Kenneth Stroud is a mild man, with a ready smile and even at age 93, blue eyes that sparkle. His handshake is firm and while the years threaten to bend him in half, his stride is steady. A deacon in the Catholic Church for 36 years, the native Englishman does not have the demeanor of a man who harbors memories that would raise the eyebrows of the boldest soldier.
But for three and a half years of his life the question for Mr Stroud was always, “What’s next?”
Captured by the Japanese in 1942, just after the British forces in Singapore surrendered, the young Royal Air Force (RAF) Leading Aircraftsman would find himself shipped ultimately to the Indonesian island of Haruku, in the Banda Sea off of New Guinea. It would be a grueling journey of deprivation, humiliation, and starvation to a labor camp where he and more than 2,000 other Dutch and British prisoners of war would be forced to begin work on an airstrip that the Japanese saw as a stepping stone to the invasion of Australia.
He would witness physical and mental cruelty beyond comprehension, suffer from the swelling of beriberi and other diseases caused by malnutrition and starvation, and watch as fellow prisoners lost hope and died. A diet of the poorest quality rice cooked in filthy barrels with river water would be his main sustenance. He would watch as men were tortured, cheating death or brutal beatings himself, more than once.
By the time Aircraftsman Stroud watched Britain’s head of Combined Operations Command, Lord Mountbatten, enter Singapore (to which he had been circuitously returned as the war turned against Japan) and announce him “no longer a POW,” his once 150-pound frame had dwindled to just 90 pounds.
Only a few of his friends and family members have ever realized that he was once a POW, said Mr Stroud, and at his late wife’s behest, he mostly kept silent about the memories that sometimes surfaced as nightmares, waking the entire family, but never fully explained in the next morning’s light.
“I had a desire to have a new life, to leave it all behind, and to move on. I wanted to marry and have a family,” said Mr Stroud of his life after the war.
“But I do have different episodes stored up here,” Mr Stroud said, September 10, tapping his forehead as he discussed the book written by his son, Adrian Stroud, “and sometimes they come out. Now and again, something will spring to mind.”
Nearly seven decades after the end of World War II, Mr Stroud, a Newtown resident from 1978 to 2005 and now a resident of Southbury, has decided to share his story.
Prisoner of War Number 2378, available at www.amazon.com as of October 1, and currently available there as a preorder, is Adrian Stroud’s retelling of his father’s saga in World War II.
“For ten years my wife told me I had to write a book about Dad’s experiences,” said Adrian Stroud, “and then I had friends who urged me to do the same, when they found out he had been a POW.”
He had heard snippets of his father’s POW experience, growing up, said the author, but until he began to research the Japanese POW experience and question his father more closely, following his mother’s death in 2004, he had no idea the horrors his father had endured.
“Dad was always a strict disciplinarian, but never expressed any animosity,” Adrian Stroud said, a trait he finds remarkable.
Listening to his father and researching, Adrian Stroud has found the past two years’ task of writing his father’s story “monumental, both in the writing process and emotionally.” He persevered, he said, believing it is important for others to understand that part of history. “The veterans’ memories should be cherished,” said Adrian Stroud.
Kenneth Stroud recalled his first year in Singapore, after joining the RAF at age 20, as a happy time. Singapore seemed far from the war in Europe, occupying luxury suites of a commandeered skyscraper. “Some had fears about the Japanese coming, but nobody knew if or when,” he said. When his commanders ordered him one morning to grab his kit and get on a truck out of Singapore, he did not know it was the beginning of that string of “What’s next?” questions for the next three years.
“The men then sailed to Batavia through the Sunda Strait,” writes Adrian Stroud. “Next the men were told thing were ‘going sour’ and they were placed on American trucks. They traveled east through Java to a port town on the south coast; Tjilatjap.”
As the Japanese invasion moved in, the men found themselves warehoused, put on trucks, and into “stuffy cattle cars,” ultimately ambushed by Japanese sharpshooters.
“It’s hard to say when the real capture occurred,” Mr Stroud said, but it became clear to him when he and the others were herded into a large shed overseen by Japanese guards that he was no longer under the command of his RAF superiors. It from here on that the dark memories were formed, some so awful that he asked his son to not include details in the book.
Adrian Stroud bases his father’s story on many interviews, and devotes a portion of the 83-page book to his father’s diaries kept in the final days of the war.
The End Of The War
“One day, a Dutch interpreter came to see my dad and the others. He asked for anyone with a technical background to accompany him. My dad followed him into an office. There he saw a beautifully made radio set,” Adrian Stroud describes his father’s first brush with the knowledge of the war’s end. “He discovered there was nothing wrong with the set. He turned the volume up to make his adjustments. Whenever he did this, a guard would immediately turn the volume down.”
Convincing the interpreter and the guard that he could not fix the radio without the volume turned up, Mr Stroud heard shocking news. “The Americans had dropped some kind of special bomb on Japan. The end was near!”
August 18, 1945, Saturday: “Officer says last working party day of war, interpreter says end of war, still dubious.”
August 22, 1945, Wednesday: “Heard war was over on 16th but nothing official, told that Singapore didn’t give in until 2 days later.”
On October 19, 1945, a Friday, Kenneth Stroud makes his final entry into a diary that would remain hidden in a Tupperware container for 66 years. The entry chronicles his final journey from Birmingham in the West Midlands of England to Upwey in Weymouth, England, where he disembarked the train at 8:30 pm, “to see dear old Mum, Aunty & Mr Rogers waiting for me… Lots to talk about, inevitable speech on every topic imaginable, a dainty spread to delight the eye of any x POW & above all to find that little has altered since I left… Thus ends the diary of my journey back to life.”
Kenneth Stroud keeps in his possession a Japanese-issued Malayan 10-dollar bill signed by Lord Mountbatten and his wife, the Countess, on the day his ordeal as a POW ended. He holds dearly a letter of welcome, issued and signed by King George IV to returning POWs.
He has held close to his heart, for 68 years, the memories of a time when his only comfort was prayer and his only question was, “What’s next?”
With Prisoner of War Number 2378, Mr Stroud has unveiled a time and place that only a few remaining veterans can truly understand, but which will, the Strouds hope, unveil a piece of history to all.