And so, for a few days, we were going out into Singapore, and going to this factory, it was called, on this …. on the factory, it said Fogdens. Now, there was Fogdens of Brisbane or Fogden and Brisbane. [Fogden Brisbane & Co., Limited]
But they were a woodworking factory, and through …. working in a woodworking factory, I knew the smell of Teak, the smell of Mahogany. I loved the smell of their Colombian pinewood …. right?
So, while I was there, I said to the lads, “Now, I would love a nice piece of Mahogany.” So, while we were collecting the odd bits up, to take back to the Japanese cookhouse, I stole a piece of Mahogany and hid that in the cart. And that’s how I came to make a decent guitar.
Now, the Japs came and said, “We’re going up to a better camp, long way north and you’ll have better food, you’ll have a lovely camp ….”, and oh, they painted a lovely picture of a camp up north.
We went down to the station and they crowded 30 and 40 of us to it, a cattle truck. They wanted to close the doors and in the heat of Singapore, we would have died in no time at all.
So, we convinced them to leave the door open. There were so many in the truck that we organized ourselves so that, for one hour you could stand up, for one hour you could sit down, for one hour you could lie down. And that’s the way it went, because we were on those trucks for five …. five or six days and nights.
Very rarely would the Japs let you off, very rarely did you get a drink of water, and when we arrived in Thailand at a place called Bang Pong, there wasn’t even a drink of water for us. There was a Thai lady, and she was …. had a, I think they called them a shadoof. She had a long rope with, with a pail on a bamboo, and she lowered it down into the well and brought water up, and she gave us all a drink each.
The Japs never did anything for us. Where was our accommodation? It was an old atap and bamboo hut that was falling down, and it was waterlogged as well. So, so much for that, the new camp. Then we were told we were going to walk, and we walked right across the plains of Thailand, through the paddy fields and in the heat, we soon started to feel a bit hot and tired, and then we hit the, the high ground covered by jungle, of course, and the Japs led us through the jungle and I am sure they were following a telephone wire, because it was so narrow through the …. through the trees, and they were having a job to find our way through.
Wherever, when it started to get dark at night, we just laid down in the jungle and slept, but before we start to sleep, they gave us our rice and our tea and then they gave us what they called gypo, and I have to explain the gypo was just boiled water, but into that you put anything edible, whether it be a bit of snake or a bit of newt or whatever, or a bit of meat went in there or some vegetables went in there, and you were very lucky if you got anything solid. It was just like soup.
So, rice cup, tea cup, gypo cup and that was it.
And we were walking day after day, through the jungle. There was night-time, lie in the jungle, morning rice, tea and gypo, night-time rice tea and gypo, sleep in the jungle.
At last, we reached the banks of the river Kwai. There was a clearing there, and no huts except one, a small one and that was where the Japanese officer was. Everybody else had to just sleep on the ground. I think it was there that on the way up, I was thinking about our rice, tea and gypo.
So, just before we went to sleep, that night, we were gathered round and I said, “I’ll sing you a song.”
For dinner, there’s rice, tea and gypo, for supper rice, gypo and tea.
And unless a miracle happens, I know what my breakfast will be.
Last night, as I lay on my pillow, I dreamt of a gooseberry tart,
To follow roast sirloin and Yorkshire, but I woke up before I could start.
So that was it, we lived on rice, tea and gypo for the …. for three and a half years, we put up with that. Then, we started work.
We went down to a camp called Wampo, and our job was to build an embankment. There was about a mile or so of embankment and it needed a lot, and a lot of soil to build up that embankment, and we worked in threes, Conlin and Carney and I. Two carried a stretcher. The stretcher was two bamboo poles on a rice sack, made into a stretcher and another used the shovel, shovelling digging the, the jungle earth out, putting it into the stretcher two with the stretcher would run, tip it onto the embankment, and this went on all day long in the heat of the day.
At night-time, I don’t know how …. must be the British spirit, I think, but for all we were working so hard during the day, we would go jump into the river Kwai, wash off of the dirt and the dust and then have our rice, tea and gypo. We had been suffering hell during the day, but yet at night-time, we used to always build a little fire outside the hut, and we’d sit around the fire, and I would get the guitar out and we’d have a sing song, and in no time, would be singing songs, telling jokes and laughing, knowing next day, we’ll be back to working hard and suffering, and suffering the Japs, and yet at night-time, we used to forget them.
The Japs couldn’t understand it …. used to come out the jungle and look at us laughing, and I would sing songs around the covered fire, developed other people, come from different parts of the camp. We was mainly Sunderland lads that were doing it.
And in the end, we said, “Let’s, let’s make a proper concert party and we’ll give a show for the rest of the camp. Now in our camp, there was a a Major called E. W. Swanton. I think he’s known as Jim Swanton. He used to do the cricket commentary for the BBC too, I think.
Michael: That’s right, yes.
Len: He was interested in rugby as well and he was supposed to be our Entertainments Officer. So, we got him to ask other people if they had any talent to join us round our campfire and we started the concert party, and we put on little shows, and then one night, a new fellow arrived. He said, “Now, my name is Woodward, and I worked in cabaret in Paris,” and we thought, he’s going to be too posh for us.
Anyhow, he joined the concert party, and one night he came, he said now, “I want a woman,” and all the lads said, “Oh, don’t we all.” We hadn’t seen any women in a long time and anyhow, he had this play and he wanted one woman to take a part. None of us would volunteer and in the end he said. “Well, I’ll not be able to do the play unless I got a woman.” And then one voice said, “I’ll do it.”
