Sentimental Journey

The effects of the exposure I suffered during my ordeal in the South China Sea had led to a complete collapse in my health. At the camp on Hainan I hovered at death’s door, drifting in and out of awareness, but out of it for most of the time. Eventually on 18 September I was stretchered on to another hellship and lowered into the hold. As our ship made a dash for the Japanese mainland, dodging prowling American submarines, I lay blissfully unaware of the grim conditions in the bowels of the vessel.

It was another terrible journey and must have been full of angst for the conscious survivors. We were on board for eleven days with no drugs or medical assistance whatsoever for 120 ill men in our contingent. Terrified of further attacks the Japanese had commandeered all of the life-belts and despite the protests of Captain Wilkie had two or three each, while there were none available for prisoners. In fact our convoy was attacked again and a destroyer sunk. We were lucky to escape being sunk for a second time and it was nothing short of miraculous that only five men died in the holds during the voyage. Unknown to me I was lucky and had a guardian angel – Dr Mathieson was tending to me.

I came to my senses as we arrived in Japan and found myself being driven into the middle of a barren, almost desert-like landscape to a bleak prison camp surrounded by a ten-foot-high wooden fence, with barbed wire on top. Along with others I was slung into a timber hut, where we slept on the floor Japanese style. Exhausted I did not wake the entire night. Next morning I struggled to make it out of the hut for roll-call. We were issued with Japanese-green, all-in-one boiler suits with zip-up fronts, and rubber boots like the Nippon soldiers wore. I had to roll the sleeves up on my overalls, which struck me as being strange since the Japanese didn’t have long arms.

A Japanese officer told us that we were in a place called Omuta and that our camp was designated Fukuoka Camp 25. It was a few miles from a seaport that owed much of its modern prosperity to the efforts of an Aberdeen merchant called Thomas Glover. He had opened Japan’s first coal mines and developed the country’s first dry-dock in the city. Its only other claim to fame was as the setting of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. That seaport was called Nagasaki.

We were being put to work immediately. This time labouring in a nearby open-cast coalmine. I was still in a terrible state; I barely knew my own name and could hardly stand. I dreaded hard labour. We marched for half an hour along a dirt track to the coalmine, which was quite small, much smaller than the ones I knew of on the east coast of Scotland. We saw very few locals and when we did they never gave us a second look. Vegetable plants grew on the roadside verge. The Japanese mainland was literally starving and food was being grown on every available scrap of land. There was of course no improvement to our rations.

We filled coal carts with our bare hands and sometimes shovels, and then in groups of four had to push the laden carts along a small railway, fifty yards or so up a slight incline to a point where we would tip them over and the coal would fall on to a large mound that trucks would take away. It was quite an effort to get the carts moving, even with four of us hard at it. But I doubt I was much use to anyone – I was completely worn out. It was nothing short of miraculous that I was still alive and I was a husk of a man, certainly unfit to work. I could do no more.

There were several of these mines scattered around Omuta, one of which was owned by a family called Aso. For decades after the war the Japanese government denied that allied prisoners had been used as slaves in any of these mines and factories, and it was only recently when researchers proved that the family of Taro Aso, the former Prime Minister of Japan, had personally profited from the labour of 197 Australian, 101 British and two Dutch prisoners that we received any kind of grudging recognition.

In January 2009 Mr Aso finally acknowledged for the first time that about three hundred allied POWs had indeed been forced to work at the Aso Mining Company’s Yoshikuma coalmine in Fukuoka. Mr Aso would later become president of the company but until 2009 he maintained that the claims about POW labour could not be substantiated and because he was only four or five years old at the time he had no personal knowledge of it.

After a couple of days at the coalmine I went to the hospital hut to sign off sick. In the long room were half a dozen beds filled with acute dysentery and malaria sufferers. A doctor saw me enter and walked down the centre aisle. As he approached I thought I recognised his strut and ruddy complexion. When he got closer I could not believe my eyes.

‘Doctor Mathieson, I presume.’

He grinned and shook my hand in true, reserved Scots fashion. But I was unsure that he had recognised me so I nudged his memory: ‘Kanyu?’

