A WEARSIDE prisoner-of-war who was forced at gunpoint to slave on Burma’s Railway of Death has died at the age of 97.
Brutal beatings left Pat Geldart badly scarred, starvation rations saw his muscular frame turn skeletal and jungle fever almost killed him. But he refused to ever give up hope.
“I had three bairns. I had to get back,” the great-grandfather recalled in an interview in 2000. “The thought of seeing my wife Alice and the bairns again kept me alive.”
Pat – though emaciated and yellow with jaundice – was one of the “lucky ones”. He eventually made it back home – unlike 200 of his 600 125 Anti-Tank Regiment comrades.
The former gunner went on to live a long and happy life, adding two more daughters to his family and notching up more than 70 years of marriage to his beloved wife Alice.
Indeed, by the time of his death at 97 on December 20, the retired Nelson Close labourer was a grandfather five times over – and a great-grandfather to many more.
“I am proud to have had Pat as my friend,” said 125 veteran Len Gibson, 94. “If you made a friend of Pat, he was a man you knew would always stand at your side.
“He was a very hard worker, a proficient soldier, a good marksman and an extremely good comrade. He was someone you could always rely on, whatever the situation. He will be very sadly missed.”
Hendon-born Pat was an 18-year-old paint mixer at Camrex when he met bride-to-be Alice. A whirlwind courtship followed – sparking fears the marriage “wouldn’t last”.
Shrugging off all concerns, the couple tied the knot at St Barnabas’ Church on May 6, 1935 – when the flags were out for the Jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary.
“It’s finding the perfect match. That’s what it’s all about,” Pat told the Echo in 2002, while Alice added: “We have always shared everything and looked after each other.”
The happy couple welcomed three children in their first five years of marriage but, as the storm clouds of war gathered over Europe, their family was to be torn apart.
Pat, one of the first to answer the call for volunteers, joined the 74th Field Regiment in early 1939 – a new Sunderland-based Territorial Unit created by the Government.
The recruits came from every part of Wearside, working by day in schools, banks, offices, shops and shipyards, and drilling by night at Seaburn and the Garrison Field.
“We were all different, but we got on. We were mates – the best,” Pat was later to recall. Len added: “We all came from different backgrounds, and we all just got on.”
But life changed dramatically for Pat, Len and the rest of the TA lads once war was declared on September 3 – when their unit was absorbed into the regular army. As members of the new 125 Anti-Tank Regiment, the Wearsiders were sent to snowy Scotland to train in desert combat – but ended up sailing to Singapore instead.
“The ship taking them to the Far East, the Empress of Asia, was bombed six times off Singapore. They had to swim for their lives,” said local historian Carol Roberton.
“Miraculously, all 600 men survived but, just five days later – on February 5, 1942, Singapore fell to the enemy and the whole of the regiment was captured to a man.
“It was Sunderland’s most grievous blow of the war. In a single day 600 men were taken, one third never to return. Back home, people waited in vain for any news.”
Indeed, Pat’s wife Alice was to hear nothing of his capture for 18 months. And, when the sad news finally came through, the Government stopped her hardship allowance.
“We lived in Hendon Street at the time. I used to take the bairns out nearly all day, just walk around. I never went anywhere, we couldn’t afford it,” she later recalled.
“That Christmas my sister called in and I was sitting breaking my heart. I hadn’t a penny in my purse, not even an apple to give the bairns. I could scarcely manage.”
Alice eventually moved in with her mother in Hastings Street, taking a job at British Ropes to help feed and clothe her family. Husband Pat, meanwhile, was “in hell”.
A march at gun point followed his capture and, after being taken to a primitive prison camp, “big, tough Pat” was sent to work on the infamous “Death Railway” in Burma.
Gruelling 12-hour shifts of manual labour, starvation rations and merciless beatings soon became part of daily life – and Pat worked until his uniform rotted off him.
“There were countless atrocities; a common one seeing the guards force water into the prisoners until they distended – and then beating or jumping on them,” said Carol.
“The men were also prey to diseases such as dysentery, beri beri, cholera, malaria, jungle fever and terrible ulcers, sores and skin diseases – with medical help denied.
“When their clothes rotted away, they wore only loincloths – enduring the tropical heat by day and the cold by night. No food, blankets or letters ever reached them.”
The surrender of Japan in September 1945 did not come a moment too soon. Indeed, when Len came to tell Pat the news, he found his pal desperately ill with jungle fever.
The once strapping man was now emaciated to the point of skeletal, in need of urgent medical help – but given nothing. On checking the man next to Pat, Len found him dead.
“Len feared Pat wouldn’t make it as he got behind his friend on the long walk to freedom which followed the surrender. Several men died on that walk,” said Carol.
“But Pat managed to stagger through the nightmare jungle trek with the survivors of his camp. He was then taken by hospital ship from Rangoon for treatment in Calcutta.
“He even turned down six months of recuperation in Australia, and volunteered instead to fly back in a converted Dakota. It took five days – the quickest way home.”
Back in Sunderland, after hearing her beloved Pat was finally on his way home, Alice draped flags across the street – in an echo of her flag-filled wedding 11 years earlier.
“When the driver of the Red Cross car taking Pat home to Sunderland turned to point the flags out, he found big, tough Pat Geldart sobbing tears of joy,” said Carol.
“He was yellow with jaundice, very skinny and his back was scored, over and over, with the marks left by the bamboo sticks he’d been beaten with. But he was home.”
The happy couple went on to have two more daughters after the war, although they also mourned the loss of son Gordon, who died in a fall from Hendon cliffs at just 14.
“Despite all he suffered, Pat Geldart always considered himself a lucky man. He survived terrible hardships when so many of his comrades had not,” said Carol.
“He always believed it was the thoughts and memories of Alice and the children he had left behind that kept him going through the beatings and sickness he suffered.
“He never lost faith they would be reunited, and he always kept the words of Vera Lynn’s song We’ll Meet Again – which was played at his funeral – uppermost in his mind.”
l A funeral for Pat, who lost his beloved Alice several years ago, was held on January 3 at Sunderland Crematorium.