Well, we all laughed because the voice came from an Australian tin miner who had a big thick moustache. He had muscles like an ox, and he had a voice, oh …. and he was going to be our woman.
Well, they shaved his moustache …. they painted him up, they used string to make a wig …. We had people who could make wigs and in the end he looked lovely. Then he took the part in the play.
Well, the next time Woodward came, he said, “Now, I want six women this time.” Well, he had a job to get one woman, now we got six, so, we had to draw straws, and I came out poor, I had a small straw. A lad that was …. he was at school, in junior school and senior school with me and, in the Army with me, the two of us drew two short straws, and another, the third one was Pat Donovan who was a boxer. So, we didn’t feel so bad dressing up as women when we had a professional boxer with us.
Anyhow, the six of us …. Woodward, he practised us, I mean through doing marching drill. I suppose we, we did it quite quickly, but we learned how to kick our legs and bend our knees and he used to shout, “Left hand, muscle kick, muscle kick,” and we had an accordion in the camp, a very poor accordion, and one man who could play one tune, which was “I want to be happy but I can’t be ….” So, we learnt to dance to that ….
We didn’t tell the rest of the camp what was going on, we kept it secret. Came the night of the concert, we lit fires, bonfire either side to give the light to the stage, and near the end, the accordion struck up, “I want to be happy”, and the six of us came on all kicking our feet, and the roar that went up from that camp was heard for miles in the jungle. It was heard half a mile up jungle where the officers, Japanese officer was, was heard a quarter of a mile down the jungle where the people, the dysentery people were.
They wanted to know what was going on, so the Jap officer said, “Do it again tomorrow for, for Japanese.” So, people in the hospital said, “We want to see it.” So, they were brought up on stretchers etc. and carried up and put there, and then the Jap officer, he informed all the other officers in the camps of the River Kwai and they arrived in their barges, all posh, sparkling with their nice swords and everything and their batman walking behind them. You’d have thought they were going to the Opera, never mind Camp concert, and they sat in the front.
We gave the concert the once more. When we came out doing the dancing, the roar from the camp …. it did us good to hear them laughing and shouting. Now, at the end of the concert, we were standing there and, in those days, when you went to the cinema in England or the Opera or whatever or a concert, either before or afterwards, you sang “God save the King”, even when we were in Cape Town and Bombay, we had the National Anthem.
So, we started to sing ‘God save the King’. A Jap officer, Hatri, jumped up and he said, “No King, no King, no King.” So, we stood like tins of milk, and then the chap who was at school with me said, “What about ‘There’ll always be an England’?” So, we sang ‘There will always be in England’ and everybody joined in.
Well, the Japs didn’t worry about that. They didn’t complain but the Scots played hell.
Len: You see, we had some of the Gordon Highlanders with us, Snoopy Craig and Tammy Campleman, all good friends of us, who were from Glasgow etcetera. So, our concerts went very well.
Unfortunately, we had to move camp again. So, further up as we finished the embankment, we had to go further up, and this time, we were doing a cutting, so, we had to use picks and shovels, and we had hammers and chisels, huge chisels, heavy hammers. We had to dig holes in the ground to a certain depth, so charges could be put in and blow the whole thing up.
It was heavy, heavy, hard work, working digging those holes and the Japs would sometimes set the charges off before we could get clear, and we would be showered by, by rocks and things. It was while we were doing that job, that suddenly, one day the Japs didn’t turn up. We wondered what was going on when an officer came and said the …. cholera has hit the camp.
And within one week, we’d lost over 90 men from cholera. In that camp at South Tonchan, we weren’t allowed to wash in the stream, or we weren’t allowed to drink the water, so things were very hard. And at night-time, we were in tents at that time, there were eight to each tent, and you’d go back and find there were only seven one night and only six the next night and you, we were wondering who, who would be next.
And one night, there was a, a voice outside saying, “Hot sweet coffee, ten cents a cup, hot sweet coffee ten cents a cup.” We wondered who that was, made me look outside the tent. It was the Australian Padre, and when we went to him, he said, “Church service in ten minutes time.” That was the only way he’d get his congregation going around selling hot free coffee ….
Len: …. which was just his word and …. I remember I’d helped them to make a little church and build a … an altar and a cross, and he wanted me to play the guitar for his hymns, and even accompany when the communion was on, to play serious music. Anyhow, morale was very very low. We’d lost 90 men and …. my fire was chosen where we could make the distilled water and that’s the only cure they had. They put distilled water into a vein in the foot.
Anyhow, we all gathered in the church …. there wasn’t any church, it was the opening, and I remember what his story was. It was the story of Columbus, the Niña, the Pinta and the Nanta Maria, Santa Maria, and how some of the crew were mutinied and wanted to go back, and Columbus is supposed to have said, “Give me three days.”
Padre Thorpe, he said, Harry Thorpe was his name …. he said, “Give me three days.” And sure enough, the word went round, “No new cases.” There were the three words, “No new cases.” Everybody was happy to think there were no new cases. That’s how we got over the cholera.
I’d managed to have a wash during the cholera, because I’d got a petrol can, petrol tin …. and I filled it full of water out of the stream and I put it down on me fire. I always had a fire and I’ve got it boiled. Now, it took about two hours to boil the water up but then it was too hot, so, I stayed up nearly all night waiting for it to cool down so, I could get a drink and wash myself.
That was the South Tonshan, that camp.
