A Tale of the Unexpected

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.

All words © Terry Smyth, 2018.

Save the Dates: RFHG Workshop and Conference

Two FEPOW research dates for your diaries….!

Captivity, internment and forced labour across the Far East during the Second World War.
Institute of Historical Research, London

10 June 2019

If you would like the chance to speak at our next workshop, please send a 200 word summary of your proposed talk to researchingfepowhistory@gmail.com by 25 January 2019.

  • Talks are welcomed from relatives of former prisoners/internees, undergraduate and postgraduate students, academics, cultural institutions and museums, as well as members of the wider public.
  • Registration will open in January 2019!

For more details, see our website: https://fepowhistory.com/call-for-papers/

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!

Keep an eye on https://fepowhistory.com/ for our guest blogs, and future announcements!

FEPOW Documentary Art Study: Ashley George Old

In the second in her blog series focusing on the artists celebrated in LSTM’s 2019 Art of Survival exhibition, Meg Parkes remembers Ashley George Old, a remarkable British Far East POW artist who, had he lived, would have been 105 on 3 November 2018.

ashley-old
Framed original 1943 watercolour portrait of Far East POW dental officer, Captain David Arkush RDC, painted at Chungkai hospital camp in Thailand by Gunner Ashley Old, 5th Sherwood Foresters (courtesy of the Arkush family).

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.

Old’s work will feature in the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine’s forthcoming Art of Survival exhibition. It will be the first time that artwork uncovered by researchers at the Tropical School will be seen in public, all of it created during captivity by over 50 previously unrecognised British Far East POW artists.

The exhibition opens in mid-October 2019 at Liverpool’s Victoria Gallery & Museum and runs until mid-June 2020, marking the 75th year since the ending of WWII and the liberation of Far East captives.

Stories of Hope and Forgiveness from the Burma Railway

Sat 27 October 2018, 7.30pm

Steeple Church, Nethergate, Dundee, DD1 4DG

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.

Tickets are £5  and available here.

Proceeds from this event are in aid of Erskine care for ex-servicemen.

75th Anniversry of the Completion of the Thai-Burma Railway

To mark the 75th anniversary of the completion of the Thai-Burma railway, Professor Geoff Gill writes for RFHG about the railway’s construction and its post-war legacy.

On the 17th October 1943 the Thai-Burma railway was completed, when lines from Thailand and Burma finally met at Konkoita in the remote jungles of up-country Thailand. The railway was 415Km (259miles) long and linked existing rail networks in Thailand (at Nong Pladuk) and Burma (at Thanbyuzayat). It crossed inhospitable jungle terrain and an elevation of almost 1000 feet. The line was constructed to aid troop and equipment movements to Burma, with a view to invasion of the Indian sub-continent. By the time it was completed however, the tide of the Second World War was turning and, effectively, the railway was not used for its original purpose (instead it was used to transport equipment and military supplies, not troops, until early 1945).

Completion of the railway was undoubtedly a major feat of engineering, but it came at a cost. The labour force consisted of approximately 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) – most British – as well as at least 150,000 forced labourers (romusha). All of those in working parties suffered overwork, harsh treatment, under-nutrition, and exposure to serious tropical diseases (notably malaria, dysentery, beriberi, tropical ulcers and cholera). POW medical officers and medical orderlies did a remarkable job in meeting these medical challenges, despite severe shortages of drugs and medical equipment.

The overall mortality of POWs on the Thai-Burma railway was just over 20% – tragic, but without the amazingly innovative work of the doctors and others it could have been much more. This is shown by the mortality rates of romusha (at least 50%) – largely related to their lack of regimental organisation or medical support.

After the war, survivors of the Thai-Burma railway faced continuing problems, and many suffered relapses of malaria and dysentery, long-term effects of malnutrition, intestinal worm infections, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) was the leading centre looking after British ex-POWs affected by these problems.  Patients at LSTM included Stanley Pavillard, who was a charismatic and much-respected medical officer on the railway, and who wrote a unique record of his experiences, Bamboo Doctor.

A great supporter of LSTM in the post-war years (and later LSTM President) was  the ex-Far East POW Phillip Toosey, who was the Commanding Officer at Tamarkan Camp and involved with building the real “Bridge over the River Kwai”. The illustration below shows this bridge under construction – the photograph was taken by an Imperial Japanese Army officer who was an amateur photographer.

BRM Tamarkan bridge (2)

17th October 2018 marks 75 years since the railway; completion. It is in many ways a regrettable anniversary, but it also reminds us of the bravery of men under extreme adversity, and the ability of many to survive against the odds. The medical aftermath has also taught us much about the long-term effects of exposure to tropical disease and under-nutrition.

Geoff has reecently co-authored with Meg Parkes two books focusing on the POW experience: Burma Railway Medicine: Disease, Death and Survival on the Thai-Burma Railway, 1942 – 1945, and Captive Memories: Starvation, Disease, Survival. Both are published by Palatine.

FEPOW History Workshop – London – 10 June 2019: Call for Papers

Captivity and internment across the Far East during the Second World War

RFHG Workshop

Institute of Historical Research, London

Monday 10 June 2019

Following on from the success of our workshop in Leeds earlier this year, our next one day event will take place on Monday 10 June, 2019.

We are now inviting proposals for ANY 15-minute papers that fall within the broad subject of captivity, internment and forced labour across Southeast Asia and the Far East during the Second World War. All geographies, topics and approaches will be considered.

Proposals are welcome from relatives of former prisoners/internees, undergraduate and postgraduate students, academics, cultural institutions and museums, as well as members of the wider public.