‘Good to see you, Alistair,’ he said and genuinely seemed to mean it too. I was sure glad to see him anyway. He had already saved my life more than once.

Our quick catch-up chat did not dwell on the railway or the hellships – we just wanted to forget that lest it sap what little energy and will we had left. He did not even mention at this stage how he and his orderlies had nursed me on the second leg of our voyage while I was delirious. He signed me off work at the coalmine and reassigned me to camp duties once I had rested up. A few days later I reported to the orderly officer, a lieutenant who gave me all manner of duties to carry out that day. I was the general dogsbody of the camp and relished the role. I started off helping in the cook house, before emptying the contents of the Japanese latrines on their rows of tomato plants. I very rarely saw any Japanese in the camp, even during the day, and that suited me fine. They lived off-site and came in only when there was something serious going on. Usually we just had Korean guards and even they didn’t bother going to the mines with the men, so most of the time everyone got on with things. It was a pleasant change in circumstances. I spent my afternoons tidying the yard with the besom-style brushes the Japanese favoured and I would be finished by the time the work party returned.

From then on I spent most of my spare time and evenings at the hospital hut. Dr Mathieson and I spoke for hours on all topics. It transpired that he also loved the outdoors, especially hill-walking, and had played rugby at high school. He was well educated and very capable. It was good to have some intelligent conversation. We were on the same wavelength and as fellow Scots often talked of home. Much of the chatter among the men could be pretty banal and boring. But Dr Mathieson took me under his wing and imparted a lot of his medical knowledge and wisdom.

He played a big part in bringing me out of the protective shell that I had retreated into during my time on the railway and the slavery of Singapore docks. I began regaining my personality.

Eventually the good doctor convinced our orderly officers as well as the Japanese to allow me to help out at the hospital as an orderly. My elevation had the blessing of Sergeant Fergusson, who was in charge of the hospital alongside Mathieson. He was very laid-back and quiet but brilliant at his job.

I had the task of ensuring that patients were as comfortable and disease-free as possible. By turning and bathing them, and conducting basic massages, I made sure that they did not get bedsores. Generally I tried to keep their spirits up. I also fetched their meals, made at the cook house, and carried them back on trays.

Dr Mathieson spent most of the time thinking up new ways of helping the sick. He was every bit a doctor – there was no mistaking him. Most of our patients could prove rather difficult – they often got angry and even physical, hitting out for no real reason. But Mathieson was extremely caring and never once got annoyed himself. He had a presence that even the most difficult patients seemed to accept. He became an inspirational figure to me. We had no real equipment or drugs so had to be resourceful. Then Dr Mathieson had the brainwave of bolstering the sick by injecting them with distilled water just under the skin. A placebo, it seemed to really rejuvenate the men whether it was all in the mind or not. Alas we could still do nothing for their pain; we did not even have aspirin. All we could do was offer some consoling words.

The dedicated and compassionate care provided by Dr Mathieson and Sergeant Fergusson ensured that only four men died during our time in Japan. They all died in October 1944 and three of these deaths were due partly to the effects of exposure after having been torpedoed on the hellships. One of those who died was a young Gordon Highlander, Private Henry Elder. He came from the tiny fishing village of Gourdon, a few miles south of Aberdeen. I did not like to dwell on the tragedy of a young lad from this tranquil village famed for its lobsters, who died alone so far from home after having survived so much.

Another victim, a young cockney called Tommy Taylor, died because we had no drugs to give him. He was survived by a twin brother in the camp. It was just too much to hope that both boys could survive the Death Railway and the hellships.

We cremated the four men and hid their ashes in a Buddhist temple for safekeeping.

Dr Mathieson was a good teacher. He patiently explained how beriberi was the result of vitamin deficiencies and how to diagnose other tropical diseases. Perhaps the most important piece of advice I received from him was delivered almost as an afterthought, as if I should know it already. He warned me that when I got out of camp I would have to be careful what I ate.

‘You’ll never be able to eat what you used to,’ he said. ‘Your stomach has shrunk so much that you’ll have to be very careful. Anything too substantial, eaten too quickly, could kill you.’

