by Louise Cordingly
When I was doing research into my father’s experiences as a POW in Changi and Thailand, I kept coming across other men and women who were also pursuing research into their own fathers’ stories in the same dedicated way. So I began to wonder why we were all so driven, almost to the point of obsession and, I decided that it might be interesting to investigate further into my fellow researchers’ backgrounds and motivation. Maybe there was a book in it? It felt like a new angle on the FEPOW story: when the war ended and the men returned home, what was that like for their families?* How did the men adjust to the peacetime years following the brutality and deprivation of their years in captivity, and how had it had affected their children who were now in their 60s, 70s and 80s?
I put the word out on various FEPOW forums and to my surprise there was no shortage of people who volunteered to be interviewed and I also contacted various movers and shakers in the community. Then, for about a year and a half, I travelled around the country or used Skype or Facetime to record their interviews. I was amazed at the contributors’ willingness to be so honest in their accounts of their childhood and, for some, the effects of living with a damaged father. I believe they trusted me to understand because they knew that I was also the daughter of a FEPOW. I gathered thirty five interviews and then I decided that I also needed some professional observations on the mens’ trauma, so there is an appendix in the book with the thoughts of a GP who practised in the 50s, a therapist who specialises in working with trauma and torture survivors, and a professor who is running a MSc course called War and Psychiatry.
Thirty-five full length interviews amount to a lot of words – so I had to edit them all down into a manageable book length because I didn’t want to leave a single one of them out. Then I sent each interviewee an edited transcript for them to check and approve. This was an anxious time for me, but I needn’t have worried because the transcripts were returned with very few changes, mostly just points of fact.
There were various themes which ran through them all, such as the nightmares the men suffered, which terrified their children who were too young to understand. The reluctance to talk about their experiences until they were much older, the heroism of the women who kept the households together and seemed to understand that many of the men suffered from undiagnosed PTSD. And the controversial theme of forgiveness: whether it was possible or necessary to forgive their captors.
The book covers quite a broad sweep of experiences, from the sad and the tragic to the amusing and the uplifting. I don’t think I recorded a single interview without a pause somewhere in the narration for tears. I felt so privileged that these people were pouring their hearts out to me, maybe for the first time in such detail. I was lucky to get to know so many members of the FEPOW ‘family’ who I can now count as friends.
My hope is that this vivid, eye-witness testimony, gathered together in one volume, will be a valuable addition to the archives of FEPOW research and knowledge.
*Julie Summers’ book ‘Stranger in the House’, published in 2008, also covers this subject but with men returning from all theatres of war not only the Far East. As the granddaughter of Sir Philip Toosey, she is also one of the interviewees in the book.
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