Clarence Hedley: Amble’s own ‘Railway Man’
Perhaps you knew that film stars Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman were filming in Northumberland recently. Perhaps you knew that the film they are making is based on the 1995 book ‘The Railway Man’, the real life story of Eric Lomax from Berwick who was captured by the Japanese and forced to work on the ‘Death Railway’.
Here in the Friendliest Port we have our own ‘Railway Man’ in the form of Clarence Hedley, who is Amble’s last surviving Japanese Prisoner of War and who celebrated his 91st birthday at the end of April.
Clarence joined the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers and was en route to Singapore when he and his comrades were attacked, first by Mitsubishi Bombers, then by Zeros who bombed and machine gunned his ship. After the fall of Singapore, Clarence was captured by the Japanese and sent to various POW camps, spending his 21st birthday in the notorious Changi camp. He was officially listed as missing in Malaya, according to newspaper reports at the time.
The following year he was sent to help construct the ‘Death Railway’ and Tamakan Bridge – later to be immortalised in the film “Bridge over the River Kwai”. Clarence recalls losing many friends and comrades “through illness, hunger and cruelty”. Cholera took hold as well and Clarence had to help carry the dead prisoners to be burned.
Eventually he too became ill, with Beriberi and was moved to other camps, eventually working on the docks in Singapore which were bombed by the Allies. In February 1945 he and his comrades were forced on to ships bound for Japan.
“We were about half way across the Gulf of Siam when the Chinese stokers set the funnel on fire. This lit the convoy up and the Japs went berserk. But it saved our lives. At dawn the submarines attacked and sank about three ships. At night they finished the job. All that was left was the ship with the POWs on board.”
But Clarence was not rescued until much later. Making their way to French Indo-China, he was still forced to work, building an aerodrome, while being bombed and machine gunned “By this time we didn’t know who the hell the enemy was.”
But they did hear about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and were moved once again, this time to Saigon where they were released on 17 August 1945.
On his return to Amble he weighed 7st 8lbs. Clarence says “It was October 1945 and I used to walk down the street wearing a top coat, scarf and hat as I could not stand the cold and I could not get used to a soft bed.”
Clarence has written all his memories in a diary. Perhaps if he ever publishes them, another film star can play his part. Any suggestions?