World War II veteran Jim Long has a remarkable story to tell of bravery and heroism, fright and unthinkable atrocities.

Jim, born on the Island, and now living in Brighstone, is 94. He was a member of the Second World War’s ‘Forgotten Army’, which was deployed to fight in the Far East.

“By the time I got there I had no boots. They had worn out. We sweated so much the kit went rotten, boots wore out, and they wouldn’t give us any more.”

Many of his colleagues perished. He was one who survived, but like the others who did, he was subjected to horrendous, inhumane conditions while spending three agonising years in the captivity of the Japanese Imperial Army.

The memories he holds of brushes with death, beatings, near starvation and slave labour, remain as vivid as ever. So vivid, in fact, that nearly 70 years on he understandably paused occasionally as he spoke, just to compose himself and make sure he did not break down in tears.

In the first of a three-part series, Island Life reveals how Jim joined up for service, and went on a journey that subsequently ended in he and his colleagues being forced to help build one of the most infamous structures of the entire war – the Bridge over the River Kwai.

Jim was one of three brothers, and was living in Carisbrooke when the Second World War broke out. He recalls; “We stood in front of the fire place, father and me, and listened to Chamberlain’s speech, and I said I wanted to join up. I had just come out of a butcher’s apprenticeship and was in charge of the shop. But the war came along, so I said I would get out my motorbike and go and join up.

“It may sound daft, but I wanted a Scottish regiment because I wanted to wear a kilt. After training I went to the north tip of Scotland, and the weather was horrible. Then one day I remember having a letter from my brother Bill saying there was a rumour going round his regiment were going to the Middle East.

“I thought ‘all that lovely sunshine’ and as you could go with brothers, I wrote asking him to claim me out, so I could join him. He was the major’s chauffeur in the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) in Norfolk and I loved motorbikes all my life, so I wanted to go as a despatch rider. When the transfer came through, I was given seven days’ leave. I came down from Scotland by train to London, walked across London to Waterloo with the kit bag, rifle, the lot to come to the Island for a week.”

Jim then joined his brother in Norfolk, became a despatch rider, and then heard he was heading back to Scotland! He said: “On the way it froze and snowed and the roads were like a skating rink. “I was up and down this convoy 10 miles long, to keep them spaced out and I was frozen. We got to Jedborough, and I thought ‘I’ve come home again!’

“We later went to Manchester, and then I heard we were going overseas, and expected the trip to the Middle East. We caught the boat at Bristol, and travelled not to the Middle East, but a route that took in Canada, where we transferred to American troop ships – far more comfortable.”

Then they travelled on to Trinidad, the coast of South America, back across the South Atlantic – ‘cold rough and horrible’ – before arriving in South Africa. Then it was on to East Africa, and across the Indian Ocean to Bombay. They stayed there for six weeks, before being transferred to a French liner, accompanied by several ships including the ‘Empress of Asia’.

Jim recalls: “We were just going down between Sumatra and Malaya and I guessed we were going to Singapore. We never knew where we were going. Suddenly out of nowhere came 27 Japanese dive bombers. They always flew in groups of 27.

“They came screaming down at us dropping their bombs. I always remember being with a mate called Vic Smith, and he and I were on deck. We manned a gun in the bows of the ship, and down came the dive bombers. I thought ‘this is going to be the end of our war’ and it was a real baptism of fire. Our ship caught two bombs, but the Empress of Asia took a lot of bombs, caught fire and rolled over. It was horrible to watch.

“I was frightened because you think the plane is going to hit you, never mind the bomb. But we survived. Then I was called and told I was going off the ship at Singapore – Ginger Burke and I. We slept in an air raid shelter, and I still had my motorcycle – a 350cc Matchless.

“Then the Japanese Army got on to Singapore island, and that was it for us – surrender, capture call it what you like  –but we were finished! We didn’t see one English plane all the way down to Malaya. We felt very isolated; we were hiding under the trees, but the Jap planes were overhead, and if you moved or fired a shot you knew that would be it.”

February 15, 1942 is a date etched in Jim’s mind. He says: “We were told to cease fire at 2pm on that day. But we were still being raided with mortar bombs, so it was a case of staying in the trench we had dug and keeping our heads down until the 2pm deadline arrived.

“All my kit was still on the back of my motorbike, but when I went to get it the bike had gone. So all I had was what I stood up in. We had to march 17 miles back to Changi where we were kept prisoners. It wasn’t too bad for six months, because we hardly saw any Japanese. They recruited Indian sheiks to oversee us, and they even tried to make us bow to them when they passed by, but the Japanese wouldn’t allow that.

“We did a lot of work in the docks until October, and then we were moved to Thailand by rail. We were in metal box trucks, 32 to a truck and just enough room to sit down. It was red hot in the day and bitterly cold at night. The train stopped once a day to get off and go to the toilet and get rations of a can of rice to eat. It took four or five days to get there.”

Jim and his fellow prisoners of war marched another 24 miles to Kanchanaburi in a day and a night, carrying all their equipment. They stayed there a few days, before marching through the jungle Tamarkan.

“By the time I got there I had no boots. They had worn out. We sweated so much the kit went rotten, boots wore out, and they wouldn’t give us any more. In Tamarkan we were told to start clearing the jungle because we were going to build two bridges – one wooden and one concrete and steel.

“I had nothing on my feet, and all I had to wear was a piece of canvas tent, and a bit of string. You tied the string around your waist and folded the canvas over it. That was full dress, and I stayed like that for over three years,” he said.

“There was always a Japanese guard behind with a bamboo stick prodding into you, throwing stones at you, or worse, to keep you working. We cleared the jungle and then began building a wooden bridge.”

The wooden structure was to enable trains to start running to Burma. Once completed, work began on the concrete and steel bridge for what became known as the ‘Death Railway’ because of the large number of prisoners and conscripts who died during its construction. So Jim and his fellow prisoners began building the Bridge over the River Kwai.

*In the next edition of Island Life (February 2011) – Battered but not beaten; missing presumed dead; an amazing chance reunion, and finally the Forgotten Army was told the war was over!