James Laurie Watson
(Known as Jim)
155 Field Regiment
Transported to Taiwan to work in the Kinkasecki copper mines
Obituary taken from the Dumfries and Galloway Standard - 2nd February 2009
Death of PoW camp veteran
by Iain Pollock
JIM WATSON, of Dumfries, who died just 10 days before his 94th birthday, was one of a dwindling number of survivors of the notorious World War 2 Japanese PoW camps.
Despite suffering callous cruelty, humiliation, constant illness and starvation during his three and a half years in captivity in Formosa (now Taiwan), he survived for more than 60 years after his release and had a long career as a chiropodist.
In his life story published in 2000 and called simply Memoirs, he told how he and his fellow prisoners became walking skeletons, suffering from a range of vitamin-deficiency diseases caused by their meagre rice rations.
“The peculiar aspect was I didn’t feel sorry for myself,” he wrote, “but I often thought of the days when there was food left on the table when I had finished a meal.”
James Laurie Watson was born and brought up near Moffat where his father was a shepherd. He left school at 12 and, after working as a grocer’s delivery boy and on the railway, he became an RAC patrolman. He joined the Lanarkshire Yeomanry, a Territorial Army unit, and was called up just before the outbreak of war in September, 1939.
In March, 1941, he set sail for Malaysia as a sergeant in 155 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. After bitter fighting on the Thai border and down the Malay coast, the campaign came to an end in Singapore where the Japanese declared victory in February, 1942.
Held for nine months in Changi Prison and a former army camp, Sgt Watson and about 3,000 other prisoners were packed along with 2,000 Japanese on to a Clyde-built ship, heading for “goodness knows where”.
Their destination could have been the Burma Railway of Death with its infamous Bridge over the River Kwai but instead they were taken to Formosa, 75 miles off the south-eastern coast of China. There they were forced to mine copper at Kinkasecki PoW Camp where they were treated like slaves in appalling conditions.
In his book Mr Watson tells how one of his lasting memories was climbing down the 2,000 steps to the working areas – and back up at night. Wearing only a loin cloth, shoddy Japanese boots and a protective hat made of cardboard, he worked from 5am till 4pm, filling baskets with copper ore which was loaded on to bogies and taken to a tally point. After every fifth basket he was allowed to cool off by lying in a drain.
Anyone who did not reach his quota of ore was brutally beaten by the sadistic guards and civilian “hanchos”. Mr Watson recalled the excruciating pain he suffered when a muscle-bound guard called The Eagle struck him on the head with an ivory hammer shaft. The perpetrator, he noted, was eventually hanged for war crimes.
The prisoners survived on a bowl of rice a day. Mr Watson suffered from dysentery, beri-beri and other debilitating illnesses. The only treatment was boiled water and Epsom salts. His weight dropped from 12 stone 4oz to just seven stone.
The prisoners, who had trained and fought together had a camaraderie and took strength from each other. But Mr Watson appreciated being alone as he walked through a long tunnel at the end of the day’s work letting his thoughts run wild and recalling the good times. “This was a precious time for me and I resented any intrusion on my reverie,” he wrote.
After two years in the mine, he was transferred to a camp where the work in the paddy fields was still unrelenting. But there were some small compensations like the odd sweet potato for which the prisoners had to queue in alphabetical order.
Mr Watson recalled one occasion when he was second last in the line and was offered the choice of the last two potatoes. “To my ever-lasting shame I took the larger one,” he recalled. “It was against everything I had been taught and believed in. It has haunted me ever since. But it showed how desperate we were for food.”
Another time, he and a comrade caught and grilled a snake which they shared with the men in their hut.
The prisoners knew the end of their captivity was in sight when Formosa was subjected to daily air raids.
Then one day they were paraded in front of the camp commandant who announced: “The war is over, we are friends now.” Mr Watson recalled: “There was just silence, no jubilation or cheering but I for one was inwardly elated.”
Mr Watson is survived by his wife Carrie, married daughters Alison and Carolyn and six grandchildren.