In honour of the D-Day commemorations, Martin Percival writes…
The 6th June 2019 sees the 75th anniversary of D Day. The focus, quite rightly, is on Europe. What’s interesting though is to understand when and how the news was received by the POWs in the Far East and the impact it had upon their morale.
My father, Frank Percival, was captured in Singapore in February 1942 and was a member of one of the early work parties that headed up country to Thailand in June that year.
Upon returning home in October 1945, contrary to Army orders, the story of his captivity was published in the local newspapers in North West London – the Willesden Chronicle and the Kilburn Times. He told me when I was a teenager that as a young man, before he joined the Army in 1939, he had aspirations to be a journalist. I have often wondered if this piece, written on the ship home, was an attempt at fulfilling his career aspirations.This piece was re-published in full with some additional photographs on Ron Taylor’s excellent Far Eastern Heroes website – see below:
The piece reveals that the news about D Day was already circulating in Thailand as early as 9th June 1944 – just 3 days after the allied invasion of France. Although not mentioned in my father’s article, the news was received via ‘canaries’ – secret radios hidden in mess tins and other items to help to disguise them. If found the men held responsible by the Japanese risked death by beheading. The section on D Day and receiving news on the progress of the war from outside is as follows:
‘Most prison camps possessed excellent news facilities. In the camp in which I was interned in 1944 we knew full details of “D” Day on 9th June. Towards the end however things deteriorated, mainly as a result of the frequent searches carried out by the Japanese. But this was compensated for, in some measure, by the leaflets which occasionally came into our possession printed in Burmese, Chinese, Japanese and Siamese. We ware easily able to follow the course of the War from these, aided by excellent sketch maps printed on their reverse sides.’
My father told me that these communications were an incredible boost to morale – and that especially the news on D Day helped the POWs to believe that maybe there was now an end insight.
It is with great sadness that I report the death of Connie Suverkropp.
Some of you may remember Connie and her sister Else attending the RFHG conference in Liverpool in 2015 where Connie told her story of internment by the Japanese in Java during the Second World War.
Connie was just twelve years old when she was interned with her two younger sisters, Else aged 5 and Kathy aged 2, in Tjihapit Camp and Struiswijk Prison in Java. Her two older brothers (aged 14 and 15) were interned with the men in Tjikudapateuh. Their mother, suffering from T.B. was interned in a Japanese hospital. She died just after the end of the war. Their father died in 1943 on the Burma Railway. Her grandfather died in Ambarawa Camp and her grandmother in Bloemenkamp.
So Connie became a mother to these two younger sisters who she struggled courageously to care for and educate while at the same time, as she was no longer considered a child by the Japanese, she had to work in the camps.
Thanks to Connie’s efforts all three sisters survived the gruelling time in the camps, both Else and Kathy survive her and her spirit, strength and courage live on in them and in her children and grandchildren and her wider family.
Throughout her adult life Connie was determined both to honour the memory of her parents who she missed so much and also to ensure that this dreadful part of Dutch history would not be forgotten. Her efforts were recognised on 14 November 2007 when she was awarded the Knight of the Order of Orange-Nassau.The statement made by mayor E.C. Bakker of Hilversum, in Museum Bronbeek (Arnhem) at the occasion of her decoration said: (a précis translation from Dutch to English by Connie’s brother-in-law Derk HilleRisLambers )
For many years of work Mrs Suverkropp focused on an accounting of history that reflects, and does justice to, the experience of the Dutch in the occupied Dutch East Indies during World War 2 – a history which she lived and remembers herself, and which dramatically affected her own family, and which has formed her as a person.
She made a special effort to get Dutch-Indonesian historic facts integrated into the curriculum History of the Netherlands in secondary schools: through special projects with the Royal Tropical Institute, and exhibits in the educational museum Museon. She also gave lectures on the subject in schools in Japan.
Connie was active in the Film Foundation Japanese Occupation of DEI.
With her activities she helped open the eyes of many Dutch students to this special part of history, Dutch history, of the Dutch East Indies. She has served the Dutch Indonesian community through her efforts to prevent their history from being swept under the rug, and forgotten.
Georgina Banks is researching the experiences of her Great Aunt Dorothy Elmes and is looking for any information on the Radji Beach Massacre. She writes for RFHG’s blog about her project….
My Great Aunt Dorothy Gwendoline Howard Elmes; NFX 70526, 2/10 AGH Hospital, commonly known as Bud or Buddy, was killed in the infamous Radji Beach Massacre in East Sumatra, Indonesia, on 16th February 1942.
