Sapper Joseph Gwyer
Royal Engineers 560th Field Company
Service Number : 2013616

Joseph 'Joe' Gwyer is my wife's maternal grandfather. Following the death of her grandmas' first husband while serving abroad in WW2, Jacqui's grandma re-married Joe. This is a small part of Joe's military history.

Joe was a Sapper[*] in the 560th Field Company Royal Engineers. During World War 2 Joe served in Singapore in the far east until its' fall in February 1942. The invading Japanese military detained thousands of allied soldiers and civilians in Changi Prison, which was built to house only 600 prisoners. Joe was one of these prisoners.

[*] A Sapper is a soldier responsible for tasks such as building and repairing roads and bridges, laying and clearing mines, etc. Also a private soldier in the Corps of Royal Engineers.


Changi [located on the north eastern tip of Singapore] was one of the more notorious Japanese prisoner of war camps. The treatment of prisoners of war [POW’s] at Changi was harsh and fitted in with the belief held by the Japanese Imperial Army that those who had surrendered to it were guilty of dishonouring their country and family and, as such, deserved to be treated in no other way.

For this reason, 40,000 men from the surrender of Singapore were marched to the northern tip of the island where they were imprisoned.

For the first few months the POW's at Changi were allowed to do as they wished with little interference from the Japanese. There was just enough food and medicine provided and, to begin with, the Japanese seemed indifferent to what the POW’s did at Changi. Concerts were organised, quizzes, sporting events etc. The camp was organised into battalions, regiments etc and meticulous military discipline was maintained. However, by Easter 1942, the attitude of the Japanese had changed. They organised work parties to repair the damaged docks in Singapore and food and medicine became scarce. More pointedly, the Japanese made it clear that they had not signed the Geneva Convention and that they ran the camp as they saw fit.

As 1942 moved on, death from dysentery and vitamin deficiencies became more common.

The mood of the Japanese changed for the worst when a POW tried to escape. The attempt was a failure and the Japanese demanded that everyone in the camp sign a document declaring that they would not attempt to escape. This was refused. As a result, 20,000 POW’s were herded onto a barrack square and told that they would remain there until the order was given to sign the document. When this did not get the desired result, a group of POW’s was marched to the local beach and shot. Despite this, no-one signed the document. Only when the men were threatened by an epidemic due to lack of food, water and medicine, was the order given that the document should be signed. However, the commanding officer made it clear that the document was non-binding as it had been signed under duress. He also knew that his men desperately needed the medicine that the Japanese would have withheld if the document had not been signed. But this episode marked a point of no-return for the POW’s at Changi.

The Japanese used the POW’s at Changi for forced labour. The formula was very simple – if you worked, you would get food. If you did not work, you would get no food. Men were made to work in the docks where they loaded munitions onto ships. They were also used to clear sewers damaged in the attack on Singapore. The men who were too ill to work relied on those who could work for their food. Sharing what were already meagre supplies became a way of life.

The number of POW’s kept at Changi dropped quite markedly as men were constantly shipped out to other areas in the Japanese empire to work. Men were sent to Borneo to work, or to Thailand to work on the Burma-Thai railway [also know as The Death Railway] or to Japan itself where they were made to work down mines. They were replaced by more captured soldiers, airmen and sailors from a variety of Allied nations. Malaria, dysentery and dermatitis were common, as were beatings for not working hard enough.


Joe was moved along with many others north of Singapore to work on what has become known as the infamous 'Death Railway'. This railway stretched for 415 km from Thanbyuzayat in Burma to Nong Pladuk in Bangpong District in Thailand. 304 km of the railway was located in Thailand and the remaining 111 km in Burma.

More than 16,000 prisoners died during the construction of the railway or about thirty-eight prisoners for every km of railway built. The prisoners died because of sickness, malnutrition and exhaustion. There was very little or no medical treatment available and many prisoners suffered horribly before they died. It's said that every railway sleeper on the railway equalled the death of one man who worked on completing it.


On the railway only sick people were allowed to help the sick so as not to slow down the relentless track laying, forest clearing and bridge building. This is a sketch by Ray Parkin who was there. It's called 'Two Malaria's carrying a Cholera'.

Ray says, "One day, I saw two malaria patients helping a cholera patient up a hill. I was so touched and inspired, that I decided to draw this painting to share my experience with others. I wanted them to know that they could make it too. Maybe this painting will help them regain their lost hopes, and inspire them.

