By Meg Parkes
This is the first of two posts taken from the diaries of my father, Captain Andrew Atholl Duncan, Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. He kept a diary throughout captivity in Java and Japan, written in pen in nine notebooks: pocketbooks, school exercise books and homemade notebooks bound with mosquito netting glued in place with tapioca paste. It started with him documenting his short lived and unsuccessful bid to escape from Java and continued throughout the next three years in prisoner of war camps.
We pick up the diary at the end of January 1945 while he was still at Zentsuji officers’ propaganda camp on the Island of Shikoku, Japan:
Jan 21st – 30th 1945
“Very little real news over this period except that an oven has been erected in the galley, grindstones put up in the canteen, so our long hoped-for bread looks like becoming a reality. The only snag is that officers have to grind the grain and I am hoping that this will not be the thin end of the wedge for getting us to work. Picture of the week – A very senior member of H.M. Navy seated by the window whipping “cream” in a cup with a look of rapt concentration on his face!!!! Most of us have a very healthy crop of chilblains on our hands and feet – I am no exception – and it is positive agony to wash clothes these days in the icy water at the washracks, with a northwest wind straight off the frozen wastes of Siberia whistling about ones ears. As a result of this, I have taken to shaving indoors but even then, with no hot water available, it is still a highly unpleasant and painful procedure. Ye Gods, but we do miss the simple comforts of life.
The siren has still been sounding both night and day, the latest drill for us when it sounds off in the evening being “Go to bed.”
That entry on 30th January 1945 was to be his last in the diary he had kept since the 8 March 1942. (Coincidentally, although he did not know it at the time, he would marry his beloved Elizabeth exactly one year later to the day). The sketch (Fig.1) was one of three that he did while at Zentsuji, where at times the regime was not too strict, and he was permitted to study. He used this as a cover for writing the diary and documenting the camp in sketches and detailed camp plans. The sketch was one of over a hundred pieces of artwork featured in the “Secret Art of Survival” exhibition in Liverpool (www.captivememories.org.uk) .
His reason for not writing in the diary again is explained in the notes he subsequently made at his third and final camp in Japan, Miyata, on the island of Kyushu. Here the regime was brutal and dangerous and there was no possibility of writing or sketching anything. The following passage comes at the start of 10 pages of handwritten notes, started on 15th August during his final few weeks in Japan:
“The following paragraphs were added to the diary after I had been released, to bridge the gap between the date I had to cease entries and the cessation of hostilities on August 15th, 1945.
The reason for this gap was that the Japs tightened up their supervision of us and as diaries were strictly forbidden and confiscated if found, I had to conceal the manuscripts by sewing them into the lining of clothes, under false bottoms in my packs etc.
The officers’ propaganda camp at Zentsuji was disbanded in June  the various nationalities represented in the camp being sent to different areas in Japan. The Australians were sent in two groups to the north of Tokyo, the Americans to the Osaka area, the Dutch to Nagoya, while the British were divided into two parties – one to the west coast of Honshu Island administered from Tokyo, the other party which I was in, going to Kyushu Island under the Fukuoka administration, to Miyata Camp.
Miyata Coalmining camp, Kyushu
The extract continues:
“Our new camp at Miyata was termed a work camp – and was very aptly named – for the other ranks were required to work down coalmines, while the officers were forced to work on agricultural projects ranging from clearing land and constructing padi fields to planting rice and vegetables.
“We left camp at 6.30 a.m. and did not return till 6p.m. and although we received a slightly increased ration of rice to that which was issued to us at Zentsuji, we were far worse off due to the heavy manual labour. The rules and regulations at this camp were very strict and woe betide anyone who stepped out of line, for savage beatings and torture were applied on the slightest provocation. Daily, we saw Allied aircraft passing overhead and on one occasion two Mustang fighters hedge-hopped over us about 50 feet up while the bombers that they were escorting sailed overhead completely unmolested.
On August 9th, while out working we heard the sirens sounding and not long after heard a long, drawn-out rumble. We looked at each other and smiled discreetly thinking that some nearby target had caught a packet. It had! However, it was not nearby, but about 60 miles away as the crow flies, for that rumble was the death knell of Nagasaki – the explosion of the 2nd Atomic bomb.
That evening, the Japs were obviously very perturbed about something and, to ease their pent-up feelings, decided to take it out of the British officers. We were lined up on the parade ground after evening roll call in two files, given a haranguing by the Jap duty N.C.O. – a sadistic swine by the name of Kurihara – who ended up by telling us about the British misdeeds in India and that he was going to show us what a Jap N.C.O. could do to British officers.
For the next forty minutes we had to stand at attention with our arms stretched above our heads while guards, armed with 2” x 4” timbers prowled up and down the files, viciously beating anyone who moved.
At the end of that time, we were ordered to assume the prone position and the real beating commenced. Every prisoner present was savagely beaten by 2” x 4” timbers, swung as hard as the guards could do it, the end of the spine and the kidney region being the favourite target areas. If anyone passed out a bucket of water was thrown over him to bring him round and the beating restarted.
Due to malnutrition, all of us had hardly any covering over our bones, so that it was small wonder that it was days before we could bear to touch the afflicted regions.”
Among the British officers who were also present that night were Flight/Lieutenant John Fletcher-Cooke RAFVR and army padre Captain Rupert Godfrey. Both described this incident in their respective memoirs: Fletcher-Cooke’s The Emperor’s Guest (1971) and Godfrey’s The Years the Locusts Have Eaten (2003).
His notes continue, describing the tense days leading up to 15th August and then the long wait for liberation from the camp five weeks later. During this time, he and his friend Lt Bill Balfour RE a fellow Scot, from Perth, made excursions to neighbouring camps, the village and the town of Fukuoka. In the photograph below they are seen with the Korean dentist and his family in the village of Miyata. By this time my father’s weight, regularly and meticulously recorded in one of the notebooks, had dropped to a little over six and a half stone. He looks gaunt and hollow-eyed but poised, with just the slightest hint of a smile.
On 20 September, the occupants of Miyata POW camp left by train for Nagasaki.
The feature film “Unbroken”, about US airman Louis Zamperini’s life and Far East POW experiences, is the only film that I’ve seen to come close to portraying what my father documented so vividly in his diaries, namely the appalling conditions and harsh winters in camps in Japan. It is an area of Far East captivity that is still little-known. In addition to Fletcher-Cooke and Padre Godfrey’s memoirs, Keith Mitchell’s book, Forty-two Months in Durance Vile, also depicts the harsh conditions endured by some of the several thousand British FEPOW sent to camps in Japan. Medical Officer, Major Frank Murray RAMC was one of those featured in Mitchell’s book and a new website shares Major Murray’s story: https://www.thebelfastdoctor.info/
Thanks to Mansell.com for the enormous amount of information that is available to anyone researching FEPOW history, and in particular the camps in Japan.
In my second blog post I share more of his notes, his long journey home and how he settled back into civilian life. I self-published his diaries in two parts: “Notify Alec Rattray…” in 2002 and “…A.A. Duncan is OK” 2003. Writing the books kindled a need to understand, and to research further the history of Far East prisoner of war captivity. That need continues.