Three years held against his will

This is  such an important piece of local history that deserves to be told and noted. Please do read this, especially the end. In 1945 a Blantyre soldier came home after being imprisoned against his will in a prisoner of war camp for 1,105 days and nights. I warn you that you may not enjoy reading his story, and some of it may not be politically correct, but given what this man endured, it should be read —and remembered. It is a reminder of how easy we have it today.

1942 hugh mcneil blantyre projectThis is the story of Hugh McNeil, rifleman of 52 Dixon Street, Dixons Rows, Blantyre. None of it is dramatised and is told by Hugh in his own words.

“During 1942, in a Japanese prison camp in Bangoon, a Cameronian was compelled to stand on his head, feet against a railing, for five hours in the boiling sun. At other times he was forced to stand outside holding a wooden plank above his bare head for two or three hours. This was a punishment for omitting to bow to an ordinary Japanese soldier. I was that man.

For three years and ten days, I was a prisoner of the Japanese. All that time our lads had to bow before every Japanese officer that passed. Refusal meant punishment on the spot. The little rats thought nothing of using their bare fists or clubbing you with rifle.

Outnumbered, surrounded, exhausted through dysentery and thirst, we were captured in April 1942 at the oilfields of Yenanyaung. Our kit was taken. Not a man was left with a shirt to his back, a boot to his foot. We were split into parties of thirty, Indians as well as Scots, and herded into huts twelve feet by six. Our hands were tied behind our backs. We sat against the wall, unable to stretch our legs. We were like this for three days. No food. Only once, a small ration of water. In my hut six wounded lads lay unattended. We could no nothing to help them. Then finally we were marched out, barefooted, tied to each other; the wounded were forced to march with us. Several fell out. We got to the Irrawaddy. Mercifully we were taken by truck to Rangoon. There we were put in Rangoon Central Jail “civvy” jail. It was filthy, had been condemned three years previously. But it was cover. We were placed in rooms fifty feet by twenty-five feet, twenty-four to a room. No bedding, merely three boards for a bed. Later we managed to steal sacks to lie on. This was my civvy digs for three years.

At that time we got three ” meals ” of milk and even less rice a day. Every night had vegetable stew —more water than veg. Several lads temporarily lost their sight through lack of vitamins. As drink we had ” tea.” Ration, lb. a day for 500 men in my compound. We drank it out of used salmon or milk tins which we picked up from the roadway when work. Plates for our rice we formed of corrugated tin. Spoons were made from odd bits of wood. I didn’t see a bar of soap in the three years. Yet we shaved.” Some lads who came in after us had razor blade or two among them. Sharpened on the palm of the hand, one blade lasted a year. If you worked in the Japanese cookhouse, an ordinary kitchen knife, sharpened up, could act as a razor.

Under such conditions, teeming with mosquitoes, flies, bugs, and lice, many men suffered from dysentery, malaria, or dingy fever. Most of us at one time or other had scabies. We painted this disease with solution made from bluetone, which we picked up when at work outside the jail. When you were sick—that is, when completely unable to stand —you were moved to the ” sick compound” in another part of the jail. There you were under the care of one medical officer with practically no supplies. For most diseases you just had to pull through on your own. Even so, surgical operations were performed.

One night a Flying Fortress (heavy bomber plane) crashed nearby. Three of the crew escaped from the burning ship and were immediately placed in solitary confinement. The captain, an American Major, had had his arm shot off at the elbow. The Scots M.0., Colonel Mackenzie, R.A.M.C., immediately protested to the Japs that the arm would have to be amputated. After much harangue he was allowed to operate in a small hut. What instruments he used I cannot guess. But with the aid of a local anaesthetic he amputated. That Major is alive to-day.

We were marched bare-footed to our jobs —twelve, sometimes fourteen hours a day, or all night when British bombing was heavy. During the day they gave nothing to protect our heads from the sun. Some of us found sacks. Bomb-disposal, drain-laying, cooler work at the docks, or rebuilding bombed areas were our jobs. We were paid ten cents a day—about three ha’pence. We had no issue of smokes, we bought Burmese cigars. At the beginning these cost one cent each. Later the price rose to 10 cents. We cut them up and rolled them in any paper we could find, sealed them with rice, and smoked. Only extra food we could buy was tomatoes. But they were well out of individual reach at 150 cents a pound. We clubbed together occasionally to buy a few for the sick. Daily our C.0.. Brigadier C. B. Hobson, put complaints before the camp commandant to get more food— without result.

