St Albans ex-POW reaches 100

Son-in-law Geoff and Daughter Cerise Smith with Bill Pearson who turned 100 on the 28th of February

Son-in-law Geoff and Daughter Cerise Smith with Bill Pearson who turned 100 on the 28th of February - Credit: Archant

Former Japanese prisoner of war Bill Pearson who nearly died in Far East concentration camps beat all the odds and celebrated his 100th birthday in St Albans last Friday. (28)

Fortunately for his family, who had lost touch with him during the war years, he had written down his life story and they were amazed to find how he had suffered - and survived - his wartime ordeal.

The family joined him to celebrate his 100th birthday at Woodvale Park in St Albans on Friday before daughter and son-in-law Geoffrey and Cerise Smith took him back up to Leeds where he has now settled into a home close to them.

Bill was born in Brighton but moved to Canada at the age of 14 where he worked on farms to make money. In 1934 he joined the Royal Engineers, serving as a sapper in Aden and Malaysia.

In December 1941, when he had been in Kuala Lumpur for some time working as a dredge master in a tin mine, the Japanese landed and bombed Singapore. Bill, by now a 2nd Lieutenant, volunteered for operations behind enemy lines and within a month he and his party were on their own in the jungle without any communication with British forces.

Three months later Bill and a colleague were captured by the Japanese after a shoot-out. Bill suffered a bullet wound in his elbow but the remainder of the party were killed..

The two survivors were interrogated by Japanese officers and sent to the Pudu Gaol in Huala Lumpur where hundreds of other British prisoners of war were kept in appalling conditions which many of their compatriots did not survive.

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After a spell in the Changi section of the prisoner of war camps in Singapore, Bill was transported to work on the railway in Thailand - then known as Siam. It was the rainy season and the tents were constantly flooded leading to disease. They were forced up country carrying their belongings and then made to clear the jungle and build a working camp.

During that period they worked from early morning to night, breaking rocks by hand and cutting embankments for the railway route. Many died of disease and malnutrition.

In 1943, Bill had a recurrence of malaria and was so ill he was placed in the ‘morgue tent’ where people were left to die. One afternoon he found the strength to crawl out of it and get to another hut where he slowly recovered.

But life took another turn for the worse after the railway was completed and he was taken to Kanchanaburi, near the bridge over the River Kwai. He made contact with the Thai Resistance but was betrayed to the Japanese.

He and his Thai contact were picked up by the Japanese Military Police Corps, interrogated, beaten and totured before being sentenced to six years hard labour at a military prison in Bangkok.

His ordeal ended with liberation and he was repatriated in April 1946, taking discharge with the rank of captain on six years reserve. Undeterred by his experiences, he re-enlisted for service in Egypt before being relocated to Cyprus until the late 1950s when he was repatriated and discharged.

His daughter Cerise from Bill’s first marriage to Carmel said her father then lived in New Zealand from 1960 to 1993 with his second wife Kate and then they moved to St Albans where she had relatives. He lived in the city from that time onwards.

She said: “We only came back into his life after 1994 and he found us through the Salvation Army. We were only very young children when he left and I saw him in his army uniform. I don’t even think my mum knew where he was although she was in Malaya herself for a short time. I only found all this out in the last few years and it is very interesting.

Bill’s neighbours joined the family - he also has another daughter Tina and son David from his first marriage - to celebrate his birthday and Cerise added: “I made him a cake and when everyone was singing Happy Birthday he had tears in his eyes.”