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Jack Jennings, P.OW. Who Helped Build Burma Railway, Dies at 104

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Jack Jennings, a British prisoner of war during World War II who worked as a slave laborer on the Burma Railway, the roughly 250-mile Japanese military construction project that inspired a novel and the Oscar-winning film “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” died this month in St. Marychurch, England. He was 104.

His daughters Carol Barrett and Hazel Heath told the BBC on Jan. 22 that he had died in a nursing facility, though the exact date of death was unclear.

They said they believed their father was the last survivor of the estimated 85,000 British, Australian and Indian solders who were captured when the British colony of Singapore fell to Japanese forces in February 1942.

A private in the 1st Battalion Cambridgeshire Regiment, Mr. Jennings spent the next three-and-half years as a prisoner of war, first in Changi prison in Singapore and then in primitive camps along the route of the railway between Thailand and Burma (now Myanmar).

To build bridges, Mr. Jennings and at least 60,000 P.O.W.s — and thousands more local prisoners — were forced to cut down and debark trees, saw them into half-meter lengths, dig and carry earth to build embankments, and drive piles into the ground.

In his 2011 memoir, “Prisoner Without a Crime,” Mr. Jennings described the dangerous process of driving the piles, using a heavy weight raised by the men to the top of a timber frame.

“Two men generally guided the pile from a perched situation near the top,” he wrote. “This was a slow, punishing job, jolting your whole body when the weight suddenly dropped and the pile sank lower.”

He survived the searing heat of the Indochinese jungle; a daily diet of rice, watery gruel and a teaspoon of sugar; and a battery of ailments: malnutrition, dysentery, malaria and renal colic. He developed a leg ulcer that required skin grafts, which were performed without anesthesia.

“At least 15 soldiers died each day of malaria and cholera,” Mr. Jennings told the British newspaper The Mirror in 2019. “I remember sitting in camp just counting the days I had left to live. I didn’t think I’d ever get out of there alive.”

The brutality inflicted by Japanese soldiers was at least as bad during the railway work as it was in the camps.

“If you weren’t working like they thought you should, you’d get a stick or the butt of a rifle,” he added. “But I had to keep going. I had a friend who slept next to me. I woke up one morning and he was dead.” Four men who tried to escape were beheaded.

“My feeling for the Japanese guards who were with us, and all who allowed them to commit such barbaric crimes, stays the same,” Mr. Jennings wrote. “I will never forgive or forget.”

Amid those torturous conditions, Mr. Jennings, who had worked as a wood joiner in England, carved a chess set out of wood he found in the camps, using a pen knife. He carried the chess pieces home.

Jack Jennings was born on March 10, 1919, and grew up in West Midlands, England. His father died of cancer when Jack was 8; his mother, who had worked in a foundry before she had children, took in laundry to earn money after her husband’s death. She also picked hops during the summer, along with Jack and his sisters.

At his mother’s request, Jack left school at 14 to earn money for the family. He fared poorly as an office trainee before finding his métier at a local joinery works. He eventually enrolled in classes in cabinet making at a local art college.

Mr. Jennings was drafted into the British Army in 1939 and, after lengthy training, traveled by boat to Singapore, arriving in January 1942. The British Army was soon overwhelmed by the Japanese and surrendered Singapore on Feb. 15.

“They knew where to strike, and strike hard,” he wrote in his memoir, adding that “there was nowhere to hide or to retreat to. We were trapped, civilians and soldiers.”

The Japanese herded about 500 soldiers, most of them from the Cambridgeshire regiment, onto a tennis court. At each corner a Japanese soldier stood guard with a machine gun. The prisoners drank dirty water and ate “hard Army biscuits and ration chocolate” tossed at them by their captors, Mr. Jennings wrote.

After five days, they were marched to Changi prison and later to prison camps that the prisoners themselves had to hack out of the jungle. Mr. Jennings said he spent his time building bridges and being treated for his illnesses. An estimated 12,000 to 16,000 P.O.W.s died during construction of the railway. Many civilian prisoners perished as well.

Mr. Jennings learned of the Japanese surrender in August 1945 from leaflets dropped in a prison camp that said, “To All Allied Prisoners of War: The Japanese Forces Have Surrendered Unconditionally and the War is Over.”

He arrived home in October and, two months later, married his girlfriend, Mary. Three days later, he celebrated his first Christmas with his family in six years.

In 1954, Pierre Boulle, a former French soldier and secret agent who had served in China, Burma and Indochina, published “The Bridge Over the River Kwai,” a novel about the construction of a bridge by Allied prisoners. It was turned into a film in 1957 starring Alec Guinness, as the delusional colonel in charge of the British prisoners at a Japanese prison camp, and William Holden, as an American Navy commander who escapes the camp and joins a commando mission to destroy the bridge. The movie, directed by David Lean, won seven Oscars, including for best picture.

Complete information on survivors besides Mr. Jennings’ daughters was unavailable.

Mr. Jennings wrote his memoir in the early 1990s, although it would not be published until years later. He made several trips back to Singapore and Thailand.

One of them, in 2012, was paid for by Britain’s National Lottery, which produced a TV advertisement featuring Mr. Jennings for a campaign called “Life Changing.”

In it he appears to walk slowly with his cane through a jungle battle scene, which fades into a visit to a cemetery for the Allied soldiers who died during construction of the railway.

In an interview for the National Lottery, Mr. Jennings said that the Thailand he visited was “completely different” from the one he remembered. “So the old dreams just faded, you know — so I was quite surprised and relieved,” he said. “The place is really a nice tourist area now.”

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