FEATURE: Eye widow tells of late husband’s harrowing experience as a POW in Japan
Today marks the 70th anniversary since the end of the Second World War. But for one Eye widow, Victory over Japan Day carries more poignancy to her than most.
Lilian Clabon’s late husband, Oliver, who served in the Suffolk Regiment and was also an Eye resident, was captured by the Japanese in the jungles of Malaya in 1943, becoming one of the estimated 140,000 Allied soldiers thought to have been taken prisoner.
It was there where they lived in deprived conditions, being used as slave labour. He was based at the Nong Pladuk camp living on a bowl of rice a day, sleeping on the floor, forced to learn the Japanese language, with no toilets.
Although Lilian met Oliver more than a decade after he returned home after the Japanese surrender in 1945, she had to cope with the effects of his ordeal later in his life.
“He said very little about it,” explained Lilian. “It wasn’t until the end of his life where he relived it all.
“He got nightmares, and got scared stiff that somebody was going to clout him if anybody walked in the room, and that sort of thing.
“You would give him his food, he would sit down, look at it, and he would cram it in his mouth with his hands, fearing the Japanese would get it first.
“It was worse at the end of his life, he was scared out of his wits.
“He would block the front door up with cushions and things in case a snake came in. He would say ‘they can kill you, they can’.
“He would wake up in the night and I would think ‘where the heck is he?’ He would be in the corner, and he would have something in his hand, ready to attack if someone came in.
“It was terrible, it really was, to think what he had gone through. I coped the best I could.”
Manning a large gun in the jungle with a fellow solider, it was hit by enemy fire, toppling on his colleague.
Still conscious, it was then that the Japanese moved in and captured them.
The majority of the prisoners helped construct a railway — known as the Death Railway — a 258 mile stretch between Thailand and Burma. More than 12,000 Allied POWs died building the railway.
“He had no clothes, nothing to wear, no shoes, nothing,” said Lilian. “They were forced to work whether they were ill or not. When they building the railway, they had to carry one sleeper on their own. They had to do it on their own, even though they did not have the strength.
“He said he drank out of a tin can that was rusty as the devil, which he had found somewhere, but he had to drink from something. Someone would put a pale of water over you to clean you.
“It doesn’t bear thinking about.”
Oliver died in 2004, aged 83. The pair met in 1957, marrying in Eye Church in 1960.
Although he did not mention his ordeal to his wife initially, Lilian said she had a suspicion of what he had been through.
On his return, he worked in a hairdressers. But she explained he found it hard to work inside, for the feeling of being “shut in” after spending time in the jungle.
He subsequently left the profession, and worked for British Rail. It was in this job he met colleague John Garnham at Palgrave rail crossing — Lilian’s father.
During his stint as a prisoner, his mother, Alice Clabon, kept a vase of flowers, proclaiming that when one of them died, it would signal her son’s death. Family members would take out the plants when they had died and replace them, without her knowledge.
“He seemed to me that he could put anything out of his mind,” explained Lilian.
“He had that ability, and I think he learned that at the camp. And I know he could make something out of nothing.
“He could conjure up and make something out of nothing because he had to.”