Cycling the Sandakan death march – Dr Clare Makepeace

Dr Clare Makepeace writes for RFHG about her moving eleven-day SpiceRoads/TKY Adventure Tours cycling trip in the north of Borneo, on which she mountain biked part of the Sandakan death march and visited memorials to the prisoners of war (POWs) who died there in the final year of the Second World War.

Sandakan march track
Part of the Sandakan death march track as seen today. © Dr Clare Makepeace.

The fate of the hundreds of Australian and British prisoners held at Sandakan, on the east coast of the Malaysian part of Borneo island, is one of less well-known episodes of captivity in Southeast Asia, despite being the most fateful. Their death rate was 99.99%, the highest suffered by any group of prisoners held by the Japanese.

In 1942 and 1943, 2,700 POWs were transferred to Sandakan to construct a military airport. Initially, conditions were similar to other camps: work was tough, discipline tight, but food was relatively plentiful. Gradually, however, rations were reduced and physical abuse increased.

From early 1945, fearing Allied invasion, the Japanese forced over one thousand of the prisoners on three marches westwards to the town of Ranau, 260km away. The conditions endured were atrocious. Already skeletal and suffering from diseases such as beri-beri and tropical ulcers, the prisoners were given no medical assistance, little food and often wore just a loin cloth. The Japanese were also under orders to execute anyone who could not keep up.

Approximately 500 POWs died on these marches, the rest perished in camps at Sandakan and Ranau, succumbing to starvation, illness or exposure, or were murdered in cold blood. Of 2,434 POWs imprisoned at Sandakan in January 1945, just six of them – all Australians who had escaped into the jungle – survived.

Cycle
Navigating the Sandakan death march track. © Dr Clare Makepeace.

I always find it incredible to visit sites of such significant history; to feel, in some tiny way, the conditions these men endured. It is immensely humbling. I found it challenging enough to bike down a single-track dirt lane, push my heavy mountain bike through numerous river crossings, cycle in saturating humidity and under the intense heat of a tropical sun. This, of course, was nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to what those POWs faced. I would like to say that having been there, I can better imagine what they went through, but I can’t. Perhaps that is testament to the extremities of human endurance they experienced; so far from our lives today that it is impossible to envisage in the slightest, even when one is stood on the same physical spot.

Until recently, little had been known about the Sandakan death march. That all changed in 2005, the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, when the route of the march was first mapped out.

I was inspired by how extensively it is now being memorialised in Borneo. Our trip included an overnight stay at Sabah Tea Plantation. The march passed through this area and the Plantation strongly identifies with this history. It carries two memorials to the prisoners and the accommodation also commemorates them. I stayed the night in ‘Lofty Hodges cottage’, named after the Sergeant who helped rescue four of the Australian escapees. We also visited two other memorials. One at Ranau, occupying the site of the camp of the survivors of the first march; another in the town of Kundasang. Kundasang war memorial contains two gardens dedicated to the British and Australians, as well as a roll of honour.

Roll of honour - Jundasang
The roll of honour at Kundasang War Memorial. © Dr Clare Makepeace.

The location for the list of the dead seemed highly fitting. Placed high above Kundasang valley and taking in a breathtaking panoramic view, there was a serenity and majesty to this space.  It was absolutely the memorial these men deserved.

Yet, once I came to read through the roll of honour, that tranquillity was shattered, as I became aware of one final horrendous feature of this atrocity. As I glanced through the alphabetical list, I noticed that beside the names of S. O. Bexton and T. Bexton were the words ‘These two were brothers’. Then I saw an F. A. and an F. R. Burchnall, with an additional note: ‘These two were father and son’. As I read on, I counted seven more pairs of brothers, one pair of twins and then, alongside the initials that shared the ‘Dorizzi’ surname, the horrifying sentence ‘These three were brothers’.

Kundasang brothers
‘These three were brothers’. Kundasang War Memorial. © Dr Clare Makepeace.

