Local family torn apart by war in the Far East

Japanese-arrive-on-the-island-feb-1942
Japanese-arrive-on-the-island-feb-1942

At the turn of the 20th Century it was fairly common for ministers of the Church of Scotland to preach in the Far East, either as missionaries or to the large numbers of ex-pat Scots scattered over Britain’s global empire.

One such man was the Reverend S S Walker, who was a minister in the mighty seaport of Singapore for 11 years. While there, he was blessed with three sons, James, Edward and Frank.

Japanese soldier supervising railway work

Japanese soldier supervising railway work

In common with the practice at the time, the boys were sent home to Scotland where they were educated during the Great War at the Edinburgh Academy. On leaving school, Jimmy Walker took up an apprenticeship with William Thomson and Sons, ship owners at Leith.

However, the allure of the Far East was too strong for Jimmy and he returned to Singapore where took up a post with Edward Bousted, shipping agents. In the late 1920s, he was introduced to Emily Lucy Ballantyne, known as Lucy, to whom he instantly took a shine and married in 1931.

In the 1930s, Imperial Japan began to flex its military muscle and invaded parts of China. In response, many men such as Jimmy and Frank Walker joined the local defence volunteers, the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force, with Jimmy becoming a private in the Artillery Battalion, while Frank reached the rank of captain.

Singapore was the jewel in the crown of the Far East and her fortifications were thought to be impregnable. However, when war broke out in Europe in 1939 her defences were neglected and many of the troops based there were either removed or replaced with raw and green men.

On December 7, 1941 Japan attacked Pearl Harbour without declaring war. Soon her troops were swarming all over south-east Asia.

Hong Kong fell on Christmas Day, 1941 and soon it would be Singapore’s turn to be attacked.

When the axe fell on Singapore it came not from the sea, where most of the defences were concentrated. It came from the land to the north. The Walker brothers, realising the situation was lost, persuaded their wives to leave on one of the last ships to evacuate from Singapore, the SS Kuala.

An unarmed auxiliary ship, the Kuala was packed to overflowing with women, children and a large detachment of nursing staff. No one knows for sure how many were on board. She set sail on February 13,1942 but only 12 hours later tragedy struck. She was spotted by Japanese aircraft, and despite being unarmed, she was bombed and sunk off Pom Pong.

Not content with sinking the ship, the Japanese bombed and machine-gunned the survivors, many of them children, in the water. Despite this, a number of them made it to Pom Pong and other smaller islands. Two of the survivors were Lucy Walker and her sister-in-law, but they had been separated. A few days later, Lucy was picked up with other women by the SS Tanjong Pinang. Her her sister-in-law was left behind and captured by the Japanese.

However, this was not to be her salvation. Enroute to Sumatra a Japanese cruiser spotted the boat and shelled her. She sank in five minutes with very few survivors. Lucy Walker was among those who were lost.

The Walker brothers were caught up in the ignominious defeat and surrender of 80,000 British and Commonwealth troops at Singapore on 14th February, 1942.

They were marched off into captivity in the vast hinterlands of Burma and Siam (Thailand).

The Reverend Walker was now the minister at Cranstoun Parish Church near Pathhead, anxiously following events from the Far East via newsreels and newspapers. The news was not good, and he had no word of his sons or his daughters-in-law.

Nearly a year later, a letter appeared out of the blue from Jimmy. It was very brief and said he was alive and a prisoner of the Japanese. It made no mention of the others.

Victory in Europe came in May, 1945 but still no further word came for Mr Walker.

A few months later Japan was defeated, but still no word was available of the Walkers’ fate.

This was not unusual as the Japanese, unlike the Germans and Italians, did not acknowledge the Geneva Convention or co-operate with the Red Cross.

Around Christmas 1945 a letter arrived at the manse in Cranstoun. It was from Frank Walker’s wife. She was safe, having survived for more than three years in a detention camp. She, however, broke the news of Lucy’s death.

In January 1946, five months after the end of the war, a telegram arrived from Frank Walker. He broke the news to his dad that Jimmy had died in 1943, not long after his letter arrived, on the infamous Railway of Death in Thailand.

James Cadenhead Walker is buried at Thanbyuzat War Cemetery. His wife Lucy is commemorated in St George’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey.

They are “together” on Cranstoun Parish and Pathhead War Memorial.