Five survived 'Death Railway'

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FIVE Helensburgh men were able to return home after being forced to work as World War Two prisoners of war on the notorious ‘Railway of Death’ built in Burma and Thailand.

Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Neilly McGinley, Ned Killen, Jim Jardine, Peter McKell, and Neil’s cousin Neil ’Scrapper’ Sharkey all survived a dreadful chapter in their young lives, imprisonment and torture at the hands of cruel Japanese guards.

Another local man, Jim Taylor, survived the camps only to lose his life when a boat carrying him and other survivors was sunk in error by the Allies.

But those who made the ultimate sacrifice during the ordeal included Neilly’s best friend Duncan McShane, Willie Black, and James Cruickshank.

Neilly’s son Neil said in a post on the Helensburgh Memories website: “When they left Helensburgh, initially for training at Stirling Castle and thereafter for jungle training in Malaya, the two young conscripts, Neilly (left) and Duncan, made a vow that they would look out for each other, no matter what.

“My father spent over four years as a POW in the Far East but Duncan — or ‘Shaney’ as he was known — like thousands of other prisoners died of dysentery and malnutrition and was buried in Thailand, a long way from Helensburgh and family.

“When my father returned home after the war he received a letter of thanks for his service during the war from King George VI. But he spoke very little about what he experienced.”

The story of Neilly’s time as a POW and his life after the war has been movingly told by his niece, Mrs Elizabeth Gowdie, in a fascinating book published in 2010 by Author House UK Ltd., “Unspoilt Heart”, which is still available for purchase online.

Liz, who lives in Oban, and the McGinley family have very kindly given the Heritage Trust permission to quote from the book.

Neilly and Duncan grew up together and joined the Argyll and Sutherland Territorials before the war to enjoy outdoor training and camping. They were among the first to be called up for active service and joined the 2nd Argylls.

They volunteered to serve in Malaya and were sent overseas, with Neilly celebrating his 21st birthday aboard the troop ship. Their tough jungle training was in Malaya.

It was on December 17 1941, before the fall of Singapore, that despatch rider Neilly was captured when cycling between two army camps with a message.

He was sent to the notorious Changi prison camp in eastern Singapore, where before long he was joined by Duncan.

Their captors decided to transfer the Argylls through Northern Malaya to Thailand, a five-day train journey crammed into metal box cars, unbearably hot in daytime and cold and wet at night. Their destination was the huts of Ban Pong Camp.

It was the starting point of the 258-mile railway line being built to Thanbyuayat in Burma, which included the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai (left) — the subject of a major movie which starred Alec Guinness.

Between 180,000 and 250,000 civilian labourers and 61,000 Allied POWs were subjected to forced labour during its construction, and some 90,000 civilian labourers and over 12,000 Allied prisoners died.

Liz writes: “Their camp was encircled with barbed wire and high wooden fencing. The huts the prisoners slept in were constructed from bamboo. The roofs and sides were made from bamboo leaves overlapped like tiles, and they kept out most of the rain.

“Latrines were trenches with bamboo poles laid across for men to sit or squat on. Large covers were used to cover the cess pits, as they were infested with maggots.”

It was soon obvious that any attempt to escape was pointless. Those who tried were beaten and tortured, or executed in front of the whole camp, usually by being beheaded.

One man who did escape was Scrapper Sharkey (pictured right with Neilly), who managed to survive in the jungle for more than a year, but eventually starvation forced him to return to the camp.

He looked terrifying, with long hair and a thick beard. The guards thought he was mad and were terrified of him, so he was not punished for his escape.

Neilly found a way of slipping out of the camp at night, and he would run to a nearby village where he exchanged items from Red Cross parcels for herbal medicines and food to supplement the small daily portion of salted rice.

However one day he was caught on the way back.

“At dawn he was hauled from his hut and taken out into the centre of the camp,” Liz writes. “His thumbs were bound together with thin wire.

“He was then made to kneel on sharp stones and gravel. The excess wire was used to hoist his arms over his head where the wire was attached to a line.

“He was left in this agonising position in the scorching heat of the Thai sun for 48 hours. To increase this torture the Japanese guards left a bucket of water in front of him.

“As the hours dragged on, fear and despair gripped Neilly’s heart, and he felt he would not survive the terrible ordeal.”

But he did, though he suffered serious skin burns, severe pain, stone puncture wounds, and the wire on his thumbs had cut through to the bone.

He could not work on the railway for many weeks, but it was a punishment he was to suffer a second time.

Many hundreds of prisoners died from highly infectious dysentery, a disease Duncan McShane tried desperately to avoid. But on September 12 1943 at the age of 24, it claimed him, to Neilly’s abject sorrow.

Duncan's remains were eventually re-interred at Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in Thailand.

Scrapper Sharkey spent every day trying to cheer Neilly after the loss of his dearest friend, and eventually he was able to laugh again.

Work on the railway got harder and harder, especially when a rocky ridge had to be cut through. Prisoners worked ten days on, one day off, and were beaten if they did not work fast enough — even in temperatures of 40 degrees and during the monsoon season.

One day Neilly fell from the viaduct 30 feet into the river below, ripping open his leg on a bamboo pole. Some of the guards dragged him on to the bank, but then left him to die.

Fellow prisoner Owenie Burke from Glasgow, who saw him fall, managed to bind the wound, then carried him on his back in the dark up from the river and two miles back to the camp. They became firm friends for over 30 years.

The 258-mile railway was finally completed at Konkuita in Thailand on October 17 1943, and Neilly became a member of a team of maintenance workers undertaking repairs to tracks, bridges and embankments.

He was seriously ill with pneumonia when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan on August 6 1945. Although he never approved of the use of nuclear weapons because of the high cost in lives, it was to result in his liberation.

Three days later the prisoners woke to find that their captors had vanished. Neilly and other seriously ill men were taken to a field hospital for proper medical treatment and time to recover.

It was six weeks before the family heard that he was alive, and a further six months before he arrived back, small, frail and thin, at Glasgow Central Station to be met by relatives for the trip back to Helensburgh where his neighbours and friends were waiting.

Treatment from local GP Dr Harold Scott and round the clock nursing from his parents and sisters helped him recover.

He met Owenie Burke at a POW reunion in Glasgow, and romance then blossomed with Owenie’s sister Margaret, known to all as Rita.

They married in 1946 in Glasgow with Scrapper as the best man, and set up home in Kirkmichael, later moving to Rhu.

The couple (pictured right) were close to and very proud of their extended family, which has played a significant part in the life of the town and district.

In 1995, when Neilly was in his late 70s, he was asked to attend a ceremony in Hermitage Park to commemorate the 50th anniversary of victory over the Japanese, and the lives of the soldiers and prisoners lost in World War Two.

His family and local dignitaries watched as he read out a speech he had prepared, and then planted a tree. Overhead, Red Arrow pilots provided a salute from the sky with a flypast.

Neilly, who lost his beloved wife Rita when she died in 1989 at the age of 67, passed away in 2007 two months short of his 89th birthday. St Joseph's Church was filled for the funeral service, and he was laid to rest in Helensburgh Cemetery beside his wife.