The younger two Dorizzi brothers died on the same day – 11 February 1945. It appears they were shot at Sandakan when they applauded the allied bombing of the airstrip. Their elder brother was killed on the march. Could war get any crueller than that?

Dr Clare Makepeace’s debut book is Captives of War. British Prisoners of War in Europe in the Second World War (Cambridge University Press, 2017)

Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine – FEPOW DOCUMENTARY ART STUDY

We’re thrilled to introduce the first in a series of exclusive blogs for RFHG by Meg Parkes, previewing the artwork of previously unrecognised British military artists (both amateurs and trained).

These men took enormous risks to record and keep hidden their documenting of conditions and life in and around POW camps across south east Asia and the Far East during WWII.  Since 2012 this artwork – identifying the artists and locating and interpreting their work – has been the main focus of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine’s Far East POW (FEPOW) documentary art study. In addition to the six recognised British military documentary artists held captive in the Far East (i.e. Searle, Chalker, Meninsky, Rawlings, Thrale and Old), the study has uncovered artwork by over 40 more previously unrecognised FEPOW artists. Largely held in private collections, mostly by the descendants of the artists, much has remained unseen by the public.

LSTM in partnership with the Univeristy of Liverpool, is staging an exhibition to showcase these artists and their work. Liverpool’s Victoria Gallery & Museum will host the show, opening on Saturday 19 October 2019 and running through till mid-June 2020, the 75th anniversary year of the ending of WWII and Far East captivity. LSTM first became involved in the care and treatment of returned FEPOW in late 1945. It has stayed involved ever since.

  1. Andrew Atholl Duncan

Andrew Atholl Duncan was born in 1918 in St Andrews, Scotland. He studied mechanical engineering at St Andrews university and was proficient in technical drawing. As a member of the university’s Officers’ Training Corps (OTC) he took a commission in the Highland Light Infantry at the outbreak of war. While serving in the British Expeditionary Force in northern France he transferred to 6th Btn Argyll &Sutherland Highlanders (A&SH) and was drafted east in January 1941 to join 2nd Btn A&SH, part of Singapore’s garrison force. He joined HQ staff, trained in ciphers and was transferred to Java under General Wavell to set up British HQ in mid-January 1942. He was promoted in the field to captain shortly before fall of the Netherlands East Indies (NEI).

Captured in late March 1942 he was held at Tandjong Priok transit camp, on the dockside north of Batavia (now Jakarta) in Java, for the first eight months of captivity before being shipped to Japan to work in the coalmining camps in southern Honshu. Later he was transferred to Zentsuji and finally Miyata, a Dutch camp under a harsh regime in the mountains due north of Nagasaki.

He secretly kept diaries throughout his captivity and also made several pencil sketches of the interior and exterior of huts at Zentsuji, as well as detailed plans of three of the four camps he was in, drawn to scale and complete with compass bearings.

View from my bedspace, Zentsuji, 1944 Capt A A Duncan.jpg

 

‘From My Bedspace’, interior of hut at Zentsuji POW camp, Shikoku Island, Japan 1944, pencil sketch by Capt. A.A. Duncan (© Duncan collection)

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Plan of Tandjong Priok camp drawn 1942-1943 by Capt. A.A. Duncan (© Duncan collection)

His pencil sketches and camp plans show an eye for detail. The sketches reveal a good understanding of perspective and give a clear insight as to living conditions in the camp he spent the longest time in (Zentsuji). He kept his diaries and artwork hidden throughout captivity in a false bottom and inside lining of a Dutch kitbag he had acquired.

Following his repatriation in autumn 1945, Atholl Duncan decided not to complete his engineering studies but instead switched courses to study medicine, qualifying in 1950 and becoming a GP in Wirral in 1951. He said his decision to study medicine was in part due to the extraordinary work he witnessed doctors and medical staff doing in camp.

Through much of his post-war life he spoke little of his experiences, taking just a few close friends into his confidence over time. He did not join a FEPOW club. Neither did he ever keep diaries, or draw for pleasure; both had served a purpose.

