Sunderland prisoner of war veteran Len Gibson dies aged 101

Jungle war veteran Len Gibson has died aged 101 – just days before the launch of a book detailing his remarkable life.

Len, from Sunderland, endured three and a half nightmare years of forced labour, monotonous near-starvation diet, disease and brutality as a Japanese prisoner of war.

After the war Len forged a career as a teacher in Sunderland schools. He died in hospital on Saturday.

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On Tuesday a book based on his memoirs was due to be launched at the Newcastle headquarters of the cancer patient care charity Daft as a Brush, which Len supported.

Amid his wartime ordeal Len and his fellow captives drew comfort from the guitar he made from waste wood and wire.

In the introduction to the book, musician, songwriter and record producer Dave Stewart describes how Len and his guitar inspired him to take the path which led him to co-found the Eurythmics and pursue a long and successful musical career.

Len slaved on the infamous Burma-Siam “Death“ Railway and the Mergui Road, built in Burma by PoWs and Asian labour which the Japanese army used as a means of retreat in 1945 as British and American forces advanced.

He suffered nearly 30 separate bouts of malaria, dysentery, typhus, beriberi, tropical ulcers and abscesses.

A scant “diet” of poor rice, tea, and a “stew” which was little more than flavoured water, plus beatings and intense labour in stifling heat, reduced Len to six stones in weight.

After being hospitalised on his return to Sunderland, Len met his future wife Ruby, who was a nurse, and they spent 70 happy years together.

Len Gibson with his wife Ruby

Daft as a Brush founder Brian Burnie said: “After returning to Sunderland, Len became a teacher and continued to serve the community for decades. He is the greatest gentleman I have ever met and I felt the story of his life had to be told and recognised through the book.

“The book is a celebration of his life and now has even more meaning. It will be lasting memorial to a man who helped an unbelievable number of people over the decades.”

Proceeds from the book, titled Len Gibson: A Wearside Lad in World War II, will go towards helping cancer patients served by the charity.

Len published a version in 2005 but it had since been largely forgotten, and was revised, improved and updated by Daft as a Brush.

“It was an honour and a labour of love for the team to work on updating and re-publishing Len’s book, which is also a tribute to the men who served with him,” said Mr Burnie.

From the age of nine, Dave Stewart’s home in Ettrick Grove, Sunderland, was one house away from that of Len and he became friendly with Len’s son David.

Len pictured during his war days
Len pictured during his war days
(Image: North News and Pictures)

Dave said: “As I was growing up I would often visit the Gibsons. One day Len picked up a guitar and played it in a magical way – a certain kind of rhythm I’d never heard before. It was like an epiphany.

“I became interested in how to play guitar and would ask Mr Gibson to play so I could see his fingers move on the fretboard and watch his other hand strumming.

“After everything Mr Gibson had been though, the fact that music kept him and others alive, pouring a sense of hope into a seemingly hopeless situation, is a mind-blowing feat of strength and to this day almost impossible for me to comprehend.

“Len Gibson’s way of playing and singing through adversity is an example I have followed. I cannot explain how much Len and David’s enthusiasm for life and music has influenced but I am full of gratitude and those moments hearing music played in the Gibsons’ front room I will never forget.”

Len was born in Sunderland on January 2, 1920. In early 1939 he was taking night classes at Sunderland Technical College and working during the day at the town’s Binns factory.

Len volunteered for a TA artillery regiment and after the outbreak of hostilities, Len, accompanied by his banjo and his regiment, set sail landing at Bombay in India.

They set off again on the slow and ageing ship Empress of India. Built in 1912, she had difficulty in keeping up with the convoy.

Sunderland World War II veteran Len Gibson
Sunderland World War II veteran Len Gibson
(Image: North News and Pictures)

Eight miles from Singapore, she was sunk by Japanese aircraft.

“I had never been in the deep end of Sunderland swimming baths,” said Len. “But a piece of cork around my chest kept me afloat.”

He was later picked up – minus banjo- by a boat and taken to Singapore – where he and his comrades and their truck-towed gun joined in the fighting to repel the Japanese invasion.

Len added: “Word came that we were capitulating. It was to be an unconditional surrender. We could not believe it.”

Len and his comrades were herded into metal cattle trucks in the punishing heat for a six-day journey into Thailand and their first labour camp.

On the journey they divided into three groups and took two-hour turns to stand, sit and lie down.

Their first task was to clear jungle ground for the rail track. “It was extremely hot, like being in an oven.

“There were often beatings when the guards weren’t satisfied with progress. It was terrible to have to witness a comrade being beaten.”

After 40 of their comrades died in a cholera outbreak, the prisoners had to bury them.

On one occasion, a PoW became lost in the jungle and, exhausted, lay down. When he was found “he was covered in leeches. They were in every crevice of his face and body.”

After the Japanese surrender, the PoWs were flown to Rangoon in Burma and taken to a dining room.

“Sitting in a chair was odd. Picking up a knife and fork was a novelty. We looked at food we had dreamed about.” Some men wept.

They eventually returned home. “No-one could possibly describe the feelings we had when we first saw our families. It had been more than four years since we had seen any of them.”

Lying in his own bed at last, Len remembered: “ I gazed at the ceiling. How had I survived? Why had I been spared?

“Every day for more than three years I had seen men die, because of inhumanity, starved of food and denied basic medicines.”

Len’s book costs £12 plus postage from www.daftasabrush.org.uk or 0191 285 5999.

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Chronicle Live – Sunderland