This month marks the 70th anniversary of the death of a young Lewes man, Dennis George Moppett.
Dennis lived in Abinger Place near the church of St John sub Castro. His father had a dairy in the town. Dennis saw wartime service with the Lewes Home Guard before joining the RAF. He had the misfortune to be captured on the island of Java early in 1942 as the Japanese rapidly conquered much of South East Asia.
Along with thousands of fellow servicemen, he suffered dreadful privations as a POW forced to work building airfields on what were known as the Spice Islands. Despite the cruel prison regime, Dennis was able to write a whole series of letters intended for his family back home in Lewes. He could never hope to post them but instead kept them concealed in a bamboo container.
The RAF man survived slow starvation until sadly he succumbed to sickness on 6th January 1945. Amazingly, his letters survived, kept safe by a POW friend who survived the war in the Far East that ended in the following August. The bamboo container and the precious letters were eventually delivered to the Moppett family.
Many years later, a much younger sister of Dennis, Felicity Reed, moved to a house near mine in St John Street. Through her I learnt of the letters and thanks to her son, Tim, was able to read them. They are very poignant, full of fond references to his two sisters, Felicity (referred to as Fifi) and Sheila, and memories of good times spent in Sussex.
Here are some edited highlights lifted from just a few of his missives.
6th May 1942: “My dearest Mum and Dad – what an age it seems since I was writing to you. We arrived here on Good Friday and are under Japanese command. Our first greeting was a bit gruff, but they have gradually discovered we are not such a bad crowd.”
8th May: “This morning we are not working. I am sitting in the shade of a hangar and it is very pleasant. The birds are singing, small yellow butterflies are flitting all over the field in front of me and the sun is shining brightly. There is a very high mountain we can see from here. It’s an extinct volcano and the top is nearly always covered in cloud. The rumours going round remain good ones and when the kites go over we hope for the day when they will have ‘stars’ on the wings and not red circles.”
9th May: “For tiffin we had fried rice and vegetables – quite a change. Our own cooks do the cooking but some of us aren’t sure if that’s an advantage or not! I wonder what you are all doing now? I believe we are seven hours ahead of you so I suppose, Dad, you are at work while Fifi is just waking up and rousing Mum and Sheila. Do you still call her Fifi, or is it Felicity Ann now? I still think of her as ‘Baby’ but she will be five years old next month. I dream of home at nights and think of you all day.”
20th May: “We have been busy loading railway trucks. Pushing them up and down the railway line just suits me – never thought I’d have a full-sized railway to play with. My friend Bob believes we shall be free by Christmas. I hope he is right but I just wait from day to day.”
22nd May: “A rumour of us moving camp is true. It is also exactly 12 months ago today that I sailed from Scotland. It was 6pm when we slipped out and everyone was singing ‘Ay, ay, yippee, yippee aye’ and it seemed to echo all around the bay. I little thought then that I would be in this pickle by this time, this year.
27th May: “Yesterday was the first anniversary of my friend Bob’s wedding day. He was married a week before he left England.”
14th June: “Today, one of our chaps cut my hair and I’ve had my weekly shave. I never told you how I lost my kit on the train. We were on our way to a port that was destroyed before we got there. A train was to take us to a different port. Bob and I were lying together on the floor of a goods wagon when the train was ambushed and set on fire. We hadn’t a rifle between us and we were ordered to get out and walk. I got hold of a tommy-gun but it wasn’t much use. The front of our party were crossing a bridge when it blew up; it had been mined. As many as it was possible to rescue were brought back and then we walked about 25 miles just to be ordered to sit down and wait like a lot of sheep for our captors to come.”
19th July: “The stars were bright last night, especially the Southern Cross. I look up at that and think of the old Plough shining down on you. We have now all been numbered and wear little red labels. Mine is 827. This morning using only an axe I have made a pair of wooden sandals from a piece of thick wood and a strip of rubber.”
9th August: “There has been a very strict tightening up of things at this new camp and our kits and ourselves are searched at odd times. The main object seems to be to prevent communications. When we pass a Nipponese sentry, we have to bow and when they come into our billets we have to stand to attention. In the last half hour I think we have stood up six or seven times. Somehow I feel like the Irishman in Tipperary, telling you that if you don’t receive this you’ll know it has been taken off me!”
“The other day I looked at the bottom of my kit bag and realised the few things in there were the total of all I now possess in the world. At the moment I am suffering a mixture of prickly heat, nettle-rash and dhobie itch.”
6th September: “Yesterday we were suddenly moved to another camp and it is horribly crowded. The fine weather must be coming to an end at home now and the leaves will be beginning to fall. Here the flowers keep blooming and dying without season. I do long for the English dusk and dawn – dawn comes too suddenly here. I often think of the dawns we watched when doing Home Guard duties and I long for the crispness of the English air.”
12th October: “Yesterday I looked at all my photos of home. They give me such a longing to be with you, although they also bring to mind happy thoughts and memories. I have Fifi with all her Christmas toys and I have the photos taken at Piltdown and Telscombe in 1940. I have just been reading the last letter received from you, Mum, last October. It is falling to pieces and has mould on it but it is very precious to me.”
17th October: “The RAF Dental Officer here has given me two temporary fillings. I am glad now of the care you took over my teeth, Mum, as it is at a time like this that one reaps the benefit.”
A letter dated 4th November 1942 makes it clear that camp conditions are rapidly worsening for the POWs: “This ink is pretty tarry stuff but it is all I can scrounge. We have had four deaths in about three weeks from dysentery. There is no nourishment in the food and you have no resistance to any illness.”
4th December: “We have all been ordered to have our heads shaved and what with wearing our numbers we look like a crowd of convicts. I am now 22, so I can say, at least, that the whole of my 21st year has been wasted. Yesterday a sentry called me to sweep the platform around the sentry box. We don’t mind doing that as we get a glimpse of the road outside. When I was doing it I saw a white Dutch girl with fair hair, in a light blue frock, riding a bicycle. It was the first girl I had seen for over three months.”