Honouring Wearside prisoners-of-war from World War Two

Members of the 125 Regiment enjoying themselves as Len Gibson plays the banjo during fire watching duties in Liverpool - before the men went to Singapore.
Members of the 125 Regiment enjoying themselves as Len Gibson plays the banjo during fire watching duties in Liverpool - before the men went to Singapore.
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As Wearside prepares to mark the 70th anniversary of Victory in Japan Day on August 15, a former prisoner-of-war told the Echo: “Every day is a day of remembrance for me”.

Sunderland’s 125 Anti-Tank Regiment was captured to a man at the fall of Singapore in 1942. Of the 600 soldiers taken prisoner by the Japanese, 197 were never to return home.

Survivors from the Sunderland 125 Anti Tank Regiment pictured in 2002, from left, Keith Wigman, Norman Jefferson, Peter Williams, Bob White, William McGreedy, Pat Geldart, Ernest Maughan, Len Gibson and Bill Lawson.

Survivors from the Sunderland 125 Anti Tank Regiment pictured in 2002, from left, Keith Wigman, Norman Jefferson, Peter Williams, Bob White, William McGreedy, Pat Geldart, Ernest Maughan, Len Gibson and Bill Lawson.

Most were sent to work on the Burma Railway – known as the Railway of Death. Others ended up slaving in mines or factories. All faced death on a daily basis, through starvation, torture or disease.

But August 15, 1945 – today known as VJ Day – finally marked the end of their imprisonment. Those Wearsiders who survived, however, would never forget the horrors they witnessed.

“I think about the lads we lost every day, not just on VJ Day or Remembrance Sunday. So many friends died needlessly due to the actions of the Japanese,” said former lance-bombardier Len Gibson, from West Herrington.

“Those soldiers didn’t have to die, all they needed was better food and proper medical help. But the conditions we lived through were absolutely terrible. My memories are so vivid, and so horrendous.”

“I think about the lads we lost every day, not just on VJ Day or Remembrance Sunday. So many friends died needlessly due to the actions of the Japanese.”

Len Gibson, survivor of Japanese prisoner-of-war camps in World War Two.

As the storm clouds of war started gathering over Europe in the late 1930s, so the young men of Sunderland eagerly answered the call to fight for their King and country.

By day they worked in banks, offices, shops and shipyards; but by night they trained with the newly-formed 74th Field TA Regiment of the Royal Artillery at Livingstone Road drill hall and the Garrison Field.

Bishopwearmouth chorister Len Gibson, now 95, was among the volunteers and recalls: “Within months we had a whole regiment. This was a real credit to Sunderland, and the people of the town.”

Once war was declared, the unit became a full-time fighting force and renamed the 125 Anti-Tank Regiment. On October 28, 1941, the Wearsiders were shipped off to battle - in Singapore.

A 1945 civic reception for some of the survivors of Sunderland's 125 Anti-Tank Regiment following their return from the Far East.

A 1945 civic reception for some of the survivors of Sunderland's 125 Anti-Tank Regiment following their return from the Far East.

The voyage was to end, however, in disaster. On February 5, 1942, just a few miles from their destination, the Wearsiders were forced to swim for survival after their ship was blown up.

Singapore surrendered within days, and the 125 Regiment was captured to a man. Few of the soldiers ever fired their guns in anger – but all were to stare death in the face during captivity.

Len, an aspiring teacher, endured more than two years of malnutrition, torture and despair while working on the Burma railway and later the Mergui Road - hacked by hand out of jungle and rock.

But, as old schoolmates and fellow prisoners succumbed to disease and starvation, Len battled on - helping to keep up morale among his comrades with music shows after fashioning a guitar from a wooden crate.

Len Gibson as a young man in the 125 Regiment.

Len Gibson as a young man in the 125 Regiment.

“Our clothes rotted off us, and we only received starvation rations. People died from treatable diseases, because the Japanese refused to give us medicine sent over by the Red Cross. They just kept it locked up, or used it themselves,” said Len.

“I get very sad when I think of the friends and comrades I lost, and very angry when I think how they died so needlessly.

“We were denied the basic necessities of life, and I will never, ever, forget that.

“Seventy years ago, when I heard victory had been declared over Japan, I cried with joy and despair.

“Joy the war for us was finally over, and despair that ultimately war is futile, war is folly.”

Len returned to Sunderland a sick man, but his story had a happy ending.

He fell in love with one of his hospital nurses, Ruby, and after his recovery they married and he went on to become a teacher.

“VJ Day is a vital part of World War Two, as it is the day war really finished. Yet it feels sometimes forgotten in favour of VE Day - which just marked the end of war in Europe,” said Len.

“But the sacrifice of those men who died in the Far East should never be forgotten. So many brave men gave their lives to fight for us to live as we do today. I will never, ever, forget them.”

l A service to mark the 70th anniversary of VJ Day will be held at 11am this Saturday at the war memorial in Burdon Road.

Deputy Mayor Alan Emerson will lay a wreath at the cenotaph during the ceremony, and the Mayor’s Chaplain – Father Oliver Keyes – will say a prayer. The event is open to all.