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