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A memorial to those who died building the Burma Railway DAVID LONGSTREATH/AP/Press Association Images

Humiliated, tortured or executed The little-known story of the Irish POWs

Some 650 Irish soldiers were taken prisoner by the Japanese during WW2. They were starved, beaten, even crucified – but showed incredible bravery, writes historian Robert Widders.

TWO BROTHERS, FROM Cork, lie buried at opposite ends of the Burma Railway.

The eldest, Lieutenant Richard Duke, died of a heart attack in May 1943, at Kannyu River Camp. He was only 44 years old, and not the most obvious candidate for a heart attack. But this was a common occurrence amongst Allied Prisoners Of War (POW) suffering from cardiac beri-beri. And Richard’s younger brother, Private Basil Duke, died three months later from tropical ulcers, at Sonkurai Camp.

Richard and Basil Duke died implementing the Imperial Japanese Army’s scheme to build a railway, linking Nong Pladuk in Thailand to Moulmein in Burma. Construction started in October 1942: When it was finished a year later over thirteen thousand Allied POWs, and 100,000 Asian forced labourers, were dead.

But the infamous Burma Railway was only one of the horrors facing the 650 Irish men and women, serving with the British forces, who were imprisoned by the Japanese Army in 1942. They were captured when Japan invaded British, Dutch, and American territories in the Far East. And by the time they were liberated in 1945 over 23% of the Irish POWs had died in captivity.

The Burmese end of the railway was started by POWs transported from Java and Sumatra. They travelled inside dilapidated merchant vessels. And many died from heatstroke in the unventilated cargo holds, their situation worsened by the deliberate withholding of water, food, and medical care.

The men who commenced work in Thailand were transported up from Singapore, and through Malaya, in cattle trucks. On arrival in Thailand the men had to march to their section of the railway. As the railway progressed further the journey proved longer and longer.

‘The POWs were beaten and brutalised’

Each work party usually had to construct their own camp in the jungle, and build huts made of bamboo where they slept at night. The further away from the railhead the groups were, the worse the conditions became. And the death rate from starvation and tropical diseases increased, whilst all the time the POWs were beaten and brutalised by the guards overseeing their work.

A small group of Irish and English prisoners tried to escape. In March 1943 Fusilier Timothy Kenneally, from Bishoptown, and Private Patrick Fitzgerald, from Kilmeadon, broke out of their work camp, along with Sergeant Francis Joseph Kelly, and Sergeant Edward Reay, from England.

Around two weeks later they were recaptured after being betrayed by Thais supposedly guiding them. The four soldiers were taken back to their POW camp, interrogated, tortured, and then taken away to be executed. Witnesses later saw the men being led away from camp by three Japanese officers and 32 Korean guards.

No one, except the executioners, witnessed the actual moment of death. Japanese documentation claims that the four men were shot whilst trying to escape. A more compelling account was given by another POW, Sergeant Priestman, who was one of a work detail, sent from the main camp about an hour after the execution. Sergeant Priestman did not use the words crucifixion, when he later gave evidence for a post-war war crimes tribunal. But perhaps his description speaks for itself.

In the undergrowth nearby we found three bamboo crosses, about seven feet by four feet. We also saw another bamboo cross jutting out of the ground. We uncovered it and found the dead body of a British soldier, tied to the cross with his arms outstretched.

But whilst crucifixions were uncommon, all of the POWs suffered an incarceration marked by starvation, disease, denial of medical treatment, beatings, and overwork. Survival, though, was often a lottery. Men who remained in Changi camp throughout captivity, were far more likely to survive than those sent to the Burma Railway. Yet others, who were sent to Rabaul, or Ballale, though they didn’t know it when they went, received a death sentence.

In October 1942, six hundred men from the Royal Artillery were loaded onto a former coal ship in Singapore docks. Conditions onboard were horrendous. They were crammed below in the hold, without food, water, ventilation, or any sanitary arrangements, suffering from heat exhaustion, dehydration, and dysentery. And during the voyage Japanese troops entertained themselves by pouring buckets of urine through the hatches onto the POWs below.

The gunners were destined for the Solomon Islands. But eighty-two men were disembarked en route, at Rabaul, on 6 November 1942. These included Lance Bombardier Patrick Ahern, from Fermoy, County Cork, and Lance Sergeant Patrick (Nobby) Nolan from Wexford.

‘Patrick Ahern fought back in the only way he could’

They were put to work unloading cargo from a Japanese ship. One of the gunners had a wound on his back which broke open. Regardless, he was ordered to continue carrying sacks of rice. When he objected, he was tied to a tree and tortured. The Japanese soldiers tried to make him drink urine. When he refused they beat him and poured a bucket of urine over his head. Then they stripped him, rubbed animal manure over his genitals, and left him (tied to the tree) to be tormented by hordes of tropical biting insects. The following morning he was taken away and murdered.

Patrick Ahern fought back in the only way he could, by ripping holes in the rice sacks destined for Japanese troops, whilst working in Wide Bay unloading ships. Meanwhile, malaria took its toll and ten of his mates died within the first two months. This was an unnecessary tragedy caused by the Japanese refusal to allow the POWs to use any of the ample stocks of quinine.

Then food rations, never plentiful, were cut even further. Boiled rice, augmented with a little (stolen) dried fish, was insufficient in quality or quantity to maintain life. And by the time they were liberated in 1945 only eighteen of the eighty-two men landed on Rabaul were still alive.

After the war many survivors met an early death from illnesses linked to their former captivity. Ill health dogged the remaining years of those who made it to old age. Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome left others spiralling into alcoholism, unemployment, homelessness, and in some cases suicide. And in Ireland the POWs faced the added problem of returning to a society ambivalent, and sometimes hostile, about the actions of men who had travelled abroad to serve with the British Army and fight fascism.

A full account of the fates of the 650 Irish soldiers is in The Emperor’s Irish Slaves, written by Robert Widders. Published by The History Press Ireland; available via bookshops, Amazon, or (post free) from the publishers:

Robert Widders is also the author of Spitting On A Soldier’s Grave, an account of the 5,000 men who deserted from the Irish Army during WW2. Most of these men joined the British armed services and fought against the Nazis.

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