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Authors: Brian Devereux

Escape to Pagan

BOOK: Escape to Pagan
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Escape to Pagan
Brian Devereux

John Michael Devereux

Army no: 6284273

Sergeant 1st Battalion Royal Scots

RSM 2nd Battalion Royal Scots

Born 1912, Haslingden, Lancashire

Died 1962, Uxbridge, Middlesex


Foreword by Kim von Heintze

Map of Burma

Chapter 1 – The Temple Bells of Pagan

Chapter 2 – Golden Hill

Chapter 3 – The Telegram

Chapter 4 – The Perfumed Harbour

Chapter 5 – The Train Station

Chapter 6 – The Lotus Eaters

Chapter 7 – An Evil Spirit

Chapter 8 – The Attack

Chapter 9 – Wild Dogs in the Moonlight

Chapter 10 – Sham Shui Po POW Camp

Chapter 11 – A Ghost Town

Chapter 12 – The
Lisbon Maru

Chapter 13 – The Toddy Drinkers

Chapter 14 – The
's Second War Patrol

Chapter 15 – Caught by Surprise

Chapter 16 – The
Lisbon Maru
is Attacked

Chapter 17 – Mango Showers

Chapter 18 – Pongyis

Chapter 19 – The
Lisbon Maru

Chapter 20 – Journey to Tada u

Chapter 21 – The Cherry Blossom Islands

Chapter 22 – Typhoid and Cholera

Chapter 23 – The Lost Japanese Patrol

Chapter 24 – Froggy Comes a-Courting

Chapter 25 – Winter's Bite

Chapter 26 – Liberation

Chapter 27 – Bed Bugs

Chapter 28 – The RSM Returns


denotes a change in narration between Brian Devereux and his mother Kate.


I was very pleased when Dad decided to put down on paper our family's history. My grandma Kathleen Devereux was a great storyteller managing to narrate her past in a special way thus lightening even the saddest and most awful events. Many of the stories she had heard from my grandad, RSM Jack Devereux who rarely discussed his war experiences except with his ex-comrades and Jim Durant, my maternal grandmother Eileen's husband. Jim also served in Burma. It is this fortitude and strength of spirit that are a testament to all the men and women of that generation, which somehow enabled them to endure the life changing circumstances of the War in the Far East.

My great grandmother Harriet was also an exceptional woman and was key to their survival throughout their dangerous journey to evade captivity during the occupation of Burma. Grandad spent a lot of time with his grandchildren and gave us “… much chocolate … !” Sadly, he died when we were very young. Grandma was a devout catholic and I feel it was her unswerving faith that helped her through the difficult war years and enabled her to forgive her captors. She loved her whisky and her love of animals was also renowned as was her particular attention to personal hygiene which extended to daily showers for poor ‘Chummy', the family dog.

When I think of grandma I recall the beautiful scent of roses which were her pride and joy. She had an exquisite smile that warmed you instantly and first and foremost she saw the good in everyone. She loved her children, their families and her grandchildren with all her heart. She touched our lives with her kindness.

Kim von Heintze

A map of Burma and surrounding territories. A potential location for Tada-u, determined from research undertaken by the publisher, is indicated.


The Temple Bells of Pagan


To my dear departed Mother

After an infinite time I met my dear Mother; she looked as I first remembered, young and nimble, smiling always caring
“Son – how old and tired you seem,”
she said, as if surprised Yes Mother, the years have been unkind, unjust – unsparing
“Never mind Son,”
she answered – as if in her distant dreams She gently stroked my old grey head,
“soon – you will be my Little boy again – I will chase you laughing – like I used to As on baby legs you ran while I delighted in your joyful screams.”
Forgive me my dearest Mother, I wish I had been a better son.

At the beginning of her story Mother would always pause, narrowing her eyes as if protecting them from a burning Burmese sun while she scanned some dusty, jungle fringed bullock track. Maybe she was searching for the first front-line Nipponese soldiers we were suddenly confronted with all those years ago. The Japanese soldiers' sudden appearance shocked both mother and daughter, yet they found themselves strangely curious; the fast approaching warriors looked medieval. Perhaps in her distant mind's eye she was peering into a remote stilted Burmese village surrounded by tall graceful palms and sheltered in the dapple-shade of mango trees. She may have been
looking for the red face of her mother in the colourful milling crowd of villagers, or her young child running naked, laughing with the village children. Perhaps Mother was searching for a fleeting glimpse of her tall, handsome young husband looking dashing in his Glengarry and tartan trews on their wedding day.

