MORE than 190,000 British and Commonwealth troops were taken prisoner by the Japanese in the Second World War. The brutal treatment they endured was unlike anything in their worst nightmares. More than a quarter of those taken prisoner died in captivity – but Bob Morrell survived. He tells BEN JAMES his incredible story


Bob Morrell, 93, likes nothing better than walking along Hove promenade.

However, for the Japanese prisoner of war veteran the past is never far away. Bob can be strolling along without a care when bang – he’s back in the Far East.

The brutal beatings, malaria, searing heat and death are all around him.

For a few seconds the horror of the three and a half years he spent as a prisoner are real and present in the supposed comfort of his home city.

At best, he will recover after a few seconds and carry on with his day. At their worst, he blacks out.

“They are terrifying,” the widower said. “They are only for a few seconds but in those seconds I can see so much.

“They are real. I’m back in the Far East. Part of me knows I’m not because I’m thinking, ‘grab on to that railing’, but I’m there. I’m back there.”

Thousands died at the hands of the Japanese more than 70 years ago, but remarkably Bob survived – just.

He now receives help from the charity Combat Stress and the Java Far East Prisoners of War Club. For the first time, he has spoken to The Argus to reveal his incredible story of survival.

Born in May 1921 in Foundry Street, Brighton, Bob worked in odd jobs until his late teens.

But with war looming he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the forces. So in September 1938, aged only 17, he joined the Royal Air Force.

Training followed and when war was declared a year later, he found himself as a mechanic with No 1 Squadron based at Tangmere, near Chichester.

His was briefly sent out to France where his squadron of Hurricanes had been tasked with stopping the Germans from invading.

However, with the wheels of the German war machine in motion, the British were forced back and before long he was home in Blighty.

But there was no rest: the battle for France was over. The Battle of Britain was just beginning.

Vastly superior in numbers, the German Luftwaffe was expected to blow the RAF out of the skies and secure air domination.

Bob’s squadron was sent to RAF Northolt in northwest London, where he worked around the clock to keep his fighter pilots in the skies.

“I was that busy that I didn’t think of it in the way that everyone thinks about it these days.

“We were working 23 out of 24 hours but you just got on with it because you had a job to do and other people were relying on you.”

The RAF suffered heavy losses but ultimately kept the Luftwaffe at bay.

Following a brief assignment in Scotland he was sent out to the Far East.

After stopping in Freetown in Sierra Leone, Cape Town, Sri Lanka and Mumbai, they reached their destination in 1942 – the stronghold of Singapore.

Captured His stop was brief, moving next to a base in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. After a game of cat and mouse across the islands with the Japanese, he ended up in Java in a city called Tasikmalaya, where he and a hundred others were finally captured.

Speaking from his home off Lewes Road, he recalled the moment the game was up: “You were scared. Any man who said he was not scared was a liar. You suppressed it but we didn’t really know what was going to happen.

“But if we had known then how we were going to starve, how we were going to die, I think every one of us would have shot himself instead of being taken prisoner.”

The next three and a half years of Bob’s life would change him forever.

At first, life as a prisoner was not so bad in comparison. They were ordered to fill in bomb craters at a nearby airfield and they soon found ways to wind-up their captors.

He said: “We had our fun with them. We would fill in the holes with a mixture of rock and earth and then call in their steam roller. But we would fill it just with earth and it would fall down the hole.”

But conditions were still tough and food was scarce. They took every opportunity to scrounge or steal what they could to keep them going.

He added: “The only problem was if we were caught. If you were lucky you would get away with a crack around the head but if they had a bamboo stick then you would get whipped.

“That kind of punishment was a daily thing. I still get flashbacks of the beatings.”

A few months into life as a prisoner, the Japanese promised change. In April 1943, they told the prisoners they would be taken to an island where everything would be better. That island was called Haroekoe. It claimed the lives of hundreds. The 2,000 prisoners deemed fit to go were transported in a small cargo ship called the Amagi Maru.

The weak, malnourished men were packed into the lower levels like sardines. With no space to move and in complete darkness, it resembled the ships used to transport slaves to Africa centuries before.

“It was awful. It was hot, it was claustrophobic and everyone was frightened. There was just one ladder going up to the top and the men suffering from dysentery had to queue to make their way up to use just three toilets – for 2,000 sick men.”

