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Far East veteran ‘Tone’ was the great survivor

A starving PoW, forced to work on the Burma Railway, Alfonso ‘Tone’ Garizio was not expected to live long – but he was having none of that

07 April, 2017 — By Joe Cooper

‘Tone’ Garizio in uniform

WHEN Alfonso “Tone” Garizio returned home after nearly four years as a prisoner of war, doctors told the 26-year-old he wouldn’t make it past 60 and was unlikely to have children.

But Mr Garizio defied the experts and, more importantly, his captors, in the best way possible – he lived a long, full and happy life, raised two children and lived until the age of 97.

He died on Saturday, March 25, at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead after a short illness.

Mr Garizio, who lived in Highbury, suffered starvation, dysentery, trench foot and forced labour as a Japanese PoW, but rarely spoke of his experiences. “If you didn’t believe you would live, you would die,” Mr Garizio said. “I always knew I would come back home.”

Born in 1919 in Soho to Italian immigrants Giuseppe and Margherita Garizio, little Alfonso had ambitions of becoming a watchmaker, but was persuaded by his chef father to start working in a restaurant kitchen.

Due to the British government’s internment policies during the Second World War, Mr Garizio’s father had to report to a police station every week. During one such visit, which Tone attended in his army uniform, the police suggested his father might be taken away. But Mr Garizio gestured to his uniform and told them: “If you take him away, you can have this back.”

Alfonso ‘Tone’ Garizio

Mr Garizio joined the army in 1942 and was sent to Singapore. A member of C Company 1st Battalion Cambridgeshire, which held out heroically for four days at the battle of Adam Park in Singapore, he was captured and sent to Thailand to work on the Burma Railway, clearing the dense jungle and “spiking” the rails.

His group was known as the Colonel Flowers Rail-Laying Gang, and they worked in tropical heat and monsoon rains, often through the night.

The conditions rotted their boots and clothes and within months they were working barefoot, wearing rice sacks over their bodies.

Food rations were limited to a pound of rice a day, so Mr Garizio and his comrades had to venture into the jungle to pick leaves to flavour it. They even grew tomatoes using their own waste as compost, but they were taken from them by the Japanese.

Infections were rife. Some who had legs amputated fashioned new limbs out of bamboo and men twice Mr Garizio’s size died in the awful conditions.

But there was still time for a joke – sometimes they deliberately did their work badly so their captors would take over to do it properly.

Mr Garizio with at a family gathering for his 90th birthday

In 1943, the fittest men were shipped to Japan to work in the mines. Mr Garizio was sent to a copper mine where he worked without a facemask, ear protectors or proper shoes, until one day they woke up and the guards had gone.

The atomic bombs had fallen on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The prisoners found Red Cross parcels that had been sent but never given to them.

They wrote “PoW” on a roof as an American bomber circled overhead before being taken to a US battle cruiser that was waiting for them. Mr Garizio weighed barely more than six stone and was fed eggs and bacon, the first proper food he had eaten in years.

They toured the world over the next eight weeks, recuperating and receiving heroes’ welcomes wherever they went. But on returning to England they were given nothing but a cup of tea, a rock cake and a letter from the King – the Forgotten Army, as they became known.

Mr Garizio had been unable to write home during the war. Returning to Soho, he couldn’t get into his house as his father was at work, so he waited patiently in a neighbour’s house for him before the pair went off to the pub.

Viscount Slim and Alfonso Garizio unveil the PoW memorial at Mornington Crescent in 2012

He started working with his father at the restaurant Minetta’s, where he met his future wife, waitress Doris Leach, an Islington girl.

The pair married in 1948 at St James’ in Prebend Street. They had two children, Tonia and Gill, before moving to the then new flats in Grange Grove.

Mr Garizio worked as a chef for the rest of his life. He worked at The Caprice, where he cooked for stars of the day, including Robert Mitchum, Orson Welles and Princess Margaret. Sophia Loren asked to meet him after he cooked her a spaghetti puttanesca and he once drank whisky with John Wayne.

He cooked at home too and was a dab hand at DIY, often building toys for the children.

For decades, Mr Garizio rarely spoke of his experiences to his wife or daughters. Later in life he spoke more about what he had been through.

On his 80th birthday, he returned to the Far East and stayed in the best hotels, overlooking places where he had fought and slaved.

Traumatic as those years were, his memories were tinged with nostalgia.

“That is part of my life,” he told the Tribune in 2012. “And I sometimes look back on it and think I was very fortunate to meet so many great guys.”

In 2012, he officially opened the PoW memorial, after an appeal by the Tribune’s sister paper the Camden New Journal, in Mornington Crescent with Viscount Slim, president of the Burma Star Association.

He leaves his wife Doris, two children, two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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