World War 2 Horrors Faced By ‘Forgotten Army’ In Asia


“Some of the other prisoners tried to escape but they were caught. Their heads were chopped off in front of us so we would not think about doing the same thing.”

Syd Tavender, 93, from Cheltenham, still has nightmares about his experience as a Japanese prisoner of war (PoW) during World War II.

By 15 August 1945 – the date Japan formally surrendered – 90,332 Britons had been killed, taken prisoner, wounded or were classified “missing, presumed dead”.

Sixty-five years later, Mr Tavender will be among the thousands gathered across the UK marking the day World War II was officially recognised to be over.

Events taking place include remembrance ceremonies at the Cenotaph in London and the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

And although Europe celebrated with VE Day when the Germans surrendered in May 1945, those left fighting in Asia felt they had become the “Forgotten Army”, forced to fend for themselves with very few supplies.

Mr Tavender was captured in 1942 while fighting with the Gurkha regiment at the Battle of Slim River in what was then known as Malaya.

He was initially sent to the Pudu Prison in Kuala Lumpur before becoming one of the estimated 61,000 Allied PoWs and 270,000 Asian labourers forced by the Japanese to build the notorious “Death Railway” linking Thailand to Burma.

He said: “It was horrific – there were around 6,000 of us in the camps at one point and by the time we were released, the number fell to 127.

“People would get cholera, typhoid and dysentery but there was no medical treatment. Often they had to amputate, but it was no use.”

He said the prisoners had made a secret radio and, when they could, one would sneak out, and listen to transmissions before sharing the information with the others.

But it was only when the Japanese and Korean guards disappeared did the survivors realise the situation in the wider world had changed considerably and the Allied forces were celebrating their victory.

“The Allied forces parachuted in to come and get us – I think about three or four days after the final surrender.

“We were in such bad condition. I could hardly walk and had sores all over my body I had contracted chronic dysentery and malaria.

“By that point, I weighed 5st 9lb and every bone in my body was visible.”

It took months before he was able to return to his family in the UK – who at one point had been informed that he was presumed dead and so had begun grieving for him.

“I was flown back in the dead of the night but all I could focus on was forgetting everything.

“I just wanted to get home and get cleaned up. I was granted leave straight away and given a ration book so I could get basic supplies.”

“I’ll never forget what happened to me. I still have nightmares now.

“We were the forgotten army right from the word go – [Prime Minister Winston] Churchill gave up on us as nobody was able to get through those jungles.”

Mr Tavender now spends much of his time fulfilling his role as chairman of St Dunstan’s Prisoners of War – a charity he became involved in when he lost his sight eight years ago.

The widowed father-of-two said it was important for him to remember those who had died but whenever he met those who had shared similar experiences to him, they did not dwell on the past but focused on the lives they had now.

This is a stance that fellow veteran Stan Roberts, 94, said he was also planning to follow when he meets members of the Java Far East Prisoners of War organisation at its remembrance service in Stratford-upon-Avon’s Memorial Gardens.

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During the war, he left his pregnant wife and young children behind to fight with 77th Heavy Ack Royal Artillery.

He was just 26 years old when he was captured in 1942 and taken to Java and then on to Moji, on the Japanese island of Kyushu.

“They put us to work straight away. Many of those captured with me were forced to work in the coal mines while I had to help put together electrical motors.”

Mr Roberts also had only scant, second-hand knowledge about the way the war was progressing in Europe and nearby.

Even when US aircraft dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki days before the Japanese surrender, the prisoners remained ignorant.

“We knew nothing – we heard a thrashing sound, but that was all,” he said of the moment he believes he heard the bombs fall.

“It was only afterwards that everything fell into place.”

He said the prisoners were elated when they discovered their guards had disappeared and the Allied forces turned up.

“Sometimes we did feel that we had been forgotten about.

“It was a weird time as we had no idea what was happening. So many people had died and had contracted diseases.

“I was just very lucky to have survived.”

And while at the VJ Day commemoration at the Cenotaph in London, Vic Knibb will be reflecting on his experiences fighting in Burma.

The 85-year-old from West Molesey in Surrey was serving with 4th Battalion Royal West Kent.

He arrived just after the Allied forces success in the Battle of Kohima, which thwarted Japanese plans to retake Burma and enter India – a key target.

Mr Knibb, who is heavily involved with the Burma Star Association, said: “We were living in the jungle, travelling from Mandalay to Rangoon and clearing the area of the Japanese forces.”

His troop barely had any rations or water and had to deal with the threat of Japanese soldiers.

“We had some idea of what was happening outside our bubble. We would get letters from our families but often these were censored.

“Sometime my parents would send me a copy of the paper but it would be so out of date by the time I received it, it didn’t always help,” he said.

Mr Knibb returned to England a few months before VJ was declared and was outside Buckingham Palace when some of his compatriots took part in a victory parade in front of the Royal Family.

But he said when victory finally came it was bittersweet.

He said: “It was important for me to be there at the parade. I had been away for three and half years and this was a chance for the ‘forgotten army’ to be recognised.

“Thousands of people died and we should never forget what these people sacrificed.”

•Dhruti Shah wrote this piece for the BBC.

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