Obituary: Owen (Joe) Briggs - One of the last surviving prisoners of war who worked on the ‘Railway of Death’ in Burma

Born: Suffolk. Died: 25 May, 2011, in the Borders, aged 92

JOE” Briggs was one of the last surviving prisoners of war who worked on the Burma “Railway of Death”.

Born at Cushions Farm, Suffolk, he became an apprentice butcher, an occupation that was destined to save his life. He joined the Territorial Army aged 17 and was called up at the outbreak of war to join the 5th Suffolk regiment. He was sent to Hawick to Stobs Camp for desert and jungle training for lndia.

At Hawick he met and married his first wife, lsabel Rae.

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The regiment was then sent to Singapore, and it was at the fall of the colony in 1942 that he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and confined in Changi prison. He was duly selected to help build the notorious Burma-Siam railway, the “Railway of Death”, which ran northward from Bangkok and claimed more than 10,000 lives.

It was near the end of his time on the railway that he came closest to death.

Food was scarce and they were given a pig which he was designated to slaughter for the Japanese. He was accused of selling parts of the pig for cigarettes but he pieced all the parts together to prove it was all there, and he was exonerated.

After 18 months he was shipped to Japan to work in a zinc factory, and it was there that he witnessed the dropping of the atom bomb at Nagasaki.

“We heard the 829 come over, saw the bomb doors open and watched the bomb as it fell, there as a blinding flash, a mushroom cloud and all the windows were blown out. Afterwards the Americans flew over and dropped food parcels. Before we left Nagasaki we saw the full impact of the bomb which made a crater over half a mile wide.”

He returned to the UK via America on the Queen Elizabeth, billeted at Alcatraz for six weeks on the way. He returned to the Borders and worked. By then he was divorced, and married again.

He is survived by his wife, six sons, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.