It would prove life-saving advice.

The food at the camp had already caused a near fatal encounter when the Japanese gave the cook house some contaminated seafood. It caused havoc. While deliciously salty, and one of the finest culinary moments of my life, the pleasure was short-lived. All of those who ate the food, including myself, became seriously ill with food poisoning. It struck within hours – we suffered debilitating vomiting and diarrhoea, both ends going at once. The mess and stench was out of this world. Men lay doubled over screaming out in agony. Dr Mathieson, who was also a victim, proved wonderful on that occasion, working day and night to save dozens of lives. Within twenty-four hours the nightmare was over and incredibly nobody had succumbed.

There were still instances of Japanese tyranny. Whether or not they gave us the seafood knowing that it was contaminated, I could not be sure. But when someone stole some sugar from a storeroom the Japanese felt it was time to stamp their authority back on us. The whole camp, including us medical orderlies, was made to kneel erect on the parade square all night. With temperatures dropping below zero it was a long stretch. If you faltered from your position, the Japanese hosed water on to your legs, which in the sharp frost froze. The pain was something else. The punishment didn’t freeze out the thief and it ended at 5 a.m. when the work party was gathered to go back to the mine.

During this time I acquired so much patience, understanding and caring that I began to feel better about myself even though I was skin and bone. My eyebrows started to sprout, as did some fuzzy clumps of hair. I had thoughts of training as a doctor if I ever got back to Scotland. I thought I was capable enough and I had decided that I really wanted to help others. One night in my hut I made a silent vow to spend the rest of my life bettering the lot of others.

Being in Japan, on the mainland, I felt slightly more optimistic, closer to civilisation, away from the arena of war. On the railway you felt forgotten, left to die and never to be heard of again. The jungle eroded any thoughts of rescue or going home. While Chungkai was comfortable, the fear of returning to the railway remained ever-present. But in Japan, and cooler climes, we always thought someone could come and save us. The only danger was that the ‘saviours’ would arrive too late, after the Japanese had killed us all.

After six months at the camp I could sense that the allies were winning the war in the Pacific. You could tell by the demeanour of the guards that it wasn’t going well for them. They seemed to be extra glad to get out of the camp and return to their families when working parties returned. I saw some actually running through the gates. We were gaining the upper hand and both sides in the camp knew it. In one incident during the summer of 1945 Captain Wilkie threatened a bullying Japanese sergeant that he would have him shot after the war – something that would have been unthinkable on the railway. He also rejected repeated Japanese attempts to persuade us to make statements blaming the Americans for sinking us, which they could use for propaganda purposes.

Increasingly they left us alone. As the noose tightened around Japan the guards reduced our meagre rations even further; men developed boils and abscesses and instances of prisoners fainting at work increased. But subsisting on a diet of rice and occasionally beans, we started to receive the remnants of Red Cross parcels looted by our captors. We tasted raisins and cheese for the first time in years. It was the first evidence I had seen of the Red Cross during my entire captivity. At Christmas 1944 the Japanese had allowed us to celebrate with a day off. I had thought of home and it had suddenly struck me that it was six long years since I had celebrated Christmas there, back in 1938.

By the summer of 1945 bombing raids were becoming more frequent too. We saw scores of B-29 Superfortresses flying over us to paste Japanese cities and towns, including those close to us.

The ninth of August 1945 began like any other boring day in captivity. At dawn we turned out for tenko and the work parties marched out to the factory where our men now slaved. They were quite glad to be under guard. Since the incendiary bombings of Omuta and Nagasaki, Japanese civilians had taken to stoning POWs and there had been several vicious incidents with civilians in the factory. I began my daily chores around the camp prior to reporting to the hospital for orderly duties.

On an air-base thousands of miles away in the Mariana Islands a young US Air Force officer, Captain Charles Sweeney, aged just twenty-five like myself, was beginning a day that would be anything but normal. He and his youthful crew had already undergone a briefing and enjoyed the traditional early morning breakfast before any bombing mission. The chaplain’s prayer had been a little bit more emotional than usual and the escort for Bockscar, his B-29 bomber, carried press men and photographers.

