Remembrance Sunday -meet the 'railway men': Comrades gone, but not forgotten

Today, as every day, Eddie Howlett and Clar Hedley, prisoners of the Japanese, remember those who never came home

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The Independent Online

They were the "railway men". In the intense heat of the Thai and Burmese jungles, they suffered and died in their thousands. For years they kept their counsel, refusing to describe the horrors of their captivity even to their families.

The best known was Eric Lomax, who died last month and whose story will be told in The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, next year. Based on his autobiography, it describes Lomax's years as a Far East prisoner of war (FEPoW) working on the Thai-Burma railway, the torture he endured and his subsequent journey to Japan, decades later, to confront one of his captors. Firth describes it as "an immense story".

As Remembrance Day dawns, two of the surviving railway men will think of Lomax and the many brothers in arms they lost. Clar Hedley, 91, and Eddie Howlett, 95 last week, live just six miles apart in Amble and Broomhill, Northumberland, but met for the first time last year. It is more than 70 years since they, along with Lomax, were taken captive in Singapore.

The pair recall the horrors they endured in different ways. Clar brings newspaper cuttings and photographs to our meeting. Eddie's family reveal that he never discussed life in the camps – and they chose not to find out. But Eddie eventually opens up a little.

Clar was part of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers force that fought its way into Singapore but arrived to find "chaos". One week later, in February 1942, General Arthur Percival surrendered in the largest capitulation in British military history.

After eight months at Changi PoW camp, Clar was among thousands of captives herded into a goods wagon and sent on a four-day, 1,000-mile trip to Ban Pong, Thailand, the terminal point for all PoW trains from Singapore.

"They left the doors open for air and one other thing," remembers Clar. "If you wanted to do your business, you needed at least two people hanging on to you." Lomax described it in his memoir as "the most undignified experience of my life".

The men were taken on to Tamarkan and were then forced to march through a monsoon and 110F heat until they reached their base camp a further 50 miles away at Tarsao. Clar's boots disintegrated during the trek. "Someone the other day told me to be careful on the way to the post office as it was wet. Wet? Bugger off, I said, this isn't wet."

"We hacked our way through grass, trees and bamboo day after day until we met the party that was clearing towards us," said Clar. Their next task was constructing the Wang Po viaduct, under the watchful eye of a sadistic Korean guard. "He was always making people stand in the river, up to their necks and throwing bricks at them, or making them stand to attention in the sun. Hard labour doesn't do it justice," says Clar, waving his hefty walking stick. "This is thin compared to what they whacked you with."

Eddie, a butcher from Islington, north London, enlisted with the Royal Norfolk Regiment in 1941 and got married just before he was posted abroad. After the Battle of Singapore, his wife, Vera, did not know her husband was still alive for two years.

Eddie was one of the 7,000 soldiers – 3,400 British and 3,600 Australians – who made up F Force, the "expendable shock force" as Lomax described them, who were sent to complete the line earlier than planned. Many men fell on the 200-mile trek to Songkurai, in northern Thailand, the most remote of the PoW railway camps. "They were either shot or bayoneted. The rest of us had to carry on," says Eddie.

The men at Songkurai completed a 10-mile stretch of the "death railway", which included the famous wooden bridge across the River Kwai. They worked for 150 days straight, and rations were scant. By October 1943, after one in three had died, their work was done. Eddie was sent back to Singapore until he was liberated.

Men like Clar considered themselves lucky they were not in Eddie's remote position. To this day, Eddie still hides food in his bedroom and struggles to walk – the effect of having worked barefoot in the jungle for three and a half years.

Clar recalls burning the corpses of soldiers after cholera and dysentery spread through the camp: "You find out how a body reacts when on fire. It sits up slowly like the person is still alive. It was frightening to watch."

The men had radios, their lifeline to humanity, but possession was extremely risky. "Two guys were beaten to death after being caught," Clar recalls. "It didn't put anyone off, though. It gave us hope to know we were on the move."

Australians arrived, among them Donald "Scorp" Stuart. They kept Clar going. For Eddie, it was soldiers like Alfie Deeks: "a very nice chap. He helped others before he helped himself. I speak about Alfie like he was here." Alfie succumbed to dysentery in June 1943. His memorial is at Kanchanaburi war cemetery in Thailand.

"You have got to survive," Eddie says. "That's what you told yourself, and each other. You knew that you were in trouble every day. It was very, very difficult."

Clar ended up in Saigon and was liberated on 17 August 1945, weighing just 7st 8lbs. He returned home to Amble. A few months later, he met Bessie Carruthers and they married the next year. Bessie died two years ago, and Clar shows where he scattered her ashes.

Clar and Eddie will never forgive their torturers, but they also reserve anger for the British government. They were forced to sign documents stopping them speaking out, and it took six decades for them to receive £10,000 compensation. Of the 28 FEPoWs who returned to Amble, only four were still alive to get it in 2000.

Clar, who worked as a bricklayer, leans forward: "Why did it take so long? Imagine if I'd received that kind of money in 1946 after I came home: I could have built three houses with that. My life would have been so different."

The men felt ignored. Eddie walked off the docks at Liverpool in October 1945 alone. "There was no one there and I had to find my own way home. It was so far after VJ Day that no one was interested."

Every year on Remembrance Sunday, Clar leaves a wreath on Amble's war memorial with a simple message: "To the Forgotten Army. Clar."

"It was a very, very harsh time we endured, but that's life," says Eddie, looking up, smiling. "And I have two wonderful kids, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. That's the main thing. We are here, but a lot of others were left behind."

A brief history of the 'death railway'

December 1941-February 1942 The Japanese conquer Malaya, Hong Kong and Singapore. Thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers become prisoners.

May 1942 The railway covered over 200 miles and the camps were numerous. 'A' Force and the British Sumatra Battalion are the first PoWs to leave Changi for camps in Thailand stationed along the River Kwai).

June 1942 Three thousand Britons formed the first party at the Thailand end of the railway. Their task was to establish a base camp at Non Pladuk for the future work parties. Construction begins at both the Thai and Burmese ends of the railway.

August 1942 Construction begins at Tamarkan Bridge.

February 1943 The first wooden bridge over the River Kwai is finished.

May 1943 The wooden and steel bridges at Tamarkan are completed.

17 October 1943 The two sections meet about 11 miles south of the Three Pagodas Pass in Kanchanaburi. Most of the PoWs are transported to Japan.

February 1945 The steel and timber bridges are bombed by the RAF's 684 squadron. After further bombing raids by the Allies, the effective use of the railway is ended by June.

2012 An 80-mile stretch of the Ban Pong–Namtok section is relaid and is in use today.