‘We always talked about going home’ - One of Norfolk’s last surviving Far East prisoners of war turns 100
08:00 23 August 2014
One of Norfolk’s last surviving Far East prisoners of war, Great Yarmouth boy John Howes has lived life his own way.
Born in one of Yarmouth’s rows in 1914 - just as hundreds of local men were signing up to fight in the First World War, conflict has shaped John’s life. He was called up to serve just before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 as a member of the Territorial Army. He went on to spend four years overseas - three and a half of them as a PoW in Singapore.
Last Thursday, John celebrated his 100th birthday surrounded by family and friends at the Cliff Hotel in Gorleston where the chatty centenarian has become a much-loved local.
“I’m one of those people who takes things with a pinch of salt,” said John, who today lives in Gorleston.
“I am dedicated fatalist. Four times during the war I should have gone. Twice I had bombs and shells dropping within 10ft of me that turned out to be duds. Another time I was walking along a hedgerow when a stream of bullets came by. If my arm had been an inch to the left, I would have gone. But It wasn’t my time.
“I’m in no rush but I’m quite ready to go and see what’s up there when it does happen.”
Educated at St George’s Infants and the Nelson School in Yarmouth - where he was told by one teacher on his last day “I don’t know what’ll become of you”, John’s first job was an errand boy at a tailor shop in King Street.
At 16, he started work at a barrel factory near the gas works where, he said, he learned the meaning of hard graft.
“It was piece work; 10 hours a day, 60 hours a week for 30 shillings,” recalled John, proud to have been a part of the town’s fishing industry.
“It was hard work and it set me up for life.”
He worked at the factory for six years before war changed the course of history, for him and the rest of the world.
“I was called up just before the outbreak of war because I was in the TA,” he said.
“I did my training here and then we went to America. This was before they joined the war.
“We were on US troop ships, which were liners that had been converted to carry troops, and we lived like lords.”
A soldier in D company with the 4th Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment, John can tell you his army number, recall the faces and describe the characters of the men he served with and talks candidly about those difficult years as a PoW at the infamous Changi prison.
Before reaching the Far East, John’s company served in Cape Town. They left South Africa just as the attack on Pearl Harbour drew the US into the war.
“That’s when I went east with Monty,” he said.
“When the message came that we were to move again, I was the one who picked it up - the helicopter dropped the orders onto the ship in a parachute and it landed at my feet.
“They sent us to India and we spent two or three months waiting around before we got the message to go to Singapore. And you know what happened in Singapore.
John was one of 80,000 British Far East PoWs and saw first hand the horrors of the Japanese camp.
“I knew about hard work from the barrel factory so it wasn’t the work that affected me,” he said.
“It was having no medical treatment and eating what you could. Eventually your body gets used to no food, and the work didn’t bother me. I wasn’t emotional about it. Maybe I’m a little more emotional now I’m older, but I wasn’t an emotional person then.
“We always talked about going home. We didn’t all make it, of course.
“I remember a Cockney, Alfie Higgins, who’d say after the war we’d all go to Tilloch Street in London and have a party. But he didn’t come home.
“And there was my great mate Johnny who I’d grown up with. He lived at Yarmouth too. We somehow got separated after we were taken prisoner. He was on one of the Japanese PoW ships to be taken to Japan and, of course, those ships weren’t marked and it was torpedoed. He didn’t come home either.”
John had met and married his sweetheart, Irene, before the war. started.
“All the teenagers of Yarmouth used to parade down King Street, Regent Road, up the front and along St Peter’s Road back then,” he said.
“I was going along the front with a group of my mates when she saw me. She used to tell me that she’d said, ‘That one’s mine’.”
The couple married in September 1938. Son John arrived in 1939, followed by daughter Pat in 1940.
“My only regret is that I wasn’t there to watch the children grow up, to learn to walk and talk,” said John.
During the war Irene had worked for the Boardman family at How Hill in Ludham - “Mrs Boardman’s husband was an officer with us”, said John, who worked there too when he finally returned home.
The family, reunited at last, soon moved to Magalden Way in Gorleston where they settled.
In need of a regular income, John joined the electricity board “because they could guarantee work for two years”.
“I ended up staying for 33 years. If anything I got to know too much and kept telling everyone else what to do,” he added.
“We didn’t have anything after the war, you couldn’t afford it. But I remember our holidays when the children were young, we used to go to Butlins and we’d have a great time.”
Up until last year John was a member of the Yarmouth FEPOW association but when the group quietly folded following the death of chairman Bert Major last year, he became a member of the Royal British Legion.
John said: “Before I got too old I used to go every year to the service on the seafront on the Sunday closest to November 11. I laid a wreath one year.
“There can’t be many of us left.”
While war has left a shadow on John’s life, it by no means defines it - and he’s got plenty of stories too tell.
In 1939, he was on guard duty at Sandringham when he had a close encounter with a four-legged member of the royal family.
“I was standing there when a little corgi came past with it’s lead trailing behind,” he said.
“So, as you would naturally, I picked up the lead. Then the Queen Mother comes past and I hand him back to her.
“Half an hour later a butler came out with a silver tray. She sent me a cup of tea to say thank you.”
He’s had a lifelong love of Scotland, which stems from making friends with the Scots fisherman who’d visit Yarmouth during herring season when he was a boy.
“When I was a lad I’d go to see the trawlers, I never told my family I was going. I was about 15 or 16 when I went out on a boat and I was gone for two days. They had the police and everyone looking for me. I really got told off when I got back.”
John wasn’t keen on a big birthday party to mark his 100th - “I didn’t want a fuss,” he said.
It took two months for his son to convince him to attend a family meal at the Cliff, where John goes every week for a meal and a few pints, but the determination paid off.
“It was one of the best days of my life,” said John. “It was wonderful.”
And the secret to his long life - John puts it down to fate.
“He’s always doing what he shouldn’t,” said his son. “He smoked, he drank, and he still puts too much salt on his food.”
“I don’t live by the rules,” admited John. “You know Frank Sinatra’s song My Way? That was written for me. It’s my life. I do things my way.
“And when I do go I want them to play that song in the church.”