Submission

Please submit abstracts of a maximum 200 words, plus a 50-word biography to RFHG (researchingfepowhistory@gmail.com) by 25 January 2019.

Further Information

Spaces for the workshop will be limited. Full delegate rates will be £25 including light refreshments – speakers will be offered a reduced delegate rate of £15.

Registration for the workshop will open later in the year. For all enquiries, please contact Dr Lizzie Oliver: researchingfepowhistory@gmail.com or contact us.

You can also download the Call for Papers here.  Please share it widely!

Jack Chalker’s Centenary

10 October 2018, would have been Jack Bridger Chalker’s 100th birthday. Widely known as the “Burma railway artist”, he is famed and remembered for his remarkable depictions of captivity under the Japanese during the Second World War: a vivid and uncompromising documentary of disease, death and survival thanks to remarkable ingenuity, in camps along the Thai-Burma Railway.  Meg Parkes and Geoff Gill write for RFHG about a remarkable man and his enduring legacy.

Chalker - working men cropped
Working Men © J.B.Chalker

Jack Bridger Chalker: 10 October 1918 – 15 November 2014

Born in 1918 in London, Jack was educated at Dulwich College and later Goldsmith’s where he studied graphics and art. Awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Art,  this was deferred due to the outbreak of war in 1939. He volunteered, joining the Territorials’ 260 Battery 118th Field Regiment Royal Artillery. In October 1941 Jack’s unit was posted to Singapore, sailing from Liverpool on the Orcades. Stopping briefly in India, his ship docked in Singapore on 29 January, just 17 days before the garrison faced a humiliating surrender to the Japanese on 15 February 1942.

After initial imprisonment at the vast Changi POW camp, he moved first to Havelock Road camp to work on the docks, before being sent north to Thailand arriving at Ban Pong on 19 October. Marched 160 kilometres north through raw jungle to Konyu River camp, Jack worked on the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway. Here the combination of disease, malnutrition and working like slaves meant mortality was high. A near-fatal bout of sickness had Jack moved south, first to Tarsau and then on to the larger POW “hospital” camp at Chungkai at the southern end of the railway.

During an interview in 2007, Jack recalled that early on in Changi he had drawn pictures of sexy ladies for his comrades for whatever the going currency was. But soon he was producing depictions of imprisonment in and around Singapore, including examples of Japanese brutality. On the railway he expanded this work to include the beautiful things that surrounded them – breath-taking scenery, exotic flora and abundant wildlife – as well as details of camp life. Later, at the base hospital camps, he concentrated on recording the medical problems and the improvised equipment used for treatments. In addition he also filled notebooks with anatomical studies. All this work was done at great risk as any form of record-keeping was strictly forbidden by the Japanese.

chalker - old
This exquisite 3” by 2” miniature watercolour, painted by Jack’s great friend and fellow artist Ashley Old, was done quickly, in secret and kept hidden.  It shows the aftermath of Jack’s near-fatal encounter with a Korean guard who spotted him sketching while in the sick hut at Konyu camp. Courtesy J. Chalker © Bartholomew family

It was at Chungkai that Jack worked closely with the Australian surgeon Colonel Edward “Weary” Dunlop and, after the Japanese official surrender in September 1945, he was invited by Dunlop to remain for a while in Bangkok, acting as war artist for the Australian Army HQ. There he completed and added to his collection of drawings and paintings, some of which were used in subsequent war crime tribunals as well as in medical journals in Australia.

On return to England Jack took up his scholarship at the Royal College of Art. There followed a highly successful career, including posts as Director of Art at Cheltenham Ladies College, Principal of Falmouth College of Art, and later a similar position at the West of England College of Art in Bristol. He retired in 1974.

After the war, Jack did not involve himself with the Far East POW community and for many years his artwork from captivity was largely unknown in Britain. In the early 1980s, Dr Geoff Gill at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) noticed some of Jack’s drawings illustrating a 1946 paper, published by Dunlop in the Australian Medical Journal. These were attributed to “Gunner Chalker” and for some time it was assumed that the works were by an Australian. However, eventually Jack was tracked down to his studio in rural Somerset.

jack and weary
Jack with “Weary” Dunlop, Somerset, 1980s © A.Chalker

Jack visited LSTM where he underwent tropical disease screening. He brought photographic copies of his railway art collection, which he presented to the School. His links and friendships with staff in Liverpool continued throughout the rest of his life.

Jack’s reputation as a POW artist grew and he published his epic book, Burma Railway Artist, in 1994 with a revised and expanded edition in 2007 (Burma Railway – Images of War). Though remembered mainly for the illustrations, Jack’s text in both books was a perceptive and detailed reflection of POW life and conditions. Tim Mercer, who published the 2007 volume, said: “Jack was one of the most special people I have ever met. No bitterness, no regrets and he even said he would not have missed his time as a prisoner of war for anything…Cheers Jack..!”

Jack was married twice and had three children. Those who knew him remember a delightfully modest and unassuming man. He held no bitterness for what he had experienced, and even said that he had benefitted enormously because of “all the wonderful people I met”.

Jack Chalker died on 15 November 2014, aged 96. Previously unseen examples of his artwork from captivity will be included in next year’s Far East POW Secret Art of Survival exhibition organised by LSTM and held at Liverpool’s Victoria Gallery and Museum, opening on 19 October 2019.

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Adrian Chalker and Tim Mercer for their help in compiling this tribute. Title image: Jack Bridger Chalker, 2010 © Parkes LSTM

 

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