I remember my best friend

Tom Boardman became a prisoner of war when British forces surrendered to Japan in Singapore in 1942.

Tom, now aged 99, volunteered for service in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in 1939 and was detailed to go abroad in 1941.

“We sailed from Liverpool in early March 1941 and did a few days travelling across the North Atlantic towards America,” says Tom.

“Then we struck due South and went across to Freetown, West Africa - the hottest place I'd ever been to. We didn't go ashore but after a few days there we went South to Cape Town where we had a weeks’ leave. I was with Les Day, my best friend at the time, and we shared our days out together.”

After Cape Town they headed for their final destination of Singapore, via Bombay and Colombo.

Surrender in Singapore

“Of course in 1941 there was no war out in Singapore and we were very pleased to arrive there at the beginning of May, eight weeks after leaving Liverpool,” says Tom

“It seemed heaven on earth because there was no rationing and there was as much food as you wanted. However, little did we know what was on the horizon.”

In December 1941 Japan joined the war, with British Commander Lieutenant-General Percival surrendering in February 1942.

“We were taken prisoner of war and were taken up to Changi district,” explains Tom.

“The area was barb-wired off and we lived there from February to October. In October they started moving us from Singapore up into Thailand with a promise of better camps.

“The trip from Singapore up into Thailand was made in cattle trucks without any sanitation and one meal a day. It lasted four days and four nights and it was a horrendous trip.

Burma railway

Tom was one of thousands of Allied prisoners who built a rail link between Bangkok and Rangoon.

“I spent 12 months building the railway in horrible conditions, with horrible food and the accommodation was horrible,” he explains.

“We used to get rice and a spoonful of sugar for breakfast at the crack of dawn then they would bring out rice in containers slung onto bamboo poles at lunch time. Then we would get back to work until we'd finish the task of the day - anything from building an embankment, to building a cutting, to building a bridge or series of bridges.

“As you finished a section you moved onto another section and started working to meet up with a camp further down or higher up the railway.

“If anyone misbehaved they had what they called a metre stick. It was a metre-length of bamboo which varied from 1-2 inches in diameter and if you misbehaved you got beatings with it - that was a daily occurrence and there was no respite from it.”

Whilst in captivity there were various illnesses and diseases that afflicted the thousands of prisoners, such as Cholera, Dysentery, Malaria, Beriberi, leg ulcers and amputations.

"It was a grim life and I consider myself very lucky to have got through it"

Freedom

The railway was completed in October 1943, after which Tom was put on building air strips.

The last airstrip that was built was at Phetchaburi, and was finished at the end of July 1945.

“The war finished as far as we were concerned about the 18 August because we were unaware that peace had been called and the Japanese had surrendered,” says Tom.

“Within days Dakota planes were flying into this airstrip we had built and flying us in groups to Rangoon where we were rehabilitated.

“I arrived back in England on 8 October 1945 a free man and very grateful for it.

“I arrived home in Leigh in the early hours to be reunited with my wife who I had married in 1940.

“Luckily I survived the hazards,” adds Tom, “It was a grim life and I consider myself very lucky to have got through it, and especially to have survived so long.”

Remembering Les

On Remembrance Sunday, Tom always thinks of his friend Les, who never came home.

“My life is full of remembrance of the war, and not a day passes without me thinking about it,” he says.

“Les Day is the one person I really think about.

“I was with him all through the war days in Singapore and into captivity. I moved into Changi concentration camp with him but unfortunately he didn’t survive.

“I think it’s not just a case of remembering in November. For me we should remember every day and every month, and that’s what I try and do.”

Rethink Remembrance

The Royal British Legion is asking the nation to Rethink Remembrance by recognising the sacrifices made by the Armed Forces community, past and present.

 

By wearing a poppy, you aren’t just remembering the fallen: you’re supporting a new generation of veterans and Service personnel that need our support.

Find out more