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Ex-POWs make return to Far East

A group of former Prisoners of War are returning to the Far East in an emotional pilgrimage to mark Remembrance week.

The group of 33 former PoWs, who are nearly all in their 90s - are setting off tomorrow for the trip to Singapore and Thailand, where they will revisit the Japanese prison camps where they were held during the Second World War.

The trip will also visit the the famous 'Death Railway' camp in Thailand, scene of the Bridge over the River Kwai which one of them helped to build, as well as a prisoner of war camp in Singapore.

The group includes six Far East veterans, and a number of wives and widows, all accompanied by relatives and assistants.

As well as going back to the scene of their imprisonment, the group will mark Remembrance, attending services in Singapore on Thursday and a service at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, close to the River Kwai near the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, accompanied by the British ambassador on November 11, and will also be hosted by Royal Navy ship HMS Daring during their tour.

The oldest veteran on the tour is Jim Crossan, 96, who was a PoW for three-and-a-half years.

Mr Crossan, from Witham St Annes in Lancashire, said when he was first asked to go on the trip he said no, but later changed his mind.

"I have no doubt it will be emotional, it will tear my heart-strings," he said.

But he said part of it would help his son Robin, 61, who is joining him on the trip, to "dot the is and cross the ts" in what he knew about his father's life.

"My son knows everything about what happened, he is the only one who I ever told," said Mr Crossan.

"He will be able to see where I was captured, and when we are out there he will know all about everything that happened there. It's full of interest for him."

Mr Crossan, who served in the Royal Army Service Corps, was captured on February 15, 1942 when it surrendered in Singapore just 10 days after he had arrived.

The Battle of Singapore, from February 8-15, 1942, resulted in the capture of Singapore by the Japanese and the largest surrender of British-led military personnel in history, with around 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops becoming PoWs, adding to tens of thousands already taking prisoner earlier during the war.

"We arrived more or less in time to be captured," Mr Crossan said, saying it quickly dawned on them that they had no idea when, or if, they would ever return home.

"We wondered how it would ever end. To begin with there was all sorts of rumours flying around, but these originated to keep morale up."

"You tried not to think about home because you weren't sure if you would see it again."

He was moved from Singapore to Thailand on October 1942, where he helped build the Thai-Burma railway - known as the "Death Railway" because of the number of men who died building it.

He was there at the same time as Eric Lomax, about whom a film is due to be released.

Mr Crossan recalls the horror of hearing about men being beaten half to death and witnessing people who were too weak to stand, let alone work.

"I had a great feeling of shame walking past them yet being unable to do anything to help," he said. " I think the others did too."

He finally returned in 1945, and found that his then-girlfriend, who was to become his wife, had waited for him, despite not knowing if he would ever return.

"First of all I was posted missing believed a PoW, but she didn't know whether I was alive or dead. But she still waited for me.

"It was a miracle the two atomic bombs ending the war," he said. "It ended a lot of misery, and helped those of us who needed to get home."

As he prepares to return with son Robin, the 96-year-old said it would be an emotional experience, saying: "I still get quite emotional about it, I have spent my life trying to forget about it.

"My son knows all about it, and it will help him to dot the is and cross the ts. I wouldn't have gone without him."

Cliff Burgess, 93, was also a PoW for three-and-a-half years, from February 1942 to August 1945, and is returning with wife Doris and daughters Sandra and Mandy.

Mr Burgess, from Fordham, Cambridgeshire, was in the Royal Artillery HAA (Heavy Anti Aircraft) when he was captured, and worked on the 'Death Railway' and the Wampo viaduct in Thailand, which still stands.

Of the trip, he said: "It will be an experience, I don't suppose very much will be the same as when I was in a prison camp.

"The memories will be there which will most likely be the cemeteries, where most of my friends are that did not make it back."

He will also ride on the same railway that he helped build.

Of the experience, Mr Burgess said: "You never forget it, you wouldn't forget it, it's something that sticks."

"You had to deal with everything that was going on while you were there and you couldn't do anything about it. You just had to grin and bear it and take it.

"If you could fight back it wouldn't have been so bad, but you weren't able to do that."

When he returned in 1945, Mr Burgess's brother-in-law helped get him a job on the railways.

He joked: "I had helped build a railway while I was in Thailand so I was fully trained."

He married wife Doris in 1946, and the couple had their first daughter just a year later.

The trip, under the umbrella of Remembrance Travel, the Royal British Legion's travel arm, is being partly funded under The Big Lottery Heroes Return scheme and returns on November 17.

It is being escorted by official RBL battlefied tour guide Gerry Norden, a former policeman who is also legion branch secretary and a member of the National Welfare and Remembrance Association for Far East Prisoners of War (NFFWRA).

He said: "The veterans are very courageous to be making the trip at their age, particularly when you consider the distance, long haul flights, climate and heat that they will be coping with.

"But they are determined to make the journey and pay their respects to comrades who did not return, and it will be very poignant for them at Remembrance time.

"It's a privilege for me and my colleagues who have planned the tour to be able to help make it possible."

The group leaves Heathrow Airport tomorrow for the trip, and will return on November 17.

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