Surviving hell on Earth

Published 29/10/2013 | 11:44

A CHANCE meeting on Mary Street in New Ross has lead a local family to reconnect with an amazing story of endurance involving a family member from South West Wexford who was one of the survivors of the WWII Japanese River Kwai 'Death Railway'.

The story of how Irishtown (New Ross) man Billy 'The Boy' Carleton ended up in one of the most hostile arenas of the most horrific war the world has known has never been told until now, 70 years on to the month from when the railway was completed. The only thing published about this Wexford man in recognition of the ordeal he endured was a brief obituary in an English newspaper following his death aged 68 in 1984, titled 'River Kwai man'.

His niece Eileen Wall (nee Walsh) formerly of 40, Irishtown, but now living with her husband Willie and family at Bellevue Heights, New Ross said: 'I want people to know that this man came from New Ross. He has more or less been forgotten by the history books even though he lived an amazing life. Young New Ross people should hear about this man, who was a hero and a survivor.'

She shows me a smiling picture of Billy Carleton as a young man dressed in army inform. It was taken only a few years before he was to endure unbelievable suffering in South East Asia during WWII.

Several weeks ago Eileen's husband Willie was at his son Nicholas's house on Mary Street when he saw a man he recognised.

'Something registered with me. I hadn't seen Billy's son Colin for 30 years. He was looking around and he said to me all of a sudden 'Are you Willie Wall' and it all started from there.'

Colin and his first cousin Eileen said they wanted to let the people of New Ross and County Wexford know the story of Billy 'The Boy' Carleton, an ordinary local man who endured extraordinary hardship on the Death railway which claimed the lives of 106,000 people in the early 1940s between southern Thailand and Burma. Almost 260 miles of track were built by a forced labour workforce consisting of 250,000 local men and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war, whose treatment at the hands of the Japanese was brutal.

As chronicled in the Fifties classic movie 'Bridge On The River Kwai', the Japanese found a ready supply of labour in British prisoners-of-war captured when Singapore fell in February 1942. Billy 'The Boy' Carleton was one of these POW's who worked 18 hour days on the line, which was completed in just a year, but at a cost of around 13,000 POWs and 100,000 native labourers.

One man died for every sleeper laid.

Born on February 16, 1916 Billy was from a large family of 14. He grew up at Kiltray, Carrig on Bannow before moving at a young age to live with a relative at 107 Irishtown, New Ross. His father William fought in WWI and Billy, (like his brother Daniel who joined the Irish army and was based in The Curragh for 41 years), opted for a life in army uniform.

In a journal Daniel recalled the difficult upbringing both he and Billy and all their siblings had. Six of the Carleton children died in their infancy. Their father had a pension of £1 and 2 pence and after their mother died aged 40, the boys in the family were sent to the now notorious Artane Industrial School for boys, run by the Christian Brothers; while their sisters were sent to St John's School in Waterford and the Good Shepherd Convent in New Ross.

'There was no work for anyone for years. The Ferry Bridge was the only work, but there was no work for young lads. The people would only employ older people to get value for money and there was no dole,' he wrote.

Billy enlisted into the British Army on September 19, 1938. He was captured in Singapore on February 19, 1942 and spent the following three years as a prisoner of war (POW) of the Japanese in Thailand.

Billy's son Colin, (who is living and working as a landscape gardener in London), told this newspaper that his father was haunted by his experience working on the 'Death Railway' and never spoke about it.

He said his father had no choice but to join the army.

'Times were tough and his mother died when she was only 40. There were 14 of them. Six died when they were young and eight survived, including my father. Two are still living, Monica who is in London and Bridget who is in the Isle of Man. They're both in their 80s now.'

He said his father's tough childhood, especially at Artane Industrial School, prepared him for the incredible difficulties he was to encounter in Thailand.

'They had a tougher time back then, worse than anything we've experienced. He came over to England and ended up going into service in the 30s before the war. He was shipped out to Singapore and was among the British troops who were captured by the Japanese there and put into Changi prison.'

The boy from New Ross became caught up in one of the deadliest building projects ever undertaken, the Japanese Government's monumental railway between constructed to move arms for combat across the jungles of South East Asia.

'One in five men who worked on it died. Most of the survivors never spoke about it. They kept a lot to themselves because it was too emotional for them to speak about what happened. Even towards the end of his life my father never spoke of it,' Colin said.

He said his father endured tremendous physical hardship clearing out the jungle and working on the railway in the fetid heat of the jungle, surrounded by death and suffering.

'From what he indicated he had a hell of a lot to endure. I think he was haunted by the experience. When the film 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' was premiered in London at the West End in 1957 he and my mother went to see it. They sat down to watch it and during the opening sequence he suddenly jumped up and walked out. He was so overcome seeing it that he couldn't handle it and had to leave. Psychologically it brought it all back for him.'

He said Billy thought the film 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' wasn't entirely true to life.

Having spent months following the completion of the Death Railway in Japanese POW camps, his father was finally released in August 1945, following the Japanese surrender, and spent months recovering in Canada.

'They were so undernourished as they had no real food for years, only rice. He was covered in lice and had dysentery and malaria and a lot of other diseases. He was skin and bone as he had been in the equivalent of a concentration camp.'

Upon his return to England he married Esther Daly, of Sugarhouse Lane in New Ross in 1946 and they settled in Brighton where they had three children, Colin, Margaret and John, (who died several years ago in his fifties).

There was no counselling so Billy had to get on with life and secured work on the building sites in England. He suffered terribly with nightmares and also suffered from lasting physical ailments.

He returned to visit relations in New Ross occasionally, but by this time most of his siblings were in England.

Billy 'The Boy' Carleton died of cancer aged 68 in 1984 after a lengthy illness. He was cremated and his family arranged for his ashes to be taken back to Kiltray for burial at the family plot.

Colin said his father spoke fondly of New Ross and Carrig on Bannow, but was deeply affected by his time in Artane boy's school.

Describing his late father as 'a tough old character' and a survivor. He said Billy was a strict father, but a caring man also.

'He was a good man but he terribly underrated himself,' Colin said

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