Whilst on holiday in Malaysia in April I came across the story of Freddy Spencer Chapman, a British army officer who survived behind enemy lines during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia in World War Two and who finally escaped by swimming from the island of Pangkor Laut to a waiting British submarine.
Staying on Pangkor Laut for a week and enjoying drinking gin in ‘Chapman’s Bar’, it was impossible not to want to know more about the man who had made an incredible escape after an equally incredible few years surviving in the Malaysian jungle, thanks to the help of Chinese guerrillas. Lying on the beach in Cyprus was the perfect time to read Jungle Soldier: The true story of Freddy Spencer Chapman, a biography by Brian Moynaham.
I wanted to read this book to find out more about Chapman’s war and to read more about the Japanese occupation of Malaysia (beautifully fictionalised in When the Future Comes Too Soon by Selina Siak Chin Yoke), but I was fascinated to also find myself reading about Chapman’s early life as an orphan at boarding school in England, as a student at Cambridge scaling the rooftops of colleges at night, and then as a member of expeditions to Greenland and the Himalayas. This was all, as it turned out, ideal training in the mental and physical toughness that would enable Chapman to survive in the Malaysian jungle.
Chapman’s is an incredible story of sabotage in 1942, when he was involved in blowing up trains full of Japanese soldiers and equipment, to trekking through the jungle to train Chinese guerrillas, to surviving extreme hunger and multiple bouts of severe malaria and other tropical illnesses, to being shot, covered in leeches, watching fellow British officers killed by Japanese soldiers, and to bicycling furiously through Japanese check-points at night dressed as a Chinese labourer.
Chapman of course eventually makes his way to Pangkor Laut and swims out from what is now called Emerald Bay (shown here in my holiday photograph) to a waiting British submarine. After recuperating, he returns to Malaysia to fittingly take the Japanese surrender.
After the war Chapman felt he hadn’t really ‘done his bit’ beyond the sabotage he conducted in 1942. The rest of the world disagreed and honoured his bravery. But sadly, he eventually took his own life in 1971, leaving a loving family behind him. I am so glad his was a story that I came to hear about.