Prison camp portrait was kept hidden in bamboo THE PORTRAIT of a handsome young soldier which hangs in the home of David Cole is remarkable not just for its considerable artistic merit – for the picture has a fascinating and poignant history. It is a painting of his father, Victor Arthur Cole, shortly after he was captured by the Japanese in the Second World War. The painting was created by fellow POW Jess Olds who captured Vic's likeness using berries, charcoal, grasses and earth as his paints. And despite almost four years of back-breaking work, torture and starvation at the hands of his captors, barefoot and clad in just a loincloth, Vic Cole managed to hold onto that painting, keeping it rolled up inside a piece of bamboo. The portrait was still with Vic when the 6ft 2½inch soldier was finally released from captivity – weighing just six-and-a-half stone. Vic Cole died in Good Hope hospital on October 31, having reached the grand old age of 91. His son David believes that Vic was the last surviving member of the 7th Heavy Brigade and this week told the Herald of the eventful and remarkable life of his stoical father, whose strength of character and love of life meant that even in his last few days he was still independent, still driving and still doing his own cooking, ironing and washing. Vic enlisted with the Royal Artillery, 7th Heavy Brigade, in June 1935 and two years later was posted to Malaya where he was put on coastal defence duty in Singapore, little knowing that he would not see England again for another eight years. For the first four years it appears that Vic very much enjoyed his work in the tropical climate, joining the army boxing club, learning to sail and buying his first motorbike. But things began to change on February 15, 1942, when the Japanese invaded Singapore. In the ensuing heavy bombing, thousands lost their lives and many more thousands were injured. Seeing the scale of the devastation, Vic set out to do what he could to help, volunteering to take an army ambulance out to rescue as many injured as he could and take them to the local hospital. He spent the entire day doing just that and then also taking the dead to hospital to be buried. But the trauma of that day was just the beginning. The following day he was captured as a prisoner of war and was taken along with 6,000 other POWs to Changi Gaol where he was kept captive for four months. Then he and many others were put into railway cattle trucks and taken up country to Ban Pong, a three-day 1,200 mile journey, with very little water. Vic was to begin working on the notorious Burma railway at a place with the appropriate nickname of 'Hellfire Pass'. Using cane baskets and rice sacks slung on two poles, the POWs were forced to work 12 to 18 hours a day, removing the waste rock which had been excavated. The 'Hellfire Pass' section of the Burma-Thailand railway cost the lives of at least 700 Allied POWs. On August 19, 1945, the Japanese surrendered and Vic and the other surviving prisoners were released. Vic returned to England, weighing just six and a half stone. When he arrived home in Birmingham, his mother fainted and collapsed in his arms – she had believed him to be dead. Going through his father's possessions after his death, David found Vic's Certificate of Army Service. It read: 'Military conduct: Exemplary. Testimonial: 'Honest, sober, intelligent, keen and trustworthy man who has rendered very satisfactory service throughout his Army career. He is willing, hardworking, loyal and a reliable worker.' David said: "The torture and the lack of respect for human life, never left my father's heart. He used to say: 'If you can't do someone a good turn, don't do them a bad one.' Using his army back pay, Vic set up his own haulage business, which he ran for 20 years with wife Gwen typing up the accounts and looking after their three sons John, Geoffrey and David. He later bought the tenancy of a pub in the Black Country and in June 1970 took over the Three Tuns in Lichfield Street, Tamworth remaining there for eight years before taking semi-retirement. His wife Gwen died in 1991, after 44 years of marriage. David added: "I am sure most of us, if offered a ticket to 91 we might hesitate to take it, we would like to know what quality of life we would have. My father had both quality and quantity of life for which we were all grateful."