by CAMPBELL THOMSON
A tarnished but still beautiful gilt crucifix recovered just over a year ago from a domestic garage in Dumfries, Scotland, is a poignant reminder of links that have survived the passage time.
The crucifix, which stands about 23cm tall, was in the possession of Pat Campbell, a retired solicitor from Dumfries who, as a young man in the years before the Second World War, was a volunteer in the local territorial regiment, the Lanarkshire Yeomanry.
Following the outbreak of war, Pat and his regiment were sent to
the Far East where, on February 15, 1942, following the fall of
Singapore, they were taken prisoner of war by the Japanese.
Initially set to work in the docks at Singapore loading
Japanese ships with stolen booty, Pat and the others were held in a camp established in a former amusement park, ironically named the “Great World”.
Beaten and half starved, the prisoners suffered in silence, as
dissent could mean even crueller treatment, or worse, instant
death. Their only solace was a makeshift chapel set up in what
had been the beer garden in the amusement park. And makeshift
it was, a solitary battered table with a crucifix screwed to its
scarred surface. The services were taken by a New Zealand
priest, Fr Gerard Bourke, who had been chaplain to the local
Malay Volunteer Force.
It was a place of refuge and peace for Pat during violent
and cruel times. There he became close friends with another young Catholic, 24-year-old Jack Heydon from New South Wales.
In October 1942 the two friends were separated when Pat and others of the Lanarkshire Yeomanry were among the thousands sent to Thailand in metal cattle trucks to labour on the infamous Death
Railway. Some time later, while slaving in that terrible place, Pat again met Fr Bourke and Jack Heydon. Fr Bourke, known to the PoWs as “Father Gerry”, had himself been put to work building the railway and on one occasion this courageous and resolute priest was being harangued by an angry, drunken Japanese officer for not complying with an order from the Japanese Imperial Army. Facing up to the brutish soldier, the priest bravely replied that he was answerable
to a higher authority, and when the puzzled officer asked who this was, Fr Bourke pointed heavenwards. Realising what he meant, the enraged officer exploded and roared, “I will kill you”!
Drawing his samurai sword, he raised it above his head with
the intent of beheading the priest on the spot. Fortunately, Edward
“Weary” Dunlop, an Australian army doctor who was witness
to the incident, rushed forward and, tapping his head, hurriedly
explained, “Kistean priests very eccentric men”. This explanation
was accepted by the officer as evidence of excusable madness and
Fr Bourke’s life was saved.
By this time Pat was suffering from life-threatening jungle
ulcers and was moved down the line to the so-called hospital camp
at Chungkai. Before being taken away, he was given the crucifix for
safe keeping by Jack Heydon, who had brought it from the Great World Camp in Singapore.
was one of the lucky men of the Lanarkshire Yeomanry who survived the horror of the Japanese death camps and made it back home. All Pat had when he was released from captivity was a torn loincloth, or “jap nappy”, a battered tin plate and a mug made from bamboo, his prayer book and the crucifix.
Last year when attending a reunion in Lanarkshire of veterans and families of the regiment, Pat brought the crucifix from his home in Dumfries, still wrapped in the same ragged bag that he had used to carry it while a prisoner.
On his return from the hell of the camps, he had buried deep in the recesses of his mind the memory of how it had come into his possession and it was only now, all these years later, that he recalled its existence and retrieved it from the garage where it had
Tarnished with age, its beauty still shone through and when shortly afterwards its story was told on the Internet, within minutes an inquiry was received from the Thai- Burma Railway Museum in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, run by Australian Rod Beattie. The
museum, considered the foremost authority on the story of the Death Railway, asked if they could borrow the crucifix for a display.
On being asked, Pat answered that it had come from Thailand and should be returned there permanently. It now stands proudly
in that far off museum, testament to the faith, courage and determination of many brave men.
Bourke also survived the horrors of the Death Railway and served his Lord for many years. He died in 1984 in his home town of Wellington, New Zealand, and at his requiem Mass, the following extract was read from a letter received from a former
PoW: “At that time he was attached to a Scottish battalion. They said of him that he was a man of tremendous courage, rare vigour
and at the same time possessed of a kindness seldom encountered in life.
“There came a time when Father Bourke was drafted to work on the railway with the rest of us. This did not prevent him from
carrying out his religious duties with the men in the camp. His services were badly needed at the time as the Japanese were
crushing us. He celebrated Mass in the morning, worked all day on the railway and, at the end of the day, would walk a distance
of up to three miles to attend the other men.
“Despite this arduous routine, he had a smile for everyone and always managed time for a chat.”
Campbell Thomson is a retired police officer who served with the Strathclyde police in Scotland.
He was close friends with John McEwan, a Catholic and former Japanese prisoner of war who wrote Out of the Depths of Hell. That contact led to contact with Pat Campbell.
Mr Thomson has co-written, with Mr McEwan’s daughter, Death Was Our Bedmate, about life and death on the Death Railway.
by CAMPBELL THOMSON