Hell on the Burma Railway
by David Hall
In memory of Sgt Stanley Wells, 3854915, 2nd Bn, The Loyal Regiment (North) Lancashire). Died 21 September 1944, aged 29
War gives birth to heroes – some for their bravery in action, and others for the sheer courage it sometimes takes to stay alive. But only recently did I learn of the stamina and horrific history of an ordinary Burnley boy who signed on for duty before the start of the Second World War.
I was helping a friend, Fred Wells, from Burnley, discover what did happen to Stanley, his older brother. Fred himself was in the army at the time Stanley died and was only told that he had died in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.
Fred still has the medals Stanley earned, and the memories of a brother who often asked him to help with various jobs, and then treated him to a visit to the cinema.
Stanley Wells, then from 7 Cavour Street – now a street devoid of houses in Stoneyholme, Burnley – joined the Army to serve seven years with the option of doing another five should he be called upon to do so. In fact he had almost finished his seven years when he became another victim of a cruel war.
Stanley, a sergeant with the 2nd Battalion, The Loyal Regiment (North) Lancashire, was sent to Palestine to help quell the Arab uprising from 1936 to 1939, facing armed gangs of Arab terrorists.
In 1938 he was promoted to lance corporal – with an entry in the August 1938 edition of the Lancashire Lads Regimental Magazine.
The troubles in Palestine had hardly finished when he was sent to Singapore and it was there that he and his comrades were confronted with what Sir Winston Churchill called “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history” as Lt- Gen Percival, the British General Officer Commanding, was forced to surrender, stating that the loss of food, water, petrol and ammunition made it impossible to carry on the struggle.
The Loyals, alongside Indian and Australian troops, fought rearguard actions until Singapore itself was under siege and the final surrender took place.
Stanley was taken to Changi Prison – built before the war to house 600 – along with up to 12,000 men, women and children.
Some months later he was among prisoners packed into open cattle trucks – 35 to a truck with little food and no toilet facilities on a five-day trip to Ban Pong followed by a 220- kilometre forced march through bamboo jungle to No 2 Camp Songkurai, Thailand, near the Burmese border. For 17 nights the men dragged themselves along, often in clothing sodden to the skin and covered in mud, sleeping in jungle clearings.
They arrived at what was subsequently called the worst of the Burma Railway death camps, with the highest death toll. The camps subsequently became the subject of the 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai which starred Alec Guinness. Stanley was among 1,680 prisoners building a three-span wooden bridge over the Huai Ro Khi River. The camp started with three roofless huts but was gradually enlarged by the prisoners. The cookhouse was 400 metres away and the hospital 730 metres with the isolation hospital (for cholera victims) more than a kilometre away. Food had to be carried to these places from the cookhouse along slippery footpaths with no containers provided by the Japanese.
Men worked in the fast flowing river up to their armpits to haul huge logs and pile drive them into position with ropes, blocks and tackle. They started work at five in the morning and finished at
nine at night, using stone to create an embankment as well as the wooden bridge.
Cholera struck, giving many an emaciating frame. Boiled river water and salt was the only treatment.
Stanley sent three postcards through the British Red Cross – the last two from No 2 prisoner of war camp, Thailand. They were small cards with text in which he had to select which line was relevant and cross out the others. It is obvious that prisoners had to say they were being treated well, otherwise the postcard would never be sent or there would be serious repercussions.
Even then his bravery showed through. On the first of his cards, dated 3rd July, 1942, he wrote: “Dear mother, I am quite well, hoping all are the same at home. Many happy returns of the day on the 8th July ‘42. Your loving son, Stanley.”
On the second he left the phrase “my health is good” in, crossing out “poor”, and “I am ill in hospital.” He also left in the words “I am working for pay” crossing out “I am paid a monthly salary” and “I am not working.” He then simply said: “My best regards to all.”
On the final card, he included the same necessary lines, adding, “Your Red Cross gifts are received with thanks” and with best regards to his family, naming each member.
He died on September 21, 1944 – but not in the camp. After the railway bridge had been built he was in a group of 1,289 British and Dutch prisoners fit enough to travel who were earmarked to be shipped to Japan to provide cheap labour – all of them on board one of the so-called Japanese Hell Ships, the Hofuku Maru. The Japanese refused to give any indications that the Hell Ships included prisoners, which made them fair game for the American aircraft, anxious to defeat the enemy after the devastation of Pearl Harbour, some three years previous.
The vessel sailed from Singapore to Miri, Borneo, on July 4th, 1944, as part of Convoy SHIMI-05 consisting of ten ships, five of which carried a total of 5,000 POWs.
At Borneo, the Hofuku Maru left the convoy with engine problems – a boiler had burst – and sailed on to the Philippines, arriving on July 19th. She remained in Manila until mid-September while the engines were repaired. The POWs remained on board, suffering terribly from disease, such as beri-beri, hunger, and thirst. About 90 per cent were reckoned to be incapacitated by illness.
In his record of the journey, Corporal Jack Symon of the Royal Norfolk Regiment, who survived, said: “We were then left as the rest of the convoy sailed on. In that time our doctor on board, who was Welsh, performed an operation on one of our soldiers, something had gone wrong with his insides. This was done by candlelight in the hold and we all watched this being done. What an experience that was, to see a man’s whole stomach just lying there. Fortunately he recovered and great praise was given to the doctor. Unfortunately the doctor himself died on the ship.”
On September 20, 1944, the Hofuku Maru and ten other ships formed Convoy MATA-27, and sailed from Manila to Japan. The following morning, the convoy was attacked 80 miles north of Corregidor by more than 100 aircraft from an American carrier. All eleven ships in the convoy were sunk.
The Hofuku Maru was hit by three bombs and sank in under five minutes. With most of the prisoners unable to escape from the hold, 1,047 of the 1,289 British and Dutch POWs on board died.
The Singapore Memorial, looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, includes Stanley’s name. They provide an on-line certificate “In memory of Sergeant Stanley Wells, 3854915, 2nd Bn., The Loyal Regiment (North Lancashire) who died on 21 September 1944, aged 29. Remembered with Honour.”
His name appears on column 72 of the Singapore Memorial which stands in Kranji War Cemetery, 14 miles north of the city, on the north side of Singapore Island, overlooking the Straits of Johore. His name is also on a memorial to those who died on the ill-fated Hofuku Maru.
Stanley was posthumously awarded several medals including The War Medal, given to everyone who served from 1939 to 1945; The Pacific Star, for service in that area; the Italy Star, a Defence Medal, and the General Service medal for service in Palestine before the start of the Second World War.
Those small medals are reminders of a man who gave his life for his country, suffering unspeakable treatment for something like 31 months.
To many he was simply Sergeant, to some just a service number, 3854915, but to his brother, Fred, who still remembers him with affection, he was a brave, heroic soldier-brother who did not deserve such suffering or death.
He will be remembered.