The commando who didn’t know the war was over
Twelve days after World War II ended, RCN Lieutenant Ian Alcock was still dodging the patrols of a defeated enemy in the reeking Malayan jungle. By a near-miracle of endurance, he survived to tell this true story
IN JUNE, 1945, the United States prepared to Iand two million men on the Japanese mainland; commonwealth armies in Southeast Asia Command had allowed for nearly half a million casualties in sweeping the Japanese from the lands they had conquered. Next step in the planning for the defeat of Japan was the invasion of Malaya and the liberation of Singapore. An eight-man commando reconnaissance unit was landed on June 8 on the southwestern coast of Malaya to scout the proposed invasion beaches for mine fields and underwater obstacles. Four men failed to return—among them Lieutenant Ian Ernest Alcock, a 30-year-old Canadian naval officer from Victoria, B.C.
Ian Alcock lay half-submerged at the edge of a swamp. He had been late the night before in reaching a rendezvous with the submarine Scadog and had been left behind with a British sailor, Able Seaman Harry Turner, on an enemy-held beach.
He hoped to escape into the jungle to seek protection from Chinese Malay guerrillas. The jungle lay on the other side of the main coast road, two hundred yards away across a saltwater swamp. It was thick with reeds and slimy undergrowth,
too difficult to cross in daylight when the splashing might be heard by enemy sentries or patrols.
While the heat baked mud and slime on their camouflage uniforms, Alcock took stock of their position. They carried two pistols and thirty rounds of ammunition, commando knives, a compass, enough concentrated food for three days, a flask of rum, a Chinese “pointee-talkee” dictionary and a few hundred Malay dollars.
It was little enough to sustain two sailors in unfamiliar jungles inhabited by Malays of uncertain loyalty, Chinese guerrillas of dubious integrity and, of course, the Imperial Japanese Army.
The war in Europe was over, but as far as Alcock knew the Far Eastern conflict might continue more than a year. He had no way of knowing that while he fought back depression at the shallow edge of the swamp, Churchill, Truman and Stalin were planning their historic meeting in Potsdam, which was to set the stage for the war’s last act.
At nightfall on June 9, Alcock roused Turner and they began struggling through the deep slime of the swamp. Heavy rains drowned the noise of their thrashing arms and legs. They
reached the main road, crossed it CONTINUED ON PAGE 85
The commando who didn’t know the war was over
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The Chinese guerillas told Alcock and Turner there was a price on their heads — dead or alive
under cover of a squall, entered the jungle — and stumbled into the centre of a Japanese encampment.
Running carefully, they made their way between the huts. Windows were open and they could see and hear the Japanese inside. Then they were through and into the jungle. Alcock began to breathe more easily; once before, on a commando mission, his unit had been trapped and he had been among the only four to survive. He knew the enemy gave no mercy to commandos.
At dawn, as they emerged from the undergrowth into a plantation clearing, they were sighted by a group of Chinese Malays. By fortunate coincidence it was a band of guerrillas of the Anti-Japanese Force, official name for the Malayan resistance movement.
Alcock did not realize how he and Turner must have looked to the Chinese. Both were covered from head to foot in moist slime. But even this could not hide their light-blue eyes and Alcock's shock of flaming-red hair, which, more than anything else, convinced the Chinese of their identities.
They were taken to the guerrilla camp, given food and cigarettes rolled from homegrow'n tobacco in torn sheets of a 1939 issue of the Singapore Times. During the morning an officer arrived who could speak a few English words. They learned from him that the Japanese had discovered the collapsible canvas canoe they had hastily buried on the beach and had posted a reward of a hundred thousand Malay dollars for their capture, dead or alive.
The officer explained it was too dangerous for them to remain in the neighborhood. They were to be taken to AntiJapanese Force headquarters about thirty miles away along the coast road. But first they were to blacken their faces, arms and legs, wear straw hats, and exchange their uniforms for native clothes. Alcock and Turner were only too ready to rid themselves of their stinking camouflage suits and that night they set off on bicycles for the AJF headquarters.
