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Former prisoner of war celebrates his 100th birthday in Lowestoft

PUBLISHED: 11:00 29 March 2015

Ben Howlett was in a prison camp on the River Kwai during the second world war.

Ben Howlett was in a prison camp on the River Kwai during the second world war.

A former prisoner of war who was captured by the Japanese military for three-and-a-half years has spoken about his remarkable journey in life - made all the more special as he celebrated his 100th birthday.

Ben Howlett has celebrated his 100th birthday. Pictures: Nick ButcherBen Howlett has celebrated his 100th birthday. Pictures: Nick Butcher

Ben Howlett, who celebrated the anniversary on Monday (March 23), grew up in Blackheath Road and was one of 13 children - 11 boys and two girls.

He is now the last remaining sibling but has fond memories of attending school in Morton Road, playing football for the Lowestoft schoolboys and working on the old golf course, near his current home on Long Road.

Mr Howlett met his future wife Joan on the Lowestoft seafront in 1938.

After forming a loving partnership, the couple married at St John’s Church in Kirkley two years later.

However, just a week after his special day, Mr Howlett was conscripted to represent the Royal Norfolk Regiment in the Second World War and was sent by boat to Singapore, via South Africa and India.

After an arduous ordeal, Mr Howlett was among 50,000 troops taken prisoner by the Japanese when the British troops surrendered in Singapore.

They were later transported to the jungles of northern Thailand and forced to build the Thailand-Burma Railway.

Mr Howlett endured searing heat, near starvation, hard physical labour and routine beatings before being freed at the end of the war in 1945.

“We were prisoners of war for three-and-a-half years in the jungle, not hearing any news and it was awful. My wife thought I was dead,” Mr Howlett said.

“Every day was the same - building a railway through the jungle in the monsoon season and eating a small amount of rice for each meal. I would often come back and my bed would be underwater and I remember that men were dying off like flies.”

Mr Howlett also described how he was at the camp with his friend Cyril Doy, from Southwold, who was called up with him on the same day. He described how a lot of his friends had died until they finally received some good news.

“We were working at a camp on the Burma border and one day we got up and go to work and they said no work today.

“We thought they had gone mad because it had never happened before.

“The next day a goods train took us to a village, where about 300 of the locals came out and said we were free.

“A Roman Catholic chap said: ‘It has all finished, a big bomb has been dropped, you can go home now.’

“That’s when we first knew the atom bomb had been dropped.”

Mr Howlett sailed home from Rangoon to Liverpool and he described how he was “over the moon to be coming back”.

Upon his return, Mr Howlett bought his house on Long Road for £425 and has lived there since 1946.

He worked in a range of jobs until he retired in 1988 including a lot of time at Brooke Marine Shipyard, which Mr Howlett claims was “good work and good money for that time”.

He was married to Joan for 54 years until she died in 1996. They had two children - Gill and Michael. He also has four grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren.

Mr Howlett also said the key to his long life was that he “had never been a smoker or a big drinker”.

“I had a lovely day celebrating with my family and I have had so many cards.”

Do you know someone who is celebrating a special aniversary? Tell The Journal by calling 01502 525825 or email lowstoft.journal@archant.co.uk

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