January 31 2015 Latest news:
Monday, March 5, 2012
Also lived through massacre, bombing, scalding and firing squad
The survival of prisoner of war Fergus Anckorn, who was the only person left alive after a notorious massacre, bombed several times, covered in creosote under a tropical sun and finally taken out to be machine gunned by his Japanese captors could truly be described as miraculous.
And alongside his amazing escapes from death in the Second World War is a tale of magic – as the man known as the Conjuror on the Kwai used his sleight of hand tricks to obtain food for his comrades as they fought to stay alive amid the horror of the infamous “Death Railway”.
His story has now been told by author Peter Fyans in “Captivity, Slavery and Survival as a Far East POW”, published by Pen and Sword.
Fergus, born in Dunton Green, near Sevenoaks, became the youngest ever member of the Magic Circle at the age of 18 – and now at 93 is its oldest member who is still performing.
But in 1941 as a Royal Artillery gunner, he was sent into Singapore, just days before it fell to the Japanese.
“After three and a half months at sea we came into the harbour under fire, shelling and bombing,” he said.
“We came down the gang plank and straight into action.
“I was a gun driver and knocked out of action after five days. So my fighting war was five days long. For that I was signed up for seven years and three days.”
Wounded, Fergus drifted in and out of consciousness in hospital.
“I saw the walking wounded being taken quietly out in single file, their hands tied tightly with barbed wire and tied to one another. Behind them was a soldier with a rifle and bayonet,” he said.“ After bayoneting and killing the lot of them, the soldiers came back into the ward, wiped the blood off their bayonets and proceeded to kill everyone in their beds, along with the doctors and nurses.
“I was the only survivor. When I’d been blown up my right hand was just hanging off by some skin and the doctor had applied a tourniquet.
“When the Japanese were two beds away from me I said to myself ‘I’m dead, it’s all over. I’ll never be 25’. I went into unconsciousness and woke up and everyone was dead but me.
“Apparently the tourniquet was no good, blood was still pouring out of me and when they came to bayonet me they saw all the blood and thought they’d already done it.”
Taken to a prisoner of war camp Fergus was set to work on the Burma Railway Wampo Viaduct, made famous by David Lean’s film Bridge on the River Kwai.
On one occasion he was told to creosote the top of a viaduct – 100 feet above ground.
“As a result of being bombed a certain part of my brain was damaged which gave me vertigo,” he said.
“I tried to tell the guard using sign language but he just went off to find something to beat me with.
“I started climbing up there a leg at a time but when I got to the top I couldn’t open my eyes. I was just clinging to the bridge. The guard came up after me and threw my five gallons of creosote over me and I started to swell up like the Michelin Man. I ended up in the river but so badly burned I was taken away for treatment.”
All eight members of his working party were dead within three weeks.
But his magic tricks were proving a vital source of practical help.
In front of the camp commandant, who was impressed with his sleight of hand, Fergus used tinned food and fresh fruit as props – so he got to eat them as the Japanese rejected anything a prisoner had touched.
“We had 10 minutes breaks from work,” he said. “I’d do magic and the guards would watch turning those breaks into 45 minutes, when my friends would be stealing potatoes from the Japanese stores.”
Fergus said he never saw morale go down among the prisoners, despite the terrible conditions and treatment.
“Then on one occasion four guards selected five of us at random and drove us out into the jungle,” he said.
“They stood us up against the trees, got a machine gun out, mounted it on its tripod and aimed it at us.
“We didn’t have blindfolds, we just stood waiting to be killed for 10 minutes. We asked each other ‘why don’t they pull the trigger and get it over with?’
“Then suddenly they dismantled the gun and took us back to camp – where we found the war had been over for three days.
“They must have known that and also knew we were going to be told that evening. So I think they thought they would be hanged, after all there were 2,000 of us and 80 of them, and thought to take some of us with them.
“But then they must have thought ‘what if they don’t intend to hang us? Well they will if they see what we have done. I think that is what saved us.”