A Glimpse at a Remarkable Life

The family of the late Tom Singleton have kindly shared his war memoirs. Tom was an Egremont lad and, despite his dreadful war experiences, survived and had five children. Our thanks to his family for sharing this poignant diary

Tom and Phyllis

Tom and Phyllis

It was after we’d been stationed in England for two years that we were finally hustled aboard ship. Destination unknown. That was in the October of 1941. After sailing nearly all round the world without incident we were landed at Singapore, early in January 1942.

Practically the first words I heard were, “We haven’t got a dog’s chance” and was later to find them true for we had nothing but ground troops with no tanks or planes to support us.

We were moved to the edge of the island facing Jahore, watching and waiting. One evening we heard a rumour that a small party of Japs had landed, only to find out in the morning that an invasion force had landed and was pushing our forces back.

We were engaged with an enemy that we rarely saw. On February 13th, we were told to withdraw to the outskirts of Singapore city, as it was being evacuated. But on the following day were told to advance again, as the biggest part of the civilians would not leave.

We battled on, both sides suffering heavily, until finally on February 15th we had to give up.

Two days later, full of bitter disappointment, we had to assemble at a certain point to be marched back to barracks.

We were allowed to move about freely for a time, then the Japs clamped down on us. They asked our divisional commander to sign to the effect that no Prisoner Of War would try to escape.

When he refused, all sick personnel were moved to a compound far too small for them to move about in. In the end, to save them suffering, he had to sign (which really meant nothing to us) and the pressure eased.

After a week or two, we were sent to the docks as a working party, loading and unloading boats. We were put on rice rations.

Later on, I was sent to Thailand with a party to help build a railroad, which was to be known later as the railroad of death. We worked from dawn till dusk, in the boiling hot sun or rain. The Japs did not care as long as they got the work done. Lack of vitamins led to me having beri-beri, an ailment which fills you with water.

I was sent back to base camp, where I had to do odd jobs. During my stay at the camp, I witnessed on average 15 burials a day, caused through different diseases. Then cholera struck. We would go to bed, not knowing whether we would be alive in the morning or not.

We were all a bit scared, but the Japs more so. The death rate was getting high through the dreaded disease and all the bodies had to be burned, so we had to go out and gather wood for that purpose. As we stacked our wood on the roaring fire the sight of our comrades’ bodies burning, and stench of human flesh sickened me.

A month or two later I volunteered for a party to go to Japan to work. The reason I volunteered was to get some clothing as my only garment was half a towel which I wrapped around my waist, and it was infested with body lice and bugs which we could not get rid of.

We shortly left the camp feeling quite happy, having new clothes and feeling nice and clean again. We arrived at Singapore docks, where we stayed a few days before embarking on an old cargo boat which was loaded with tin ore.

Eventually we put out to sea in a convoy of five boats.

After a day or two at sea our fresh water ration was cut off and all we had to drink was tea boiled in salt water, and our food was also cooked in it. That consisted of rice and seaweed which took some eating. This had an effect on the health of the chaps.

The old boat, with its far too heavy load, developed engine trouble and all it could do was limp into Manila where the Japs unloaded the ore onto another boat.

By this time we had had one or two deaths and the bodies were wrapped in rice sacks and left lying on the deck in the boiling sun for two days. The smell was vile.

At last we put to sea again and for some reason we sailed by day and anchored at night, and every day brought more deaths. I was moved to the bottom hold, which the Japs called the sick bay, as I still had beri-beri.

On the morning of the third day, rumours were going around that the Yanks were going to raid the convoy and it proved to be true.

I had just finished my breakfast when I heard machine-gun fire and a second or two later there were three thuds and terrific vibrations. Almost at once we were standing knee deep in water.

I struggled to get my life jacket on (and I could not swim a stroke). I got it halfway on when I was swept off my feet as the hold filled with water and I went up with it, the life jacket keeping me afloat.

At last I could go no further up as the hatchway was closed and I knew there were stacks of rice on top of it. My head was bumping against it with every movement of the water, all at once there was a violent suction and I was spun around and around and down I went.

I was aware of hands trying to grasp at me, I came up only to go down again, and then up I came again right along the side of a plank of wood. I flung my arms around it and thanked God for saving me.

I looked around me and could only see a handful of men swimming and clinging on to wreckage, like myself.

By this time I found out I had been stripped of all my clothes, including shoes and life jacket. I could see no boats but after a while a lifeboat came on the scene and some of our boys swam towards it.

As they did so the Japs in it raised their rifles to fire at them, so they decided to stay in the water.

I was not safe by a long way; one of the remaining cargo boats loomed up and came straight at me. I could not get out of the way as my legs were stiff, so I could not splash them to help me. It hit the plank of wood and I scraped along the side of it feeling the swish of its prop as it went past.

It was just getting dusk now and I had been in the water nearly all day and I was just about all in when some Filipino fishing boats came on the scene and picked all of us up.

We sailed all night and early next morning the Americans returned and machine-gunned us. Luckily, we escaped damage. Once again I prayed and thanked God for sparing me.

That night we arrived in Manila harbour and were sent to Bilibid POW camp. I was clothed and put to bed and stayed there six weeks, as I could not walk.

I found out that about four fifths of our boat had gone under.

A Jap doctor was experimenting on us, so we were told, to see how little food we could live on. Six ounces of dried rice a day, that was for two meals a day. I never knew what hunger was until then.

This went on for four months until the American Liberation Forces released us.

The end of a long nightmare, so it seemed.