100TH BIRTHDAY: Centenary surprise for war veteran Bill

Bill Marshall, from Waterlooville, says 'Cheers!' to turning 100 today. Picture: Vernon Nash PPP-170511-081607006
Bill Marshall, from Waterlooville, says 'Cheers!' to turning 100 today. Picture: Vernon Nash PPP-170511-081607006

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Bill Marshall has seen a lot in his 100 years – from surviving the Battle of Britain to spending three years as a Japanese prisoner of war.

The Shropshire-born centenarian, who lives at Waterlooville, was ‘very pleased’ to be honoured with a surprise bash thrown by members of the National Malaya & Borneo Veterans Association (NMBVA), at its meeting place of the Royal Naval Association in Waterlooville.

Bill with his daughter Mary Hemley. Picture: Vernon Nash PPP-170511-081607006

Bill with his daughter Mary Hemley. Picture: Vernon Nash PPP-170511-081607006

‘It has its advantages,’ laughs Bill on turning 100. ‘You get to feel like people want to know you. You feel important.’

Born William Marshall III on November 21, 1917, in Shrewsbury, his father, also Bill, was an engineer while his mother Eva was a full-time parent, but started working after the couple separated.

As the oldest – but only survivor – of three sons, Bill remembers a modest childhood alongside his brothers Donald and Frank. Eva even had to enrol Bill in school early after he wouldn’t stop playing down by the River Severn.

‘There was not a lot of prosperity, and we were at a very low sort of level,’ he explains. ‘My mother kept us going by working until we grew up, and then I took an engineering apprenticeship.’

Bill looks rather dapper in his RAF uniform in 1939

Bill looks rather dapper in his RAF uniform in 1939

Bill started his apprenticeship at the age of 17, but five years later, at the outbreak of the Second World War, he volunteered for the RAF.

After the Battle of Britain, he was part of one of the first convoys to be shipped out to the Far East, where he spent stints in Singapore, Malaya and Java. It was at the last of those locations where he was captured by the Japanese.

He says: ‘They were there to make you slave prisoners, and you were there to do as little work as you could, and try to scrounge whatever you could.’

Being held as a prisoner of war must surely have been a terrifying prospect, but Bill’s spirit of mischief and perseverance kept him going through the three-and-a-half years he was held captive.

Bill cuts a slice of his 100th birthday cake alongside members of the National Malaya & Bourneo Veterans Association (NMBVA). Picture: Vernon Nash PPP-170511-081607006

Bill cuts a slice of his 100th birthday cake alongside members of the National Malaya & Bourneo Veterans Association (NMBVA). Picture: Vernon Nash PPP-170511-081607006

‘I had a feeling in the back of my mind that I’d get out of it,’ he chuckles. ‘And being small, it was easier for me than it was for the big blokes, who needed more food.’

A third of the party that Bill was in when he was captured died during their imprisonment, but Bill was among those who returned home at the end of the war.

Shortly after he returned from Nagasaki via Southampton, Bill met his future wife, Margaret Jane O’Brien, when she was serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service on a gun-site in Shrewsbury.

Bill says: ‘When you came home from war, you’ve got two things you can do – give it up and try to live on the dole, or get on with life. We got on with life.

The NMBVA raise a tot of rum for their honorary member Bill, bottom left, at Royal Naval Association, Waterlooville. Picture: Vernon Nash PPP-170511-081607006

The NMBVA raise a tot of rum for their honorary member Bill, bottom left, at Royal Naval Association, Waterlooville. Picture: Vernon Nash PPP-170511-081607006

‘I met my wife, we sort of had the same ideas, got together and got married!’

They married in 1945 and went on to have three children – 70-year-old Brian and Mary, 64, both live nearby in Waterlooville while youngest son Billy, 57, now lives in Singapore.

Mary says: ‘I had a very happy childhood and a great family environment, and I just grew up as anyone else did but I have lots of happy memories.’

The couple initially ‘emigrated’, in Bill’s words, to London, where he got jobs with British Oxygen and John Brown Engineering.

Eventually he became head of project engineering for the latter firm, which led him and his family to move to Waterlooville in 1974.

Margaret died in August 1999 on Victory over Japan Day, or V-J Day, but Bill is very fortunate to always be in good company, whether it’s as an honorary member of the NMBVA or as a former president and co-founder of the Java FEPOW Club 1942.

Tony Crisp, social secretary of the NMBVA, says: ‘Bill has always been one of the local characters in Waterlooville.

‘We had a get-together in advance of Bill’s birthday with a tot of rum, birthday cake and a buffet.

‘It was agreed 100 per cent by our membership that we should put this on for this grand old gentleman.

It was put on as a surprise party but it was hard to keep it from him when he arrived. Bill looked as if he really enjoyed the afternoon.’

Earlier this year, he received an invitation to the Queen’s Garden Party at Buckingham Palace, where he met Sophie, Countess of Wessex, a patron of the FEPOW club.

Bill also celebrated his birthday with his family, which includes three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, with a gathering at The Heroes, a pub he likes to go to nearly every day.

‘I think he likes all of his regulars, but I must say that the landlord is so good to Bill every time he goes there,’ smiles Mary.

‘The most important lesson in life is that if you want to do it, get on with it,’ Bill says wisely. ‘But, for God’s sake, don’t give up by the wayside.

‘Nobody is going to give you something for nothing.’