Len: Incidentally, whilst we were there, about eight or nine cattle appeared. We’d never seen cattle, but they were brought up for the Japanese, but the Japanese, the bits that they didn’t like, they gave to our cooks to cook. Now, the Jap officer in charge at South Tonshan was called ‘The Tiger’ and he wasn’t called ‘The Tiger’ for nothing. Everyone was scared of him and one morning, he came straight up to me and he said, “You, you, Cowboy”.
I knew nothing at all about cows. I’d been a town boy all my life, and he gave me these cows to look after, and then he said, “You find grass.” Where can you find grass in the jungle? Just to please him, I went around but bamboo is the grass of the jungle and it was close to 30 or 40 feet high.
Len: My cattle, I had to make it a corral for them, keep them in and there was one little brown one, and it had a calf, a little brown calf. Well, I tried to feed it on young bamboo leaves and the Japs used to take one away every so day, they would take one away and the numbers would go down. So, I kept the mother and calf to the last and when it was time for the mother to go, you’d have thought it knew, because that was the only time it wouldn’t come anywhere near me, and I, I had to go and chase after it and lasso it, and I managed to get a rope around it and then it set off. It ran right across the camp, right over the, the stream to the other side and dragged me back across the stream. All the Aussies were shouting, “Ride him, cowboy, ride him, cowboy,” and I didn’t know they could back heel, and my shins …. If I got near its hind quarters, that would back heel me, and I had to get treatment for me legs after that. So that was a change for me, being a cowboy.
Then came the order to move again. This time up to, that was South Toncham, we’re to move up to Tonchan. Now, Jackie, but the lad, I was at school with and good friend, he was suffering terribly with dysentery. I had malaria and the Japs lined us all up to go and thy told us to wait. We couldn’t go with them.
Well, we didn’t want to lose our friends. They were nearly all Sunderland lads, and our friends and when the Japs wasn’t looking, and he’d marched them off. Jack and I ran and got onto the end of the queue.
Every so often, Jack had to leave them, being, having dysentery, he had to leave and go into the, into the jungle and they would get farther away from us. The Jap in charge of us would come back and shout at us, and now, I would shout, “Itchiman ben banjo.” That was going to the toilet.
He’d get his stick out and threaten us and then when Jack went off the second time, the, the Japs came up at us again and in the end, he said, “No good, no good,” and he just waved his hand and they left us.
So, Jack and I were left to find our own way through the jungle which wasn’t too bad while it was daylight, but when it got dark, we didn’t know where we were, and we just kept feeling our way through the jungle and at last there was a light, and we saw this must be a camp there. So, we hurried on and there was a fire and the one man sitting at the fire, and talk of coincidence, as we approached the fire, Jack and I who’ve been to school together, the man at the fire said, “Hello, Jack, hello, Len.” He’d been at school with us. Three West Park lads all together.
He was so pleased to see us, and we were so pleased to see him, but then the mood changed because he told us of all our friends that had died in that camp, and some of them had been in our form at school. So that was Tonchan camp.
Once again, we’re out with picks and shovels and I don’t know what happened. I know it was really hot and I wasn’t feeling so good, and I woke up and I was in a hut and when I looked round, there was only one other man in this hut, and I said, “Where am I?” and an orderly said, “You are in the hospital hut.” I said, “What’s wrong with me?” and the M.O. came and he says, “Well, you’ve got typhus and you’ve got to starve for two weeks.” I said, “I’ve been starving now for months, never mind two weeks.” So, I had this typhus, just terrible headaches, terrible sweating and there was only this other one man. Now, I knew that was the hospital camp, because they had a thermometer. They took my temperature, 103, and they went to this other fellow, 103.
I never saw who he was, I would just hear what they were going on. The next morning, 104, 104, and so it went on for days and days, and then one morning, he came to me and he said, “103”, and they went to him and said, “104” and a voice said, “I beat you, you Pommy bastard!” And I knew he was an Australian.
From then on, we became good friends. Now never ever say things couldn’t be worse, because Conlin and Carney, my friends who had evidently, they’d carried me there, from the, the work. They came to see how I was getting on and I said, “Oh, things couldn’t be worse,” because I was really low, and just after they’d gone, two scorpions fighting in the atap dropped and only just, just about there, and both of them bit me.
Well, I went to the orderly, medical orderly and …. there were four little red holes and he said, “Well, I haven’t anything for scorpion bites,” and he painted me with some purple stuff, and he said, “Now, don’t lie down or you’ll die.”
I don’t know where he learnt his medicine but that was his advice. So, all night long, I just wanted round around the huts, sometimes clockwise, sometimes anti-clockwise, sometimes picking the guitar up and softly playing and singing to myself, but all the time, I was thump, thump, thump in my head, was thump, thump, thumping, even my arms kept thump, thump, thumping from this typhus.
It was worse than that the malaria, I’d had. I had malaria many times, but typhus was worse. So, I managed to get rid of that but, by this time, all my friends had moved further up country, and I was left on my own. Nobody to look after me and I heard that some of my friends were down at Tha Soa, so, I just slipped out and tried to find my way through the jungle on my own, following trucks to get down to Tha Soa, where, it was amazing. As I walked into the camp at Tha Soa, me very very very best friend came up and said, “Hell, Len.”
Now, I had a beard and he had a little pair of scissors, so my best friend, Wilf [White], he sat me on a tree stump, and he spent nearly half a day with the little scissors, getting rid of my beard for me.