When day broke on Radji Beach, there were around one hundred people who had washed ashore from the Vyner Brooke and the Pulo Soegi, over the last two days, fleeing Singapore: women and children, civilians, sailors, Australian Army Nurses and military personnel, including British servicemen. These ships had been bombed by the Japanese in the Banka Strait – or bomb alley as it was now dubbed. Since there were so many injured amongst them on the beach, they made the unanimous decision to hand themselves in to the Japanese. They made a big Red Cross on the beach and placed their faith in the Geneva Convention. A group of women and children departed to surrender and Sub-Lt. Bill Sedgeman (British) led the mission to get help for the wounded.
When they returned a few hours later, with around twenty Japanese soldiers led by Captain Orita Masaru, it was quickly noticed they had no stretchers with them. The Japanese split them into three groups: two of men and the other of nurses. One at a time, the two groups of men were marched around the headland, blindfolded, bayoneted and shot.
They then came back from around the headland to deal with the nurses. Twenty-two Australian Army Nurses, including my Great Aunt Bud and one civilian woman Mrs Betteridge, were lined up on Radji Beach, facing the horizon, marched into the sea and machine gunned from behind. One woman, Vivian Bullwinkel, survived, due to her height, as the bullets missed her vital organs. She ‘came to’ in the water and crawled into the jungle where she met Private Kinsley (British), a stretcher case, who had been bayoneted where he lay but was still alive. Vivian survived both the massacre and the internment camps on Banka Island and lived to testify at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. Kinsley died in the mens’ camp.
Two other men survived both the massacre and the internment camps when they made a break for it in the water and feigned death: Eric German, an American Brewer and Ernest Stoker Lloyd, a British Sailor.
I am writing a book about my Great Aunt Bud, which includes a dramatised account of her last 48 hours, her letters written home from Singapore and my contemporary narrative retracing her footsteps, filling in the gaps and reflecting on the event two generations later.
I would be very grateful for any assistance with my research.
I am looking for:
Anyone still alive who was on the Vyner Brooke that I could talk to. I have spoken to Ralph Armstrong author of “Short Cruise on the Vyner Brooke”.
Anyone alive from the women’s camps. They were moved around a bit from Muntok to Palembang and then to Belalau. All of the surviving Australian Army nurses have now died – so it would be someone who was a child at the time.
Any related documents, personal papers or diaries. I have seen the official statements for the War Crimes Tribunal in The Archives in Australia of anyone who witnessed either the aftermath of the massacre (by washing ashore later, or by being out at sea and viewing it at a distance). I have also been in contact with Stoker Lloyd’s granddaughters and they have nothing further
Documents related to the Japanese soldiers – any accounts from their perspective. They were two companies of the 229th Regiment of the 38th Division of the Japanese Army under Major-General Tanaka (the same Division that took St Stephens Hospital in Hong Kong and raped and killed British and Chinese nurses). There have always been rumours the nurses were violated prior but there is no definitive evidence I have seen. If it exists then I would like to see this.
Anyone who knew the nurses when they were stationed in Singapore.
Making and marking memory: widening perspectives on Far East captivity
5 – 7 June 2020, Liverpool
Co-hosted by the Researching FEPOW History Group (RFHG) and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM), our 7th international conference will focus on the stories and creativity that sustained prisoners, internees and forced labourers throughout captivity. We will also look at the made, recorded and preserved memories that subsequent generations have drawn upon in their own responses to this rich and moving history. In doing so, we will look for different perspectives and new voices to shed light on all that is yet to learn about – and from – the experiences of captivity, internment and forced labour across Southeast Asia and the Far East.
Taking place during the 75th anniversary year of liberation, and in conjunction with LSTM’s Art of Survival exhibition, the conference will encourage delegates to think of the objects, poems, artworks, and stories that resonated with prisoners and enabled their narratives to endure for many decades post-war.
Located at The Liner Hotel and LSTM buildings in the beautiful city of Liverpool, speakers already confirmed include: award-winning novelist Mark Dapin, acclaimed history writer Damien Lewis, representatives from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, British Red Cross, Imperial War Musem, the WarGen history project plus many more family researchers, academics, photographers and writers.
To coincide with the publication of her latest article in History Today, Dr Clare Makepeace writes for RFHG about her moving research into POW war graves in Thailand.
A few years ago, I visited Kanchanaburi and Chungkai war cemeteries in Thailand, which lie approximately 80 miles north-west of Bangkok. The cemeteries contain the bodies of thousands of POWs who died while constructing the Thai-Burma railway. I was backpacking around Asia at the time and, in between immersing myself in the continent’s wonderful food and culture, I was visiting every historical site I could reach. While staying in Kanchanaburi, I also went to the Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre and Memorial Walking Trail and the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre. I still regard the latter as the best museum I have ever visited.