Three days after the bombing of Hiroshima fascist hardliners in the Japanese government still wanted to fight on. Stalin was already ripping apart the Japanese army in Manchuria and the outcome of the war seemed obvious. But the diehards wanted to fight on in the Japanese home islands and among their plans they intended to massacre all allied prisoners of war. ‘Little Boy’ had wiped out Hiroshima and 140,000 of its people but had failed to persuade Japan’s rulers of the hopelessness of their cause.

Now US President Harry Truman decided that another message must be sent. Sweeney’s bomb hold contained just one huge bomb: ‘Fat Man’. Millions of man-hours had gone into designing this implosion-type plutonium bomb. Over ten feet long and five feet in diameter it weighed in at 10,200 pounds and was designed to be burst 1800 feet above its target.

But the initial target for Sweeney and his twenty-fouryear-old co-pilot, First Lieutenant Charles Albury, was not Nagasaki but Kokura, the port city where we had landed in the hellship from Hainan. The young pilots made three passes on Kokura but found it clouded over and were unable to comply with orders to drop the bomb visually if possible. Running low on fuel and fearing they might have to ditch Fat Man in the sea, Sweeney and Albury turned their attention towards nearby Nagasaki. It was covered with cloud too. But suddenly from thirty thousand feet up Bockscar’s twenty-seven-year-old veteran bomb-aimer Kermit Beahan caught a glimpse of the Nagasaki stadium and pressed the button that released the bomb.

It was around midday and I had finally plucked up the courage to undertake my most hateful task. Emptying the latrine cans on to the Japanese officers’ tomato plants always made my stomach turn. But I did have to marvel at the spectacular effect it produced in the plants, which boasted tomatoes the size of apples. Earlier in the morning I had heard the drone of an aeroplane flying overheard. I looked up and saw it was flying quite low – in fact low enough to see its American military markings. I looked up open-mouthed as it flew directly over us. Since March 1945 we had seen growing numbers of American bombers flying above us to pound Japanese targets. Yet I was amazed this plane was flying so low and unchallenged. It made me think for an instant that the war might be over but as it disappeared my optimism went with it. We were unaware that Japan had been plunged into chaos at the top with the dropping three days earlier of Little Boy.

I was taking as much care as possible to avoid being splashed with the revolting contents of the cans as I moved up and down the drills of tomato plants behind the huts. The job always made me gag but was lighter work than the mines and furnaces. Halfway up a drill there came a tremendous clap of thunder from the direction of Nagasaki. I didn’t think too much of it and had just finished watering the plants when a sudden gust of very hot air like a giant hairdryer blasted into me. It knocked my shrunken frame sideways and I had to use my bamboo ladle to prevent myself from falling over completely. I wondered where the freak wind had come from. I had never experienced anything like it. It came and went so quickly. But I didn’t give it too much thought. In fact when I went into the hospital hut I didn’t even mention the hot air to Dr Mathieson; instead we discussed the low-flying plane. Like me he couldn’t understand why it had not been challenged as all previous raiders had.

Then the men came back from the factory and began to talk of a massive raid on Nagasaki and a huge direct hit on the armoury at the naval base. Massive clouds of smoke had been seen. But we had spotted no planes from the camp. Some men claimed to have seen dozens, even hundreds of planes, others none. As usual the camp generated abundant rumours and great speculation. We knew that something big had happened down in Nagasaki.

One Gordon proffered hopefully, ‘They’re bombing the shit out of the place. It’s the final push. We’ll be out of here in a week.’

But the low-flying lone plane attracted equally frenzied speculation. One of the lads suggested, ‘It’s high-ranking American officials, Winston Churchill himself maybe, coming to talk the Nip bastards into surrender.’

I remained less optimistic. There had been so many setbacks that I refused to allow myself to contemplate something as dramatic as the end.

On the hospital rounds Dr Mathieson was puzzled too. ‘Why was there no opposition to those American planes?’ he queried as I shadowed him.

