Prisoner of war interview

Part two of an interview with Japanese prisoner of war Alfred Peterson published in the Spenborough Guardian in 2005.

TORTURE, starvation and exhaustion were the only realities for POWs as they built the Burma-Thailand railway.

"It was perpetual hunger unless you got malaria," remembers Alfred, who caught the disease 12 times.

"For the first day you shivered like hell. The next you'd have a very high temperature. By the fourth day it started to go down and on the fifth you were back at work.

"All that time you couldn't eat, you were not hungry."

The Allied prisoners – 60,000 in total – had no idea how long they would be held captive.

"It kept on and on," explains Alfred.

"I knew a 45-year-old man with a wife and children. One day he told me that his family were well cared for and he'd had a good life. He said he didn't know why he was carrying on putting himself through this pain.

"The next morning he was dead."

More than 16,000 died in the year it took to build the railway, but Alfred never lost hope.

"I was always looking for that day of freedom. I was a virgin and there was no way I was going to die a prisoner having not sampled the pleasures of life. Plus I had a brother to look after."

As a medic, he avoided the near-constant torture endured by those laying the tracks, but faint white scars on the 80-year-old's legs are a daily reminder of the beatings he took.

"It was part of my everyday work. I got bayoneted. They'd lash out with whatever they had – a hammer, a stick or a bamboo shoot."

Working in the hospital camp had other advantages, says Alfred.

"There were no bandages but I had these tablets called MMB693. If I crushed them I could make a paste which would seal a wound. I had private patients from the cook house. They'd pay me with a rissole and some fresh veg, which I‘d share with my brother."

The railway was finished in October 1943, giving the Japanese a route towards India ready for a planned invasion. Alfred's troop, F-Force, then marched across Thailand to a POW camp at Kanchanaburi.

He remembers the toilets being trenches 5ft deep.

"Once, I saw one fella fall in – he was covered in excrement and asked me to pull him out. I told him there was no chance, but I did go and get his friends."

In December 1943, F-Force headed back to Singapore, Alfred's homeland.

For the first time since falling into enemy hands, he and his brother William parted during the final leg of the journey.

"We boarded different trains thinking we'd have a better chance of seeing our mother. We missed her and our sisters so much – we just wanted to tell our mama we were alive."

Alfred arrived in Changi, Singapore, without seeing his mum, and would have to wait to be reunited with his brother, who was taken to a different camp. Having spent the best part of a year in the same tattered shorts, the starving prisoners had become a banquet for parasites.

"We were taken to hospital, de-loused and issued with clean clothes.

"I went to bed but couldn't sleep because I wasn't used to a mattress – it was too soft and I was sweating cobs. I got up and put my blanket on the floor and slept. The next morning I woke up and saw everyone else had done the same."

He and 20 others were sent from Changi to Kranji to prepare a site for a hospital.

"I remember there were cats all over the place in Kranji, so we'd eat them. They tasted so beautiful to us – like rabbit. After we'd prepared the site, there wasn't a single cat left," recalls Alfred.

Three months elapsed before he was back with his brother. William was brought to Changi for treatment, his foot paralysed by beri-beri due to lack of fresh food.

How the brothers envied POWs working in the Japanese cook house, a shade of colour back in their cheeks. Eventually, Alfred got the job.

"It meant I was on Japanese time – 15 hours a day – but I didn't care. I could eat the food and trade on the black market."

One day he was presented with a golden opportunity.

He explains: "Only the Japanese Commandant had a key for the cook house, but one time he left it on the table.

"I saw my chance and printed it into a piece of soap. My friend Ronnie Hant knew some engineers who got a copy made – it cost us tobacco and food. When we tried it, it actually worked. After that, we would sneak into the cook house at three or four in the morning and smuggle out sugar and flour.

"All I had to wear was a G-string but it's amazing what you can hide in one of those!"

Once, he was caught out when a Chinese cook was found trading a pair of socks and revealed Alfred as his source. What followed was one of his darkest moments in captivity.

"I was dragged out of bed in only my G-string. I got a beating and then had to bow to a Japanese sergeant called Yoskaro. Then another beating and I had to bow again – I could take the beating, it was the bowing that did me. To this day I will not bow to anyone."

For the next 10 days he was locked in a cage barely big enough for his 5ft 7ins frame.

"They would not let me sit down, even at night. I was on half rations and there was nothing I could do to stop the mosquitoes eating me."

Afterwards, Alfred maintained that the only way to survive was to take chances: "Those who took a risk were the ones that lived and got out."

Days turned into weeks, weeks into months. As the war in Europe ended, the Japanese fought on. Alfred could never count the number of friends he'd watched die, but the events which stole his youth did not break him.

On August 6 1945, the Americans dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, putting an end to the war.

The prisoners had a tiny radio kept hidden from the Japanese by three or four entrusted men.

"They would report back to our commanding officer but everything had to be censored. Could you imagine our reaction if we'd have known they'd dropped the bomb? We'd have cheered like hell and the Japs would have had us."

It wasn't until after the Japanese surrender nine days later that Alfred heard what had happened.

The Allied soldiers stayed under enemy control for another two weeks, though the guards became lame ducks.

He was allowed to see his mother, and using his key to the Japanese cook house – this time in broad daylight – he took her a huge hamper of food.

"I got out of the camp and made a bee-line for home – it was 12 miles. I was over this world to see her and my sisters."

Alfred didn't take the immediate discharge he was offered and a month later was told he could go anywhere in the world. He chose England, seeing it as a holiday. And so after a month or more at sea, he and Ronnie Hant docked at Liverpool, then made their way to barracks in Crookham.

It was during five days' leave that he first visited Bradford with three-and-a-half-years' back-pay in his pocket - and he had the time of his life. In fact he enjoyed the city so much that it was the only place he wanted to settle upon his discharge in 1946. By then his brother had arrived with the merchant navy – and they were joined by their mother and sisters four years later.

In 1949, Private Alfred Peterson was awarded the BEM. He also earned two medals and two stars.

Marrying his first wife Irene in 1948, they had three children before separating in 1955.

Alfred met his second spouse Jackie while working as a credit controller at the Provident Financial Group, where typically he helped to start a union.

They had a child and settled in Scholes eight years ago.

Just before moving, the couple were invited to the Queen's Garden Party – but Alfred refused.

"I have nothing against the Queen, but I could not face bowing to her or anyone."

The indignity inflicted by Yoskaro remains more than a memory, though the sergeant was later sentenced to four years in jail for war crimes.

To this day, Alfred won't allow anything Japanese into his home.

Looking back, he believes he would not have survived much longer as a POW: "The Japs had ordered all prisoners to be killed. If the bombs hadn't been dropped, we would all have been dead. It saved far more than it took.

"People talk about all those the bomb killed, but they should remember all my friends who were tortured and died."

In October, Alfred and Jackie go back to Singapore thanks to the National Lottery Heroes Return programme.

It's not the first time he has returned to his homeland – but at 80 years old it could be his last.

"The first time we went back was in 1984 and it had completely changed. We saw the gravestones of friends – they were all so young, all in their twenties."

The couple plan to visit the Kranji cemetery, where all the British and Australian POWs are buried.

The trip won't do anything to stop the nightmares which haunt him – nothing could. Some things can never be forgotten.


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  2. Wow. Amazing interview. Kind of puts things back into perspective.