His diaries were published after his death. Atholl Duncan is one of the “unrecognised” artists whose work will feature in the Liverpool exhibition.

 

Stranger in My Heart – Mary Monro

On 9 June 2018, Mary Monro’s moving book, Stranger in My Heart, was published. Mary spoke about the book at our Leeds workshop in March 2018. Here, Mary describes how she learned of her father’s wartime experiences, including his escape from Hong Kong, and her own journey to retrace his steps and all that it uncovered.

Stranger In My Heart by Mary Monro

 It’s the silence that gets us all started isn’t it? This is how I unlocked my Dad’s silence, 30 years after he died, and in the process how I learned much about who I am. The Dad I knew was a Shropshire farmer, horseman, watcher of the TV news. We received a letter from his old Chinese interpreter every Christmas, but he never said a word about his 25 years in the Royal Artillery or about his experiences in the Second World War.

Major Munro

Major John Monro, 1942; © Mary Monro

Battle of Hong Kong

Dad fought at the battle of Hong Kong in December 1941 and kept a diary. This gave me an eyewitness account of the battle, which I could cross-reference with official reports and the accounts of other combatants.

Imprisonment at Sham Shui Po

After the surrender on Christmas Day 1941, 5000 – 6000 Allied troops were imprisoned at Sham Shui Po Barracks on the mainland. It was clear that they were in for a rough time. They faced the awful dilemma of staying for an unknown period in terrible conditions or escaping into territory patrolled by the Japanese and inhabited by potentially hostile Chinese, where they didn’t know the country, couldn’t communicate and couldn’t hide. Senior officers in the camp were against escape and the Japanese Commandant promised that escapes would result in reprisals for those left behind. But Dad was determined to go, and it later turned out that reprisals were more than offset by the boost to morale generated by escapes.

Escape From Hong Kong

Dad travelled 1200 miles across China from Hong Kong to Chongqing, a destitute refugee in a nation of destitute refugees. It was hard to understand his escape route which seemed to be a crazy zig-zag across the map. I had to learn where the Japanese forces were; road, river and rail links; the location of British Military Missions, and so on. Chongqing, China’s wartime capital, turns out to be the preferred destination for escapers and so I was able to compare his account with those of other escapers.

escape routeMajor John Monro’s Escape Route, 1942; © Mary Monro

Plan to Liberate Hong Kong PoWs

In Chongqing Dad was made Assistant Military Attaché and remained there until the end of 1943. Searching his diary I stumbled across a barely known piece of history.

November 26th 1942: “Cooper came to lunch today. Afterwards we had a long discussion on the intelligence he required and the steps to be taken to prevent news of American Airforce movements on the Kweilin airfield leaking to the enemy. Finally Cooper, Ride and I went out onto the balcony for a long talk. As a result of this Ride and I stayed up most of the night concocting a plan”.

There is a lot of information in those 4 sentences. Col Lindsay Ride was founder of the British Army Aid Group, a humanitarian organisation set up to support PoWs in Hong Kong. Dad had a plan to evacuate all these PoWs with the help of the American Airforce. This meeting was to firm up the plan with the Americans. Col Merian Cooper was Chief of Staff to General Claire Chennault of the US Air Force, and was a pioneering aviator, movie producer and creator of King Kong.

Chennault and Cooper were forward thinkers, keen to use air power to attack Japanese supply lines in China. A co-benefit of this plan would be the liberation of the Hong Kong PoWs. But Chennault reported to General ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell, a traditional infantryman who was determined to have a land-based war in Burma.

Chennault and Stilwell presented their opposing plans to Roosevelt and Churchill in May 1943. Chennault’s plan was approved but Roosevelt omitted to sign the directive and Stilwell’s buddies at the War Department ensured that the error was never corrected. Thus Chennault never received the supplies he needed. This was catastrophic for Dad’s plan and for the multitude who lost their lives in Asia as a result of the subverted strategy.