‘Never saw a Jap plane. Neither did anyone else,’ I said, not knowing what to think.

Starved of news in the camp, our imaginations were nothing if not fevered. But none of us could have dreamed up what had happened at Nagasaki. The strange gust that had knocked me over was the hot breath of Fat Man, a nuclear weapon with even more destructive power than its cousin Little Boy. Unknown to us we had entered the atomic age.

Temperatures at ground zero in Nagasaki had flashed to between three thousand and four thousand degrees centigrade. The entire city had been flattened and thirtynine thousand people had been vaporised instantly by this single bomb. The world had changed for ever.

Only the presence of large tracts of water within the city had prevented a fierce firestorm from developing and causing even greater loss of life. The undulating landscape had saved us from the worst of the blast but one of the camps nearby had been hit and six prisoners were killed.

As we finished the rounds Dr Mathieson’s brow furrowed, ‘If this is the end, hypothetically speaking of course, what will the Japs do with us?’

Having seen their appetite for wanton cruelty and death, and knowing their stance on the dishonour of surrender, it was a gut-churning question. Indeed we later learned that the Japanese Emperor had issued strict instructions to murder any POWs on the mainland, should it ever be invaded. Looking back I’m glad not to have known.

I told Mathieson that if the Japanese stormed our camp with the intention of massacring us all, we should fight to the death. Hopeless as our position was, with no weapons or means of fighting back, I wanted to make sure I took a few of the buggers with me.

‘That’s the spirit,’ he replied much too unconvincingly.

For several days it was business as usual. Then on 15 August the men came back from the factory and said that its manager had spoken to a mass meeting of the workforce and broke down crying during his speech. The fifteenth of August, we were told, would be a big day of mourning for Japan. By now we felt sure that the war was over. Finally on 21 August we were paraded and the Japanese commander read out the declaration of the cessation of hostilities that had been called six days earlier.

Gradually the British took over the running of the camp but in the absence of the Japanese our food rations were diminishing rapidly. Leaflets promising imminent food drops came from above but the men were becoming hungry and restless. To appease them and their growling guts the officers allowed the slaughter of some pigs and chickens, which had been kept by the Japanese officers. The animals were killed unceremoniously in the parade square, their blood darkening the dirt. Our portions were minuscule but the chicken was delicious and the pork was simply divine. The latter was also especially good for the patients, said Dr Mathieson, because of the high salt content. At least that was the argument he put forward on behalf of the sick patients for extra rations.

On 25 August we received our first food drops. While most Red Cross supply crates and canisters came parachuting lightly to the ground, others thundered into the earth, huts, dining halls, latrines and trees like bombs. One man was slightly injured by flying splinters of wood when a canister landed on a building. Another thought he was covered in blood but it turned out to be tomato puree. Others, Japanese natives, were reportedly killed by the falling canisters. The parcels contained messages ordering us to remain inside the camp and wait to be liberated. Army discipline stood firm.

The life-saving canisters were filled with relief foodstuffs – sugar, milk, rice, as well as cigarettes and matches. Dr Mathieson ensured that the sick got first choice of proper food and insisted that the cook house did not produce any rich meals, which would have devastated our stomachs. Penicillin and aspirin also came in the drops, along with bandages, dressings, ointment, soap, sheets, towels and pillowcases. Finally our makeshift hospital was almost looking like the real thing.

As the weeks wore on our wait for rescue became incredibly frustrating. I never even contemplated leaving the camp until, one day early in September, a frantic Japanese man came running to us. Directed to the hospital hut he found Dr Mathieson and myself. In stilted English he managed to convey that his daughter was sick.

‘Very small,’ he managed, indicating with a grubby, weathered hand at his waist to show us her size.

‘You help,’ he said.

‘But no drugs,’ replied Mathieson.