While we were doing that, another person approached us, a skeleton, and they said, this skeleton said, “Hello Len, hello Wilf.” And we realized it was the third man of our group, that used to go together. He later became a Chief Inspector of the Police, for this area but at that time he was only about 8 stone, and you could see every bone in his body.
So that was Tha Soa.
Len: So, I made my own way down to Tha Soa ….
Len: …. and whilst there, I was sent …. I don’t know whether they were putting huge weights and they were knocking those things down into the ground. What do you think they would call that?
Michael: Well, were they piling?
Michael: Probably, and driving, driving piles into the ground, yes ….
Len: And, you had to pull on the rope one two three ….
Michael: …. and then drop ….
Len: …. let it go and it would thump down and …. I had malaria while I was on that and I was dying for a drink of water ….
Michael: Yes, quite.
Len: …. and when the Jap wasn’t looking, I went to get a drink, and, of course, I got caught and they hit me over …. over the head with, with a stick and nearly blinded me, in this eye. So, we were pleased when they announced that this railway was finished, and that we were going out of the jungle.
Well, they said we were going to go down by, by train. Well, really when I thought of all the sabotage, we’d done, I thought, “Well, I think I should walk instead of going on that train.”
Anyhow, I had malaria and they put me on the train. We went down to a …. out of the jungle, the plains of …. Thailand, and it was lovely just to see in the distance, especially as this place called Nakom Paton that was a sort of holy city of Thailand and there was a huge temple which was gold and when the sun was shining on that, it was brilliant. They called it a Wat.
And whilst they were still doing work, and coming off work, one day, a man came to me. I didn’t know who he was, and he said, “Is it you that’s got a guitar?” I said, “Yes.” He says, “If I can borrow a fiddle, can I come round to you?” So, that night after we had finished work, he turned up with the fiddle.
Now, there are about fifty in our hut, and he started off …. Well, he played for barn dances and ceilidhs in the Northumberland area, and in no time at all, we had everybody in that hut round us and then everybody in the next …. the adjacent, adjacent huts round us, and we just, the talent that came forward. We had a lad from Derbyshire to sound the Derby Ram. There was one from Lancashire sang, ‘Rawtenstall Annual Fair,’ which seemed of many verses, and so, we went on. The laughter and the singing went on.
Now, the Japanese trumpeter …. [cough] …. he blew the ‘Lights out.’ We didn’t hear it and it must have been about midnight when the Japanese officer had had enough, and he ordered out the Guard, and believe me, all these Japs with bayonets came charging at us, and the noise …. You know when you hear a stampede programme on a film, that thumping noise. That was the noise of the lads from us, running away.
Of course, the, the, the fiddle player who was called Jamison or Jamieson [almost certainly Jamieson] and he was from Northumberland. He and I were stopped with our instruments and there was only one man from our regiment in that hut and he was the only man in the hut that had a shirt, and the Japs were ready to march the violin player and …. when this lad, Macready, he says, “Len, borrow my shirt.”
And so, I borrowed his shirt …. the nights get cold out there, and the Japs gave us a beating, and then they stood us outside the guard room, and we had to put our instruments, and hold them above our heads.
Well, after a while, you’re tired and my guitar was on the top of my head, but still flat up there, I think.
Len: And he got his violin. I said to him, “I’ll swap you,” but he wouldn’t swap and every time the sentries changed, of course, they would come up, they would give us a clout and they would plink on our strings, and wonder why we could make so much noise ….
Len: …. with those just small strings, and they kept us there most of the night, and the next morning became, they said, “You go.” So, we went. I never saw Jamieson again.
Now, can I go forward about three years. I’ve got home safely and in hospital with another dose of malaria, I was in Ryhope General Hospital and I woke up, and there was the prettiest little nurse I’ve ever seen in my life, and that was it. I married her and we had 70 lovely years together …. absolutely wonderful years. So, I was lucky.
Now, we’re expecting our first child, and I was at college in Lancashire. So, I wanted to get home, it was November or December. I wanted to get home and see her because she was really getting on a bit, and so, I slipped out the college one night, got a bus to Preston, got a train from Preston up to Carlisle, and when I got into Carlisle station, it was absolutely miserable. It was cold, it was raining, there’s no one on the platform. It was like one of these ghost films that you see, and I was worried in case there wasn’t a train and I stamped up and down trying to keep warm.
And then suddenly, another person appeared about 30 or 40 yards up the platform, and of course, he must have had the same idea as me. He wanted this …. I wanted to ask him if he was going to be a trainee or …. and as he came up to me, he said, “Gibson” and I said, “Jamieson”.
After all those years, we’d met again. I mean we hadn’t seen each other from being outside that guard room until there on that horrible night, and of course, we had lots to tell each other when we got on the train, but unfortunately, he had to get off at Hexham and to this day, I regret the fact that I didn’t get his telephone number, or his address because Jamieson just became a memory for me. So, that was it in Nakom Paton.
And whilst there, it was Christmas time and I’d met up with someone from another regiment. What I used to do was to take the guitar when I had time and I used to go up and down the hospital huts and I didn’t know at the time, but I got a letter in 1957 [David had made earlier contact soon after the War – this was a follow up] from America to say that he was writing, this man was writing his memoirs and he came to the part where I saved his life, and his name was David Neville Ffolkes and it wasn’t until, and afterwards, that I learnt he was one of the finest stage designers in the world. Not only did he design in London, but the Americans persuaded him to go to America, and he did plays of Shakespeare on Broadway.
He made films like ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’, ‘Island in the Sun’, ‘Casino Royale’, and ‘Alexander the Great’. And wherever he was in the world he sent me, a letter or a postcard, and with the result that when my child was born, a boy, I called him after him, David Neville, David Neville Gibson.
