Obituary: Bill Kellas, soldier survived Death Railway by luck and courage

Bill Kellas
Bill Kellas
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Born: 3 August, 1917, in Logie Coldstone, Aberdeenshire. Died: 21 November, 2012, in Aberdeen, aged 95

THEY say that for every one of the 120,000 sleepers laid on the Thailand–Burma Death Railway, a life was lost.

That Bill Kellas was not among them is nothing short of miraculous.

Having endured the miserable daily routine of starvation rations, sickness and beatings as he and his fellow prisoners of war hacked the line out of almost impenetrable jungle, the ravenous young soldier was condemned to death for stealing food.

As a prelude to his execution he was tethered to a rack by his Japanese captors and left outside at the mercy of the elements for three days.

But two unfathomable events were to save his life: the kindness of a courageous Japanese sergeant and the bizarre behaviour of an enemy officer.

He went on to survive for the best part of another 70 years and was one of last remaining handful of men from the 1,000-strong 2nd Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders who served in the Far East during the Second World War.

A farmer’s son, born in the Aberdeenshire village of Logie Coldstone, he left the local school at 14 and worked on his grandfather’s farm.

He was 17 and bored with farm life when, while attending the nearby feein’ market where farmers went to seek out short-term workers, he was recruited by a Gordon Highlanders’ ­sergeant.

A drummer in the pipe band, he was based in Aberdeen before being posted to Redford Barracks in Edinburgh for two years. From there it was on to Gibraltar in 1937, followed swiftly by Singapore.

The Second World War had been under way for two years when the Japanese attacked Singapore in December 1941. By the following February their shelling of British positions had intensified. On 13 February Kellas was standing on the edge of a trench in Holland Road, while being briefed by Lieutenant Bobby Irvine of Drum Castle, when a mortar made a direct hit on the trench. The officer was killed instantly but Kellas escaped unharmed. Two days later Singapore fell to the Japanese and his three years of incarceration began.

He and his fellow Gordon Highlanders were marched 14 miles into captivity at Changi PoW camp where a portent of things to come was the execution of four men for trying to escape. Everyone was subjected to beatings, he said, sometimes with bamboo staves, at other times with golf clubs.

Following rumours that they were to build a railway, he left Changi in October 1942, transported to Thailand by train. At least 30 men, many suffering from dysentery, were crammed into each stifling steel carriage. With no room to sit down and no toilet facilities, the stench was foul. Under the fierce sun the metal sides became so searingly hot that they were unbearable to touch. At night they were freezing. By the time they reached their destination, after a six-day journey, a number of the prisoners had perished.

For Kellas, this was the start of his contribution to the 415-
kilometre long railway that the Japanese forced approximately 60,000 Allied PoWs and 180,000 Asian workers to build in order to supply their own army fighting the British in Burma.

He began the back-breaking work near the infamous bridge over the River Kwai and was later marched to a second camp where cholera claimed many more lives. By 1943 he was in yet another camp, this time at Conquita, subsisting on rations that “tasted like cardboard”.

He and two others broke into a store to steal food but were rumbled by a guard. One man was captured but Kellas and his companion fled into the darkness, somehow surviving a hail of bullets. They sneaked back into camp and eventually identified themselves as the culprits, saving their companion, who had bravely remained silent on his partners in crime, from being tortured to death.

Kellas was interrogated and tried. “The Dutch interpreter told me I was for the bullet,” he recalled. “We were then tied to a rack out in the open for three days with a rope around our wrists. When your hands went down it pulled your head right back.”

But the officer in charge had to go away for three days. “And in the middle of the night a Japanese sergeant would appear, untie our ropes and feed us sweet coffee and rice,” revealed Kellas.

When the officer returned he merely bawled them out and they were sent to the camp hospital for a week. They never discovered why such inexplicable leniency was shown.

“But for the kindness of that Japanese sergeant I doubt we would have survived the three days,” he later said.

Despite the risks, Kellas and his fellow captives, regularly stole food from Thai barges, on one occasion snatching a bullock. “One of our blokes was a butcher to trade,” he recalled. “They killed the bullock and that night it was boiled and cut up and we all got chunks of meat. There was a carry-on in the morning when the Thai came out and found his bullock missing. But the Japanese could not believe this could happen and chased the Thai for his life.”

Even when the railway was completed there was no respite. Like many Japanese PoWs he was transferred from Thailand to Japan, where he worked in a mine in Osaka serving a zinc factory. Instead of the jungle heat he was now subjected to freezing weather. Having survived the barbarity of the Death Railway, he found that the intense cold made life in Japan even worse than the slave labour of Thailand.

However, within a few months his ordeal was over. The Japanese surrendered following the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Liberated in 1945, he returned to the UK and remained with the Gordon Highlanders for some time before transferring the Royal Military Police with whom he served in Egypt, Libya and Palestine. He later worked as a postman, an RAC patrolman and, somewhat ironically, with British Railways.

In 1964 he joined the Don District Fishery Board as a foreman bailiff, which wasn’t without its own dangers. One night, after being followed home by poachers, a Molotov cocktail firebomb was pushed through his letter-box. Hearing it crash to the floor he managed to dispose of it before any series damaged was wreaked.

He moved to the Dee District Fishery Board, in 1974, as inspector responsible for river management, retiring in 1988 at the age of 70.

A lifelong Freemason, he was actively involved with Aberdeen’s Ferryhill Community Council and was a member of the Far East Prisoners of War ­Association.

Divorced from his first wife, he is survived by his second wife Kathleen, whom he married in 1967, his daughter Helen and extended family.

ALISON SHAW