LANCE CORPORAL John McDonald died of dysentery in a crowded Japanese “hell ship”, and his body was buried at sea somewhere off Taiwan, but he left behind an amazing piece of writing about a rare moment of beauty amid the squalid horror in a Far East Prisoner of War Camp.

McDonald was a 29-year-old journalist from Darlington – an old boy of the town’s Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, he quite likely worked for the Darlington & Stockton Times or one of its sister papers.

When he had joined up, he had left his wife, Constance Sarah, behind in newly-built Ravensdale Road and gone into the Royal Corps of Signals.

He was captured by the Japanese in early 1942 and wound up in Tandjong Priok transit camp, on Java, where prisoners were held before being transferred to permanent camps.

Like all good journalists, McDonald was a great observer, and he noticed how his fellow prisoners gathered on an evening to watch the sun go down. And, like all good journalists, he couldn’t resist the urge to write his observations down.

When his body had slipped beneath the waves of the East China Sea, his prose was found among his meagre personal effects by an officer on the hell ship, Captain Atholl Duncan, of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Capt Duncan must have witnessed the sunsets, too, and was so impressed by McDonald’s story that he copied it in long hand in his diary to keep it forever…

Sunset Gate

EVERY night between a quarter to and eight o'clock, you see them gather at the gateway (now barb-wired off) where we made our original never-to-be-forgotten entrance to this camp.

At first, only a few men could be seen standing by the fence, but as the nights have gone by, the numbers have increased.

For the most part there is little conversation. They just stand and look – and think. At what are they looking and about what are they thinking, these silent men?

The gateway overlooks a dock basin where ships are moored to landing stages. Is that the attraction? Are they thinking of the day when they will walk through the gate as free men, board a similar ship and sail for home?

The gateway faces due west. Are they thinking of their families and friends who are so far away in that direction?

Darlington and Stockton Times:

Capt AA Duncan's plan of Tandjong camp, including Sunset Gate in the top right

Perhaps these thoughts are running through their minds. I know they often are in mine as I stand there.

But to many the chief attraction of this west end gateway must be the glorious sunsets, sunsets unlike any to be seen in Scotland (glorious as they are on many occasions).

Nightly above the silhouette of the dockland with its warehouses, coaling gantries, cranes and masts, nature proves a kaleidoscope of colour which changes every few seconds as the sun sinks quickly over the horizon.

Storm clouds catch and hold, for a brief period, the final rays as they sweep upwards, and hazy films of cloud cap them with a golden mist – forming a dream range of mountains.

The scene changes and the sky becomes a beautiful egg-shell blue (a blue such as I have never seen at home) which gradually deepens in tone as darkness quickly falls.

The show is over for another night – another day nearer freedom – and as we turn from Sunset Gate to walk back to camp we can ponder on the fact that, before we see it again, the sun, which has given us such a beautiful few minutes, will have provided a glorious June day for our loved ones at home.


Tandjeongpriok Prison Camp

Java 1942

TRAGICALLY, for John McDonald, freedom never came.

In fact, every sunset actually brought him closer to the moment not of release but when that he would board one of the “hell ships” which was meant to carry him to a permanent camp.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

John McDonald's camp record, recording his details, including his occupation as a "sub-editor". The diagonal line from the top left to the bottom right is actually in red and indicates that he died. Picture: National Archives. Reference: TNA WO345/33

Early on October 22, 1942, he was taken from Tandjong Priok and sailed from Batavia on Java to Singapore, where he and 1,100 others were crammed below decks on the Singapore Maru. It had been built in Clydeside before the start of the First World War. The Japanese had bought it in the 1930s for scrap, but now the rusting hulk, infested with rats and cockroaches, was pressed into service as a prison ship.

The prisoners were each given a wooden shelf on which to perch and a thin rush mat on which to sleep. There was room neither for them to lie down nor sit up.

They were going to Japan, to work in the coalmines of Honshu island.

They set sail from Singapore on October 30. Disease stalked the Singapore Maru from stern to stern. The prisoners, already emaciated due to lack of food, quickly fell ill in the foul, fetid air of the hull, with many too weak to move themselves out of their own filth.

On November 19, 1942, at about 7pm, John McDonald died of “dysentery and exhaustion”.

The following morning at 10am, his body, wrapped in a blanket or in his greatcoat was weighted down, and slid into the ocean, his departure overseen by a padre who was almost too weak to stand.

When McDonald disappeared from view, the Singapore Maru was at Latitude 26.58N, Longitude 122.44E – a spot about 125 miles north-east of Taiwan.

His few personal possessions – his name tags, perhaps a watch, and the piece of paper with Sunset Gate written on it – were collected by Capt Duncan.

The Singapore Maru arrived off Moji in Japan on November 25. Of the 1,100 who had set out just four weeks earlier, 106 were dead; another 260 were left onboard as too sick to move when the living got off.

Capt Duncan was among the living. He survived the war, and returned to his home town of St Andrews in Scotland in late 1945.

He was married in January 1946, but before the ceremony, he sought out some of the families of the men who had been killed around him to return their effects.

“He got McDonald’s possessions back to his family,” says Capt Duncan’s daughter, Meg Parkes, who has published her father’s diaries which contain Sunset Gate. “He told me that it mattered hugely, and he did it for several men who died in his care.

“John McDonald was one of the oldest ones at 29 – my dad was only 25. They were all in the early twenties – a waste of life beyond belief.”

MEG PARKES’ latest book on the Far East Prisoners of War – known as “FEPOW” – was released just before the pandemic struck. It is called Captive Artists, The Unseen Art of British Far East Prisoners of War. It is the result of a seven year investigation into previously unknown works of art created by prisoners during the war in the east. Many of them worked secretly to document the life and death conditions in the camps, and the book has been released to commemorate the 75th anniversary of their liberation. It costs £20 in bookshops, or £18 from the website, where there is loads more information about the FEPOW.

WITH thanks to Ed Chicken, of Staindrop, for drawing this amazing story to our attention. We'd love to know more about L-Cpl John McDonald and his wife, Constance (although we think she was known as Sarah). She may not have learned about his death for two or more years after 1942. His parents were Albert and Jenny McDonald, who must have lived in the town as John's name is on the Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College board of remembrance as one of the old boys. Please email if you have any information