It was a daring plan that took George Dunbar to the brink of freedom – an idea hatched in the wake of the fall of Singapore, as the Japanese pursued their inexorable march across Indonesia.
Having fled to Java, become separated from his squadron and struggled alone through the wilderness, when the young RAF engineer stumbled across an abandoned aircraft it offered the real possibility of evading the Japanese.
Along with a colleague, with whom he had miraculously been reunited, he worked for days to get the plane airworthy and recruit a Canadian pilot to fly them off the island. But as they finalised their escape the Japanese reached their island refuge and took control, making all Allied airmen in the area Prisoners of War.
Word was sent to Dunbar that his mission could not go ahead as, once discovered by the enemy, it would result in reprisals, possibly death, for the scores of others left behind. Unable to have that on his conscience, he sacrificed his chance of liberty and the audacious plan was ditched.
Dunbar subsequently ended up as slave labour in a Japanese copper mine, had all his fingers broken by a vicious camp official and returned home to a wall of silence, as he, his fellow Far Eastern Prisoners of War (FEPOW) and their traumatic incarceration were all but ignored post-war.
Yet he remained remarkably unaffected by his extraordinary experiences : “It does not pay to be bitter” he said. He returned to the mine decades later, retaining an unshakeable bond with the band of brothers who had shared those harrowing times and supporting them through the Java FEPOW Club.
Born just outside Elgin, to Margaret and John Dunbar, he was one of a family of seven, and moved with his parents to Balloch, Inverness, as a boy. After leaving Balloch School at 15 he joined the RAF at 17, a move that not only heralded a career as an aircraft engineer but sparked a lifelong love of hockey, which he played until the age of 88.
Dunbar served with No 211 bomber squadron which, on the outbreak of war with Italy in 1940, began bombing operations over Libya. They later moved to Sudan, which he left on Christmas Day 1941, thinking he was heading home after a three-year posting. But the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor and 211 Squadron was sent to Singapore, arriving there in January 1942, the day after Japan invaded.
Trying to keep one step ahead, the squadron was withdrawn to Sumatra, where they arrived on the morning of 14 February, the day before Singapore fell. The Japanese invaded Sumatra that afternoon and the airmen fled to Java, devoid of transport or weapons. The next morning Dunbar was sent with a squad to manually unload boats at the harbour. Seeing an opportunity to speed up the task he commandeered a crane where, after swiftly unloading half the cargo, he had a bird’s eye view of an ensuing attack. Suddenly almost 30 Japanese bombers swarmed overhead, targeting ships nearby. He looked down to see his fellow workers scatter and by the time he got down onto the quay there was no sign of his squad.
Left utterly alone, all he had was his regulation mug and the clothes he stood up in. He never did join up with his squadron but he was young enough to view his predicament as a bit of an adventure and, in a bid to escape the island, he set off to try to trace any fellow airmen. Eventually he discovered an airfield occupied by hundreds of aircrew and somehow found an American aircraft hidden in the jungle. Along with the only fellow squadron member he came across he worked on the plane for ten days before being forced to abandon the scheme when Java capitulated.
But he was determined to evade capture and he, his friend and three Australians jumped the fence before the Japanese could record their details. After walking miles in torrential rain the Australians eventually gave up and returned to the camp but Dunbar and his friend wandered the wilderness, staying on the run for five weeks before admitting defeat and making their way to a Japanese HQ.
The pair managed to conceal the fact they were escapees – which, if known, would have got them shot instantly – and Dunbar spent the next 18 months in two POW camps on the island, facing the daily threat of death for any misdemeanour.
Dunbar was once brutally beaten after tobacco, which did not belong to him, was found at his feet. One blow with a stick broke his teeth and damaged his ear drum. When he refused to take ownership of the tobacco he was ordered to pick it up but beaten every time he tried to do so. By this time his nose was broken but he was then ordered by an officer to put his hands flat on the ground.
“He stepped forward and stood on both my hands, then he jumped on them and broke all my fingers in one go,” he recalled in an interview with the Ross-shire Journal more than 70 years later.
In 1943 Dunbar was among almost 500 prisoners transported to Japan, stopping en route in Singapore to build an airport runway, and was held in the notorious Changi prison there. He was to endure two more years’ captivity in Japan, much of it working in a copper mine at Ikuno, labouring through backbreaking 12-hour shifts on a diet of rice and with the constant threat of wanton brutality. “It was like nothing on earth. You suffered, everybody suffered – some more than others – a lot never survived.”
He was down the mine when the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima in August 1945 and later witnessed the devastation it caused. The prisoners had reportedly been told they would be “disposed of” the following month but they were liberated before that threat could be carried out. For years his family had thought Dunbar was a dead man but he walked back through the door later that year, he and his fellow survivors having arrived back at Southampton unacknowledged.
Dunbar remained in the RAF until 1952, when he moved to British Airways as an engineer, troubleshooting all over the world. He had married his first wife Marjory, in 1946, with whom he had two sons, and on retiring in 1980 they moved to Caithness.
Passionate about hockey, he continued to play all his life, including in Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, Europe and America and became the country’s oldest hockey player, representing Scotland in the Grand Masters Hockey World Cup in Hong Kong in 2008.
By then he had been widowed and he remarried, in his mid-80s, to Bunty, a long-standing friend. She had accompanied him to Japan in 2004 for a reunion with fellow POWs at the copper mine where they attended a reception with the local mayor and were interviewed by a Tokyo University professor for a book on their experiences.
Latterly as the number of veterans dwindled he stepped in to help maintain their Java club, ensuring they always had someone with whom to share their memories – good and bad. “We could say anything to each other, we had all been through the same thing,” he said.
He is survived by Bunty, his sons Donald and Ian and his brother Jim.