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Bill Kellas

Gordon Highlander who survived the Death Railway;

Born: August 3, 1917; Died: November 21, 2012.

Bill Kellas, who has died aged 95, was one of the last survivors of the Gordon Highlanders who heroically endured enslavement at the hands of the Japanese on the Death Railway.

A 17-year-old Aberdeenshire farm worker when he signed up with the regiment, he became a prisoner of war after the fall of Singapore in 1942.

The following three-and-a-half years were spent in a wretched existence of forced labour, first in the heat and disease of the jungle and then in the freezing conditions of a Japanese zinc mine.

He survived unimaginable cruelty, backbreaking work and a death sentence for stealing food before being liberated after the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced Japan's surrender.

Inevitably his experiences shaped the man he became and remained with him all his life. Latterly they were encapsulated in the book Scattered Under The Rising Sun, an account of the men of the 2nd Battalion who served in the Far East during the Second World War.

Like many of the 1000-strong infantry battalion, he came from one of the small communities of north-east Scotland that had a reputation for producing excellent professional soldiers.

The son and grandson of farmers, he was born in the Aberdeenshire village of Logie Coldstone and educated at the local school until he went to work on the land, aged 14.

By 17 he was bored with farm life and was recruited, in 1935, by a Gordon Highlanders' sergeant at nearby Tarland Feein' Market, a country labour market where farmers hired short-term workers.

He was a drummer in the pipe band and spent two years at Redford Barracks in Edinburgh before being sent to Gibraltar in 1937. His troopship had only been in Gibraltar for a few days when he was posted to the 2nd Battalion in Singapore.

In 1941, two years into the war, the Japanese attacked Singapore, throwing the Gordons into a bloody battle for the colony. A couple of months later he had his first real brush with death as he stood on the edge of a trench in Holland Road, being briefed by Lieutenant Bobby Irvine of Drum Castle. The trench took a direct mortar hit, killing the officer but leaving Mr Kellas unhurt. Two days later, despite fierce fighting, Singapore fell to the Japanese and the battalion was taken captive.

They were initially held at Changi POW camp where everyone was routinely beaten with bamboo staves or golf clubs and those who attempted to escape were executed.

A railway route had long been proposed between Thailand and Burma but was considered too difficult a project. However, the Japanese, having invaded Burma in 1942, needed a safe way of transporting supplies to troops there and in June that year the task began to carve the 415-kilometre route out of the most inhospitable terrain – including virgin jungle and solid rock.

It started more or less simultaneously at opposite ends – Thanbyuzay in Burma and Non Pladuk in Thailand. That autumn scores of imprisoned Gordons were herded on to trains for Thailand, jam-packed into airless carriages for a nightmare journey to the railtrack construction site.

Crammed shoulder to shoulder, many of them suffering from dysentery, and with no toilet facilities, they sometimes had to relieve themselves where they stood. It was suffocatingly hot by day and freezing cold by night. Some did not survive the six-day ordeal.

Mr Kellas and his companions were put to work near the infamous bridge over the River Kwai before being marched to a second camp where an outbreak of cholera claimed many lives.

Conditions were horrific: starvation rations, constant brutality, crippling labour and disease. In August 1943, just a couple of months before the railway was completed, he was in another camp, surviving on meagre rations, when he and two others were caught breaking into a store to steal food.

He and one companion escaped in the darkness, surviving a hail of bullets to creep back into camp later. But his luck didn't last. He was interrogated, condemned to death and tied to a rack out in the open for three days.

He later explained that he owed his life to a Japanese sergeant who would appear in the night, untie his ropes and feed him sweet coffee and rice. Mr Kellas spent the next week in the camp hospital and never knew why the death sentence was not imposed.

But more misery lay ahead. He was sent to Osaka, Japan, where he worked in a mine serving a zinc factory. Life there, he said, was even worse than the slave labour of Thailand, due to the intense cold.

It was only when the atomic bombs were dropped and Japan surrendered that his incarceration ended. "After a few days we saw American planes flying over," he recalled, "and an American Marine colonel arrived and warned us against seeking revenge on our guards."

Freed in 1945, he returned to the UK, one of the 600 Gordon Highlanders to survive from the battalion. He later transferred to the Royal Military Police and served in Egypt, Libya and Palestine.

After a series of other jobs he joined the Don District Fishery Board in 1964 as a foreman bailiff, facing danger once again when poachers shoved a Molotov cocktail firebomb through the letterbox of his Aberdeen home. He managed to dispose of it before any harm was caused. In 1974 he moved to the Dee District Fishery Board, as inspector responsible for river management, and retired, aged 70, in 1988.

A member of the Far East Prisoners of War Association, he is thought to have been the oldest Gordon Highlander. His death means there are now only four survivors of the battalion that suffered with such dignity under the Japanese.

Divorced from his first wife, he is survived by his second wife Kathleen, whom he married in 1967, his daughter Helen and extended family.

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