Rumours and war news, slipped by few friendly Burmese, kept our spirits up. When we heard of the start of the 14th Army’s drive we prayed our term was ending. At last the vile scum began retreating. Though we were forced to move with them, we enjoyed the experience. Of the original 1000 Indians and 800 whites in the Rangoon prison, about 400 of each were able to march out. One hundred sick were left behind under the charge of one or two guards. As Allied planes were in control during the day, we were marched through the night towards Thailand, sleeping in woods in the day-time. But the Japs found progress too slow. On the fourth night the commandant handed Brigadier Hobson chit granting our release. They might have shot some of us. But they had only 40 or 50 guards for our whole complement, so they didn’t try. Next morning we went through the kit left by the Japs. We tore some red and black blankets into strips. Then, with white cloth, laid huge Union Jack out in a field and waited. Three of our aircraft came over and circled us. One of our fellows signaled with a pocket mirror he’d found. Evidently the airmen took these flashes for light gunfire. To our horror, they strafed us. But the planes realised who we were when we ran frantically out on to the roadway.

A Yank and a Burmese went out that night, contacted the 14th Army, came back, and guided us in. * WE couldn’t realise we were really free. Oh, the joy of writing home for the first time in three fears (only once did about anybody receive a trickle of mail. I had none.) The joy of bathing, of sleeping in a clean bed and eating decent food !

That air letter, first news my mother had of me since I was posted missing in 1942, arrived home in Blantyre after four days. It arrived on May 4 last (1945), same day as my young brother, Sam, arrived back home to Blantyre on leave from Italy. Providence? He was able to steady my mother, who could not believe her own eyes. I flew home from India in four days. Took almost one day to travel by train from Somerset to Scotland. I stepped off the train on June 21, exactly eight years to the day since I left for India as a lad of 20. When I did arrive at Motherwell Station, a bus strike was on. I managed to get a taxi to take me to Blantyre. The driver asked me where I’d come from, then refused to take any fare! Proves our efforts are not forgotten. Now I’m on six weeks’ leave—on double rations. It seems like heaven to me! And I know I’ve been lucky compared with others. Although my sight has been affected, I have not been disfigured by emaciation or handicapped by serious illness from what I’ve gone through.

On social media:

Caroline Rundell I remember a hugh mcneill used to work as a volunteer with the summer holiday youth club in david Livingstone primary school in the 1980s wonder if its the same man x

Martin Feenie Brilliant thank you for your efforts we should always be grateful

Rhona McNeill This is my wee grandad, true hero! No it’s not the guy who worked at the youth club that’s w different 1 💚

Una Cochrane Hamilton Wonderful that he survived.

Elaine Hunter Amazing story. So brave. X

Elizabeth Weaver Heartbreaking but inspirational too. War is undoubtedly hellish and some humans behave abominably in war-time – but what spirit these prisoners showed. Happy that Hugh made it home to his family.

Liz Anderson Thank you for your service Mr Hugh McNiel xxxxx

Elizabeth Baillie Alemanno What an amazing man.!🙏

Sarah Godfrey What a amazing man who did nothing to deserve such horror.

Scott Moore Brave man Hugh,my Grampa was also a pow with the japs.He hated them til the day he died although he wouldn’t talk about it much.

Barbara Kerr I remember a Hugh McNeil who stayed in Coatshill and helped found the TACT Hall.

William John Brennan What can be added to the above not very much,Heros is a word used in a sentence now in most cases for some Football player that does very little for his £ 50.000 per week. This hero did it for country………….for about 10 pence a week.

Brian Hall Whilst reading this story is an insight into Hugh,s horrific experience and all due respect to his surviving what was a living nightmare our deepest imagination couldn’t touch on the hell he and others endured at the hands of the japs.The thing that touched most about Hugh was his humbleness.Respect!

Jan Ritchie Thanks to Hugh and all those of his generation who served and gave so much for our freedom! x

Andrena Black An amazing man.

Jessie Caldow We should never forget what these brave men endured for our freedom. Thank you to all who served.

Henry Hambley A truly inspirational story which makes me very humble to have heard about this.

George Cox Barbara
My dad was a guest of the Japanese army from the fall of Singapore. He told me a few of the atrocities committed against him. I couldn’t fault his smile every time Hiroshima and Nagasaki were shown on TV. He always maintained that the target should have been Tokyo so that Hirohito could have reached the heights he claimed to belong in. I still avoid buying Japanese products

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  1. Just been reading through my mum and dads wedding certificate. He stayed at 51 Dixon Street when he married my mum in 1934 and worked in Dixon’s Pit. They then moved to Livingstone Crescent a few years after the war. An amazing story .
    Michael Cunningham

  2. My dad never spoke of this.not to me not to any of his boys.we heard bits of my mum .but never of him.he was a small man .with a big heart..I would like to thank the blantyre project for finding this and letting me see it on here.i am so proud .thank

  3. Michelle mcneill

    I was so proud to call this man my granda!! Not just for the story above but for a million reasons,he was a true gentleman who would have done anything for his family who all adored him!

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