Although we will still have to work at the Death Railway, at least the sick can help each other now. It may not be much, but I hope that this is a start. Maybe one day, we'll finally be able to walk free".

The prisoner's diet consisted of rice and salted vegetables served twice a day. Sometimes they were forced to work up to sixteen hours a day under atrocious conditions. Many prisoners were tortured for the smallest offences. The list of the various methods of torture is well documented, vast and brutal. The Japanese commander's motto was "if you work hard you will be treated well, but if you do not work hard you will be punished."


Punishments included savage beatings, being made to kneel on sharp sticks while holding a boulder for one to three hours at a time and being tied to a tree with barbed wire and left there for two to three days without any food or water. There was also the threat of being handed over to the secret police known as the Kempeitai. They had their own prison camps and took torture to another level. They were notorious and their human rights abuses even put the German Gestapo in the shade.

They introduced the system of 'Sook Ching', which means 'purge through purification' in Chinese, to get rid of those deemed to be anti-Japanese. The Sook Ching Massacre claimed the lives of between 25,000 and 50,000 ethnic Chinese civilians in Singapore and Malaya. These men were rounded up and taken to deserted spots around the island and killed systematically. There are numerous accounts of Chinese being made to stand in the sea whilst the Japanese killed them by sword or machine gun, leaving the tides to 'dispose of the bodies'. 

Moreover, the Kempeitai established a network of informers around the island to help them identify those who resisted. These informers were well-paid by the Kempeitai and had no fear of being arrested. 

Japanese soldiers patrolled the streets and commoners had to bow to them when they passed by. Those who failed to do so would be slapped or beaten and some people would be taken away. The heads of decapitated 'wrong-doers' were common place in the streets of the city and served as visual deterrents of the Japanese armies violence and impunity. 

Many people cannot understand how the Japanese could have treated their prisoners so badly and many survivors of the Death Railway can still not forgive their Japanese captors to this day.

Part of the reason for the heartless, inhuman Japanese behaviour may lay in their attitude towards surrender. Most of them would rather die or commit suicide than surrender. Their opinion of the Allied soldiers was very low because they couldn't understand how the Allies could give up so easily and not be consumed by guilt because of it.

The Japanese were determined to build a railway to create a new route from Rangoon and the Bay of Bengal through Bangkok to Singapore. They thought that by relying on sea routes only, they would be vulnerable to Allied attacks, so they needed another method of transportation. They also had their sights set on the British Empire in India.

While we currently know few details of Joe's time 'on the railway' here is a timeline showing his 'Journey Home' extracted from letters written in his own hand. 


29 January 1942 - Joe along with the 560th arrived in Singapore safely on the US Navy troop carrier USS West Point (in peacetime known as liner SS America), this was in convoy with the rest of the 18 Division Royal Engineers on USS Wakefield (SS Manhattan).

8 February 1942 - Just 10 days later in a well planned, heavily supported effort the Japanese invaded and landed in the north-west of Singapore island. Within six days they were on the outskirts of Singapore city, which was also now under constant air attack.

14 February 1942 - The Japanese captured Singapore's reservoirs and pumping stations. The bombing, fighting and heavy shelling continued; many of the troops, separated from their units, wandered around aimlessly and the hospitals were crowded and overflowing. Some troops had become separated from their units. Hard fighting continued. 

15 February 1942 - Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, the British commander in Singapore, called for a ceasefire and made the difficult decision to surrender. He signed the surrender document that evening at the Ford Factory on Bukit Timah Road. 

15 February 1942 - The Japanese begin their occupation of Singapore. After days of desperate fighting, all British Empire troops were to lay down their arms at 8.30 that night. More than 100,000 troops became prisoners of war together with hundreds of European civilians who were interned.

15 February 1942 to 2 September 1945 - For 3 years, 5 months and 18 days, Joe remained a prisoner of the Japanese.

Words below in " italic double quotes " are directly from Joe's letters.

6 August 1945 -  The United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

9 August 1945 -  The United States dropped a second atomic bomb, this time on the Japanese city of Nagasaki.

2 September 1945 - Japan formally surrenders to the Allies.

9 September 1945 - "Left Onahama Camp in Japan for Yokohama. Given tea, bath, change of clothes and Red Cross gifts. Same night boarded the USS Bracken". 

