Palace tea for veteran Eddie

Eddie Peak and two mementoes of his years as a prisoner of war: the hand-crafted mug he made from bamboo and tin and a large peg or nail of the kind used to fix the rail tracks. Photo: SG050412-226NG
Eddie Peak and two mementoes of his years as a prisoner of war: the hand-crafted mug he made from bamboo and tin and a large peg or nail of the kind used to fix the rail tracks. Photo: SG050412-226NG
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THAT Eddie Peak is still working at 91 is probably the least interesting thing about him.

Eddie is lucky to be alive, having survived years as a prisoner of war of the Japanese and then, once he was back in the UK, learning he had a hole in one lung that would mean a series of operations followed by major surgery.

He doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about, but Eddie, of Shepperson Avenue, Gosberton Risegate, is a member of an elite band, The Java Far Eastern Prisoner of War Club, whose members have been invited to a tea party at Buckingham Palace next month.

Eddie was one of probably less than half the 15,000 men taken prisoner who lived to tell the story and to pick up the life he had left five years earlier.

Eddie had dated a girl on a few occasions but hadn’t asked her to wait for him when he joined the Royal Corps of Signals aged 19 because they were both living through uncertain times.

However, when Eddie arrived home, weighing just under six stone, Vera was still single and so they were able to finally marry. It is Vera’s death four years ago after 62 years of marriage that Eddie finds hardest to deal with.

He admits: “When I first came home I was a nasty bloke, I really was. How Vera stood me for the first few years I don’t know.”

On top of that Eddie had long spells in hospital for operations to his lung, culminating in major surgery to insert 22 small plastic balls to prevent the chest wall from collapsing after surgeons removed two-thirds of his lung.

He has lived with the plastic balls in his chest ever since and it hasn’t held him back: Eddie is still working for Moulton Bulb Company as an onion sorter three days a week and says it was colleagues there who encouraged him to undertake a visit to Singapore and Thailand in November, accompanied by his son Malcolm, on a trip paid for from Lottery funding and organised through the Royal British Legion.

While there, the two men visited the railway Eddie helped to build and visited war cemeteries, as well as enjoying tea at Raffles Hotel, the colonial style hotel in Singapore.

The opulence of the hotel was a far cry from the inhuman conditions the prisoners endured, firstly in the notorious Changi camp in northern Singapore and then in camps in Thailand.

The men were living on a few spoonfuls of rice three times a day and whatever they could “pinch or scrouge” as they toiled to build a railway that met up with the line from Burma.

They wore what they were standing in when taken prisoner, khaki shirts and trousers and boots that quickly wore out, so most of the time the men were bare footed. They worked without proper tools and little dynamite, and so were chipping away at cliff faces with chisels and hammers and using shovels made out of tin cans.

The camps were over-crowded so diseases, such as cholera, were rife, and Eddie recalls there were between ten and 15 burials a day, diseased bodies burned to prevent the spread of illness.

Eddie refers to being “knocked about” and, when pushed, explains: “They would hit you with anything they could get their hands on – bamboo or metal bars or anything. They used to say to us, ‘Speedo’ and that was, ‘Hurry up’. That went on until the railway line was finished, about 260 miles.”

As a thank you, the men were given tins of pilchards – one tin for ten men – and then shipped back to camps in Singapore.

When their captors decided to move the prisoners to Japan, two of the three boats containing the men in the holds were attacked by American submarines and sank. Eddie’s ship diverted to Dalat in what is now Vietnam where the men were set to work on building air strips.

Eddie and his fellow prisoners learned the war was over when they thought they were facing death: they were on one side of a river opposite about a dozen Japanese behind machine guns when a woman came up to their captors offering money to buy the prisoners food because the war had ended three days earlier.

Eddie said he feels no anger, merely “glad to be alive, to be honest”, and says: “It’s a funny feeling because you have been to places where you have seen bad things happen and you are still here to talk about it.”