I would wait while Mother searched for a particular indelible memory of her past. All she had to do was find the correct location and the correct bookmark. Only then would she smile and begin.

Meeting the enemy for the first time was one of her favourite stories, for now the terror of that moment has faded with the passing years. I would always listen, even though I had heard the story many times since the age of seven, for the re-telling gave Mother pleasure. I was the only one left, the only one there. Once the images and locations were established, her flow of words would increase. When in full flow she did not like me interrupting.

“How do you spell the name of that village, Mum? What direction were we travelling?” I would ask. Mother would stop and give me one of her long looks, regardless of my age.

“Do you want to learn the story of our survival, our hardships, or how to spell the names of Burmese villages? I just followed my mother. There were too many other worries: your father, escaping, the dangerous wild animals, poisonous snakes and you. You kept running away.

“At night we were vulnerable. Human corpses lay everywhere; many bodies had been half eaten by wild animals. Lying on the ground at night was tempting providence. I was also terrified of dangerous snakes as they killed so many people in Burma. As the sun sank below the horizon jackals began calling. Their eerie calls always frightened me. These were the things I was concerned with not the spelling of Burmese villages, now stop interrupting me!”

The warriors of Dai Nippon swept away all before them like an unstoppable Asiatic tsunami. Unlike the Mongol invasion centuries past, these warriors came from the east, out of the rising sun, from islands scattered like a handful of pearls in the cold waters of the East China Sea.

Looking back as an adult, I can now describe these images that I witnessed as a child, images that impressed my receptive young romantic mind; the Japanese were the first soldiers I had ever seen. Each Nipponese soldier was loaded down like a pack-animal, their faces contorted by the pain of their burdens. They marched at a desperate speed with their Havelock's bouncing on their shoulders like ancient chain-mail. They marched with their overlong bayonets exposed, blades that stabbed upwards to a cloudless sky, a sky dominated only by their Sun Goddess Amaterasu-o-mikami; a goddess that had smiled down favourably on her warrior sons as reward for worshipping her image and emblazoning it on their national flags and also for revering a close relative of hers; their Emperor, a son of heaven. These fighting men on the march gave the impression that they had come from another bygone age or perhaps even another distant planet.

Without my dear, wise, matriarchal grandmother, my mother and I would not have survived the many attending dangers of the jungle. Serious diseases, parasitic infestations and snakebite, were only some of the dangers we faced. This is the true story of our survival that took place in that far off land of green-domed pagodas now called Myanmar.

The dreaded meeting

In the distant shimmering heat haze stands the mystic spectacle of Pagan, a city of a thousand ornate red and white green domed pagodas. Temples devoutly built by the placid hands of Buddhists centuries long past, long forgotten. Pagan now stands lonely surrounded by wildness on the burning red ochre plains of central Burma.

When the shadows of the pagodas lengthen, a balmy wild jasmine fragrant breeze blows in from the far off purple tinged mountains. This
scented zephyr seems to whisper ancient secrets to the thousands of small temple bells that hang idly during the still heat of the day. The lazy temple bells slowly begin to stir and tinkle tranquil sutras to their many listening Buddhas that guard each pagoda.

This ancient city of Buddhist temples is now surrounded by wilderness. On still moonlit nights only the solitary hamadryad and skulking hyena wander there cautiously, for Pagan (it is said) is a place where spirits still linger.

The once prosperous British Devereux family, Kate, her mother Harriet and young son were now destitute, making their way towards Pagan alone. At night as they slept on the ground, they shivered with cold and fear of attack by wild animals. It was somewhere near Pagan that the first dreaded encounter with the invaders occurred.

“We were walking along a lonely cactus and prickly-pear bordered bullock track that had been previously used by the retreating and ravenous Chinese Army; we could tell this by the litter they had dropped. Our slow exhausted steps were watched with hostile intent by the white-bleached skulls of village dogs that littered the ashes at the side of the track. Each skull had been picked clean by eager chopsticks. My mother said the starving Chinese soldiers favoured dog flesh above pork to fill their shrunken stomachs, for dog flesh is red and contains no rich fat.