Thirty-six hours later they arrived at a village w'hich Alcock assumed to be the headquarters. After being questioned by another officer he requested use of radio facilities to inform South East Asia Command of his plight. “How are you going to send it?" asked the officer.
“If this is your headquarters surely you have a wireless set,” replied Alcock.
“No," said the Chinese, "this is not headquarters and there is no wireless set here. Headquarters is seven miles away.”
Accompanied by an AJF guide they set off again, on foot this time. Two more days passed during which they were handed over from one guide to another. The last of these pointed to the American flag in Alcock's “pointee-talkee” and held up two fingers. From this gesture. Alcock understood they were being taken to two Americans.
When they eventually arrived at another village the two “Americans” provided a startling surprise. They were two more members of Alcock's original commando unit, who had also failed to rendezvous with the submarine Seadog — Sub-Lieutenant Allan Hood and Able Seaman Arthur Sowter, both Englishmen. They had been found by an Englishspeaking AJF officer called Ching Lee.
He had delivered them to the camp and then departed.
In his report of the ordeal that was just beginning. Alcock later wrote: "I was glad to see them safe but could not help thinking what a hell of an operation this
had turned out to be. And someone had named it “Operation Confidence.”
Hood and Sowter looked worn and sick. The reason, apart from their own efforts to escape the attention of the Japanese, was close by. The AJF had
captured a spy who was being persuaded to talk. He was lying bound on the ground while a group of Chinese poked him with burning logs. As he rolled away from one tormenter, he would be poked in the eyes or the mouth by another.
The “friendly guerillas ” wouldn’t stop torturing the spy; then, helpless, Alcock saw him beheaded
The man’s screams, the sight of burning flesh and the degradation of such inhuman treatment made Alcock sick. He turned to the Chinese who seemed to be in charge and demanded with angry gestures that the torture be stopped. Instead, the guerrilla captain suggested that the four Europeans should take part in the general amusement.
Revolted by the spectacle, Alcock led his companions to a remote corner of the village. But they were not to be spared the final act of the drama. The Chinese officer called out and they looked towards him just as an executioner cut off the spy’s head with an axe.
Several days later, Ching l.ee, who had found Hood and Sowter, returned to the camp with news that they were to be taken to headquarters. Alcock was beginning to believe that no such headquarters existed, so on June 21 he was surprised when Ching Lee summoned him to a jungle clearing two miles away where six Chinese officers were waiting.
T heir senior officer apologized for the delay in taking the four commandos out of the jungle and undertook to inform SEAC by radio of their safety.
“Then he came to the point,” said Alcock in his report, “by asking me to sign another signal to SEAC asking for arms and ammunition to be dropped to the AJF by parachute. He had ten thousand men he could arm but only had enough weapons for a few hundred. If I would do this the AJF would carry out any instructions under me that I might receive from SEAC.”
Alcock’s position was difficult. He was neither authorized nor equipped to form private armies, yet he dared not risk antagonizing the guerrillas, who represented his only hope of escape. He agreed and next day he composed another signal which read:
“The Anti-Japanese Force is anxious to play its part in driving the Japanese out of Malaya. To do this small arms and ammunition are urgently needed by them. Could arms and ammunition be dropped by aircraft in following position on these suggested dates ...”
Alcock was unimpressed by the readiness of the guerrillas to accept him as their commander. He wanted to get out of Malaya quickly and with the least complication. It seemed simpler to go along with them than argue. In this way he became the reluctant and titular commander of an army of ten thousand.
On June 22 the Japanese surrendered Okinawa; Australian troops occupied the island of Sarawak. The Japanese etnpireby-conquest was being throttled. In Alcock’s world of limitless moist jungle there was only futility, frustration and fever.
The guerrillas had caught three spies, one a woman. Alcock pleaded with the camp leader that if guilty they should be mercifully shot and not subjected to torture. Before the argument could be settled news arrived of an approaching Japanese patrol. The guerrillas broke camp and headed into the jungle where they waited until the enemy was only a thousand yards away before deciding it would be wise to escape deeper into the jungle.