‘You come, you come,’ he pleaded. He grabbed my hand and pulled me out of the hut. Mathieson grabbed some of his rudimentary medical implements and came with us. We trotted behind the urging father, his wooden sandals clack-clack-clacking along the dirt track. After about ten minutes we arrived at a modest, low-slung Japanese house. We removed our rubber boots and entered. It was the most bizarre house I had ever been in, with everything on the floor and a distinct lack of seating. Dark and cool inside, a woman in black silk trousers and a gaily coloured blouse, whom I took for the man’s wife, waved at us and pointed to a murky corner. A young girl of about nine or ten lay curled up on the floor, shivering and barely able to offer a wave. Dr Mathieson saw to her and quickly realised she was running a dangerous temperature. She had a smattering of English and the Paisley doctor managed to ascertain she had stomach pains. We sponged her down, trying to relieve her fever, and then asked for some boiling water. I tried to explain that she should just take small sips.

We got her temperature down but nothing much else could be done. Dr Mathieson said, ‘Two days’, and held up two fingers to indicate she would be OK in forty-eight hours. He tried to explain the importance of light foods and was doing chicken impressions, which made all of us laugh.

While we had been attending to the girl, the woman, who had a mouthful of gold teeth that glinted in the dim light, had been preparing hot dishes and insisted we stay and eat with them. We sat on the floor and she lined up rows of bowls in front of us. Knowing the dangers in suddenly plumping for rich food, I chose a bowl of boiled rice, which was heavily salted and peppered. I tucked in and got a nudge in the ribs from Dr Mathieson urging me to take it easy. We ate as little as we could without offending our gracious hosts. They were extremely grateful and obviously had nowhere else to go. To my surprise I felt no animosity whatsoever to this family despite what their countrymen had put me through. The young girl deserved treatment as much as anybody and Dr Mathieson was of the same mind. As a true professional he had even treated the Japanese officers while on the Death Railway. It made me feel rather good inside to have been able to help them.

The woman disappeared again and returned with two bolts of Japanese silks, one for each one of us. They were gorgeously made, with extraordinarily colourful patterns, which I guessed would have been crafted into a kimono. I thought they were beautiful and I was extremely grateful. In fact I ensured my silk was kept safe. Years later I would give the piece of silk to my sister Rhoda, who made it into a housecoat.

A few days later while working in the hospital I heard a commotion outside. As I stepped out I caught my first glimpse of US marines. They had driven into camp on seven or eight lorries with white markings. For a stunned moment I gazed at them. It was so long since I had seen a white man who did not resemble a skeleton. I shouted for Dr Mathieson to come out.

We stood and watched in amazement. Smiling and strapping Yanks in pressed khaki uniforms were dispensing cigarettes by the fistful, hugging rag-and-bone strangers. Men were shouting and screaming, throwing things in the air, weeping and kissing the earth, lost in emotion. Some of the Americans were visibly upset at the sight of us and the pathetic state we were in. They lifted up men’s shirts, shocked by the angular and protruding ribcages, bloated bellies and infant waistlines.

I shook hands with Dr Mathieson. We shared a silent moment taking it all in, before I went back to my hut to collect what few things I still had with me. Technically I wasn’t in the medical corps so I went back with the troops. I jumped on one of the first trucks to speed out of the camp. It ferried us to Nagasaki harbour, where a ship was waiting to escort us to freedom. The Americans no doubt had to make several journeys to pick every one up from the camp so I was glad to be one of the first out.

The American driver was obviously off his rocker, not bothering to dodge boulders. He careered on lifting us high from our pews and bouncing our heads off the canvas. I stared at the countryside from the rear of the lorry. While it had been relatively bare before, the hedgerows and trees now appeared to be dying. As we thundered on the greenness of the hedgerows faded. Reddish-brown leaves turned brown, grey and then black. Fairly soon nothing was left. No birds sang, nothing lived. Trees had been reduced to knee-high ashen stumps. The area looked like the aftermath of a mass, blanket-bombing raid. Soot, ash and dust lay piled deep like fresh snow along the verge.

The truck kicked up great clouds of fine grey dust as it sped along. The stour had us all choking and lent us a ghostly demeanour as it settled on us. The Yanks told us proudly that they had dropped a ‘special bomb’ on Nagasaki but I knew nothing of radioactivity or of the near fatal consequences my exposure to it would have. We searched in vain for bomb craters unaware of the atomic airburst that had flattened Nagasaki and extinguished the life of 35,000 of its residents. You could not tell it had once been a city with a pre-war population of 195,000. It looked more like the dark side of the moon. I spotted just one remaining concrete structure that looked like a building. It was difficult to comprehend.