And believe me, he was so grateful to me for saving his life, that while he was making a film, he took the trouble to come up to Sunderland to see his, his namesake ….
Len: …. David Neville. Unfortunately, he died in his sixties, David Neville but as I say, from all over the world, he sent me cards.
Now, when it came to Christmas, he decided he would make a crib, or they call of crib, a Nativity scene ….
Len: …. and I helped him with it and the things he thought of. He got bits of kapok and hung them by hairs to make like clouds in the sky …. terrific …. and the figures he did, that was amazing.
I was a a member of four …. E. W. Swanton was our bass singer, Turner was our baritone, he became Member of Parliament for Oxford later on, and then there was David Neville Ffolkes, this designer and me. I mean I was right, really in good company.
Len: And we decided on the hymns, the carols we would sing, and of course, they were from upper Church doing. They wanted to sing ‘Adeste Fideles’.
Len: Now, for all they were from, they were Majors and Colonels and Captains, I put my foot down. I said,” I’m, we’re not going to sing ‘Adeste Fideles’.” I said, “There are men coming down from the jungle that’s never sang a song in their lives, and they all know ‘Oh come All Ye Faithful’, and you want to deny them the privilege of singing ‘Oh come All Ye Faithful’.
So, we did sang ‘Oh Come all Ye Faithful’ but we’d got a gust of wind come and blew the candle on to the kapok and the kapok set the fire towards the thing ….
Michael: Oh, my goodness.
Len: …. and the thing went up in flames, but I have over there, a card which was for my birthday, January the 3rd and to say, “Happy Birthday and good New Year,” and it was from David Ffolkes, and he got an artist to make it, and if you see that card, it’s made out of bit, cards of cardboard boxes really, and when I looked at the …. carefully in the card, it shows you the name of the artist that did it, and Jack Chalker. He became known as the FEPOW artist, and I’ve got his book over there. He was really famous.
So, that’s just things that happened in Nakom Paton. The food was a little bit better and conditions were a little bit better and I was beginning to really enjoy what was going on.
And then, “Wanted, 1,000 men for another job.” The railway had been surveyed by Germans and British and was deemed too costly on human life, to bear it.
Well, we built it in no time at all, but sixteen thousand died. Now, I think the Japs were being beaten in Burma and they wanted a quick way out. So, they wanted a road built, right across Malaya just south of Thailand from Pratchaub Khiri Khan in Thailand to Mergui in Burma. So, it became known as the Mergui road.
One thousand of us set off, but 100 never even got there. They fell out on the …. the way there, and I think, after about a week’s work, more were dropping out and we had to build this through ….
We had to chop trees down, dig our way out and …. The jobs we had to do apart from digging out the road. We had to carry stuff. Now, we had two bullocks on bullock carts, and they took stuff up and down, and the bullocks, they couldn’t stand the pace and they died. So, who had to pull the bullock carts? We had to.
So, every morning, every morning, we used to get the bullock carts filled up, sometimes with ammunition which shouldn’t have been, and we had to go 10 kilometers to the next camp, pulling these bullock carts.
This part of the world was one of the worst in the …. known for leeches, and even as we were walking along, the leeches would climb onto our feet, and every so often, we had to open our toes out to get the leeches out.
We got them out if somebody had a cigarette …. would get a cigarette end another thing was to wet the thumb and stroke them and they came out, but you couldn’t pull them out, left their heads inside.
Another job we had, every day we had to chop down 30 young trees and put them on the road, because, of course, as soon as it rained, that road had no tarmac or anything down and the Japanese trucks were stopped in the mud.
You know we’d worked all day long and sometimes in the middle of the night, all men out, all men work, getting trucks out in the black of the night. We were covered with mud, pushing these trucks out of the, out of the …. So, the idea was to lay tree trunks down, for them to go over …. of course, they were rolling the …. the tyres were rolling the tree trunks around, but we had to do 30 young ….
I found out, after chopping three trees down, they didn’t fall …. because of all the liana’s and the stuff at the top that just swung like that. So, you had to be careful. So, you really chopped about 36 trees down to get your 30 and then you had to carry them, and put them on the, on the, the truck.
The oxen that had died, they were just left there, and of course, in no time at all, everything that was needed eating was there, and when we approached and anywhere near, you could see a cr…., it was like a cloud and it was all the things that were eating on these oxen and all of the, the flies around about. And there were these horse flies and of course, they would smell us ….
Len: We had no clothes on. We just had a Jap-happy and they would get on our backs and these horse flies, they were just like taking plugs out, as they bit into you. So, that was the only time we said, “Ready, go ….” and we ran as fast as we could, pushing these bullock carts to get past where all these horse flies were.
I got a job …. different one day. A Japanese fella came up to me and he said. “You follow me.” He took me down into the, the Japanese quarters …. Well, the quarters to their area and I didn’t know there was a Japanese officer there, and he was in a little hut on his own, and the Japs were scared of him and he had malaria.
So, they took me, and they told me to take his food, and take it to him. Right. So, I went to the Japs’ cook place, got his food, went to him, and he was lying there saying, “Ah malaria, ah malaria, ah malaria,” and I showed him his food and said, “Mushy, mushy ….” “Oh malaria.” So, I ate myself.
I suppose I was supposed to be like looking after him. Came the next mealtime, I went to the cooks. Now, I got another …. No, it wasn’t bacon and eggs or anything like that, but it was lovely fruit. So, I took it to him again and I showed him it and he said, “Ah malaria, ah malaria.” So, I ate that as well.
