Into the jungle

By Louise Reynolds, Author

Good research requires several specialised skills but I never thought that the ability to decipher my father’s handwriting would be one of them.   When my mother died in 2011 we discovered files full of papers connected with my father’s time as a FEPOW in Changi and then up-country in Kanchanaburi.  My father, Eric Cordingly had brought home with him maps, artwork by fellow POWs, and even a complete typed diary of his first year in Changi, together with a Burial Records book, some  hand-written sermons and some scribbled notes on odd pieces of paper. It was an extraordinary and vivid collection from his three and a half years as a Padre and prisoner of war, during which he faithfully carried out his duties as a priest under the most desperate conditions.

I immediately decided to publish a book containing these unique papers and set about putting it all together.   The typed diary was a gift, it was just a matter of choosing sketches and paintings to illustrate the text.  And, fortunately, for his final year back in Changi,  he had written a report for the Assistant Chaplain General’s office in Rangoon.

But how could I cover the most critical time when, with F Force, he was based in Kanburi (as they called it) beside the River Kwai ?  I came across a thin and flimsy Thai child’s exercise book containing detailed pencilled notes and some airmail paper with more notes about the conditions in the hospitals where he was working and from where he buried over 600 young men who had been labouring on the Thai Burma Railway.  He instructed the doctors to let him know if anyone was close to the end and he would try to be at their bedside when they were dying.

The exercise book containing Eric Cordingly’s notes, image courtesy of Louise Reynolds

But his writing, never easy at the best of times, was scribbled in haste and sometimes words or sentences were crossed out and so I began to transcribe it with great care and a lot of anxiety. I gradually discovered that if I took a run at it, so to speak, it was much easier to read because often the clues were in the context. Turning these delicate pages which may not have been touched for 70 years was a tactile experience in itself, and reading his eye witness account of the horrors of daily life was breath-taking:

A page from the exercise book, , image courtesy of Louise Reynolds and partly transcribed below.

“It is too harrowing to picture vividly a ward of men whose sole kit consists of a tin and a spoon and a haversack and a piece of rag, lying on bare bamboo, or rice sacks with no covering until later,  blankets were issued.  The patients present a sorry picture, their exhaustion is so complete that no pain is suffered, they slip into a coma and the end is peaceful.  Each morning several bodies are lying still.”

The words I was transcribing told a sorry tale.  The strange thing was that after twenty minutes or so of this painstaking and absorbing work, I felt that I had plunged into the jungle with them, and, when I emerged, blinking, into daylight, I was astonished to find the normal world going on around me.  This happened to me several times. The cumulative experience of touching and transcribing the papers was very powerful.  I wonder if other RFHG researchers have encountered this phenomenon?

You can read more in Down to Bedrock  The Diary and Secret Notes of a Far East prisoner of war Chaplain 1942-45,   by Eric Cordingly    Published in 2013

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9 thoughts on “Into the jungle”

  1. Louise, I can identify so strongly with your experience of entering another world in the camp hospitals, then waking in astonishment to everyday life in the 21st century. During the time I was writing, I lived in two worlds – a strange and unsettling experience, but so worth it for the record you have made and the men who are not forgotten.

  2. Hello Hilary, thank you for telling me that you also experienced the phenomenon of living in two worlds when you were engaged in your research and writing. Very ‘unsettling’ as you put it. I wonder if it echoes what the men themselves felt when they returned home?

  3. I agree with you both, I found transcribing my father’s diaries totally immersive. I was luckier than you Louise, as Dad’s handwriting was so much easier to decipher than your father’s! Perhaps having worked in ciphers he’d been well-trained, as stenographers had the job of deciphering his de-coded messages?

  4. Thankyou Louise for the story , my uncle John William Purcell was a FEPOW and sadly died at Kinsaiok. With help from Meg Parkes and the museum in kanchanaburi I have learnt so much . The museum found an extract in a book by Norman William Burrows.
    ‘The cleanest man you could imagine, always kept himself smart, and his mess tin was always sparkling. We went to bed that night and we were now …………..under canvas. Twelve of us in the tent, and by the morning Johnny Purcell was dead, and three others were in agony with the cholera. You can imagine how we felt – the Japs were in a real panic. [J.W. Purcell died at Kinsaiyok camp]’
    I totally agree that he more I read about the FEPOWS the more I want to know .

  5. What a heart-breaking story about your uncle Hilary.
    All those young men, it doesn’t bear thinking about does it?
    Thank you for your comment..

  6. Hi Louise, have you published that book containing your father’s papers? If so what is its title? In my spare time I lead tours of one of the last relatively intact battlefields on Singapore where Eric Cordingly buried some of those killed in battle. I too feel immersed in the history when i walk the ground and see bullet holes on the masonry or the ditches where bodies lay. I would like to read that book.

  7. Hello Beng Tang
    I’m really interested to hear that you also feel immersed in history when you tour the battlefield sites in Singapore.
    If you can email me directly I would love to send you a copy of Down To Bedrock.

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