Yet it would take more than this strange sight to spoil our party. Covered in radioactive dust the boys were laughing, crying and singing. The words that rang out across the shattered ruins of Nagasaki were never sung with more conviction and passion.

Rule Britannia! 

Britannia rule the waves! 

Britons never, never, never shall be slaves!

But I remained detached, unsure of what to think. In fact I was still terrified, a reflection of how traumatised I had been by years of living in the shadow of the sword. Every rock we ran over, every clang and start, scared me. How safe are we? Rogue Japs could be hiding around the corner, waiting for us. My mind suddenly turned to home. Will I really make it? Will Mother and Father still be alive? Whatever happened to Douglas? Was he killed in action? And Eric? God, I hope Hazel doesn’t have a boyfriend!

I was disturbed by the sight of the devastation but felt no sympathy for the Japanese. Serves them bloody well right, I thought. How else was it going to end?

After forty-five minutes or so we arrived at Nagasaki harbour. While the quayside still showed the effects of the bomb, with blackened patches and blasted buildings, it had been somewhat patched up. A gigantic US Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Cape Gloucester, stretched the entire length of the docks, blocking out the sun. I had never seen anything like it. In its vast shadow the Americans had engineered some makeshift open-roofed showers with partitions. I was given a bar of pink soap and ushered to a space. I undressed and stood straight under the jets of bracing water. Despite the chill it was the finest shower I had ever had and my first proper wash in three and a half years.

I scrubbed frantically, working up the thickest lather possible, rubbing it into all my forgotten nooks and crannies. I had been filthy for so long and the grime was so engrained that very little dirt actually came off. But on the inside it had extremely therapeutic powers. Ignoring the soldiers telling me to hurry up I savoured every moment, just letting the water bounce off my head and neck.

After half an hour they practically dragged me from the showers to be fumigated and de-loused before being placed on the scales. When I left Aberdeen I had weighed a healthy 135lbs but here in Nagasaki on the steel-yard scales – very accurate contraptions similar to those I had used at the plumbers’ merchants – I was reduced to a skeletal 82lbs.

New arrivals, men from the vast industrial gulag the Japanese had created in Fukuoka, flooded the quayside and lengthened the queues for showers. Sadly at this final hurdle some men did not make it and died on that quay. This distressed the Americans immensely and they were shocked by the matter-of-fact way that the other prisoners accepted the deaths of their mates. We had seen so much, too much.

As I stepped into my tan boiler suit issued by the Americans, I was pleased to have arrived early. A marine band from the Cape Gloucester started playing ‘Anchors Aweigh’ on the quayside.

Men went bananas, bursting into song and dance, waving their arms in the air to ‘The Two O’Clock Jump’. With sailors giving me a helping hand my spindly legs struggled up the rickety gangplank to the hangar deck, where row upon row of camp beds had been arranged. There must have been hundreds of them and I took the first space available and sat down. Streams of men poured in, some nervous and wary, others delirious with happiness, while some were just plain delirious. The chap beside me, Denis Southgate, was from Cornwall and a survivor from HMS Prince of Wales, which had been sunk by Japanese bombers off the coast of Malaya at the outbreak of the war. We got chatting. He had also been at Fukuoka Camp 25 but we had never met.

All of our spirits lifted later that first balmy night when music was played over the tannoy system. The first tune, a new one to me, was ‘Sentimental Journey’ by Glenn Miller. It remains to this day my favourite song. We were allowed up on the main deck in batches. It was a terrific evening, no clouds in the sky, as another Glenn Miller song, ‘Moonlight Serenade’, blared out scratchily from the speakers.

As we sailed out of Nagasaki I looked back at the devastation the militarist rulers of Japan had brought on their country. Surveying that atomic wasteland to the big-band sounds of Glenn Miller was the defining moment of my life.

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