JOE Denton did not talk much about his Second World War experience.

Splitting his post-war life between Worthing and his home town of Rotherham, he was usually reluctant to tell grandson Steve of the horrors of being a Japanese prisoner of war.

He preferred talking with old comrades at reunions.

Now 35 years after Joe died aged 76, author Robert Widders has written Forged In Blood And Music, recounting Joe’s horrific stay in Kobe House.

Sam Brooke spoke to Robert and Steve about Joe’s life – and how a Japanese guard’s interest in theatre allowed him to show his acting talent.

Joe Denton was 23 years old when the British garrison in Hong Kong surrendered to the Japanese.

An overwhelming offensive in December 1941 had forced the Allies to capitulate on Christmas Day, a truly black Christmas.

Joe had been stationed on the island since 1937, joining the Royal Artillery after a successful childhood career in his mother’s theatre company.

The Argus: Joe had performed in his mum's theatre company as a childJoe had performed in his mum's theatre company as a child

But for those soldiers now made prisoners of war by Japanese forces, the horrors were just beginning.

Lance Bombardier Joe and his comrades were first moved to Sham Shui Po camp on the Chinese mainland.

Then in September 1942, the captors decided to transport the prisoners to Japan for use as slave labour.

Joe was one of the 1,816 soldiers stuffed into the holds of the Lisbon Maru cargo ship.

The Argus: The Lisbon Maru was tasked with shipping prisoners of war from Hong Kong to JapanThe Lisbon Maru was tasked with shipping prisoners of war from Hong Kong to Japan

Conditions were cramped.

Unlucky soldiers at the bottom of the hold were showered with diarrhoea from sick soldiers above.

“The boat was armed but it wasn’t marked as carrying prisoners of war,” said Joe’s grandson Steve Denton, who has tirelessly researched his grandfather’s journey.

“On October 1 an American submarine, the USS Grouper, torpedoed the ship.”

So the Japanese soldiers evacuated and locked their prisoners in the holds.

The next day, the ship began to sink.

But some prisoners began to break out of the holds.

Joe was in the third hold. When the hatch was broken, the soldiers scrambled up the ladder.

The 23-year-old managed to escape before the ladder broke. In that hold alone, 238 men drowned.

The Argus: Joe, sitting in the middle of the front row above the X, had been in Hong Kong since 1937Joe, sitting in the middle of the front row above the X, had been in Hong Kong since 1937

For those who made it up from the ship’s depths, there were still Japanese soldiers to contend with.

“Japanese soldiers on the deck started shooting at them with machine guns,” Steve said.

“When the men jumped off the boat and started swimming, hand grenades were thrown into the water and Japanese patrol boats tried to plough through them.

“Of the 1,816 prisoners on board, 828 lost their lives.”

Those who survived swam to nearby Chinese islands.

When the inhabitants realised the soldiers were British, they rescued them in their fishing boats.

Joe was found, fed and clothed.

But soon enough the Japanese rounded up those who escaped and shipped them off to Shanghai.

The Argus: Joe and the survivors of the Lisbon Maru were unable to escape their Japanese captorsJoe and the survivors of the Lisbon Maru were unable to escape their Japanese captors

In the Chinese port the soldiers were made to stand naked for 20 hours as punishment for their attempted escape. Some men died on the spot.

Then on October 11, ten days after the horrors on board the Lisbon Maru began, the prisoners arrived at their destination: Kobe House camp in Japan.

“Camp” is a generous word.

“It was essentially two brick warehouses housing 650 men,” Steve said.

“That’s a lot of men to be cooped up on a few floors.”

Most of the soldiers were sick, with scabies, dysentery or malnutrition.

Robert Widders’s book Forged In Blood And Music gives an idea of the horrific conditions inside the camp.

“A whole floor was immediately filled with sick men and designated as a hospital, lacking medical equipment, drugs or even the services of a doctor,” he wrote.

Joe volunteered as a medic in this makeshift hospital.

The Argus: Kobe in 1945Kobe in 1945

But with no qualified doctor and only rudimentary training, death was all too common.

The first soldier who died was given a respectful funeral by the Japanese captors, a bittersweet “gift” for the prisoners.

But soon much of Joe’s job became stuffing the bodies of dead comrades into old wooden soybean barrels for cremation.

If rigor mortis set in or the barrel was too small, limbs would be cut and bones smashed to ensure the body would fit.

Experiences like that took a toll on Joe and the prisoners.

But soon he was provided with an out.

One of the less sadistic guards at the camp was a Sergeant Major Morita.

The Argus: Sergeant Major Morita allowed Joe to put on performances in the campSergeant Major Morita allowed Joe to put on performances in the camp

It turned out he had quite an interest in music and theatre.

Joe, having enjoyed a childhood career as a star in his mother Flo’s theatre company, found common ground with the Japanese officer.

So the guard allowed Joe to put on shows in the camp, a lifesaver when it came to morale and health.

Soon Joe had established “The Mad Gang”, his group of troops-turned-troupe.

Compared to “tough guy” actor James Cagney, he was nicknamed “Muncy” after an American gangster of the era.

The gang’s range was wide.

They performed everything from supernatural horror The Monkey’s Paw to a pantomime take on comedy Alf’s Button, the tale of an Army soldier who finds a magic button.

The Argus: A birthday card from 'The Magic Gang'A birthday card from 'The Magic Gang'

But it was not without its consequences.

When one guard was displeased with Joe’s show, he broke the prisoner’s skull with a metal bar.

Joe never properly recovered and he experienced painful migraines for the rest of his life.

Yet as the end of the war came closer, the prisoners had something else to worry about.

In March, the Americans began a bombing campaign over Kobe.

Things came to a head on June 5, when 530 incendiary bombs were dropped on the city.

The Argus: Kobe was bombed multiple times by the AmericansKobe was bombed multiple times by the Americans

Miraculously, only three guards and no prisoners died in the raid.

But the guards were spooked enough to move the prisoners to another camp, Wakinohama.

For days the prisoners sat in pitch black buildings as bombs rained down above.

Then on August 15, Japanese surrender came.

The next month, Joe and his comrades got on a train to the city of Hamamtsu, the first leg of their long journey home.

But before he left he made sure to say a final goodbye to Sergeant Major Morita.

Steve Denton is part of the Lisbon Maru Memorial Project, a group working with the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment Benevolence Fund to raise funds for a memorial to the Lisbon Maru massacre. To find out more visit

Robert Widders's book Forged in Blood and Music is available to buy on Amazon.