Wearside Echoes: Tributes to a Wearside war hero

WRECKED:The damage left by an air raid in Fulwell in May 1941.
WRECKED:The damage left by an air raid in Fulwell in May 1941.
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ONE of the last survivors of Sunderland’s 125 Anti-Tank Regiment – captured to a man at the fall of Singapore during the Second World War – has died at the age of 92.

John Lee endured brutal beatings, starvation rations and 18-hour shifts stoking factory furnaces at gun-point after being taken prisoner by the Japanese on February 5, 1942.

The former Vaux worker always, however, considered himself “one of the lucky ones,” as he eventually made it back to Sunderland alive – unlike 197 of his 600 regiment comrades.

“He was a wonderful man, a wonderful person, and will be very sadly missed,” said historian Alan Burn, who was inspired to write a book on the 125 Regiment after a chance meeting with John.

“Japanese prisoners of war faced the constant threat of death, disease, torture and starvation 24-hours a day. They watched their comrades die in terrible circumstances, and helped to bury them.

“They all stared death in the face – not once but many times. There was no counselling when they returned home, they were simply told to get on with their lives. To their credit, they did just that.”

The storm clouds of war were gathering over Europe when John, who had just celebrated his 20th birthday, enlisted in Sunderland’s new 74th Field TA Regiment of the Royal Artillery in May 1939.

The unit became a full-time fighting force once war was declared, however, and renamed the 125 Anti-Tank Regiment. On October 28, 1941, the men were shipped off to battle in the Far East.

But the voyage was to end in disaster. On February 5, 1942, just a few miles short of Singapore, the soldiers were forced to abandon ship after an enemy attack. They were captured to a man soon after.

John found himself interned in the River Valley Camp at Singapore at first, where he developed a bad case of dysentery. A stint in a hospital in Changi followed, before he was shipped off to Japan.

Three other 125 men shared the journey and John recalled: “Before we landed, we were paraded on deck and a glass tube was pushed up our backsides, much to the amusement of many spectators.”

Further degradation, brutality and bullying was to follow. Upon landing at Moji port, John was marched three miles to an open space and ordered to build an airstrip alongside 500 other captives.

“There were no diggers, no steam rollers, just picks and shovels. We had to demolish a hill not quite the size of Tunstall Hill. We were treated worse than animals,” said John in a 2008 interview.

Five back-breaking months later, once the airstrip was finished, John and his fellow inmates were taken by train to a new prison camp – where they were forced to unload wagons of frozen iron ore.

“Our regular work, though, was to stoke the furnaces of a steel company for 14 to 18 hours a day, with only a bowl of rice,” he said. The starvation rations left him emaciated to the point of skeletal.

No mercy was shown, however, in April 1944 – when a heavy iron ingot fell on John’s left hand. Two of his fingers burst in the accident, but the only sympathy he got was a rifle butt in the face.

“They dipped my fingers in some powder and gave me a straw glove to wear,” he said. “I couldn’t work and got a rifle butt in the face for that; I still have a scar on my lip to remind me.”

Still suffering from his injury, John was transferred to another camp, Tokyo 4B, where he received a further beating for being too sick to work. After finally recovering, he was back to stoking furnaces.

“If the guards thought you weren’t working hard enough, they would take the shovel off you, show you how it should be done and then ‘bang’ you across your back. They showed no mercy,” he said.

“I had to go for a scan after I returned home, due to constant backache. The consultant asked if I’d had an accident; he could not understand why my bones were so badly damaged.”

The ordeal finally ended on August 15, 1945, when John and his fellow inmates were told there was ‘no work today.’ They were not released, but the beatings ceased. Liberation came ten days later.

John, who was born in Hendon and attended Hylton Road School, finally arrived back home in October 1945 – four years to the day he had sailed off to war with the 125 Regiment.

“I was one of the last back,” he later recalled. “There was no reception, as by then the war was all forgotten. But I was one of the ‘lucky ones’. I made it back to Sunderland alive.”

John, who made his home in Fulwell after the war, went on to rebuild his life with the help of wife Catherine. His death on July 4, at St Benedict’s Hospice, came just months after she passed away.

Former 125 comrade Len Gibson, of West Herrington, said: “He will be very sadly missed by many people. Jack was a good friend, and a good soldier. There are very few of us 125 men left now.”

** John’s funeral was held at Sunderland Crematorium on July 19. Donations in lieu of flowers were requested for St Benedict’s Hospice.

Sidebar: 125 Regiment

FEW ever fired their guns in anger – but all stared death in the face many times.

For every three of the brave soldiers of Sunderland’s 125 Anti-Tank Regiment who set sail to fight in the Far East in October 1941, one was never to see home again.

Captured to a man on the fall of Singapore in 1942, they were to spend the rest of war as prisoners of the Japanese – forced into hard labour with starvation rations and brutal beatings.

“Many left as boys, but soon became men,” said Alan Burns, author of A History of Sunderland’s Own 125th Anti-Tank Regiment. “Death and disease were their constant companions.”

As fears of a possible war in Europe started growing in the late 1930s, so the young men of Sunderland had eagerly answered the call to fight for their country.

By day they worked in banks, offices, shops, shipyards and buildings sites; but by night they trained with the Territorial Army at Livingstone Road drill hall and the Garrison Field.

Among the volunteers was former Bishopwearmouth chorister Len Gibson, who recalled: “Within months we had a whole regiment. This was a real credit to Sunderland, and the people of the town.”

Disaster struck, however, when the Wearsiders were shipped off to defend Singapore. Just a few miles from the port, their ship was blown up and the soldiers had to swim for survival.

“Singapore surrendered within days,” said Alan. “Many felt they had been used as political pawns, to appease complaints that the British had not taken the defence of Singapore seriously enough.”

As prisoners of the Japanese, the 125 men were trapped in brutal slavery. Many were sent to work on the Burma-Siam “Death” Railway, while others toiled in steel factories or coal mines.

“I watched so many of my friends die when they shouldn’t have. They just needed better food and medical help. The conditions were absolutely terrible,” said Len, who worked on the railway.

Almost 200 of the 600 soldiers of the 125 Regiment died during their three-and-a-half years in captivity. Their return home, usually in parties of one or two, went virtually unnoticed.

* A History of Sunderland’s Own 125th Anti-Tank Regiment, by Alan Burns, is published by Ouseburn Publications and costs £10.99.