Meet live-in customer Robert (Bob) Hucklesby, a former prisoner of war and activist for the welfare of ex-prisoners of war and their families. Here, Bob tells us his story of how he survived three and a half years of imprisonment and how he – as he reaches his 100th birthday in January 2021 – continues to honour his fallen comrades.
Prisoner of War
“In 1939, me and four of my mates could see that Hitler wasn’t going to give in, so we all joined the Royal Engineers as tradespeople. Days later, the war broke out; my friends and I were split up – except for one – and we continued to serve. I was soon taken as a Prisoner of War (POW) and stationed in Thailand where we worked on the Burma railway in the jungle.
None of us were given much food, and many of us were in poor condition. I was already suffering from dysentery and malaria, yet I worked for four days in the jungle until I was thought too ill because I couldn’t walk. I was taken down-country to the hospital and then, without realising it, I was then moved to a hut next door called the ‘Death Hut’. I had two mates, called ‘muckers’, who I worked with, and they came to see me when I was in the hut to say goodbye. That was when I realised how poor my condition was. I looked around me and there were 12 others who didn’t look well, so I asked my ‘muckers’ to go and bring me a back-stand made from bamboo so I could sit up through the night – because I knew that if I lay down, I wouldn’t get up again.
I was the only person to wake up the next morning, and I knew then I had an obligation to remember those who didn’t make it.
For another three years after this I just existed, surviving a number of tropical diseases and bouts of malaria, but I always got better – I had fortune.
On the morning of 28 August, we heard an airplane in the distance. All of a sudden, an RAF plane swooped over the camp, a man opened the side door and waved, and that’s when I knew I’d made it. I’d survived.
Post-war and rescue
“I was then taken to the HQ of the British Army in India, where I decided to wait until there was a hospital ship sailing from Bombay about three weeks later. In that time, I was looked after incredibly well, and that was the making of me.
After my body had recovered from my time in captivity, I was 24 years old with no trade or profession, so I moved to Rochdale to work with an old friend. Soon after I met my wife, and my marriage was a wonderful success; her parents bought us a confectionary shop and I later built the very house that I live in today.
Remembering the fallen
“Life has been good to me, but it was important to me that I contributed. I’ve been involved in the welfare of POWs since 1950, and in 2009 – when we handed over our welfare funds to the Royal British Legion for the exclusive use of POW and widows – l helped form the National Far East Prisoner of War Fellowship Welfare Remembrance Association and became its first president. Its membership included sons, daughters and widows of prisoners of war, and an objective was to provide welfare and continued comradeship that had been formed with their departed fathers. And as part of this comradeship, we all have a reunion twice a year – one in the north and one in the south.
We had money given to us from the Government and the International Red Cross, and we used to spend about £60,000 a year on helping people – widows mainly. In my eyes, that was very important.
I did all this because I wanted the world – or at least the British – to know that there were many left behind. I’ve done what I said I’d do, and made sure that those left behind weren’t forgotten, because I was lucky.
On November 18 – the anniversary of my return to Southampton on the hospital ship – the men of Southampton are going to lay a wreath on my behalf at the Southampton memorial – sadly I’m unable to go due to COVID-19.
Now, I’m just hoping that I reach my 100th birthday on 3 January.
“My experience with care began when I used to go for Sunday lunch to a local pub, and there was a person in there who was a carer for Helping Hands. He saw me coming in and being pushed to my seat in a wheelchair, so he approached me and said that if I ever wanted to stay overnight somewhere, he could come and help me.
I later reached out to him, but by that point he had left, and so I found the address for Helping Hands and got in touch. My live-in care manager, Katherine, came to see me and wrote down all my details, and she was very thorough in her approach which pleased me.
My current live-in carer Shephen and I get on very well. He really wants me to get better, and I tell you this, the quality of care at Helping Hands makes a difference. A few months ago, I couldn’t manage on my own, I fell over three times in three months, but now I keep improving. I’ve got to put that down to Shephen because he’s concentrated on trying to get me better, rather than just maintaining me.
Having care at home is so important to me because this is my home; I’ve lived here since I built it in 1959 and there’s a lot of me here. I do get frustrated that I can’t do things myself, but I see more people and I have more contact with my carer here.”