Jack Jennings, prisoner of war. Man who helped build Myanmar railway dies at 104

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Jack Jennings, a British prisoner of war during World War II who worked as a slave on the Burma Railway, the roughly 250-mile Japanese military construction project that inspired a novel and the Oscar-winning film. “The bridge over the River Kwai,» died this month in St. Marychurch, England. He was 104 years old.

His daughters Carol Barrett and Hazel Heath told BBC by January 22, he had died in a care facility, although the exact date of death is unclear.

They said they believed their father was the last survivor of around 85,000 British, Australian and Indian soldiers captured when the British colony of Singapore fell to Japanese forces in February 1942.

A soldier with the 1st Battalion of the Cambridgeshire Regiment, Mr Jennings spent the next three and a half years as a prisoner of war, first in Changi Prison in Singapore, then in primitive camps along the route of the railway between the Thailand and Burma (now Burma).

To build bridges, Mr Jennings and at least 60,000 prisoners of war – and thousands of other local prisoners – were forced to cut down and debark trees, sawing them into half-metre lengths , digging and transporting earth to build embankments and driving piles into the ground. .

In his 2011 memoir, “Prisoner Without a Crime,” Mr. Jennings described the dangerous process of driving the stakes, using a heavy weight lifted by the men to the top of a wooden frame.

“Two men usually guided the pile from a perched position near the top,” he wrote. “It was slow, painful work, shaking your whole body as the weight suddenly fell and the pile sank lower.”

He survived the scorching heat of the Indochinese jungle; a daily diet of rice, watery porridge and a teaspoon of sugar; and a battery of diseases: malnutrition, dysentery, malaria and renal colic. He developed a leg ulcer that required skin grafts, performed without anesthesia.

“At least 15 soldiers die every day from malaria and cholera,” Mr Jennings told the British newspaper. The mirror in 2019. “I remember sitting in camp and counting the days I had left to live. I didn’t think I would ever come out alive. »

The brutality inflicted by Japanese soldiers was at least as severe during railway work as in the camps.

“If you didn’t work the way they thought you would, you would get a stick or the butt of a gun,” he added. “But I had to keep going. I had a friend sleeping next to me. I woke up one morning and he was dead. Four men who tried to escape were beheaded.

“My feelings for the Japanese guards who were with us and for all those who allowed them to commit such barbaric crimes remain the same,” Mr. Jennings wrote. “I will never forgive or forget.”

Amid these torturous conditions, Mr. Jennings, who had worked as a carpenter in England, carved a chess set from wood he found in the camps, using a penknife. He took the chess pieces home.

Jack Jennings was born on March 10, 1919 and grew up in the West Midlands, England. His father died of cancer when Jack was 8; his mother, who had worked in a foundry before having children, did laundry to earn money after her husband’s death. She also picked hops during the summer, along with Jack and his sisters.

At his mother’s urging, Jack left school at age 14 to earn money for the family. He did poorly as an office trainee before finding his calling in a local carpentry shop. He eventually enrolled in woodworking classes at a local art school.

Mr Jennings was conscripted into the British Army in 1939 and, after extensive training, traveled by boat to Singapore, arriving in January 1942. The British Army was quickly overwhelmed by the Japanese and Singapore surrendered on February 15.

“They knew where to strike, and to strike hard,” he wrote in his memoirs, adding that “there was nowhere to hide or retreat. We were trapped, civilians and soldiers.

The Japanese herded around 500 soldiers, mostly from the Cambridgeshire Regiment, onto a tennis court. On every street corner, a Japanese soldier stood guard with a machine gun. The prisoners drank dirty water and ate “hard army biscuits and chocolate rations” that their captors threw at them, Mr. Jennings wrote.

After five days, they were taken to Changi Prison and then to prison camps that the prisoners themselves had to extract from the jungle. Mr. Jennings said he spent his time building bridges and seeking treatment for his illnesses. An estimated 12,000 to 16,000 prisoners of war died during the construction of the railway. Many civilian prisoners also died.

Mr. Jennings learned of the Japanese surrender in August 1945 from leaflets left at a prison camp that read: “To all Allied prisoners of war: Japanese forces have surrendered unconditionally and the war is over.”

He returned home in October and, two months later, married his girlfriend, Mary. Three days later, he celebrated his first Christmas with his family in six years.

In 1954, Pierre Boulleformer French soldier and secret agent who served in China, Burma and Indochina, published “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, a novel about the construction of a bridge by Allied prisoners. It was made into a film in 1957 starring Alec Guinness, the delusional colonel in charge of British prisoners in a Japanese prison camp, and William Holden, the American naval commander who escapes from the camp and joins a commando mission to destroy the bridge. The film, directed by David Lean, won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Complete information about survivors, besides Mr. Jennings’ daughters, was not available.

Mr. Jennings wrote his memoirs in the early 1990s, but they would not be published until years later. He made several trips to Singapore and Thailand.

One of them, in 2012, was funded by the British National Lottery, which produced a television advert featuring Mr Jennings for a campaign called “Life Changing”.

In it, he appears walking slowly with his cane through a jungle battle scene, which turns into a visit to the cemetery of Allied soldiers who died during the construction of the railway.

In an interview with the National Lottery, Mr Jennings said the Thailand he visited was “completely different” from the one he remembered. “So the old dreams faded away, you know, so I was quite surprised and relieved,” he said. “This place is really a nice tourist area now.”

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