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John Marshall

Former soldier and POW of the Japanese.

Born 22 January 1920; Died 15 December 2013.

John Marshall, who has died aged 93, was a former prisoner of war of the Japanese who was forced to work in the hell of the Kinkaseki Copper Mine in Taiwan, now recognised as one of the worst and most hellish of the POW camps.

Born in Bellshill in 1920, he attended the local Noble Primary School and Bellshill Academy. He worked first as a laundry boy, then as a barrow boy, selling cakes door to door for a local bakery. When he was 18, he moved on to Dalziel Steelworks in Motherwell where he quietly and conscientiously worked away until the outbreak of the Second World War.

Called up to the local territorial regiment, the Lanarkshire Yeomanry, he found himself in the noisy world of a gunner in the re-designated 155th [Lanarkshire Yeomanry] Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery.

It was in this environment that this ordinary man was to become extraordinary. When the Japanese invaded Malaya in December 1941, John Marshall and his fellow gunners fought a brave and resolute rear guard action all the way down the Malayan Peninsula and onto the so called impregnable island of Singapore. In constant action, Mr Marshall's regiment soon found themselves out of ammunition and the inevitable came on 15 February when the garrison was forced to surrender.

Half the regiment was sent north to Thailand where the men toiled on the infamous Death Railway built at an enormous cost in human life between Thailand and Burma while most of the others, including Mr Marshall, were transported to Taiwan where they slaved in the hell of the Kinkaseki Copper Mine.

It was at Kinkaseki that Mr Marshall first realised that he had an ear for languages and he was one of the few to pick up a good working knowledge of Japanese, something that could be both a blessing and a curse. Used as an interpreter, he would often have the same punishment meted out to him as the unfortunate POW for whom he was translating.

When not translating, he found himself deep in the bowels of the mine where, hundreds of feet below the South China Sea, the men slaved and died in conditions akin to a scene from Dante's Inferno. Slight in stature, it was only Mr Marshall's previous experience of hard physical work in the steelworks that kept him going.

At night, in the cold of the bleak prison barracks, he would play his harmonica. It was never a 'moothie', for Mr Marshall was a gifted musician and could play anything from classical music to jazz but the tune always requested by the weary POWs was the haunting Brahms Lullaby. For the men it was the last sound they heard as they drifted into an exhausted sleep - for many it was the last sound that they ever heard.

When the mine finally closed in March 1945, Mr Marshall and other members of the Lanarkshire Yeomanry were moved to the jungle camp at Kukutsu. He would later comment that this camp was little better than Kinkaseki other than that they were now out in the open air. Starved and brutalised, the men were close to death when the war finally ended in August 1945.

Suzuki, one of the very worst of the Japanese guards approached Mr Marshall and pleaded with him to speak up for him and tell the Americans that he had been good to the POWs. In no uncertain terms, Mr Marshall told him where to go. Suzuki was later convicted at a War Crimes Tribunal of atrocities committed against the prisoners.

On his return to civvie life, Mr Marshall settled back into the quiet life. He married and with his wife and family set up home in Bellshill. A modest and unassuming man, he rarely spoke of the horrors he had witnessed and it was only after I had met him at the funeral of John McEwan, one of his mates from the camps, that his story became generally known. Asked how he managed to survive, he simply said, 'I just kept my head down and got on with it. If you felt sorry for yourself, you were finished'

He never forgot or forgave the cruelty and ill treatment meted out to him and the other prisoners. But equally, he never held it against a new generation of Japanese. Some years ago, while on holiday in Egypt, Mr Marshall found himself in the company of a young Japanese man who was initially taken aback by Mr Marshall knowledge of the Japanese language. Although many years had passed, Mr Marshall, like many of the POWs, had retained a smattering of the hated language that they had been forced to learn for their survival. However, soon they swapped to Italian, a language that Mr Marshall had taken up as a hobby and through this neutral medium, Mr Marshall told the young man of his experiences while a guest of the Emperor.

Despite recurring malaria and other diseases brought on by his time as a POW, Mr Marshall was a keen bowler and member of Orbiston Bowling Club in Bellshill where he would entertain members and guests with his harmonica and wide musical repertoire.

He was employed for over 30 years as a tool maker with the sports equipment firm, Millards, at Carfin in Lanarkshire where he renewed his connection with guns in the manufacture of barrels for small bore weapons. On 'retirement', he moved to Tunnock's at Uddingston where he cotinued to work until compulsory retirement, in his words, at 74 years of age.

Anne, his beloved wife, died last year and her death knocked the stuffing out of this brave old man. Thinking of John and the other POWs, it is this that comes to mind: You might see an old, insignificant and frail man hobbling down the street with his stick but inside that old man is a spirit and a strength which enabled him to face a horrendous experience with courage and fortitude.

Contextual targeting label: 
Transport Tragedy

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