This went on for two or three days and then one breakfast morning, I was bringing …. and the fruit looked lovely, and I thought, I wonder what this bit tastes like, then there was a pink bit, and there wasn’t much left, and when I got to him, he was sitting up ready to eat his breakfast, very little left, so, he, he sent me, he played one about the cooks, sending this amount. [Laughing]
So, we did all kinds of jobs on that Mergui Road. We lost a man in the jungle called Yorkie, and we found him at night-time through …. really it was dark, and we were pushing the bullock cart up a bank and were all shouting, “Push, push, push,” and our shouting, he was in the jungle, lost and he heard it, and where I should, we hadn’t been able to find him, he found us because of our shouting, and he was covered with leeches, all round his ears and round his eyes and …. So, he was lucky to be found.
It was a time when there were so few people left. We didn’t know whether they were dying or being evacuated, but out of that one thousand at one time, there was a hundred and eighty of us in the top camp.
We don’t know what was happening further behind us, whether they died or whether …. and out of the hundred and eighty, most of them were in the hospital across the river, and at one time, there were 18 of us, able to stand up and we, of course, we had to boil water and take it to the fellows in hospital to keep them alive, and at one time, we was just standing there ….
The Japs didn’t come to make us do any work and the one, who was there, sort of …. he was their Secretary, he came up and he waved to us, and we gathered round. He said, “War finish, Englando-Japan shake hands, all men go home.”
Well, we couldn’t believe it. The Japs had told us so many lies in the past that we didn’t believe it, really, and then we had to then get ourselves out of the jungle, back to the main camp, which was there by the coast, Ratburi, they called it. So, it was another trek, and we got the sick men who could walk, who helped them down the road, and after two days, we didn’t walk down, we staggered down, and after two …. I still had me guitar round me neck, and they were saying, “Are you still carrying that thing? How can you still be carrying ….” and then some Eurasian lads dashed up to us …. and they were the medical orderlies to help us back to the camp, and one of them said, “Eeeh, you’ve got a guitar, can you play it? Will you play it to us? We haven’t heard music for …. and then, I went into this camp.
Well, that was called ‘Death Valley’ and no wonder, there weren’t any walls on the tents. It was just straight like that and the men, they couldn’t sit up, never mind anything, they were just lying, dying in these camps, and I, I went round each, each tent, and played and sang to them, and then, after a while, two or three days later …. what a man, coming to the camp.
He’s in uniform …. tall good-looking fella, strange uniform. The Yanks said, “He’s a Yank,” The Aussie said, “No, I think he’s Australian,” and when this man said, “Gather round chaps,” we knew he was British. His diff…., the uniform had changed. We’d been away for four years. You know, the green cap and things like that. And he said, “Gather round.”
Now, I had me dinner with me in my mess tin at the time, which was rice tea and gypo, and he was telling us that he was going to try and get us out as soon as possible, and he looked into my mess time and he says, “What on earth is that?” I says, “That’s our meal.” I said, “It’s the best we’ve had for four weeks.” He’d been talking to the Jap officer, and he picked my mess tin up and he threw it at the Jap officer, and he said, “Get these men something decent to eat.” And we knew then that the War had finished.
To treat a Japanese officer like that.
So, we waited for the Dakota to come and we had to clear then …. we had to work for ourselves then, clearing away the brushwood etc. And the Dakota came down, and meanwhile, I shouldn’t tell you this really, a young Aussie and I were talking. He said to me, “You know, he’s still got his rifle and bayonet. Are you sure the War’s finished?” I said, “Well, they say so.” He said, “I wonder what he’s guarding.” There was this row of sandbags. Well, when the Jap sentry went to have his smoke, the young Aussie and I went round to see what was there. There were bales of Thai silk and this young Aussie looked at them. He says, “You know, I’m getting married when I get home. My girl will look sweet in this,” and he picked one up as he went out. So, I thought, “Well, if he could take one, I could take one,” but I didn’t have a girl to get to get married to.” So, I went up to the village. You know, the money I got for that was amazing, and I got a basket full of eggs and a jar full of that pork fat …. I think they call it Ghee, or something.
Michael: Ghee, yes.
Len: …. and the money …. Now, I only wore me Jap-happy and when you got lots of money, and you only wear a Jap-happy, where do you keep your money? So, I stuffed all me money into me guitar.
Now when, when we got ready, the captain of the Dakota came and he said, “Now, I think we’ll be all right, but I don’t want any weight on the plane, because I don’t know whether I’ll be able to take off all right. So, taking him at his word, the only thing I had was my guitar, full of money and as I was walking towards the, the plane, there were a group of Thai youths. They’d never seen a plane on the ground before, so they were anxious to get as close as possible. And as I was passing, I said to one of them, “Presento,” and I gave him my guitar with all the money in. On the plane, I caught all their names and things in there [pointing to his little book] and reached Rangoon, crossing the tarmac to the first hut, and there, above that first hut, the first notice that would read for years, it said, “Bring your foreign currency here and we will honour it.” And I’d given all mine away.
And, it was inside this hut, we met European ladies for the first time, and we had knives and forks for the first time. We sat on chairs for the first time and we saw food that we hadn’t seen for, for many years. And I don’t think we could eat it properly for crying.