11 September 1945 - Ship sailed for Manilla.

18 September 1945 - Arrived at Manilla, joined a camp run by Yanks and Aussies where Joe says "Everything was free". Issued with new kit.

19 September 1945 - Medical exam and inoculations.

20 September 1945 - Went to see a show with Gracie Fields and Monty Banks. "Next day got paid 40 pesos, first since Singapore, bought myself a pipe".

23 September 1945 - Went into hospital with a 'bad hand'. Came out 5 days later to find all his pals had been moved on from the camp he was staying at. "Trying to enjoy myself but it's difficult on my own". Made friends with a chap from Norwich, they were able to go to the movies and canteen. Had to stay at this camp for 30 days and he was beginning to think he'd be there for good!

19 October 1945 - Aboard USS General Brewster headed for San Francisco. "Living conditions not too bad". 

25 October 1945 - Destination changed to Victoria, Canada. "Weather getting cold".

27 October 1945 - "Weather very cold, everyone getting out winter clothing". "Storm expected, changed course North to avoid it, ship tossing a lot".

28 October 1945 - "Bit warmer this morning, not much wind but misty, should be crossing International Dateline sometime tomorrow".

29 October 1945 - "Crossed the line [the International Date Line] about 3am this morning. We all went through the routine of crossing the line".

30 October 1945 - "Changed course again we are bound for Frisco, still very cold, sea calm".

31 October 1945 - "Sea as calm as ever since leaving Manilla. After breakfast saw plenty of sharks".

3 November 1945 - "Bright morning passed through 'Golden Gates' at 14:30hrs". Left same night for Fort McDowell by boat a distance of 12 miles from Frisco between mainland and Fort McDowell is the well known prison Alcatraz". "Got a pass to go to Frisco. Place very nice". "Slept in a hotel, next morning got a taxi (Yellow Cab) to the docks. Tuesday supposed to be moving today but its cancelled".  "Train is a 1st Class Pullman, its smashing". 

8 November 1945 - Passed Reno on a train. Also Salt Lake City and the Great Lake, "Snow everywhere...temperature below freezing"

? November 1945? - Stopped at Ogden "Sent a few cards home", next stop Evanston, Wyoming. "Saw plenty of Cowboys".

? November 1945? - Passed through Rawlins.

? November 1945? - Arrived at Omaha. "Didn't see much, it was dark and nobody allowed off".

11 November 1945 - Arrived at Watersham? Town. Later arrived at Chicago, met by Red Cross. "Nobody allowed onto platform as running against time now. Queen Mary [ship] is held up for us at New York". "Hope to be home a week from today".

11 November 1945 - Passed through Windsor, Detroit and Buffalo during the night. Then through Syracuse and Albany, West Point. Then on to Newark where the Queen Mary was waiting.

12 November 1945 - Arrived Newark. "Red Cross were waiting to give us milk, doughnuts and chocolate.Then we went over to see the RMS Queen Mary. My first sight of the ship was exciting, it seemed to be a dream going aboard".

13 November 1945 - "Started moving at 11:00am hooters blasting, tugs helping the boat, everyone shouting, it's a time I shall never forget. Then we started moving out leaving the skyscrapers of New York behind, passing the Statue of Liberty on the starboard side, it's a marvellous piece of work. While we were at sea the USS Missouri, America's biggest warship was within 50 yards of us". The USS Missouri is the ship that the Japanese signed their official surrender on board.

17 November 1945 - "Everyone found out where they were going. I am going to Southampton".

19 November 1945 - Issued with a free Military Personnel Railway Ticket [stamped with 'EX POW' in large letters] from Southampton to Brierley Hill, Staffordshire. Also granted permission to be absent from his unit from 20 November 1945 to 31 December 1945.

Ship - Onahama, Japan to Manilla, Philipines. 1,938 miles. 
Ship - Manilla to San Francisco. 6,963 miles.
Train - San Francisco, Victoria in Canada, Reno, Salt Lake City, Omaha, Chicago, Buffalo and Newark. 4,800 miles.
Ship - New York to Southampton. 3,419 miles.
Train - Southampton to Brierley Hill. 144 miles.
Total mileage is 17,264.

Joe's journey across the USA.

Joe, seated far left.

Joe seated in centre with pith helmet and his pipe.



RIP Joe Gwyer