Wearside Echoes: Tributes paid to former prisoner-of-war

WAR HERO: Peter Williams dressed in his Army uniform before being shipped off to Singapore.
WAR HERO: Peter Williams dressed in his Army uniform before being shipped off to Singapore.
Have your say

A WEARSIDE prisoner-of-war who was forced at gunpoint to slave on Thailand’s Death Railway has died at the age of 93.

Peter Williams endured 18-hour shifts in blazing sunshine, starvation rations and the ever-present threat of brutal beatings. When finally released, he weighed just five stone.

But, the businessman was one of the “lucky ones.” Although sick and malnourished, he made it home alive – unlike 197 of his 600 comrades in Sunderland’s 125 Anti-Tank Regiment.

“He was a fine soldier, with an exemplary record,” said former 125 bombardier and Death Railway survivor Len Gibson. “He was a true comrade and a good friend to everyone.

“He bore his troubles well during the hardship of prisoner-of-war life, and later in peacetime when he lost a leg. He was a very popular person and will be greatly missed.” Peter, the son of a dockyard worker, was born in Cardiff in 1919. Orphaned at just nine, he was adopted by his aunt and uncle – Ralph and Emily Williams – and moved to Sunderland.

Educated at Argyle House, Peter left at 16 to work at Blackett’s. As the storm clouds of war gathered over Europe, however, he enlisted in Sunderland’s new 74th Field TA Regiment.

Once war was declared, the unit became the full-time 125 Anti-Tank Regiment. Training began in earnest and, while based in Cheshire, Gunner Williams found his bride-to-be Nora.

“I was helping out in the Army canteen when we first met,” recalls Nora. “I visited Peter in Sunderland while he was on leave and we got engaged before he was sent overseas.”

Disaster struck, however, when the regiment was shipped off to defend Singapore. On February 5, 1942, just a few miles from port, the men had to abandon ship after it was bombed.

“Peter couldn’t swim so, after jumping overboard, he hung on to a raft,” said Nora. “The men had to leave their boots behind and he was given flip-flops after getting ashore.”

Singapore surrendered within days of the 125’s arrival, and the regiment was captured to a man. Few ever fired their guns in anger – but all would stare death in the face.

“Japanese prisoners-of-war faced the constant threat of death, torture and starvation,” said historian Alan Burn, author of A History of Sunderland’s Own 125th Anti-Tank Regiment.

“But, despite all he went through, Peter always maintained a wonderful sense of humour. That is what I will miss most about him. He will be sadly missed by all who knew him.”

Peter found himself interned in Changi jail at first, where he developed beriberi and a badly ulcerated leg. A stint in hospital followed – with amputation the main option.

“He didn’t want that, as people often didn’t survive the operation,” said Nora. “Then the Japanese captured another soldier, a doctor, who had one course of antibiotics on him.

“The prisoners held a raffle, to see who could have them, and Peter won. It was the only raffle he ever won, before or since, but it was the one which probably saved his life.”

Once Peter recovered, he was sent up country in a metal truck – boiling during the day and freezing at night – to work on a railway line being built between Thailand and Burma.

Thousands of prisoners were used as slave labour and, after thousands perished – including 6,318 British and 2,815 Australians – it became known as the Death Railway.

“Peter was lucky with his camp,” said Nora. “If he hadn’t needed hospital care, he would have been sent to a different one, which was hit by cholera. A lot of men lost their lives.

“But it was a hard life, a tough life. The men were only given rice to survive on, which they mixed with grass, and were beaten if guards thought they weren’t working hard enough.”

More than three years of hell finally came to an end for Peter in August 1945. He was sent back to Blighty by ship, where Nora met him – and almost didn’t recognise him.

“He had lost a great deal of weight while a prisoner. Peter was always a slim man, but only weighed about five stone when he was released,” she said.

The happy couple eventually tied the knot the following year, making their first home in Sandringham Road – paid for by Peter’s back-pay from his time as a prisoner-of-war.

“He joined the family firm after the war,” said Nora, of Roker.

“His uncle ran a stationer and printing works in North Bridge Street, but fell ill. Peter managed it for him.”

Peter also joined St John Ambulance on his return, winning a Serving Brother award in 1981. He was awarded the Freedom of the City of Sunderland in 2010 too, for his war service.

“He was a very generous man, and funny – he cracked jokes all the time,” said his daughter Liz. “Even when his leg was amputated in later life he was very resilient, very positive.

“He was always singing or whistling, and he was a very good storyteller too. I always wanted him to write his stories down, as well as his war memories, but sadly he never did.”

Peter, who died on October 3, leaves widow Nora, two daughters and five grandchildren. His funeral was held at Sunderland Crematorium last week.

“He was the kindest man you could meet,” said Nora, who served as a driver for the Army during the war. “He would do anything for anyone – he was the most gentle of gentleman.”