'Len Gibson' – Celebrating Sunderland by Marie Gardiner
Len Gibson - a celebrating Sunderland story.
Entertaining was in Len Gibson's blood. It was this and his love of Sunderland that would get him through one of the toughest times of his life.
From the age of 10 Len learned to play the banjo and was part of Bishopwearmouth Church Choir. As an adult, when he volunteered to be in the Territorial Army and when he was called up to serve as a soldier in the Second World War, he took his banjo with him, performing all over Britain, Canada, South Africa, and India.
Len’s regiment – the 125 Anti-Tank Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery – were en route to North Africa, but ended up being diverted to east Asia after the attack on Pearl Harbour – the US Naval base in Hawaii – by the Japanese.
Heading for Singapore, Len was on the ship Empress of Asia when it was hit by Japanese bombers while about 10 miles from shore. Thankfully he was uninjured but had lost everything other than the clothes on his back, including his cherished banjo. He and others were rescued from the sea and taken prisoner by the Japanese and put to work on the Burma railway – also called the Death Railway – in appalling conditions. Ever the optimist, Len decided to make a guitar out of bits that were lying around and then went around his fellow prisoners to ask how to tune it up and play certain chords.
Thoughts of home were never far from Len’s mind and in fact two of his fellow prisoners were also Sunderland lads, so the three of them would light a fire near their hut and dance around it. Len would play his improvised guitar and sing a favourite of children in Sunderland: ‘Roker Sunshine Corner’. The performances of Len and co. developed from a few songs around the fire, to plays and shows in front of a crowd of prisoners. When they decided to include women characters in their events, they’d shave, put makeup on, and create wigs out of string and straw. The performances were so popular that they progressed to featuring six ‘women,’ with the men drawing lots to decide who would dress up. They used scraps from mosquito nets to make costumes and they practised a song and dance routine accompanied by a man with a broken accordion who only knew how to play one song.
This small, cheerful slice of Sunderland in a prisoner of war camp thousands of miles away was in stark contrast to Len’s day to day lived reality. Men were dying of exhaustion and disease. Len estimates he contracted Malaria more than 20 times and was forced to continue working while ill. He also had typhus, was twice stung by scorpions, and had his appendix removed using home-made tools and without anaesthetic. One of his friends had his leg removed, unfortunately too late to save him from infection; he died. Another friend, Herbert, who lived in Roker in Sunderland died of typhus leaving Len to wonder about his own survival and how long he’d be able to go on. The railway was completed and Len was moved to Mergui Road – a transit route in Burma – with another 1000 or so men.
Men who were too sick to work were sent to another camp, nicknamed Death Valley. If you were taken there you could be fairly sure you wouldn’t be coming back. As Len watched his fellow prisoners and friends dying around him there was finally light at the end of the tunnel. One morning, he passed by the Japanese officers’ camp and saw them burning papers and talking in hushed tones. This was out of the ordinary and Len knew something had changed, a terrifying prospect given he knew the Japanese had orders not to leave any prisoners behind if they had to retreat. Worried, he went back to his friends and told them what he’d witnessed. At that moment, a Japanese corporal walked up to them and informed them the war was over and they could go home. They were staggered.
When he eventually arrived back in England, Len weighed just seven stone and was sent to a hospital in Ryhope to recuperate. One of the nurses who looked after him on his road to recovery was Ruby, who would become his wife of over 70 years.
After his three-and-a-half-year ordeal as a prisoner of war, Len dedicated his life to people, continuing to entertain, teaching music to others, writing a book whose funds are donated to an education charity, and helping with Remembrance commemorations in Sunderland every year. In 2019 at the age of 99, Len Gibson was awarded The British Empire Medal in recognition of outstanding services to his country, in particular for his community and voluntary service. When I met him in the tumultuous year of 2020 in his neat-as-a-pin house, he sang songs with ‘Marie’ in them to me and regaled us with his poems, stories, and wit. He died peacefully in 2021. Len represented the very best of Sunderland, a man who had lived through what most of us can only imagine, who kept himself and no doubt, others, alive with optimism, entertainment and thoughts of home. One message Len was keen to convey above all else was one we should keep close for those hardest times, to take out of our pockets like a light in the dark: ‘love your neighbour. If you can be good and friendly with your neighbour, you can spread it out to other people. You’ll make a happier world.’
Marie Gardiner's book Celebrating Sunderland is available for purchase now.