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Alicia Anckorn’s Creative Writing about her Grandfather, Fergus Anckorn

by Alicia Anckorn

My grandfather Fergus Anckorn returned home to England on 9th November 1945, after three years of captivity in the Far East. When I was growing up, he often told me of his experiences as a FEPOW, and would conjure vivid imagery as he spoke – such was his command of language and his storytelling ability. After my grandfather’s passing in 2018, I found that writing about him was a good way to deal with my grief. Below are two such pieces – a poem about memory and homecoming, and a story about my grandfather’s many encounters with Death. He was a very special man, and I am proud to share his incredible story and help preserve the memory of his extraordinary life.

Alicia with her grandfather

My grandfather passed away in 2018 at the age of 99. He was a prisoner of war of the Japanese, but also a talented magician, who used his talent with sleight of hand to help himself and his comrades survive in the camp. He was not a religious man, and although those who heard his life story would often suggest that a divine power was protecting him, he shunned this notion. For him, a benevolent God would not have left his friends to die, and he could not imagine why he would have been chosen to survive in their place. In 2016, part of his incredible life story was included in the final, winning act of a young magician and soldier on Britain’s Got Talent. I have an enduring memory of my grandfather standing onstage surrounded by the Household Cavalry with his medals glinting under the lights. I am lucky enough to be able to watch that moment over and over again; thanks to his numerous appearances on television and radio I will never find myself struggling to remember the sound of his voice, and how he would laugh when people gasped in amazement at his conjuring tricks and the astonishing tales of his wartime experience.

I had a very close relationship with my grandfather, and he instilled in me a love of stories and language. He was always adamant that when he died, his body was to be left to medical science. I am fascinated by the idea of so much history contained in the body of one person. The institution which received his body noted that with his donation, he would continue on as a silent teacher. His body and mind, each with their own constellation of scars, have now both served as testimony to the horrors of war, the power of forgiveness and utter embracement of being alive.

If my grandfather held anything sacred, it was the power of the written word, and the ability that stories have to transport us to different times and places. He gifted to me my first Terry Pratchett book, offering up a world of magic to which it seemed that my grandfather had always been privy. In Terry Pratchetts Discworld, Death is given a character and personified. Death is not cruel or malicious, but simply an entity trying to do a good job. My grandfather had many brushes with mortality during the war, from being blown up and nearly losing his right hand in the Battle of Singapore, to being one of only a few survivors of the infamous Alexandra Hospital Massacre. Towards the end of his life, I joked with him that Death would be out of breath from trying to catch up with him for so long, an idea which he laughed at and seemed to relish. Many people have commented before that he cheated Death, but I prefer to think of it it as an old, enduring friendship.

Fergus Anckorn, 1918-2018

22/03/18, 01:08am

Fergus awoke to a figure standing by his bed. The room was black as an inkwell, but he recognised the figure looming in the darkness.
MR FERGUS ANCKORN, BORN ON THE TENTH OF DECEMBER, NINETEEN-EIGHTEEN?
Ah yes, there it was. The words appeared in Fergus’ head rather than through his ears. It was nice not to need his hearing aids.
“Yes, but I suspect you already knew that, didn’t you?” Fergus sat up in his bed. He suddenly felt as though a weight had been lifted from his entire being. The figure projected a noise which reminded Fergus of a soft, far away rumble of thunder on an August afternoon. The figure may or may not have been trying to laugh.
I CERTAINLY DID, MR ANCKORN. THE NAME THING IS MORE OF A FORMALITY, TO BE HONEST. IF I APPEAR WITH NO INTRODUCTION, PEOPLE SEEM TO GET SPOOKED.
Fergus regarded the figure, without noticing he didn’t need to reach for his glasses to see. It looked much the same as the last time he had seen it – tall, draped in a hooded cloak which was so black it seemed to call to you to fall into its abyss. As before, the cloak seemed to ripple as though touched gently by an underwater current. Below the hood was utter darkness, but two ice-blue sparks held Fergus’ gaze.
“Scared? Of you?” Fergus asked. “That’s ridiculous, when I go, I’m not going to be frightened at all. It’ll be just another Tuesday as far as I’m concerned.”
WELL… YES. THAT’S THE THING, MR ANCKORN. I BELIEVE TODAY IS A THURSDAY.

“Oh. Today’s the day, is it?”
YES, MR ANCKORN. EXCUSE ME, I’M NOT VERY USED TO THIS. PEOPLE DON’T USUALLY HAVE MULTIPLE APPOINTMENTS WITH ME.
“No, I suppose they don’t! It has been a while now, hasn’t it? And I think you can call me Fergus now we’ve known each for so long.”
THAT’S TRUE ENOUGH. I THOUGHT I HAD YOU BACK IN 1942.

