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Monday, November 14, 2011

A haunting price paid for our freedom

St.Catharines, Ont. Canada.-------Most of us try to remember war but some can never forget.

I read this story in THE STAR, written by Vinay Menon

It's Friday, one week before Remembrance Day, and David Wince is perched in an electric recliner in the living room of his St. Catharines home. His medals, along with old newspaper clippings and a VHS copy of  The Bridge on the River Kwai,rest on a nearby hutch.

More than seven decades and 15.000 kilometers separate the former prisoner of war from his World War 11 memories. But at the age of  91, these memories will not fade. He remains haunted by experiences that are impervious to time and space.

This is his story.

Before joining the British army in 1940, Wince planned to be a barber. But within a few month, at the age of 20, he went from apprenticing with scissors to training others with grenades and riffles.

"They were all young, rosy-cheeked country boys," says Wince, his voice suddenly choked with emotion. "Good lads, all of them. They were honest and they worked hard."

One of the lads Wince trained, one of many who would not return home, was killed while firing a machine gun during a lopsided battle with enemy forces.

"I can still see him even now," says Wince, averting his eyes. "I can still see his face."

In October 1941, Wince and fellow soldiers from the 18th Division left Gourock, Scotland, for Halifax. Upon arrival, they boarded the USS Mount Vernon, a former American luxury liner rechristened as a troop transport.

After stops in Trinidad and Cape Town, something happened that would forever change their lives: Japan invaded Malaya. The soldiers were diverted to Singapore.

"We didn't know what a Japanese soldier looked like,"Wince says, recalling the disorienting arrival in Singapore, where the skies crackled with torrential rains and enemy air raids." We didn't even know what kinds of weapons they had. We had no idea what we were getting into."

Undaunted, the soldiers pressed into battle. It would be a short engagement. When Japan quickly took control of Singapore, Wince was in a civilian hospital, recovering from a mortar wound to his leg.

"One day I woke up and the hospital was empty,"he recalls.

Most of the 18th Division had been captured. Allied soldiers laid down their arms and were held inside Changi barracks, where Wince would soon arrive and his nightmare would begin.

"We all knew one thing and one thing only,"he says. "We were prisoners."

Wince and others were eventually herded into railway cars and sent to Thailand. They arrived at the Ban Pong camp to work as forced laborers. The prisoners were subjected to unfathomable cruelty.
For 12 to 14 hours a day, they toiled outside, clearing old banana plantations with crude implements, building embankments, carrying supplies across treacherous terrain, blasting through stone and mountainside without machinery. This would be the beginning of the Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, a Japanese wartime effort to link Burma and Thailand that would cost thousands of lives.

Those who did not die were trapped inside a living hell.

The temperature often shot past 37C, or 100F. At night, unprotected huts filled with scorpions, snakes, centipedes and mosquitoes the size of golf balls. There was no medicine, no sanitation. There was no connection to the outside world and no trace of humanity on the inside.

Beatings, torture, disease, starvation, even executions, Wince witnessed it all.

"We had no hope."he says. "There was no way of getting out."

In 1944, now in Burma to work on railway maintenance near the Three Pagoda Pass, after the bridge over the River Kwai was complete, the situation for Wince became even worse.

"One day I started feeling sick," he says, of the fever and blinding stomach pains."I started shaking and shivering."

Based on the agony of others,Wince knew he was dealing with malaria and dysentery. And having passed hundreds of makeshift graves along the railway, he knew this could be the end.

He was put into a rail car and returned to Changi. Emaciated, Wince staggered toward the prison after the two-day journey. One of his buddies stared at him with horror.

"He looked at me and he said,"Good God! What did they do to you?"

Unable to eat his meager ration of maggot-infested rice- the only food the prisoners received-Wince was moved to a dysentery ward.

"This was a place from hell," he says. "The smell inside there was indescribable."

Around him, men were moaning and dying. But a Canadian doctor-"the only Canadian I ever met,"says Wince-gave him Epsom salts. Wince survived but would suffer another 25 relapses of malaria over the next 15 months.

Then nearly four years after it started. it was over.

In 1945, Wince was working in Bangkok, unloading barges of ammunition and building gun pits for Japan, which feared an invasion by allied forces. One day, without warning, a passing Thai man whispered two words:"War finished."

A piece of paper was printed to the prison wall:An atomic bomb had been dropped. Japan had surrendered.

"We felt nothing," says Wince. "We didn't j7ump up and down. We didn't celebrate."

Wince was eventually flown to a hospital in Rangoon. A few weeks later, he was back in London, reunited with his family.

Wince moved to Canada in 1954, settling in Hamilton, where he worked, finally, as a barber. Fifteen years later, during a trip to Grenada, he met Dianne, a Toronto native who is now his wife of 40 years.

She sits across from him in the afternoon sunshine as he tells his story. She listens with rapt attention, staring with love and understanding. She knows the price he paid for all of us.

Her husband's Remembrance Day message is simple:"Nothing is worth war."

Wince at home in St.Catharines. Canada

The Three Pagodas Pass.

Border of crossing with Burma, now called Myanmar


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