Clarence Hedley: Amble’s own ‘Railway Man’

Posted on 30th May 2012 | in Heritage & Tourism

Clarence Hedley

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.

Colin Firth plays Japanese POW Eric Lomax in the new film ‘The Railway Man’ part of which was filmed in Northumberland.

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?

Anna Williams

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13 thoughts on "Clarence Hedley: Amble’s own ‘Railway Man’"

  1. Ken Rochester says:

    My dads brother George Rochester was also a prisoner of the japs,perhapsclarence new him?I am reading a book called” One fourteenth of an Elephant”which despite the title is about the “death railway “and is written by an ex POW called Ian Denys Peek .Its a very good read and has much detail of how things were.I visited Kanchanaburi last year and the war graves.

    1. theambler says:

      Just been talking to Clar and I read this comment out to him. He says he does remember Geordie Rochester. He was a Lance Corporal in Y company.

    2. jimmy says:

      clarence is busy reading this book at the moment, he will be reading a space behind the eyes, a biography of an assie pow called scorp stuart whom clar worked and lived with on the railway.

    3. linda siney says:

      For Ken Rochester on here,your Uncle George ,my Dad and Clarence met every month for years as part of the FEPOW group, i remember the wonderful Christmas parties at The Legion ,there was always a great crowd,Jimmy Baxter, Chalkie White, Davy Wilson to name a few i can re-call…

  2. jim morse says:

    well as it happens clarence isnt the only survivor of the death railway, there is a man called Eddie right here in south broomhill, he was in changi too and the bridge on the kwai, eddie will be 95 in october this year..i really think these two should have a pint together, also if clarence was in he fusiliers he would have served with sid brown thats another story…jim

    1. theambler says:

      Hi Jimmy – thanks for the comment. I think it would be lovely for them to get together. I will see how to contact Clar – unless someone online knows?

  3. Peter Cannon says:

    Today the anniversay of the relase of the far east prisoners, Clar with his son Allan Laid a wreath at Amble War Memorial in Remembrance of his Fallen Comrades . Clar my apologies I would have been with you, The Forgotten Army!


    Quo Fata Vocant (Whither the Fates call)

    1. theambler says:

      Hi Peter – Clar came in to see me to tell me he had laid a wreath. I will put something on our Facebook page:

  4. Peter Cannon says:

    Sadly Prisoner of war Eric Lomax, whose moving memoir about working on the “death railway” in Thailand and its aftermath has been turned into a film starring Colin Firth, has died in Berwick-upon-Tweed at the age of 93.

    Eric Died 11th of 0ctober. Rest in peace sir .

    1. Peter Cannon says:

      Apologies inadvertently put wrong date should read Monday 8th of October 2012

  5. Baz (Barrie) Fowler says:

    Clar was my great Uncle and after spending 24 years in HM Royal Marines, I am still humbled by Clar and his peers after many operations myself, a true gentleman and honour to have met him never mind have him as my family. A legend never to be forgotten !

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