Fergus remembered. He remembered being a young man, clammy with terror in the drivers seat of a sweltering lorry, surrounded by explosions and gunfire. He could see himself curled up inside the shuddering metal leviathan when reality split open with a white-hot flash of light. He remembered a nebula of pain radiating from his right hand – and in the abject torrent of smog and dirt and blood, a presence, which regarded him for a moment and seemed to fade into the chaos. That was the first time.

The second time came shortly afterwards, in a hospital heaving with the wounded, where the walls seemed to crack under the weight of the tremendous suffering. Fergus was lying on a stretcher, ether-dizzy, drifting from consciousness to nothingness and back again. Then, through the thickness of sleep he heard the rough staccato of shouted orders and the sickly sound of blades invading flesh. Poor Mum,he whispered to himself as he tried in vain to stop the anguished screams of soldiers, doctors and nurses from reaching his ears. With Heraclean effort, Fergus dragged his head under his pillow and awaited his final visitor. Suddenly, he felt a slight pressure on his right hand, and blood erupted from the wound. It was as though his stitches had been loosened by the brush of ghostly fingertips.

NOT YET, MR ANCKORN, came a voice echoing inside his head.
WE WILL SEE EACH OTHER AGAIN.
The words rang in Fergusmind as he lost his grip on consciousness and fell back into the deep black trench of slumber. A Japanese soldier walked by the bed and saw a still, covered body, red blood advancing on the white sheet like the Imperial flag. Death had already visited here.

Fergus remembered the cruel assault of tropical heat and how the night would descend on the prisoners like an ambush. He remembered the ever-present background whine of hunger, like a badly-tuned wireless. He would perform magic tricks for his comrades in an effort to raise morale, in an attempt to forget that they felt like shadows of the men who had been captured. Every day another of his comrades fell, surrendering their lives to the heat, the starvation, the disease, and the brutality of their captors. Fergus felt himself vanishing in the wild indifference of the rainforest. He remembered standing in a line with other prisoners, a screaming guard in his face and a knife baring its teeth at his throat, when out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed a hooded figure…

Time stopped.
The figure was now facing Fergus dead-on.
Is this it now?asked Fergus, as his lungs wrenched in breath after breath, his body drenched in sweat and dirt.
IT CERTAINLY SEEMS THAT WAY, DOESNT IT, MR ANCKORN, came the reply from under the midnight-black hood.
Look at me,said Fergus, gesturing to his own skeletal frame, If you fancy a holiday, I could bloody well take over for you.
I’
M AFRAID IT DOESNT QUITE WORK LIKE THAT, the figure responded.
Youve been here for a long time now,said Fergus. “I’ve seen you. You took my friends.
I KNOW. ITS ALL PART OF THE JOB, MR ANCKORN.
Oh yes? Well. Let me show you what I do for a living. If you can tell me how its done, Ill go with you. What do you say to that?
The figure seemed to think for a moment.
WELL… I SUPPOSE I COULD PUSH BACK MY NEXT APPOINTMENT. IT TAKES A WHILE TO GET TO POLAND FROM HERE ANYWAY.
The livid guard and the other prisoners were still trapped in a single moment of fury and desperate fear. Fergus was not afraid.

Very good,said Fergus, the echo of a grin on his face as he undid the canvas strap on his wrist, which held a minuscule photograph of himself next to a bespectacled young woman with a broad smile.
Now,Fergus held the figure’s gaze. “Watch my hands very carefully…

Fergus let out a laugh which carried across the room from his bed.
”Oh yes, I got you there, didn’t I? Did you ever try to work out how I’d done it?”
SOMETHING TO DO WITH A RUBBER BAND?
“Well, I’m certainly not going to tell you now. But I ought to thank you. Your loss of that bet gave me seventy-five more years.”
I HAVE SINCE UPDATED THE RULES TO DISALLOW WAGERS OR CONJURING TRICKS OF ANY KIND.
Fergus grinned. He had never been a man to bow to authority. His reputation for audacity had led to some quite precarious situations during his time in the Royal Artillery. Anckorn, are you giving me a funny look? No sir, youve got one, but I didnt give it you. It was worth the punishment to see his friends laugh. And then there was that night in the camp when he was performing magic for the commandant, when he had worked out that if he made food items disappear and reappear, the guards wouldn’t eat anything he had touched. Of course – the prisoners were vermin to their captors. A tin of fish here, a couple of bananas there… it was enough to feed himself for a week, maybe even two. Then he’d got ambitious, and wanted to help his comrades, so he had come up with a plan. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, that particular plan had led to a fifty-egg omelette and a narrow escape from a nasty beheading. Fergus could have sworn he’d seen a shadowy form in the corner of the tent that day, too…
REMINISCING, ARE YOU, FERGUS?
“A little. You and I have run into each other so often. It’s rather strange that this is the last time.” ALL THINGS MUST COME TO AN END.
“Yes, of course. That’s something of which I am certain.”

