Bill Humphrey survived hell on earth as a WWII prisoner of war (POW), slaving away on the infamous Burma Railway after the Japanese conquered Singapore and imprisoned him in the Changi prison camp.
Like many, he finds Anzac Days too difficult because they bring back too many bad memories.
Yet, at the age of 95, his recollections are clear and he said that he has no regrets.
“I’ve lived a long, good life. My time as a POW was a small part of it,” he said.
Born and raised in Tenterfield, Mr Humphrey joined the army with a couple of mates from Tamworth when he was 21.
After training in Bathurst, he soon found himself in Singapore with the 2nd/30th Battalion which was among the first battalions to face the Japanese.
“We were fighting for 60 days. It was exciting,” Mr Humphrey said.
Singapore fell to the Japanese on February 15, 1942 and Mr Humphrey and his fellow soldiers were taken prisoner a few days later. After his capture he stayed in a camp in Singapore and was then placed in a working party that put cigarettes and pineapple juice on boats to Japan.
Later, he was back in Singapore at Changi on another working party, building a shrine in the city.
The Japanese began to build a railway line from Burma to Malaya and Mr Humphrey was in a working party on the Burma end of what became known as the “death railway”.
“When I became a POW, it was a struggle for survival. I never get those memories out of my mind. The British were conscripted soldiers and didn’t have the survival instinct we did.”
The British lost around three times as many men on the Burma Railway.
“They didn’t have the same ‘will to live’, I think we had more to come home to. I had great survival skills. I had cholera and beriberi but I pulled through.”
Most who died on the Burma Railway endured a slow death, from cholera, malaria and malnutrition.
“During the monsoon period the roads were impassable. The Japanese troops were going through into Burma. We had to try and keep the roads and railway in working order.
“We were in the water all day, carrying baskets of rocks. Then we’d have to walk four or five kilometres at the end of the day and have about half a cup of rice and some watery stew. That was all we had for the day. Maggots used to eat most of the rice. Though the maggots were good and healthy,” he said.
“You weren’t allowed to remain in camp unless you were practically dying. So, only 30-40 out of a work party of 100 could actually work. We would each have to dig a cubic metre of dirt and rock before we could knock off for the day. Some kept going into the night. Some healthier blokes could finish around 3pm.
“The worst thing was seeing your mates dying. You’d go by the ward on your way to work and two out of three would have died overnight. That impressed on me more than anything – it wasn’t just them – in a couple more weeks, it’d be me. Death was never far away from any of us.
“Then, you’d get out on the railway line and there’d be Japanese in a frenzy. You’d get five or six slaps across the back of the neck for no reason.
“There was a Catholic priest in the camps and he made bamboo caskets to bury some of the dead in. He burnt their serial numbers on the bamboo.”
Generally, the bodies were burnt in bamboo fires; the smoke from which was a near constant for the POWs.
Mr Humphrey has not let his POW history define him or his life. His longevity has aided his perspective when reflecting on the Burma Railway.
“Six months out of 95 years is not long, is it? Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it,” he said.
“I came home by boat, on the Esperance Bay. It stopped at Darwin and then came down the Queensland coast, taking well over a month. They wanted to get us fit and I spent most of the time eating; when I got home I was 11 stone.”
Bill Humphrey returned home to Tenterfield and married Marjorie Laing in December, 1946. They moved to Armidale and resumed the carpentry work he had started before the war.
He bought a block of land in Mann St, near Allingham St, and built his first house from the drawings he had made with his fellow POW during the war.
“I was lucky that I came home, met my wife Marjorie and had six lovely kids. Armidale was a wonderful place to raise children.”
Mr Humphrey had a thriving building business, involved in the construction of over 70 homes in Armidale, the retirement units at Autumn Lodge and the refurbishment of the old PLC School buildings in Brown St into a nursing home.
He retired at the age of 67 and has spent his leisure time playing golf and gardening.
According to Bill Humphrey, post-WWII life has been pretty good.
LONG LOVED: They’ve enjoyed 66 years of marriage – war veteran and prisoner of war survivor Bill Humphrey and wife Marjorie have enjoyed post-WWII life in Armidale. BELOW – INFAMOUS RAILROAD: Bill as a young soldier and the infamous Burma Railway. Photo: Danieli Studios
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.