And there was ladies, looked after us, and then we were handed over to the Wrens and the Wrens wanted to practically carry us here and there. They were anxious to look after us …. and it was in Rangoon that we went to this hut to get shaved etc. and then I was put into, I think it was called St. John’s Convent and it was a sort of, looked like a Chapel on the main road. And I was put in there upstairs, and there was a, a nurse from Berwick and a nurse from Northern Ireland to look after us.
Well, they were officers, you know, so you have to salute them, because they were officer type and they gave me a good showering down.
Lady Mountbatten said she could smell us, the jungle was still on us and, anyhow, they showered me down. When they had me nice and clean, they gave me a pair of pyjamas and some slippers.
Eeee, I felt overdressed, I really did, and for something to do, I walked down the stairs to the main road, and there were people walking down, up and down and some soldiers …. and I looked and there, they had the D.L.I. badge on [Durham Light Infantry] ….
Michael: Oh yes.
Len: So, I said, “Are you from Sunderland?” “Oh, are you from Sunderland?” “Yes.” I was the only Sunderland man in that place, and they said, “Oh yes, there’s loads of Sunderland lads up this, up there at 5 Fahru [Believed to be the Far East Rehabilitation Centre]. So, not thinking I just turned, and I walked in my pyjamas and slippers about two miles up the main road in Rangoon to get to 5 Fahru.
Coincidence, once again, as I walked into that camp, well what should I see but Conlin, Carney, me mates from the concert party. So, what did I do?
I stayed there two or three nights. Was I in trouble when I got back to the Convent. Those two nurses, they gave me a right ticking off, and then they got me paybook and as one was sticking things in me, the other was writing down.
Then, I was sent up to 5 Fahru, and there, there were long huts with basins, where you could get washed, and there were, not mirrors but there were like silvery tin stuff, you could see yourself in, and I was having a shave, in cold water, of course, and the fella at the other side, because it was double …. He said, “Hello there, how’s ‘Monsoon’ getting on?”
Well, I didn’t tell you that while I was in the Camp [Nakom Paton], I wrote a piece of music, and I called it ‘Monsoon’ and my idea was, when I was in the jungle, I could feel a little bit of breeze for the first time. Then, I could hear things in the forest, the cicadas, then, then the bullfrogs and then the, the wind would get stronger and stronger, and then the rain would come pouring down, and I wanted to put all that into music, and I called it ‘Monsoon’.
Now in Nakom Paton, there was a man called Norman Smith, the, very old common name is Smith, but he was a very uncommon man. He was a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists. He was a fully qualified Chartered Accountant. He could write music as fast as I could write anything. He could remember, not only tunes but what the different instruments did in that particular tune, and he wrote music for us.
Now, we had four violins, two trumpets, clarinet, my guitar and a bass, made out of wood. And we played a variety of things, ‘Tales from the Vienna Woods’ one minute and then ‘Bounce me brother to a Solid Four’ the next, and then ‘Tourno a sorrento’ and then modern tunes like ‘Night and Day’ and things like that.
He was, it was amazing, and I was just enjoying that when, as I said, we had, I became one of the thousand that had to go up country.
So, this man, when we were having a shave, he said, “How’s ‘Monsoon’?” And a man further up said, “Where’s the man that wrote ‘Monsoon’?” I said, “Here.” He said, “Well, I’m in the band and we, we’re playing from Rangoon Radio Station tonight, and we are playing your piece in the band.”
But I didn’t hear it, because we had to get onto a ship called the Empire Pride, to be brought home. We had a terrible crossing of the Bay of Bengal.
At times, I was the only one that sat down to eat anything. I had to go to the galley and collect it myself, eat it myself, and take it back myself. All …. 14 to a table and I was having to take it all back. We arrived in Colombo and what a reception we got. Every ship in the harbour was doing the victory ‘V’ noise, “Did did did der, did did did der.” There were two bands on the quayside playing, people were waving, flags were flying. It made me proud to be British.
Spent two or three days in Rangoon [actually Colombo] and then we had to board the ship again to come home. And as we were leaving, what a rare send off was had. All the ships were, once again, sending …. of course, I could read Morse Code and they were sending “Bon voyage.” “Der dah did did di dah dah dah,” you know, and they’re sending Bon Voyage and they were hooting the Victory V-sign. The bands were playing, the flags were waving, and every ship in the harbour was signalling Bon Voyage. So, that was the start of our home coming.
Of course, we came through the Red Sea, which was an, and a rare experience. I’d read so many stories and heard so much about the blue Mediterranean. I was dying to see it. Believe me, I could hardly see the sea for the mist and the rain, and I passed Gibraltar without knowing and managed to get home in the docks at Liverpool.
Well, you know after 4, 4 years of …. we were dying to get back onto land and we were stuck on the ship for a day, and we wondered why we couldn’t get …. somebody says that there’s trouble with the dockers at Liverpool. I don’t know whether that was really the excuse, but it was a while before we did get off the ship in Liverpool, and some kind Liverpool people that had their own cars were waiting there and said, “Right, get in, we will take you to the camp and they took us out of the way to go through the main streets of Liverpool and we had the windows down and especially the women were coming right up and they were looking inside, and you know what they were saying? “Eeeh, they are only bairns ….” Well, there we were, all the experience we’d had, and they still thought we looked like children.
And we were taken to a place, what a name it was, ‘Poverty Lane’, and we were kept there while they examined us to see that we didn’t have any, anything that could be carried on to the population.
Now, from there, we had to wait again for a train and the train took us to Newcastle, and it was going to be another two hours before the next train to Sunderland, and then somebody shouted, “This way lads, and when we looked, one of our men, his son was a bus driver for Sunderland and he’d brought a double decker through, and it was outside Newcastle station. So, we all crowded on the double-decker.
