"...life as we lived it in Singapore is,
I believe, gone forever..."
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Youth in Dublin
Civilian life in Singapore
Prisoner of War
A New Life
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They were waiting for him, his dear ones, as HMS Formidable plied her way through the waters of Sydney Harbour.

Thousands of wives and children, parents and friends waved and called out to their returning men who eyed the shoreline anxiously trying to catch sight of their own special people amongst the moving throng. Many of the “passengers” were carried off on stretchers.

Others hobbled down the gang plank on crutches. All were living skeletons, pale echoes of their former selves, many unrecognizable to their families who also eagerly scanned the faces of the emerging liberated POWs.

After weeks of “fattening up” Joe felt confidant that he was in good shape to greet his family.

His weight had increased to 60 kilos and the hunger pangs, his constant companion for so many years, were eased by the care and kindness of the nurses and crew of the converted hospital ship.


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Eilish set eyes on the man she loved for the first time in nearly four years. Almost blind, nearly deaf, skin and bone, but living - he had returned to her. He had returned.

Joe’s idea of “fit” differed greatly from those who had not lived through the Japanese Camps. There was little time allowed for a reunion – further medical examinations resulted in him being sent off to the Naval Hospital in Herne Bay for various operations and treatments and once more he was separated from his family.

Joe was impatient to start living again. The war had robbed him of 4 years of his life and he was ready to pick up where he left off. But that was impossible. Everything was different. The obvious changes were in his children. Unie, now twelve, was a tall, competent girl who boarded at the Convent of the Holy Rose in Sydney. Little Dermot, his “Dermot boy”, was now a sturdy seven year old with no memory whatsoever of the man who only a few years before had been the focus of his entire world.

And Eilish. The bright, pretty school teacher turned sparkling socialite had matured into an independent woman who had carried the burden of rearing two children in an alien country on her own, never knowing when or if her husband might return. The war had taken three of her brothers and many of her friends and their children. It fell to her to break the news of the death of Joe’s dearest beloved mother who he had worried so much over during his years of captivity. She died at the beginning of 1945, her heart broken at the thought of her fine son so far away and so alone.

News began to filter in of other tragedies. David Ball, so kind to Joe with his faithful friendship in those early days in Changi, had died in Borneo, ten days after the war had ended. Roger Hawtry, also a Gestetner man, had perished two days before Singapore capitulated, one of the many attempting escape by sea on the ill fated Giang Bee. And all this time Joe thought he was safe in Australia.

Letters began to filter in as well. Those letters, so longed for in the Camps, had followed Joe from Hakodate to Sydney, the addresses crossed out and redirected by unfamiliar hands, first to the ships that carried him to freedom, then to the Gestetner office in Hamilton Street, following on to the little house in Bowral that Eilish had taken when word of his release reached her, and finally to the Recovery Ward at Herne Bay. It was here that he read his wife’s messages, many dating back nearly two years. How those words would have cheered him in those dark days as a prisoner!

But that was in the past, and Joe’s entire being strained toward the future.

He wanted with all his heart to return to Singapore with his family to rebuild the life that had been stolen from him. His plans for the company, so carefully thought over during the “hidden years”, filled his mind and he was eager to implement them. But the East was closed to him for now. Singapore had no infrastructure to speak of after nearly four years under Japanese occupation – the shortages of food, housing and schools, as well as lack of water and electricity in many areas made it impossible to even consider returning. A letter from the Gestetner head office in London said it all – “As you probably know, we are unable to reopen in Malaya for the time being. Ordinary commercial business is, for the moment, absolutely dead.” The next best thing was to start where he began, in Dublin.

click to enlarge imageThey sailed in December on the “Aquitania” from Sydney to Southampton, less than two months after Joe’s arrival in Australia. He was barely out of his hospital bed, but nothing was going to keep him from moving forward. Unie’s schooling was a top priority. They settled on the Convent School in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, and for the next few years Unie saw her family only at holiday times, as was the custom in those days.

After a short stay in England, Joe, Eilish and Dermot moved to Ireland. They took a house on the seafront in Greystones, Co. Wicklow, a lovely spot that began its life as a fishing village and had matured into a fashionable holiday spot for the well to do. There was a golf course with imposing Victorian houses scattered around the Green, a main street with the essential shops and businesses, and a pretty little harbour where Dermot learned to row.

Eighteen years had passed since Joe first walked through the doors of Gestetner Dublin as an ambitious young man, eager to see the East. He had certainly seen the East, lived its pleasures and lived its grief. Physically he was old beyond his years, his frame punished by the years of deprivation, but his heart was strong and his spirit remained as determined as ever.

Within six months Joe was based in London, with Eilish holding the fort in Greystones. They were excited, Singapore was opening up and soon they would return. Joe was hospitalized in July 1946 for yet another operation; this one a further attempt to correct his damaged hearing. He would wear a hearing aid till the end of his days.

Joe sailed for Singapore that September. A year after the Japanese had formally surrendered in Singapore life was still most uncertain. Eilish and Dermot remained behind in Ireland, waiting for Joe to reopen the Gestetner branch in Cecil Street and to find a suitable home to bring his family in to.

Throughout his years of captivity Joe had carried with him vivid images of his home at C Holland Park. Every stick of furniture in every room was firmly etched in his mind. Scenes of breakfast time with little Dermot sharing his toast mingled with those of kiddies parties and of Indian troops lying battle weary under the trees as the black smoke of war rolled heavy on the horizon.

He returned to the site of his old home. Nothing remained. The only evidence of his former life in Singapore was a rusted razor and the broken corner of a mirror lying in the tall grass.

They tried to recapture what had been lost to them. Eilish and Dermot joined Joe in 1947. His responsibilities and territories within the firm were greater than ever, and on the surface life seemed as jolly as it had been before the war – the Swimming Club was going strong, Joe resumed his rowing at the Yacht Club, their attendance at dinner dances at Raffles and the Sea View were once again noted in the gossip columns, but for Joe and Eilish it was a hollow caricature of their old way of life.

Too many of the old familiar faces were gone forever. The echoes of the dead were everywhere, and the living also haunted Joe & Eilish. No amount of dinners and teas could cover up the changes that war had wrought, not only in the place they had once called home, but within themselves. It became clear that the only way forward lay elsewhere.

In 1949 they bid farewell to Singapore and all they had lived over the last two decades. Drawn by the call of their native soil they returned to Ireland. They had deep roots there, a solid foundation on which to build a decent life, and, if they were fortunate, a happy one.

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