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Book Review - LUCKY JOHNNY
The Footballer who survived the River Kwai Death Camps
Hodder & Stoughton hardback and e-book £20.00
This is a book that will make you realise that there are many more important things in life than football... and that includes life itself.
It is a story of a young man, born in Reading, one of eleven children and the son of a Reading publican who went on to fulfil his ambition and play professional football for his home Town club. A sports reporter from ’The Times’ newspaper even suggested that he might be ‘considered a strong prospect for the England team’
Johnny Sherwood, whose real name was Henry William but whose mother nicknamed him ‘Lucky Johnny’ because of his ability to get into and out of trouble, was born in September 1913.
On the day of his 26th birthday in September 1939, War was declared. As a consequence, and like many of his generation, he left his wife and newly born son, he enlisted and he joined the Royal Artillery.
In 2013, Johnny Sherwood’s grandson, Michael Doe, found a manuscript in his mother’s loft. It was a memoir written by his grandfather about his experiences in World War 2. The family knew he’d written it, but they thought it had been lost forever. Michael has made those memoirs into a book, ‘Lucky Johnny, and it was published on the 5th June.
In 1941 Johnny’s regiment was posted to the Middle East but after Pearl Harbour the regiment was diverted to Singapore. After a terrifying bombardment by the Japanese the British commander rapidly (and controversially) surrendered against Churchill’s strict orders to fight to the last man.
Interred in the notorious Changi prison in appalling conditions, he tried to raise the spirits of the men by creating a football pitch and organising matches but they became so malnourished and dehydrated that games eventually became impossible. Subject to horrific brutality at the hands of the guards, living in squalor and suffering from beri-beri , malaria and dysentery the men began dying at an appalling rate. Those who could walk were transported up country to the River Kwai to build the notorious ‘railway of death’.
In the camp, he recognised one of the Japanese guards as someone he’d played football against in Yokohama in 1938 on a world football tour. How had a man he remembered as being of the utmost grace and modesty turned into this sadistic monster beating a helpless soldier to death? After work on the railway was completed, the surviving men, just skin and bone, were shipped to Japan.
In September 1945, nine hundred POWs, many of them very sick and suffering from dysentery were crammed into the stinking holds of a Japanese freighter. On 13 September, ‘Lucky Johnny’ was on deck when a US submarine (unaware of the ship’s human cargo) torpedoed the vessel. Johnny leapt into the sea but about 800 other POWs drowned. A piece of drifting hatchwood saved his life and six other men.
Picked up by a Japanese cruiser they eventually arrived in Japan on 20 September 1944 where they were again imprisoned and put to work. By the early summer of 1945, American aircraft were on the attack and Johnny witnessed the bombing raids and the dropping of the atom bomb on Nagasaki which resulted in the Japanese surrender in August 1945. In September, still suffering the effects of severe malnutrition, Johnny began his journey home via America where he had to recuperate in order to be able to survive the journey to England.
Johnny finally arrived in Southampton in November 1945 where the whole family met him including 5 year old Philip, 4 year old Sandra who was meeting her father for the first time and his beloved Christine.
Johnny Sherwood’s extraordinary courage permeates this book. No matter how appalling the conditions, or the utter misery he felt at the brutality and inhumanity and loss of life, he never gave up and did everything in his power to keep other men alive and their spirits up. His compassion for his fellow man was exemplary, sharing every scrap of food and drop of water and encouraging them to persevere by giving them hope, sharing football stories to lift their spirits and helping them to draw on every last bit of strength in order to survive.
AFTER THE WAR
After his return Johnny was plagued with nightmares. When he finished this memoir, which he completed in 1984, the nightmares became less frequent. By this time he had two married daughters, and a son, six grandchildren and his adored mother still alive at 98 and his brothers and sisters. His wife Christine sadly died of lung cancer in 1978.
In a postscript to the book, Johnny’s daughter Sandra Doe says that shortly after she was born her mother received a telegram saying that her father was missing in action, but it was two to three years before her mother was told that he was a prisoner of the Japanese. Reading F.C. gave Johnny back his place in the team, although the effects of captivity on his health meant that he was only able to play in some of their matches. He went on to play for Aldershot and then for Crystal Palace and helped his mother to run the pub.
Johnny died at the age of 72 in 1985.
03 June 2014
04 April 2019