WWII veteran and Burma Thailand Railway survivor Cliff Lowien will return to Thailand today for the weekend’s Anzac service.
WWII veteran and Burma Thailand Railway survivor Cliff Lowien will return to Thailand today for the weekend’s Anzac service.

War memories revived

CAPTURED as a prisoner of war, surviving a typhoon and dodging bullets are just some of the stories Yamba man Cliff Lowien recalls from his war days.

Now aged 87, and still as fit as he was in the war days, Cliff modestly reflects on his five-year war stint.

After upping his age to 18 so he could enlist in the war, Cliff left the Clarence Valley for Dubbo where he trained before heading to Tamworth.

“You couldn’t enlist until you were 18 so I had to put my age up,” he said.

“I was a flag waver and I believed in fighting for Australia.”

After less than 12 months of training he was shipped to Singapore where he stayed until being forced to work on the Thai-Burma railway.

Captured as a prisoner of war (POW), Cliff was carted around by the Japanese and worked as a slaver labourer.

“After the surrender in 1942 I worked in the wharfs in Singapore handling cargo,” Cliff said.

“Then we were sent to Thailand where I worked on the railways for a year and a half.

“When that was over I was shipped to Japan to work on the coal mines.

“On the way to Japan the ship behind me sunk.

“One of the American submarines blew us up.

“We had to harbour in Manilla for a month before making a dash to Japan because the American submarines were active then.”

Thanking his lucky stars that he wasn’t on the other ship, where almost all on board lost their life, Cliff was faced with the thought of death all over again when a typhoon hit.

“On my way from Manilla to Japan we went through a typhoon and were lucky to survive that.”

The hard labour continued in the coal mines although Cliff admitted he didn’t mind as much as he was out of the firing line.

“The work was very strenuous and we were working a mile straight down, hauling coal up,” he said.

“Bombs went off while we were under and when we came up the war was at its end.”

Friendships formed and life lessons learnt along the way were the highlights, according to Cliff, but he said there were memories that would never leave him.

“When I had light duties a POW I was looking after some of the Japanese engineers and I use to have to take their meals out to them from the kitchen,” he said.

“I used to take a little bit of food out of each dixie – a dixie was what they had their food in – and I used to eat a little bit of each one so they didn’t know any was missing. Then I would spit in each dixie.”

Another stand out memory.

“When they (the Japanese) finished work they had 44 gallon drums, two of them, full of water and I used to have to keep the fires going so when they came home they would strip off and jump in the drums and soak in the nice, warm water,” Cliff said.

“A mate came over to help and I forgot to tell him exactly what to do and he made his fire really hot so when the Japs came they he hopped in and flew out as quick as he flew in, but my mate got a real flogging over that.”

After a long five years away from home, Cliff returned to the Valley and said he never doubted he wouldn’t.

“I remember my mate used to say – no matter what happens to you – I will drag you home,” he laughed.

“When I came back I decided to go back to school again and train as a civil engineer but I became ill and I spent six months in Grafton hospital suffering from tropical diseases.”

It wasn’t all bad for Cliff, who, from his hospital stay, met his lifelong partner, Kathy. From there the couple moved to Moree before returning to the Clarence where they made Yamba their home.

Being a life member of the Yamba Surf Life Saving Club, Cliff starts his morning with a gym workout and laps of Yamba’s main beach pool.

And keeping his fitness level up has paid off.

More than 12 years ago, Cliff and his wife returned home after a day out and were robbed at gunpoint.

“I came into the room and there was a guy robbing the place who pulled a Luger revolver out on me and I rushed at him and his arm jerked up and the bullet went off and blew half a brick out of the wall,” he recalled.

Today he will fly out of Sydney with his son and NSW Nationals Senator John Williams to return to the historic site of Hellfire Pass for the first since his involvement in the war.

After being denied an upgrade from economy to business class for the return flight to Thailand by the government, the NSW Returned Services League Club chipped in to make the trip more comfortable for the 87-year-old ex-POW. “No doubt Cliff will have a far more comfortable trip to Thailand this time than he had last time during World War II,” Senator Williams said.

Cliff said he is looking forward to attending the Anzac Day service but said he has mixed feeling about returning to the site.

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