I was becoming frustrated by the written word and decided to retrace Dad’s escape route across China. But would I gain anything from visiting a country that has seen huge changes over the last 70 years?

I started in Hong Kong, touring the battlefield sites and visiting the military cemetery at Stanley. It brought my grief to the surface but it also made me feel close to Dad. I took the train to Shaoguan, where dad had stayed for 10 days writing reports about the conditions for PoWs back in Hong Kong. I continued to Guilin with its stunning Karst landscape and learned more about the conquest of the city by the Japanese. Guizhou, a haven for many of China’s ethnic minorities, is relatively undeveloped, so I felt I was seeing it through Dad’s eyes. In Chongqing I visited Stilwell’s offices, preserved with furniture intact and giving a sense of the dramas that must have unfolded in those rooms. My trip still left me wanting more.

office
Stilwell’s office in Chongqing. © Mary Monro

Research

I started writing, using Dad’s diaries, reports and letters and filling in the background however I could. I hired researchers in the UK and the USA. I found that Roosevelt’s entire presidential archive is available online for free, so I researched that from home. I studied as many books on Hong Kong and China’s war as I could find and pestered friends for any other sources they might have lurking at home.

Finding Community

Unbound is publishing my book and will bring this story to a wider audience. I felt morally bound – and keen – to try and contact the descendants of the people whom Dad mentions. Their responses were truly heartwarming and I felt an immediate sense of community. We all wanted to honour and remember our relations. We were all floundering because of the silence. But for me, the silence had broken, opening to a greater understanding of China, my father and myself.

 

FEPOW Workshop Report

 

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In March 2018, we held our first one day workshop. The atmosphere was relaxed, inclusive and reflected the mix of speakers and delegates who had a range of interests – to escapes from camp through to the transgenerational effects of the captive experience.

A short report summarising each talk on the day is available to downoad here.

We’ve received a lot of really positive feedback about the workshop, and we’re pleased that the format worked well for everybody involved.  We are making plans to organise the next one, so do keep an eye out for future news.

 

 

 

 

WarGen – Your Help is Needed to Record Stories from WW2

WarGen

WarGen is a small team with big ambitions. Founded by Dan Snow and James Holland, WarGen is creating a crowd-sourced online repository of oral-history from the people who lived through World War 2 – and they are asking for help.

Here is the precise moment War Gen was formed in 2016: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5vhoRgNJZXo.

Since then, more than 100 interviews have been recorded but they need more.

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If you can help, email: shane@wargen.org to help.

Fergus Anckorn: The Conjuror on the Kwai

It is with sadness that we have learned of the death of the remarkable Fergus Anckorn, 22 March 2018 aged 99.

Anckorn, of the 118th Field Regiment Royal Artillery, survived the horrendous Alexandra Hospital Massacre and went on to become a POW – first at Changi, and then on the Thai-Burma Railway.

A member of the Magic Circle, Anckorn had performed his magic tricks as a POW to help save the lives of his fellow men, and can be heard speaking here about how magic helped him to acquire food in the camps. His oral history recording for the Imperial War Museum can be listened to online.

In 2016, Anckorn’s story would capture the nation’s hearts, as Britain’s Got Talent winner Richard Jones used magic to tell the story of ‘the conjuror on the Kwai’ himself.

A thoroughly inspirational man, he will be much missed.

 

Image credit: Meg Parkes

The Secret Art of Survival Survey

The Secret Art of Survival: the hidden documentary artwork of WWII Far East captivity.

LSTM will be working with Far East prisoner of war (FEPOW) community groups, schools and local communities to stage a fascinating exhibition of hidden artworks at the Victoria Gallery & Museum. With the help of additional funding the project is also planned to deliver an extensive education and public engagement programme.

We would love to hear your thoughts on this via a quick survey that will help us to shape the project further.

https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/SecretArtofSurvival 

Featured image by ex-FEPOW Jack Chalker.

Remembering captivity across Southeast Asia and the Far East during the Second World War