Visiting the war cemeteries was a profoundly moving experience. I had gone to war cemeteries in the past, but this was something different. I think part of the difference was due to my physical surroundings. The cemeteries felt like surreal enclaves. Their beautifully-tended green lawns and the peace and serenity that reigned within them contrasted starkly with Bangkok’s cacophony and concrete, from which I had recently emerged. Another reason for the difference was that, unlike in other war cemeteries, I could picture quite vividly the circumstances in which these men perished, that is while in captivity, while being forced to work on the Thai-Burma railway and, in all likelihood, from one or a combination of five diseases. Dysentery, malaria, tropical ulcers, cholera and malnutrition were the main killers. Knowing the conditions and causes from which most of these men died somehow made them more human, more tangible and more real.
However, I was moved most by the personal inscriptions carried on each man’s headstone. These inscriptions ensured I was not just scrolling through reams of names, ranks and ages, but that I was seeing individual after individual, and grieving family after grieving family. I was seeing a son who would never take up his place at the dinner table again when I read ‘He sits no more at familiar tables of home, he sleeps beyond England’s foam’. Or, when I looked at the inscription ‘Secret tears often flow; what it meant to lose you no one will ever know’, I saw bereaved parents, whose stoicism was hiding an untellable loss.
I decided there and then that one day I would write about these epitaphs. I felt there was a powerful story to be told: about how the bereaved in the Second World War made sense of losing a loved one in such horrific circumstances.
In 2017, I spent a couple of months reading the inscription on every single headstone belonging to the 6,609 men from the British armed forced who are buried at Kanchanaburi war cemetery, Chungkai war cemetery and Thanbyuzayat war cemetery. Thanbyuzayat lies just over the border in Myanmar. It contains the graves of those who lost their lives along the northern section of the line.
When I read these thousands of inscriptions, some stood out for their tenderness, others for their intimacy, some for their anger and a few for their appalling stories of parental loss. I dug deeper behind the names and inscriptions, to unearth what I could about the life of each of these prisoners. Beyond these individual stories, when I looked at the epitaphs as a whole, I was able to draw some broad conclusions about how people made sense of their bereavement in the Second World War.
My research has just been published in this month’s edition of History Today. I’m delighted to see it in print but, if truth be told, I’m also feeling some trepidation. When we write history, we have to be as accurate and informative as we can. That’s a given. But the more I know about what prisoners of war went through and the more I understand the trials they faced, the more I hope I write about them with the respect and sensitivity I think they deserve. I feel an increasing sense of responsibility not to let their memory down. Today I feel that obligation more than ever. I’m not sure if that attachment to my subject makes me a good or a bad historian. I think I’ll let you decide. If you read my article, perhaps you can let me know.
In the latest edition of our guest blog series, Dr Terry Smyth – Community Fellow at the University of Essex – writes about his PhD study investigating the consequences of having a father who had been a Far East prisoner of war. Having now completed his doctorate, he reflects for RFHG on how it all started, where it has taken him, and a few thoughts along the way…
A Tale of the Unexpected
For 65 years, a PhD was never even a speck on my horizon. Why then after all these years did I choose to dedicate four years of my life to this task? At the heart of my research was a nagging question that demanded an answer. The selfish answer to this question was that I wanted to get to the bottom of how my own childhood had been shaped by my father’s captivity. Less selfishly, I wondered how far my experiences had been shared by others. And I realised that I could only answer these questions by getting off my backside and talking to others in a similar position.
My first stroke of luck was to be within easy driving distance of Essex University where serendipity had created a home for two formidable scholars whose academic interests neatly complemented my own – Professor Michael Roper and Dr. Mark Frost, who eventually became my PhD supervisors. Google these names to see how lucky I was.
Conventional wisdom has it that most FEPOWs did not talk openly to their families about their time in the camps. But my research taught me that many of the men did in fact find ways of communicating their feelings and experiences. Repatriated FEPOWs carried their emotional and physical scars of captivity into the home, in embodied if not spoken form. Intense emotions have a crafty way of leaking out, and of passing between the generations without words being necessary. In fact, the very absence of words was often its own message. Many interviewees were quick to recall their fathers’ ‘silences’, and the sense of ‘emotional distance’ which went well beyond the mid twentieth century norms of male reserve. My research showed that this ‘distance’ could inhibit the formation of warm and expressive relationships between father and child, and often stood in the way of a ‘secure attachment’ with the father. These emotional after-effects could have lifelong consequences, including our choice of remembrance activities. For some, this meant undertaking pilgrimages, delving into the details of their fathers’ histories, or curating domestic mementoes – each of these, and others, allows us to revisit our childhood memories, and rethink the relationships we had with our fathers.