“Just before we set off one of the other ships blew up in the harbour.

“Then it was panic stations. They came and put the covers on. We were down there in the dark and the only bit of light was the top of that ladder. It was like that for 17 days.”

Throughout the journey many prisoners were beaten and kicked, seemingly for no apparent reason. Many did not survive.

The ship finally arrived at Haroekoe in monsoon season. The wind and rain battered the men.

Their makeshift bamboo huts stood little chance against the elements. Many slept in the rain.

The few latrines had overflowed in the downpour, spreading disease among the men.

One account from the time which has appeared in a number of books was a diary from a Dr Stringer.

He wrote: “The sick are too weak to go to the lavatories. We have not enough tins and buckets inside the barracks for the purpose, so they go outside in the mud which is drenched in maggots.”

Despite the conditions, the men were expected to work. The men were instructed to carve off the peaks of two hills and construct a runway.

“This was coral and they set us to work with 6in chisels and a hammer. It was back breaking and we were all ill and weak with no food. They didn’t see us as human beings – we were slaves.

“To this day I just don’t understand their mentality. If they wanted the job done, they could have treated us well, fed us, looked after us and we would have done well and done it quick.

“But they didn’t. We worked dawn until dusk, with little food, no medicine and they beat us. I will never understand and I will never forgive them.”

Of the 2,000 that made the journey to the island, about 600 died, many from sheer exhaustion.

“When I came back from a day’s work, they would look at me and gesture at the bodies. That was one of the problems of being one of the so-called fit ones. I would have to carry the coffins over to a pit they had dug. I just wanted to collapse and sleep but I had to carry ten, sometimes 12, coffins.

“It’s hard to think of now but war does funny things to your mind. I resented them dying. I thought ‘I’ve had enough and now I’ve got to carry you over there’.

“It’s not ‘poor old Bill’, it’s ‘why did he have to bloody die on my bloody shift?’”.

Bob endured 18 months of this daily hell before he and the other men were ordered off the island.

Half dead, he again boarded the Maros Maru transport ship with the other survivors. This time, of the 630 who boarded the ship, 320 died. During this trip Bob thought his time was up.

“It was the only time I gave up. I was sick and I knew I probably had just hours before I was over the side.

“Then I heard someone call out: ‘You’re from Brighton aren’t you?’. It was a man called Pat Hunt.

“He got me up on the hatch after someone was thrown over the side and lay me down next to this Dutchman who was on the way out.

“We waited because we knew in his haversack he had this tobacco and when he died we smoked it. That kept me going.”

On arriving at the mainland, Bob was carried off the boat suffering with malaria, dengue fever and beriberi – a disease common among the prisoners surviving on rice.

“With beriberi you literally start to fill up with water. It starts in your feet and goes up and you drown. I couldn’t touch my flesh because of the pain.”

He was rushed to a hospital nearby and, thanks to a recent Red Cross shipment, was given treatment. He spent six months there where he had to learn to walk again. It was here Bob first experienced his flashbacks. However, they were flashbacks to home.

He said: “I was sat in the hospital and I thought I was going mad. All of a sudden I would be at home in bed waiting for my mum to bring me a cup of tea.”

As soon as he was fit enough, Bob returned to a prisoner of war camp and was put back to work.

The brutality continued, until whispers spread of a huge bomb being dropped over Japan. It was the atomic bomb that signalled the end of the war.

Survival Finally, after three and a half years he was free and food and medicine started to arrive.

He said: “There were mixed feelings. On one hand I was delighted it was all over and we finally had food. But I was thinking of all the men we had lost.

“It was all about survival those years. I didn’t have time to mourn those who I lost.

“It was just day to day grabbing on to the next thing and getting through it.

“You talk to other men and they can’t honestly tell you how they survived. They only know that they did survive and that’s the same with me.

“When you face death on a daily basis you soon find out if you have the will to live.”

Bob was transported back to Liverpool before making his way to RAF Cosford and then London, where he boarded a train from Victoria to Brighton.

When he pulled into his home town it was a city unchanged. But for Bob the last three and a half years had changed him deeply.

“I remember pulling into the station and seeing my mother and father. We went back to Brunswick Mews, where we were living, and everybody was happy to see me. Friends would invite me down the pub. I felt like I should have been screaming my head off with joy but it just got too much at times. I just wanted to be at home.”