Now, I don’t know whether it was official, this borrowing of the bus but he took us to the Town Hall in Fawcett Street, Sunderland and there we were met by the Mayor, and when he had said his little piece, they let the doors open for our relatives to join.
Well, my dad came in and before he could get to me there was a young woman came and jumped at me, put her arms around me, and let me down. I said to me dad [whispering], “Who’s this?” He said, “Well, it’s your sister, Jenny.” She’d been a schoolgirl when I left, and now she was a model for Binns. [Department Store in Sunderland]
So, the homecoming …. when I got to the street where I lived, the flags were out, all the neighbours were out. It was marvellous to be back home again. I kept calm …. right until about the second day. Out of my three sisters, two of them had been in the Land Army, and one had just been a schoolgirl, but she was then working, and we were sitting.
When we’d got rid of all the, the families and things like that, we were sitting quietly in the front room, my mother said to my sister, Jenny, “Right, you’re going to give him your surprise”, and she sat at the piano and she played the Warsaw Concerto so beautifully, that’s when I let the tears ….
Of course, I kept getting malaria, and every time I got malaria, they would take me to the Royal Infirmary and the Royal Infirmary would say, “We can’t treat malaria here,” and they would get an ambulance to take me up to Ryhope General Hospital, and it was there I opened my eyes and saw Ruby.
As I say, for seventy years, we had a marvellous life. We had a son and a daughter, the son is now in a village near Appleby, and at seventy-year-old, he bought an old wreck of a pub and he’s doing very very well with it. My daughter, she’s a retired headmistress and she comes up from Beverley every month, gets in my provisions etc., but it was then, you see I had no chance of being a teacher before the War, but I still had that ambition, and I always went to night school, four nights a week,
I used to finish work at the factory, five o’clock. By six o’clock, I’d been home, had me tea, got washed etc., changed and I was back at Sunderland College to do Science. I did Science, Maths, French and English, because I was still determined to go in for, for teaching.
But, one thing, we didn’t have any money as a family, but I was able to buy my own school uniform. I paid my own fees to go to night school. Any equipment I needed for night school, I paid for myself. I didn’t ask my parents for anything at all and they never had to tell me that it was time to go to church, time to go to choir, time to go to school.
Sometimes, I lived two miles away from the Church on a Sunday and I would run down. l’d get myself out of bed, me own breakfast, changed, run two miles to get down to Church on a Sunday morning. They never had to tell me to do a thing like that.
And people do now, when the talk to me to ask me what it was like, it was Hell being of Japanese prisoner of war.
In one of my books, where I was working on the Mergui Road, I said, I said, “This must be hell,” and yet, I can say now, I’ve had an absolutely marvellous life, and I would do it all over again. I would suffer the Japs, because of the lovely life I’ve had since.
Well, my dad taught me to play the banjo when I was ten, and as I spoke with Dad, my sister and I played …. through that when I was a prisoner, I wanted to banjo, but I made a guitar, and through that guitar, I taught my sisters to play the guitar and they were good singers, and we went round. I think we entertained every Over-60s Club and every Old People’s Club in the Northeast.
We had a marvellous time doing good and making other people laugh and sing.
Michael: Just a question that I could ask, I mean, you were making up perhaps for various things but if you were to think back to the Japanese now, could you ever forgive them?
Len: The Japanese now, yes, I think I might, because the sins of the children should not be …. the sins of the father should not be on the children. I’ve had …. One thing I did, through playing the guitar …. I, I think I was the first teacher in England to teach music using a guitar and not a piano, and then HMI saw me doing it and said, “Why can’t you teach other teachers to do that?” So, I used to take a summer school at Neville’s Cross College, and I used to, in my class, oh, I’ve got pictures of them. There will be 30 or so in the class, 6 nuns, 6 head teachers and the rest, teachers, and it was amazing.
So that this from being 10-year-old, teaching the banjo, it took me right through so many different things ….
Michael: Yes …. and really, is this your music that’s kept you going, I guess?
Len: I would say so yes ….
Len: I mean, all the time we were prisoners of war, even when we were working, we’ll be thinking ideas of what to do next. Thinking of different stories, we could tell ….
Len: …. and we would probably be singing and practising our songs while wielding a hammer ….
Michael: Hmm, well I think we’ll finish at that point but Len, thank you very much indeed.
Interview recorded by Michael Thompson, Hardy Productions UK, Manchester, for WarGen. Transcription by Michael Thompson based on YouTube sub-titles.
Questionnaire 16191 – Summary of camps, detachments or hospitals he was in.
[Ref: Children of FEPOW Research Database https://lq-cofepow.org/products/gibson-leonard-2]
BDR Leonard Gibson, no. 919805. 125th Anti-Tank Regiment, R.A. 18th Division.
Captured in Singapore, 15 February 1942.
|Camp or Hospital||Dates||Camp Leader||Detachment or Block Leader (if any)|
Feb – Apr 1942
Apr – Oct 1942
Col. Heath, 9th Coast R.A.
Oct – May 1943
May – Sept 1943
Sept – Apr 1944
Apr – Apr 1945
Col Lilley, Foresters
Col McKella, 118 Field R.A.
Col Knights, Norfolks
Col Saynter, Malay Volunteers
|Various camps on Mergui Road||Apr – Sept 1945||Major Bennet, R.A.M.C.|
Liberated in Thailand on 30th August 1945.