Among the former prisoners of war on the red carpet for the London premiere of The Railway Man was Anthony Lucas of Hundon whose story, like the film’s Eric Lomax’s, has a post war twist.
The film, starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, tells Eric’s story as a PoW on the Burma-Siam (Thailand) death railway, his brutal interrogation by the Kempeitai (Japanese Gestapo) and his post war friendship with the interpreter who tried to intervene.
Anthony, 95, from Hundon, also nearly died as a PoW railway ‘slave’ yet after the war created an export market in Japan, though he never told his wartime story to Japanese people he became friends with.
He says he was lucky not to experience the beating Eric had, which was far worse than the film version with two men beaten to death.
But Anthony admits ‘I thought I was a goner’ when a vicious guard they called the Undertaker, who killed two men, beat him with an iron bar for objecting to the guard’s mistreatment of a pregnant Thai.
Anthony Lucas was an ICI trainee when his Territorial Army unit, the Royal Artillery’s 69th Royal Worcestershire Regiment, was mobilised.
A lieutenant in an anti-aircraft unit, he sailed for Singapore in 1940. In December 1941, after being told the Japanese would not invade in the monsoon, he used his World War One anti-aircraft guns at a coastal airfield to shell an 18,000-strong enemy landing.
Allied forces retreated to Singapore and on February 8, 1942 he was sent to another airfield to check the guns, but found Japanese there. He hid in a camouflaged Bren gun position until the gunner opened fire, then escaped to report the enemy position.
A week later, about 60,000 allies surrendered and in October many were sent to the railway.
“We were shipped out in exactly the way described in The Railway Man,” he said. “Put in cattle trucks for five days without much to eat and very little water.”
After days more in river boats, they arrived at a jungle clearing where work parties built shelters while his group began clearing a rail route surveyed by the British in 1911.
Anthony said: “It was not done then because it was felt the cost would be too high in life and materials, but the markers were still there.”
They had little food but, he recalled: “Reveille was at 04.30 in the dark to be at work two to three miles through the jungle by 06.00. Back to camp in the dark, and often rain, by 23.00.”
Conditions worsened when they began the cutting what the Australians called Hellfire Pass. In 40C heat, they drilled holes for explosives into rock with a 7lb hammer and 3ft chisel.
During a cholera outbreak he helped carry 17 corpses a day to be burnt and caught the disease but was saved by a doctor using saline through a bamboo needle.
Anthony had dropped from 11 to six stone but survived, only to suffer 21 three-week bouts of malaria.
In 1945, officers were concentrated in one camp where they were told to dig a trench to stop escapes.
But Anthony said: “When our blokes walked in on 15th of August we found an edict from Hirohito that in the event of uprising in Siam, or invasion, PoWs were to be annihilated – the ditch was our grave.”
After the war, without even receiving a check for tropical parasites, he returned to ICI then went to British Titan Products, selling paint pigments. In 1959, his flight from Hong Kong was delayed in Tokyo and, seeing the poor paint on Japanese cars, he realised there was sales potential. His experience of the Japanese sense of honour led to a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ and taking 25 per cent of their market.
Anthony admits: “It meant we had exports and they were able to export their cars.”
A few weeks ago his wife Margaret was in hospital next to a woman who said her husband, Jack Scrivener, was on the Burma-Siam Railway.
The couples met for dinner and realised Jack was the Bren gunner Anthony hid with in 1942.