Fighting for survival

Lance Bombardier Joe Denton, a soldier who was with the Royal Artillery
Lance Bombardier Joe Denton, a soldier who was with the Royal Artillery

In his new book, historian Robert Widders tells the remarkable story of an Enfield soldier captured by the Japanese during the Second World War

Lance Bombardier Joe Denton and two other men from Enfield were among 1,816 British prisoners of war (POWs) captured by the Japanese, for use as slave labour.

They had been ordered to surrender in Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941, after fighting a fierce campaign against overwhelming odds. Shipped to Japan in a boat called Lisbon Maru, they were incarcerated in three cargo holds in cramped and insanitary conditions. Many of the men were suffering with serious illnesses and infectious diseases.

On 1st October 1942 the ship was torpedoed off the coast of China. All the POWs were kept down below in the holds, with Joe among the main Royal Artillery contingent. The Japanese crew passed down hand-operated pumps which Joe and his pals used to pump out water from the sinking ship. Meanwhile, after a failed attempt by the Japanese navy to tow the ship to shore, guards battened down the hold covers, leaving the POWs trapped inside in total darkness without food or water.

Many captives died during the next 24 hours, drowning in the bilges, or collapsing from exhaustion as they pumped water out of the ship. The Japanese evacuated their own crew and soldiers and had left an armed six-man squad onboard to make sure that the POWs did notescape.

The following morning, surviving POWs in the hold next to Joe’s used a smuggled knife to cut the lashings and escape on deck. They killed the Japanese soldiers and released the men from the other holds, some of whom jumped overboard before the ship completely sank. By 5th October, 828 men had died, including Private Leslie Andrews, from Enfield Lock, and Private Percy Hatchett, from Goat Lane near Forty Hill.

Joe swam for around ten or eleven hours and made it to a little island. Eventually, the survivors were picked up by the Japanese navy and transported to Japan. Joe was among a group of around 500 men sent to a POW camp in Kobe. He served as a medical orderly in a tiny room that the Japanese authorities allocated as a hospital.

But a childhood in Enfield could never have prepared him for the litany of horrors that was to come. Joe and the others were forced to cram the bodies of dead POWs into old soya bean barrels, ready for cremation – even having to cut up some of his old friends.

Over the next couple of years, Joe helped put on concerts and entertainment for the camp. Aside from songs and music, they performed comedy sketches in which they subtly satirised the corruption and incompetence of their captors. Some Japanese army guards would watch the shows, though one guard took exception to the humour and smashed Joe over the head with a metal bar and broke his skull.

Joe recovered and survived the rest of the war, still in captivity, still caring for the sick and dying, and still entertaining his comrades. Eventually, Kobe House POW Camp was destroyed by the US Air Force in a massive napalm-fuelled raid. But Joe survived, and after the Japanese surrender, was repatriated to England. He later married and enjoyed a long life before succumbing to heart disease aged 76.

The full story of Joe Denton’s remarkable wartime survival forms part of Robert’s new book, Forged in Blood and Music. For more information:
Visit robertwidders.co.uk