The interview process itself was complex. Conventional oral histories tend to be chronological, with the researcher guiding the interviewees through their lives step-by-step. But my approach was deliberately unstructured: interviewees decided how they presented their recollections and thoughts with minimal help from me. I had anticipated the emotional demands involved in this way of working, but I was much less well prepared for the intellectual challenge. Reflecting on this, I eventually concluded that the challenge grew from the difficulty in handling time (or, more precisely ‘times’) within the interview. I found myself simultaneously balancing three different time dimensions: ‘clock time’ as measured by my watch, time in the ‘here and now’; ‘biographical time’ i.e. the personal events that interviewees were narrating (which, of course, I related to my own biography); and ‘historical time’, i.e. the historical events of the war in the Far East that framed all the personal stories. To complicate things further, my own emotional responses to these stories also began to make their presence felt. As the son of a former FEPOW myself I couldn’t avoid comparing, consciously or unconsciously, my own experiences with what I was being told. These reactions occurred during the interview itself, while listening to recordings, when transcribing, or during the process of analysis. Such emotional responses are inevitable when researching from an ‘insider’ perspective.
One final thought. Captivity in the Far East brought with it a unique twist: the enormous ethical challenge evoked by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As many of the children said, ‘had it not been for the bomb I wouldn’t be here today’. This existential unease formed the backdrop to the interviews, and it still colours our thinking about the war in the Far East. My personal response to these moral dilemmas has been to work towards reconciliation; on a personal scale to support and nurture greater mutual understanding between the descendants of former enemies. But that’s another story altogether.
The 7th International FEPOW History Conference
Liverpool, UK 5 – 7 June 2020
What you need to know:
Co-hosted by the Researching FEPOW History Group (RFHG) and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM), our next conference will take place during the 75th anniversary year of liberation in conjunction with LSTM’s Art of Survival exhibition.
An exciting line-up of speakers already confirmed, including acclaimed history writers, historians, novelists, photographers, museums, libraries and archives.
Places will be limited — be ready for booking to open in Spring 2019!
Ashley George Old was born in 1913 and grew up in Northamptonshire. He studied at the Northampton School of Art and later worked pre-war as a commercial artist in the men’s fashion industry. During WWII he served as a Gunner in the 5th Sherwood Foresters. Captured in Singapore following the capitulation on 15 February 1942, he was first held at Changi POW camp before being moved to Thailand.
Throughout captivity, Old used his artistic talent to create watercolour portraits of fellow POWs in exchange for a fill of tobacco. Many examples, like the one above, are to be found in private ownership and museum collections. He used the local laterite clay, which when dried, ground and mixed with water created his signature rusty reddish hues, so familiar in much of his work.
Old’s medical artwork is remarkable. Along with a handful of other British servicemen who were trained artists, in particular Gunners Chalker, Searle and Meninsky, Old worked secretly for the POW medical staff in the hospital camps of the Thai-Burma railway (the Japanese had banned the keeping of any records, written, drawn or painted). Working often when they too were sick, these courageous men documented the scenes before them, recording for future reference the realities of the herculean battle to keep desperately sick men alive.
Old’s detailed and graphic depictions add greatly to our understanding of the conditions that prevailed, including the extraordinary medical ingenuity employed by Allied POW in the base hospital camp at Chungkai in Thailand. Following liberation, Old and Meninsky stayed on at the request of Australian POW surgeon Major Arthur Moon, working in Rangoon for a few weeks recording medical cases in hospital.
Throughout his post-war life Ashley Old struggled with the after-effects of his captivity. He was one of the most talented and yet remains perhaps the least well-known of the British FEPOW medical artists. He died, aged 88, in 2001.
Eric Lomax’s book, ‘The Railway Man’, records his terrible experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war. The book inspired the film of the same name starring Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman and Jeremy Irvine. Charmaine McMeekin is Eric’s daughter and she will speak movingly about living with the painful legacy of her father’s experiences and her own journey to find peace and reconciliation with him. Charmaine was a nurse and midwife, she is now a counsellor and psychotherapist in Edinburgh.
Captain Clarkson Blackater was also captured by the Japanese in 1942 and sent to work on the notorious Burma -Thai Railway. The secret diary he kept during his ordeal became the basis of his book ‘Gods Without Reason’. His daughter, Phyllida, and grandson, Piers Bowser, will use extracts from his book, along with private letters and poems to reveal how his faith and his love for his family sustained him through his dark days in captivity.