Care for the elderly in Northumberland.
Our resident Betty Gibson remembers her husband Tom, who became a Japanese Prisoner of War. She speaks to Sally, our Marketing Coordinator, about her memories of Tom and the War, in time for Remembrance Sunday.
The first thing Betty Gibson shows me is her wedding picture. She and her new husband Tom are shown standing proudly in front of a painted backdrop. Tom is very upright in full army uniform and Betty is dressed in a long white velvet dress with a beautiful bouquet. They both look very happy, and very young. Betty agrees,
“Oh yes” she says, “everything was right in that photo. We were very happy. Tom was very smart. Full uniform, right down to his boots.”
They were married in 1940 when Betty was 23 years old. She is very precise with dates and takes a long time to remember exactly the right month and year. Tom was called up soon after, and as they were married, Betty went with him to his training posting in Edinburgh.
“And then one morning, he got up to go to work”, she tells me, “and he said, ‘Cheerio pet, I’ll see you at lunch’, and that was the last time I saw him. For over five years”.
Tom had been posted that day on a troopship to India. After arriving in India, Tom and his fellow soldiers travelled onto Thailand. Eventually the British army ended up in Singapore, where they finally surrendered to the Japanese. Tom was taken prisoner of war in 1941.
Betty said “It was beyond all imagining. I just stopped hearing from him. And I was pregnant at the time, and Mum was worried sick about the bombing”.
Betty and her Mum were living in Middlesbrough, but eventually moved away to a cottage in the country, to wait out the war, and to wait for news from her husband. “I wasn’t scared really of the bombing. My Mum was terrified, but when the siren went we all just thought ‘Not again’ and got into the shelter. Mum had lost my Dad in the first World War, so she was very worried. But you just had to hope for the best. At least in the countryside we always had enough food. And I just had to get on with it.”
Tom became a prisoner of war on Singapore Island, where he worked as a labourer in warehouses next to the dock. Already weakened by hunger, he was then crammed into a cattle truck with other allied POWs and taken to work on the “Railway of Death” – the notorious 415-kilometre (258 mi) railway between Thailand and Burma. Over 60,000 Allied prisoners of war worked on the railway in World War 2 and over 12,000 died from sickness, starvation and exhaustion.
Betty falls silent when she remembers how her husband suffered during those years. A lump comes into my throat when she says, “He survived. That was it. A lot of his friends didn’t. He told me that the reason he lived was that he was strong, as when he was little his Mum had fed him up properly”.
After the railway was completed, the POWs still had almost two years to survive before their liberation. During this time, Tom was shipped by convoy back to the mainland and managed to survive when the ship he was in was bombarded by the Allies, as it hadn’t been marked as a POW carrier. Back on the mainland he worked in a maintenance crew. Once the Japanese surrendered, Tom embarked on a six-week journey to sail back to England. Betty remembers the exact stages; he sailed on a British warship from Tokyo to Hawaii and then joined an American merchant ship at Manila, and sailed from Manila to Rio across the Pacific. Once in the USA he was put on a train and then eventually he joined the ship Queen Elizabeth to sail back to Southampton.
“He always told me that he was fed like a King during that long journey back home”, said Betty, “So when he arrived in Southampton he’d already had a few weeks of rest and recuperation and he wasn’t in such a bad condition as I’d feared. A friend of mine and I went down to the dock to meet Tom and her husband off the boat”.
When asked how she felt when she saw him again, she says simply, “I can’t express it. Five years. But he felt much better than he thought he would have done”.
Whilst Tom was away Betty had given birth a little boy. So, Tom came home to a four-year-old son that he had never seen. “They were both a bit shy, and took a while to get used to each other”, said Betty.
After the war, Betty and Tom set up a shoe shop at the old Mart in Hexham. It was called “Gibson’s” and became a Hexham institution, serving the farming families of Northumberland for many years.
How did Tom recover from his experiences?
“He was different. Very different to when he went away. He did occasionally talk about being a prisoner of war; it came out in spasms. But he didn’t say a lot. He was strong. He’d had to be strong”.
Tom died in 2002, and Betty misses him very much. They have two children, two grand-children and one great-grand-child.
Betty is 100 years’ old. And her wedding photo is placed pride of place above her bed, with another picture of Tom below. In this snap he’s much older, and is standing in the countryside beside the family car, looking straight at the camera with a huge smile.
“He loved the countryside, and he loved his football”, she says simply. And then becomes concerned, “I don’t want people to think I’m going on about it, as if I’m special. There were lots of us. You just had to get on with it and cope in those days. There was no alternative.”
(Picture from the Hexham Courant).