SINGAPORE (AP) – Swapping creased black and white photographs of Japanese soldiers and emaciated men, former prisoners of war gathered on Friday to mark the 60th anniversary of the fall of Singapore.
The old soldiers – some in wheelchairs and many with walking sticks – braved the tropical heat to pay respects to fallen comrades and tell tales of indomitable spirits who suffered starvation and other forms of torture in Japanese labor camps during World War II.
Sixty years ago today we were taken prisoners of war and had to hand in our weapons, which is heart-breaking for a soldier, said Charles George Peall, a Briton who spent two years working on the infamous Thai-Burma railway where he went from 175 pounds to less than 100 pounds.
No you cant forgive, he said at the opening of a new war memorial at Singapores Johore Battery. All you can do is pay homage.
Peall, 85, was joined by dozens of former POWs from New Zealand, Australia and India at several memorial ceremonies to mark Singapores fall – an event former Prime Minister Winston Churchill once called the greatest disaster in British history.
Scores of Singaporean school children attended the opening of the battery and swarmed around the former Allied POWs who told war stories and urged them to remember war and to aim for peace. Singapore Trade and Industry Minister George Yeo said war memorials had become more important since Sept. 11.
Singapore was believed to be an impregnable fortress because the island was so heavily fortified against potential enemies sailing in from the south. The Japanese hacked their way through dense jungles in the north and came into Singapore from behind.
The Japanese took about 123,000 British, Australian, Indian and Malayan soldiers and civilians prisoner and forced many to work on the Thai-Burma railway from the River Kwai in western Thailand to Burma.
Sixty years ago, Jimmy Chew, 77, tried to escape to Australia with his Royal Air Force unit when their boat sank near Java in Indonesia. Chew, a Singaporean who started fighting with the British when he was 15, said another soldier gave him a rifle but he didnt know how to shoot because he was a technician not a soldier.
I was the only Asian POW among the British, he told The Associated Press. They (the Japanese) wanted to know why I have yellow skin and joined the British. I really got bashed around. They called me a traitor.
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Some men said they had forgiven the Japanese for war time atrocities, but said they could never forget.
Jack Edwards, 83, has not forgiven.
I want retribution, that is why Im here, the Welshman said. They should at least apologize. They should say yes we were wrong.
Edwards is the author of Banzai You Bastards, a book about the years he spent in a Japanese copper mining labor camp in Taiwan. Edwards said his dreams came true recently when his book was published in Japan.
The prisoners working in the mine were starved, beaten, kept almost naked and humiliated repeatedly, he said.
Conditions on the 260-mile Thai-Burma railway were also inhumane. The Death Railway was so named as its construction cost the life of one Allied POW for every 25 yards of track completed.
In all, approximately 68,000 Allied prisoners and 200,000 Asian laborers worked on the 16-month project to build the railway through dense jungle and treacherous terrain. The combined death toll was about 96,000, including an estimated 16,000 Allied POWs.
Peall said he was so emaciated and sick when he was finally released that his wife didnt recognize him. She wore a red coat and a red hat to pick him up at a London train station and looked right past him.
She was pretty as a picture, he said. Im very proud, and very happy and very lucky – in that order.
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