Posts Tagged ‘POW Escape’

First Allied POW escape from Singapore in 1942

August 26, 2010

“3000 Miles to Freedom” by Brig. M. M Pillai M.C.

My father died in 1988 leaving a manuscript of his escape from Singapore and his return to India after the fall of Singapore in 1942. He would have been 99 on 11th August this year.

He was the first Allied prisoner of war to escape from Changi and return to India. He used to tell us that he had travelled a thousand miles on foot, a thousand miles by boat and a thousand miles by train to make his journey of 3000 miles to freedom. In 1968 he tried to get a copy of his official debriefing report from the War Office in London to cross-check his manuscript written from memory long after the event. But he found that the report had been classified to be held secret for 50 years.

In early 2000 I found that a copy of the official report was available in the Singapore War Archives. The report had been circulated to all the Allied Armies and the Australian copy had found its way into the Singapore Archives sometime after 1992 when the material was declassified. Apparently the 50 year classification was because the report contained not only the names of people who had helped him along the way but also the names of people he felt were Japanese collaborators.

Mark Pillai as a Captain circa 1950

He was accompanied by two others; one of whom ( a medical officer) decided to settle along the way. The second was a civilian friend S. Radhakrishnan. To avoid the unneccessary hassle of getting a civilian back through Allied lines they invented the story of the “Singapore Volunteers” and passed Radhakrishnan off as an officer in this fictitious regiment. The subterfuge served to get through the Allied check-posts and later Radhakrishnan was properly commissioned into the Indian Army.

For about 6 months after his return my father had a “minder” – a brother officer from a different regiment but who came from his part of the country in Southern India – to ensure that my father’s escape was not a ruse to establish a  “sleeping” collaborator. (link updated 25th August 2013 since the original link to the National Archives of Singapore was outdated).

Australian War Memorial, Series AWM 54 Item 779/10/4, “Escape narrative of Lieut M M Pillai, Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners, and Lieut V Radhakrishnan, Singapore Volunteers – Appendix: Treatment of Civilians and Atrocities”, p.33, CD No. D2006100078.

Eventually the manuscript was checked and a publisher ( Lancer Military Publications) interested enough in an old Second World War escape story was found.

Three Thousand Miles to Freedom

This is a an escape story. It is the story of escape from a Japanese Prisoner of War camp in Singapore to India across coastal waters and Malayan and Burmese jungles.

Capt Mark Pillai was a Bombay Sapper officer in Malaya when Singapore fell and the Allies surrendered. This is the story of his escape from the Changi POW camp in 1942. He was 31 years old at the time and he was accompanied by an Indian medical officer and an Indian civilian acquaintance.

It is an inspirational story of escape. Escape stories frequently tend to chronologically list events without adequately conveying the fears and apprehension or the anxiety and the hardships that soldiers endure, nor the will and inspiration they galvanise in doing so. This is a compelling story, simply told, which brings to life the meaning of escape from captivity in enemy territory in an age long gone.

It is a story of understated bravery and gallantry, where three Indians made a daily tryst with destiny over a protracted period of time, attempting as it were to do their duty as they saw it, in an effort to live to fight another day when both the big picture and the tactical situation seemed hopeless.

It is a story of hope which reveals the stubborn spirit of humanity and courage that epitomizes good soldiers anywhere when they turn adversity into opportunity and inspire others to do the same.

Mark Pillai was awarded the Military Cross by Field Marshal Archibald Wavell for his gallantry.


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