“We feared the Chinese soldiers and Burmese dacoits only second to the Japanese. Pagan was my mother's intended destination of our escape. She decided we would be safer in the less populated rural countryside away from the Japanese Air Force. At one point, she wanted to reach some villages on the other side of Pagan. Mother believed we could get food in these villages and hide in one of the pagodas. My brother Harry Talbot used to camp near these villages while out hunting and knew the headmen. He always helped when a predator became a danger to livestock or the villagers; he also gave them the excess meat. Harry was a well known sportsman in Burma and popular with the Buddhist pongee monks who supported the football team he played for
[it was Mandalay or Rangoon].
My mother believed the
headmen of these villages would help with food and shelter without betraying us. The invaders called themselves ‘The Warrior Gods of Dai Nippon' in their propaganda pamphlets, dropped by their shiny silver planes. We had secrets to hide from a suspicious and paranoid race who dealt harshly with suspected spies. Jack and my brother Harry Talbot were both in the British Army.

“My mother and I were now exhausted and so thirsty; we also had you to care for. We had now been walking for many days and nights, sleeping in the open. I hated the eerie calls of the jackals as they heralded the night. My mother always chose the site where we bedded down before the sun disappeared below the horizon. She knew the safest places least likely to be visited by venomous snakes, but we were never really safe. We always placed a waterproof sheet on the ground first then a blanket to lie on and one to cover us. Despite the heat of the day, the nights were so cold. You slept between us for safety; we had heard many stories of wild animals running off with children in rural Burma.

“Occasionally we could hear the distant sawing call of a leopard, sometimes the alarm calls of barking deer that terrified me and kept me awake, particularly if their calls seemed to be coming closer; we had no walls to protect us. After an hour of total darkness, the moon and the stars appeared. To reassure me, Mother always told me that dangerous wild animals would be frightened off by the noise of the fighting and bombing. I did not believe her: something was eating the dead. At night I just stared into the shadows of the jungle that surrounded our hard earthen bed. Cold dawn always took an eternity to appear.

“On our way to Pagan, we could hear sounds of heavy fighting and see plumes of smoke rising behind us
[possibly the oilfields].
It was on this bullock track that we would soon encounter a column of Japanese soldiers. This unexpected meeting came as a terrible shock to my mother and me. China was just over the border from our new home in Taunggyi; we had heard news of the atrocities at Nanking. We were also afraid that copies of my marriage certificate were still in the town hall at Taunggyi. The Japanese were convinced that the British had left spies behind. To be suspected of spying meant torture and death by the Kempeitai.

“It was now April. This was the hottest time of the year in Burma. On that particular day, we were very thirsty and tired. We needed to find water and shade to rest. When your mouth and throat are parched there is no hunger, you cannot swallow, and fear and trauma adds to your thirst. All you have is an overwhelming desire for any kind of liquid. Before rounding a bend in the bullock track, both my mother and I as if by instinct, turned around and were shocked to see a column of marching Japanese soldiers behind us. I could feel my heart pounding. We just stood there rooted to the spot, watching them closing the distance. Even though we were terrified, we were also strangely curious. These soldiers looked so primitive and untidy. As they approached, we could hear them all making a soft grunting sound; they seemed to be chanting a single repeated word. We stood aside; Mother could speak Nippon Go but decided not to communicate. ‘Stay calm, Kate, and keep your mouth shut,' whispered my mother. ‘Don't you dare start bawling – they are unpredictable when their blood is hot.' She said this just before the column of Japanese troops approached us. They looked so intimidating with their long fixed bayonets. They were marching so quickly, hardly making a sound in the dust. We just stood still; my heart was pounding as I held your hand.

“They were led by an officer riding a Shan pony. The faces of the troops were screwed up with fatigue, their uniforms covered in red dust; some soldiers were pulling a kind of big gun. One of the Japs marching in front held the red and white sun flag of Japan aloft. The officer on the horse studied us without expression. The marching soldiers paid us little attention. Each Japanese soldier was loaded down with equipment; they carried big packs on their backs, packs festooned with leaves and grass, they looked so different from our own British troops. We wondered how soldiers that looked medieval and had to pull their own guns could have beaten the proud British Army so quickly. After the Japanese troops had passed us, we noticed strange cloven-hoof foot prints in the red dust and a slight fragrant smell.”

BOOK: Escape to Pagan
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