Jim Long is a remarkable man with a remarkable story. The 94-year-old from Brighstone is one of the few survivors of the Second World War, who was captured by the Japanese Imperial Army in the Far East and spent more than three-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war.
He was among hundreds of British servicemen beaten and tortured by Japanese guards, and was forced into ‘slave labour’ as he and his fellow prisoners built the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai.
In the December edition of Island Life we revealed the first part of Jim’s story. Originally from Carisbrooke, he told of his call-up for service, and his role as a motorcycle outrider before his capture and being forced to work up to 18 hours a day.
Now in the final instalment, Jim recalls how he and his fellow prisoners, including his two brothers, built two main bridges across the River Kwai, and were subjected to horrendous, inhumane conditions, before their eventual release from captivity at the end of the war.
Jim takes up the story. He recalls: “It was October 1942, and we cleared this bit of jungle and started building the wooden bridge across the river. There was always a Japanese soldier close by; either prodding you with a sharp bamboo stick or throwing stones at you, just to keep you working.
“We had to stand big wooden piles up in the river bed, and then hammered them into the ground with big wooden weights on ropes and a pulley. There were 10 men on the end of the rope and they walked back and then let it go to bang the piles into the ground.
“It took us five months to build the wooden bridge. It probably only took that long because we knew if we didn’t work hard we would get beaten – but we did anyway. If you happened to make a mistake, like your hand slipping off the rope, you just felt this ‘whack’ across the body from a bamboo pole.
“One of the guards’ favourite sports was setting you a task. We had to dig out and move a cubic metre of earth every day. It was hard digging with a tool that was a bit like a garden hoe. All the time we were digging a guard would be standing up on a vantage point and amuse himself by throwing rocks at us.”
Somehow, Jim began to laugh as he said: “Every now and again you would suddenly have this brick hit you on the back of the neck. You had to take no notice and just carry on, otherwise it would only get worse.
“At the end of the day they allowed us to go in the river to wash ourselves. All we had was what we called this ‘snap rag’ that we wore. So that piece of cloth was our flannel, our towel and our clothes. Every evening when we went into the river there were a group of Thai girls standing on the river bank, pointing and laughing at us.
“We had sunk so low, we didn’t really take any notice of them – but that really was life in the raw. While we were building the bridge, there were gangs of prisoners on the other side of the river laying the railway lines down, so that when we finished the trains could run virtually straight away. The idea was to complete the railway line all the way to Burma.”
After the wooden bridge was completed, work began on the concrete and steel bridge. The plan was to build concrete pillars with ‘shoulders’ on the top to carry the rail track. Jim explained: “We had to go into the river and dig out the soil and mud. When we had done so much wooden shutters were pushed into the hole, and then you had to stand inside them to dig out more stuff.
“That’s how the foundations were put in, but eventually with the water running into the hole you were working neck-deep in water. So what did the Japs do? They found some copper divers’ helmets, with an air valve on the top. Two guys then pumped air down to you so you could keep working.
“But if you happened to bend down in the hole, the air would go out the back of the helmet, and the water would come in the front, and there you were with a helmet full of water. But we managed to dig out the foundations, and then the holes were filled with hand-mixed concrete. We were still down in the hole making sure it went in the right place.
“So if you can imagine it, we were standing in water, in this wooden box type construction, with concrete coming in on top of us. Basically we had to stand as near to the side of the hole as possible and put our shovel over our head to protect ourselves when the concrete was poured in.”
Eventually the construction was built and the railway lines installed on the bridge. But the slave labour did not end there. The men were marched each night to the head of the track to continue laying the line the following morning.
Suddenly, but not surprisingly Jim’s mood changed to one of deep emotion. He said: “We were moved by night, and I was near the back of the column. One man next to me fell down because he couldn’t go any further. He was just lying there by the track, and the Jap soldiers would not allow anyone to stay with him or go to help him. He just had to lie there on his own and die.”
The railway eventually stretched all the way to Burma, well over 200 kilometres, and all built by the prisoners of war, with picks and shovels. “It didn’t matter to them if someone fell off a construction and was killed, because labour was cheap. We were given two bowls of rice each day as food, but not rice as we know it. The bugs in it were the vitamins, and it was bloody horrible, but we were starving hungry, so we ate it,” he said.
Amazingly, and purely by coincidence, Jim was re-united with his bothers Bill and Len during the war. And when Jim was hit across the head with a shovel by a guard, Bill raised his hand in retaliation, and it was Jim who restrained him, to save him from a bad beating.
Bill and Len had been working alongside each other for some time, before they were spotted by Jim just after the completion of the bridge over the River Kwai, towards the end of 1943. So all three brothers were finally re-united thousands of miles from home, by which time their father Frederick, living back home on the Island, had received three separate telegrams to inform him his sons were missing presumed dead – James Arthur, William Frederick and Leonard Harry.
Jim was one of the few prisoners who worked on the railway throughout its entirety. He was captured on February 15, 1942, moved to Thailand in the September and began work on the railway the following month. He remained there until August, 1945.
One day he woke up feeling terrible, and discovered he had malaria. But he also noticed that outside the wooden hut that was the accommodation it had gone quiet. There were no work parties going out, and no Japanese guards around. A couple of days later a British plane flew overhead and an officer parachuted down to the prisoners. He delivered the news they had all been desperately waiting to hear: the war was over!
“Earlier we had cleared an area in the jungle for Japanese fighter planes to land. But the first plane that did touch down on the makeshift runway was a Dakota, which ran off the end into the jungle. One of the first things the British did before they left was to blow up the bridge – “all that hard work, and they blew it up. But I didn’t give a s*** about that,” smiled Jim.
More planes arrived to begin the evacuation, with the British prisoners flown out 30 at a time, and taken to the sanctuary of Rangoon. Jim recalls that the plane he flew in bore testament to a vicious and bloody war. It had no doors on, and its body was riddled with bullet and shrapnel holes.
When they arrived in Rangoon they were met by Countess Mountbatten, wife of Lord Mountbatten, who took them into a hangar for a celebration tea. “It was just like a children’s tea party, with bread and butter, cakes and cups of tea. But our stomachs had shrunk so much with having very little food for so long, that we could hardly eat any of it,” said Jim.
They stayed in Rangoon for two weeks for medicals, and were then transferred to Calcutta – now wearing overalls and boots for the first time in over three years – to meet a hospital ship, and be taken via the Mediterranean and the Bay of Biscay to anchor just off Cowes. “I thought to myself, my home is just over there, I could swim over. But the next day we went into Southampton,” he smiled.
It was October 1945, and the war – if not the memories – was finally behind them. Jim returned to Melbourne Street, Newport, where his wife lived, but after years of capture found it difficult to adapt, and spent many days just walking the roads of the Island to enjoy the freedom that he had been denied for so long, and come to terms with the atrocities he witnessed and suffered.
He was given leave from October to the following February, and was prescribed three valium tablets each day. In the end he was frightened to go out the front door, and gradually reduced the dosage.
Jim was finally demobbed in February 1946, and because there were no butchers’ shops to return to his original trade, he decided to apply to become an AA patrolman. But his dad persuaded him to take a job in the Post Office which he did, and worked at the head office in Newport until his retirement shortly after his 60th birthday. Later he began raising money for a variety of charities, more recently for injured servicemen returning from Afghanistan, which has included a parachute jump just a few months ago – at the age of 94!
“I also did a bit of campaigning, because if I didn’t think things were right I would let the authorities know. I suppose I have always been a bit bolshie,” he concluded. Jim Long – a truly remarkable man, with a truly remarkable story.