World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                         Ernest Farnol 

Hirohito's Prisoner

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Ernest Farnol
Location of story: Japan, Burma
Background to story: Army


The following story is a transcription of a BBC sound recorded interview, recorded on the 10th of October 1971. Ian Jowitt was talking to Ernest Farnol, who had been a prisoner of war in Japan. The transcription is an almost direct image of the sound recording, hence it appears in parts, not to resemble traditionally documented renditions....Click for link to sound recording....Bill Ross, BBC People’s War Story Editor.

10.45 Sunday 10th October 1971

Mr Ernest Farnol, of Crabtree Lane Pitsmoor Sheffield, was a Lieutenant in the Royal Corps of Signals, serving in Singapore at the time of the Japanese invasion in 1942. He spent the next three years as a prisoner of the Japanese, first in Changi, and then at Tamakan Camp in Siam, working on the notorious Burma Railway. He tells his story to Ian Jowitt.

ERNEST FAROL: Towards the first year, late in 42, rations were beginning to get rather tight, and the Japanese offered to move parties up to Siam. I myself went up with a party of about 500, early in 1943. We went up in rice trucks, steel rice trucks with sliding doors, no windows, in a tropical climate. These were kept shut for a lot of the journey, for military secrecy reasons. I don’t know how many there were in the truck, but we were exceedingly tightly packed in, and you can imagine that under tropical conditions, it was exceedingly unpleasant. It was pretty tight, and to live for five days and nights on this - continuously, there was no break – was damned unpleasant.

IAN JOWITT: So you were in these trucks for five days and five nights on end without actually getting out?

EF: Er, except for sanitary purposes when we were allowed to, which wasn’t very often. Most people were er, covered with lice. When we got out to the plains of Siam, we were transferred to open trucks by this time. We were a little depressed to see quite considerable numbers of vultures floating high in the sky over us, taking what seemed to be an unpleasant interest in us.

IJ: Once you’d arrived at the camps, conditions weren’t at all good were they? What were you living on, in fact, what was your daily diet?

EF: We got down to about 8 ounces of rice a day, but we had to supplement our food at all times as far as we could with, snails and snakes and one time we had a rat hunt; we got rats down out of the trees and ate those. We used to mill, er, put grass, er, long grass through a sort of mill and get their filthy green juice out of it and drink this, and the polishings from the rice, we got polished rice, but we got access to the polishings which were like rather bad tasting sawdust. We took these all for the sake of vitamin supplements because this is what was killing us. Not so much the complete lack of food as the lack of vitamins in the food.

IJ: How much weight did you lose in these years of captivity?

EF: Well, I was normally a twelve stoner and I got down to about seven; all ribs and a pot belly. When asked about er, in the worst three months in the very heart of the jungle camps building the railway, we lost a third of our five hundred men in that roughly three months.

IJ: This was due, as you say, to malnutrition but also disease.

EF: A disease one overwhelmingly above others was cholera. It’s only a name over here, I don’t think we’ve had it for many years in Great Britain, but it’s a deadly thing. It’s water born, fly born, and erm, it er, once you get it, you’re not left in any doubt that you’ve got it, you will last 24 to 48 hours at most and there’s dam all you can do about it under those circumstances. This is what er, killed nearly all our people out there.
Every time you scratched yourself on a piece of bamboo in the jungle, er, the thing went septic and grew and grew and grew and the only treatment for it - we’d very little in the way of drugs - the only treatment for it was to dip a spoon in boiling water. You couldn’t do it yourself, it was too painful. Friends or orderlies did it and you scraped away to take the puss out of this thing; it used to go right down to the bone. It was absolute hell. Then we washed it out with a bit of limewater and a bit of rag or bandage that you’d been washing and preserving faithfully, which was all you’d got, and you’d cover it up until the next time.

IJ: In these conditions, if you’d got a disease, I suppose it was almost fatal, but the doctors there did some remarkable work didn’t they?

EF: We were sharing camp for quite some time with a party of Australians and they had er, there was an absolutely marvellous Australian surgeon there and they had very limited facilities, they operated on a bamboo table – took legs and things off – and the anaesthetists was absolutely terrific. He gave them a whiff just as the knife was going in and they would come round just as the last stitch was coming out. He was rationed to that sort of thing.

IJ: You mentioned the sanitary conditions in the camp; those were pretty awful weren’t they?

EF: They were pretty awful wherever we went because apart from Singapore, away from Singapore there was nothing resembling main drainage. You did various versions of digging a hole in the ground. But the moment these started to be used, the flies got in them and they were a seething mass of maggots. Er, beastly things, occasionally they’d take it into their heads to find somehow to find their way up a corner of the trench and come crawling out all over the camp in a stream like jungle ants, and they also got doing the same thing. This was a foul sight, you could do nothing about it except keep out of the way and let them go through.

IJ: Coming onto the treatment you received in the camps by the Japanese, Mr Farnol, were you ever tortured?

EF: No, I wasn’t tortured and er, it depends what you mean by torture. Er, on the railway, the sins of commission were punished by the Jap in charge in a variety of ways: one favourite punishment - which doesn’t sound very much perhaps in the telling, but it was quite dreadful when you had to do it – was to be made to hold a very heavy stone right above your head at arm’s length, or a heavy sledgehammer. This sounds nothing at all, but if you keep this up for, quarter or half an hour with an occasional lash from a bamboo if you’re sagging on it, in tropical heat and sun, this is dreadful; I mean, this happened very regularly.

IJ: You also saw many prisoners beaten up didn’t you?

