SERENA Gear knew only a little about her grandfather, who served in the war but had lost touch with his family after the breakdown of his marriage.

When she started researching her family history, she had no idea the heroic and harrowing story she would uncover.

“My grandfather died in 1984, alone in his home, and he was buried in a communal pauper’s grave,” explains Serena, sadly.

“I lost my mother to leukaemia just over a year ago - we had been searching for my grandfather for many years – and this news caused great sadness to us all.”

Serena then discovered her grandfather’s incredible story, and was determined to ensure he received the honours he deserved.

Glasgow Times: Family members joined officials at the ceremonyFamily members joined officials at the ceremony (Image: Serena Gear)

Piper James McLean, of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders 2nd Battalion was born in Glasgow on June 28, 1915. He signed up for military service on January 29, 1934.

Glasgow Times: James, front right, with friends in the armyJames, front right, with friends in the army (Image: Serena Gear)

In August 1939, he was deployed to Malaya, and the company merged with the 12th Infantry Brigade, known as the Jungle Beasts.

However, approaching Japanese troops resulted in the 2nd Battalion having to retreat to Singapore. James was one of two pipers who marched the famous regiment over the Johor–Singapore Causeway, before it was blown up by the retreating British forces in January 1942, to stall the Japanese advancement into Singapore. (A painting commemorating this historic event hangs in Stirling Castle Museum).

Glasgow Times: The painting commemorates the historic marchThe painting commemorates the historic march (Image: Serena Gear)

James was captured two weeks later and detained in a Prisoner of War camp.

He was forced to work on the Burma Railway, commonly known as the Death Railway, for almost two years. Prisoners endured a limited ration of rice, no medical attention, extreme work conditions and appalling living facilities.

In June 1944, James was transported to the Japanese coal mines on one of the overcrowded, squalid ships known as “hell ships” where prisoners were often subjected to beatings. His ship, along with a further nine in the convoy, were attacked by US Forces, and almost 1000 people died.

When he finally arrived in the “nightmare POW camp” at Fukuoka 17B on February 11, 1945, he was put to work in the Mitsui coal mines, enduring harsh winter conditions and brutal torture.

James survived it all, and he finally returned home on January 4, 1946. He married Mary McCuaig Durnan six months later, and their daughter, also Mary, was born the following summer.

He remained in the military through a transfer to the Highland Brigade, where he served until 1960. However, following the breakdown of the marriage almost a decade later, little is known about his life from this period until his death in 1984 in Crawley, England.

“Thousands of men died, tortured and starved - the conditions were beyond barbaric and inhumane,” says Serena. “He was one of the lucky ones to make it home alive.

“When I found out my grandfather had been buried in an unmarked grave, I petitioned the council, contacted various MPs and military associations to allow me to have a headstone placed his grave.”

Earlier this year, a special service was held at Snell Hatch Cemetery, attended by veterans from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, some of whom made a 900-mile round trip to be there including members of the regiment’s Grangemouth Branch.


They were joined by members of his family, and members of the Royal British Legion, veterans in Crawley, local MPs and councillors and the First Secretary of the Embassy of Japan in the UK.

Two standard bearers, a piper and a bugler were also attendance at the service, which saw a military padre bless the headstone.

Following the service, Serena has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise £5000 for the Grangemouth Branch of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

She adds: “Without their help this wouldn’t have happened.”

The service was led by the piping of the same music played by Piper McLean as he and Piper Stewart crossed the Johor - Singapore Causeway.

“As a family we are eternally grateful to all those who have contributed and donated towards the memorial, he is a cherished member of our family, whose history brings us such immense pride and sorrow,” says Serena.

“It has become evident he is also a respected member of the military family.

“After 39 years in an unmarked communal grave, my grandfather now rests in a grave which recognises his exceptional service and extraordinary story.”