Before Alcock could intervene, a volunteer executioner lopped off the heads of the three spies. Their bodies were left in the undergrowth while the party set
off through the jungle. It was the brutality of the middle ages projected into a strange, eerie world in which Alcock felt he had no place. He began to fear for the safety of his own commandos at the hands of Chinese who took life with the impersonal efficiency of Madame Guillotine.
The forced march lasted for nine days. Hood, Sowter and Turner were suffering from jungle sores which started on the feet and spread up the legs until the flesh fell away and exposed the bones. Alcock himself was fighting recurring bouts of fever.
Their diet was sickening — swamp catfish cooked with rice. Rest periods were almost totally occupied with ridding their bodies of the leeches which attached themselves to exposed arms and legs each time the men crossed a swamp.
On July 10 they arrived at another village which proved again to be not a headquarters but a guerrilla hide-out. Alcock was beginning to be convinced that the Chinese had no intention of leading them out of the jungle; nor had he any idea of what had happened to his titular rank of commander of the guerrilla army, or whether arms had been dropped in response to his signal. He considered making an independent escape from Malaya, the Japanese enemy and the unnerving Chinese ally.
In Ottawa, Lieutenant Ian Ernest Alcock, Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve, was officially posted as “missing in action.” In England, the London Gazette announced the award of the Distinguished Service Cross to Alcock for his part in secret operations against the enemy in Burma and Malaya.
The four commandos rested in the jungle guerrilla hide-out for a week. They had no idea where they were and could not have continued marching anyway. Hood, Sowter and Turner suffered from agonizing running sores on their feet and legs; Alcock’s sores were not so bad but his bouts of fever were becoming worse.
On July 17, while the leaders of Britain. the United States and Russia met at Potsdam, another conference was held in the Malayan jungle. Ching Lee, the English-speaking Chinese officer, had arrived with news for Alcock. His signals had been radioed out and the arms drop had been made. Unfortunately, continued Ching Lee cheerfully, the Japanese had occupied the drop position several days before and had captured the arms.
He added as an afterthought that the four commandos were to be taken to AJF headquarters at Negri Sembilan, thirty miles to the south, or three days’ travel. They were to leave that night with a guide who would hand them on to other guides during the journey.
It was a journey that Alcock came to believe he would never finish alive.
By dawn, Sowter’s feet had developed into a malignant pulp. At dusk, they entered a swamp which their guide said would take two hours to cross. They struggled through it all night and Sowter’s sores left shredded trails of skin, exposing his shin bones. Alcock became worried about the sailor’s ability to stand much more traveling. His feet and legs were black with swamp leeches and he groaned at every step.
On the third day they reached a Chinese settlement and their guide left them to rest while he went ahead, osten-
sibly to warn Sembilan headquarters of their condition. It was the last they saw of him.
They waited in the fever-ridden settlement all day, battling clouds of vicious mosquitos. Sowter and Hood could not travel much farther; Turner was weakening rapidly. Although on June 14 headquarters had been allegedly only seven miles away, it was now July 28 and they were still lost in the jungle.
Alcock questioned the Chinese families in the settlement and became even more concerned when it seemed that instead of traveling south to Negri Sembilan, they had been heading steadily north for three days.
Another guide arrived to take them on the next stage of their journey. Alcock, knowing that his companions could move only in pain and in the hope of eventual medical attention, kept his fears to himself.
On July 26, the Allies demanded the immediate unconditional surrender of the armed forces of Japan. The terms of the ultimatum were rejected by the Japanese and on August 6 the first A-bomb fell on Hiroshima.
The four desperate commandos knew nothing of the new age that had dawned beyond the shores of Malaya. For them the world consisted solely of impenetrable jungle, leechand lice - ridden swamps and fever-carrying mosquitos. By August 6, Sowter could no longer walk; yet. with assistance from the others, he managed to crawl to a small farmhouse which they reached on the ninth day. The march had drained them of precious strength. They suffered from infection, starvation, fever and exhaustion.
Next day a group of AJF guerrillas stopped at the farm for supplies. They were en route to a unit at Kajang where, they said, there were medical supplies. After some argument they refused to let Alcock, Turner and Hood accompany them, but agreed to take Sowter along on a stretcher. They told Alcock that British advance headquarters in Malaya lay only six hours away to the west through jungle swarming with Japanese who were killing and burning as they retreated.