EF: Yes, very badly beaten up. We had some er, the worst one I had was erm, some people dropped out by the roadside deliberately, they were skiving and of course, we weren’t very enthusiastic about this because we had quotas of work to do and anybody that dropped out meant that the other people who did stick it out, had to do their work. And er, the Japs spotted this on one occasion, those who were missing and they sent me back to find them, and I found them lying blissfully in the sunshine somewhere on the way, and brought them back and erm, he lashed into them with a bamboo and it splintered – a fairly heavy large bamboo and there was a mass of blood around the head. It looked worse probably, than it was, but it was bad enough. And then he gave them a length of railway line – I forget, there were about three of them, or something – so he gave them a length of railway line after this beating up and made them stand with this above their heads, and then landed into them with pick axe handles when they showed any sign of sagging, until they finally collapsed with the railway line on top of them, then he gave them a kick or two and left them to it; he reckoned they’d had enough, as they undoubtedly had.

If the working party was short of numbers, our own doctors had to go into the hospital and turn out the least sick to make it up. It must have been a dreadful decision to have to make. The alternative was of course that the Japs would go in themselves and pick out people on a purely looks basis and turn them out. There may have been people who’d have died the moment they got out of hospital.

IJ: You were working of course, on the Burma railroad weren’t you?

EF: Yes.

IL: What was the work like? What did you have to do?

EF: Well, they were blasting their way through hillsides, er, really deep cutting because as it was hill country, and er, they set off a blast and down came a great wall of rocks of all sizes, and there were no mechanical aids at all, there were only prisoners of war, and you had to shift them. It reminded one rather of building the Pyramids, as it must have been.

IJ: Mr. Farnol, I’d like to mention here though that er, although you endured great hardship, you seem to be remarkably compassionate because you don’t really bear a great deal of malice do you, towards the Japanese, thirty years later?

EF: No, I don’t. I think circumstances at the time, and the Japs’ own standards. They didn’t, by their own standards, treat us so badly; by our standards, very differently of course. But er, it’s difficult to say, I remember, it’s not a recent development, I remember feeling sorry for them when we ourselves had been released and I saw them being driven off and herded off to captivity, where the local populace, who had been supposedly friendly up to that time, jeering at them and er, throwing things at them. They didn’t know what was happening and the idea of Jap troops being beaten, it just wasn’t in their vocabulary and they were broken men in any event and I felt sorry for them even then.

IL: But surely, there must have been some code of conduct that each side should adhere to, er, in wartime and their code of conduct was differing very much from ours wasn’t it?

EF: Yes, it was, but they had undoubtedly got certain rules, probably quite comprehensive rules about the treatment of prisoners. In the larger centres, these were adhered to and in Singapore, the main camps of Singapore, they obviously had certain rules and they were adhered to. The further you went away from big centres, and more particularly out into the jungle where you got down to being in charge of a thousand, or at very best, a second lieutenant of the Japanese army, so much depends on the individual. There was absolutely no check on them and if he was a bloody-minded type – and you get bloody-minded types in all races – he could make things damnably unpleasant.

IJ: What would you say, Mr. Farnol, was your worst moment?

EF: Well, I think, when I was up in the jungle camps and every – at one period – every few steps I took I started getting breathless, and I eventually got myself back to a doctor and found I’d got Cardiac Beriberi, which is a disease caused by vitamin deficiency, er, lack of Vitamin B, and my heart was going ‘dicky’. Fortunately, this doctor was able to give me some Vitamin C concentrate for injection; I took it back er, with me, and I think there were four capsules. I’d had three of them when one of my troops went down with the same trouble, and er, I passed on the fourth one to him, but it wasn’t enough and he died and I got better. That was probably as grim a time as I had personally because I was pretty close to it at that time.

IJ: Do you therefore blame other fellow prisoners of war who had protested about the Emperor’s visit, er, this week? Surely, you must sympathise with their feelings.

EF: Well, I think they’re a little unbalanced about it. I think er, perpetuation of hatred for a former enemy is not - is not the way to er, keep life going. Life shouldn’t be like this. There’s a better way, the Christian way, if you like to put it, I don’t particularly put it that way, but in the just common sense, sooner or later, who are you hating now? Are you hating the children of the people who did this? What, do you carry it on to the Biblical Fifth Generation or something like that? It’s all done and finished now. The Japs and us are making shift to get along with other nations reasonably well, why go on hating and continuing to stir up trouble, and keeping hatred going, risking the possibility of further wars? Quite honestly, I think the emperor was in much the same position; he was a prisoner of the military in my opinion, much as we were, and knew damn little about what was going on.

IJ: Nearly thirty hears later, what is the most vivid memory about the whole period that you were in captivity?

EF: I don’t know, er, pathos I think, of er, of carrying skeletons that were, you know, already erm, skeletons, to the graves, and a great wooden cross that somehow somebody found time to hew out, and erect above the rough graveyard in the jungle hills, and the knowledge these people who are……..some of us were going to get back, we thought. Each one of us did but er, we were leaving people behind er, in this dreadfully remote place and having come by such an unhappy end; this sticks, I must say. I thought, “How dreadful to have survived so far through all the hardships and to die after relief had come.” People were continuing to die right up to the time we left and were dying on the ships coming home. This seemed to be very very sad.

IJ: Finally Mr. Farnol, do you think you benefited spiritually from this terribly harrowing experience?

EF: I don’t know about spiritually, it made me believe that er, whatever happened to me in life, er, whatever conditions I might be in, I could never be in anything worse than this and that I’d proved to myself that I had the will to survive and, er, and, could survive anything that life could chuck at me later.