Later that day another guide arrived and they set out painfully into the jungle again.
At dusk on August 8 they stumbled into the so-called “British headquarters” — an old wooden house in which 20 Chinese families were hiding. Alcock wrote bitterly in his report:
“I asked our guide if this was what he meant by headquarters. I had given up the whole thing as hopeless. A Jap patrol was in the vicinty and the Chinese wanted us to leave. The guide went off saying he would return that night, but that was the last we saw of him.”
Another guide, found among the Chinese in the old house, offered to take them to British headquarters which, he said, was three days away. At the end of the first day, Hood was falling down every few yards. The guide said they would reach a native Malay settlement within half an hour, so Turner lifted Hood on his back and carried him for the last few miles.
Will power alone had kept them going. When they arrived in the settlement, they collapsed into comas brought on by fierce attacks of malaria. Next day, Alcock recovered sufficiently to realize that Hood and Turner could go no farther. Reluctantly, he left them in the care of a native doctor and went on with yet another guide.
It was August 14.
The second A-bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki, on August 9. Next day the Japanese Government accepted the Allied ultimatum calling for unconditional surrender. The end of the war was announced throughout the world on August 14. In Malaya, the Japanese were ordered to police the country until the arrival of Allied troops. The Chinese guerrillas continued fighting.
“I cannot go into the details of what took place during the next fourteen days,” Alcock wrote later. “The trip was
hard and I was in high and low jungle the whole time. After five days I had fever and we were lost for two days in a swamp. On August 18 some Sakai natives told us a big fight was going on two miles ahead between the Japanese and AJF guerrillas. My guide and myself both had fever and we were without food for two days.
“By August 20 I had given up and had decided to live out the rest of the war with the Sakai natives upriver. I was most unwell and beginning to wonder how long I could hang on.”
Two more days passed. Then the guide left Alcock to search for food. The Canadian, uncertain now of survival, gave him a letter to be handed to any AJF officer for transmission to Allied authorities. Then he lay down alone in the jungle to conserve his strength for what lay ahead. He did not expect his letter to reach anyone in time to be of help; nor did he expect to see his guide again.
For a few hours he clung desperately to a slender thread of hope and sanity; then his breakdown, brought on by his solitary desperation, w>as complete. For
a further day he was wracked by bouts of fever and the skin fell from his legs and feet, now almost completely consumed by jungle sores.
He could not know the war had ended nearly a week before. He was frightened to come out of hiding in case of discovery by Japanese patrols; yet he was equally alarmed at the thought that if he stayed hidden he might never be found.
He was found — by a single Chinese guerrilla soldier who stumbled over his prostrate body. Renewed hope gave Alcock the strength to try making the soldier understand that he needed a guide. When he succeeded, they set olf to the north, crossing rivers, roads and valleys, and passing through burned villages where charred bodies were evidence of a
last orgy of brutality by the Japanese.
On August 29, the third evening of the march, Alcock could barely see through blurred pain-filled eyes; he walked automatically, not knowing and not caring where he was going. He was unable to understand the meaning of the strong arms that suddenly lifted him from his feet and carried him into a tent. He lapsed into unconsciousness, unaware that he had reached British lines — that this long ordeal was at an end after eighty-two days in a hostile wilderness. In Canada his wife. Beatrice, got the joyful news that he was alive.
When he emerged from his stupor ten hours later a British doctor told him the war was over, that for the last two weeks he had been hiding from a defeated enemy. But Alcock was more concerned
about Hood, Sowter and Turner. He explained where they were and orders were sent to the Japanese to return them to British hands. Within two days the four commandos were reunited in hospital. Alcock recovered sufficiently by November to be sent home.
Alcock now lives in South Burnaby, B.C., with his wife and son, Philip Vian, now twelve. His son is named after the British admiral Sir Philip Vian, who captured the notorious German prison ship. Altmark, and under whom Alcock served.
Alcock, who works for a real-estate firm in Vancouver, says he would try to join the navy again if war broke out.
“I would go straight back into the commandos and Combined Operations,” he says. ”1 loved it.” ^