DON’T YOU WANT TO KNOW WHY YOU SURVIVED? ALL THOSE CLOSE CALLS? IT’S BASICALLY THE NUMBER ONE QUESTION I GET WHEN IT COMES TO PEOPLE WHO HAVE HAD NEAR-ME EXPERIENCES.
Fergus shook his head and shot back, “No. What does it matter? I don’t think about yesterday – nothing can change yesterday, it’s history. Don’t think about tomorrow – you might not wake up in the morning. When I woke up each morning in the camp, I would think to myself, I must get through today, whatever happens. Now I’m about to head off into the next world. I’m a little surprised that there is a next world, but I’m ready. There’s no point wasting time wondering about why I got to this moment. I’ve had the most wonderful happy life, since those days. I just want to keep moving forward, whatever that might mean now.”
THAT’S… INTERESTING, said Death, putting a cadaverous hand underneath the hood in what may or may not have been an attempt to scratch its chin (if there was a chin under there at all).
I THINK YOU’RE THE FIRST PERSON TO TURN THAT OFFER DOWN.
“I wouldn’t feel bad about it,” Fergus replied considerately. “There’s a first time for everything.” YOU’RE RIGHT, said Death. I’M LEARNING NEW THINGS ABOUT YOU HUMANS ALL THE TIME.

“Right, well, we ought to get on with it, then.” Fergus stepped out of his bed with ease. Behind the spectral figure, a black door had appeared as if from nowhere. It swung open to reveal what looked like crisp English woods after a light rainfall. Death stood beside him.
EXCUSE THE DOG HAIR ON THE CLOAK. WORD GOT AROUND THAT YOU WERE ARRIVING AND SEVERAL OF OUR CANINE INHABITANTS BECAME QUITE EXCITED. ALSO, A WOMAN SAID SOMETHING ABOUT A WATERING CAN? I DON’T GET HALF THE THINGS YOU PEOPLE SAY TO EACH OTHER THESE DAYS.

Fergus glanced at the time-worn photograph sitting on the dresser by his bed. A plump woman wearing round spectacles and a floral dress stood in a garden in a bout of joyful laughter, a labrador with a shining black coat sitting dutifully at her feet, both frozen in a monochromatic sliver of time and space. “They’re waiting for me, are they? Oh, excellent. Well, it looks like I shall have a wonderful time.” He gestured at the door with a hand wrinkled like the pages of a well-worn book. Permanent bruises had blossomed like sakura under the skin, a map of enemy strikes, but his hand was strong and did not tremble now. “Do I just walk straight through?”

YES, FERGUS. IT’S BEEN A PLEASURE TO SEE YOU AGAIN AFTER ALL THIS TIME.
Fergus nodded at the figure, rose from his bed, and took a step through the door without faltering. A twig snapped on the damp grass underfoot. It was warm, with a slight breeze, and the clouds were sailing lazily across the sky. He looked over to Death, still standing in the room, which seemed to be getting smaller and smaller as he looked on. Death seemed to be gazing at something, a photograph on the wall, a skeletal hand outstretched to touch the tip of the glass frame.
AH YES, said Death. I THOUGHT YOU WERE GREAT ON BRITAIN’S GOT TALENT.



i think of you

the stories you told me

the place and time a dimension and a continent away,

with nothing to anchor them to here and now but

your voice

and my small brain

buzzing with words and questions  

it happened, you said.

you got through that day. and the next and the next

those three years are still out there somewhere

where you lost them

curled up on the forest floor

drenched in tropical rain, blistered from the sinful heat

crusted black with old blood  

in your memory –

the smell of iron

and sepia-toned dust from the roads shaped by

your feather-light footprints

the sun bearing down on you, an inescapable commandant

the railroad stretching before you,

a cruel and toothy grin.  

you took solace in the dark

the damp cold nights of england welcomed you home in silence

they did not judge

or try to understand

as the streetlamps softly lit your way

as you drew in each grateful breath

and exhaled wisps of gunmetal.  

now we sit together

and you tell me how it was

the years between us as wide as a river

and your stories a bridge to cross them.

Poem by Alicia Anckorn

A personal reflection on Civilian Internment in the Far East during WWII and Covid-19 lock down in the UK in 2020

Written during early ‘lock down’ by Dr.  Bernice Archer, author of: The Internment of Western Civilians under the Japanese 1941-45: A Patchwork of Internment. (HKUP 2008)

As I write on this May 2020 morning in this unwelcome, uncertain and scary world of Covid-19 (C-19), I have been in ‘lock down’ for 8 weeks. I am isolated, my freedom seriously restricted, anxious about the virus, unable to travel and ‘banned’ from visiting loved ones, friends and colleagues and they me.

But as I take my lone daily walk I have had time to reflect that 2020 is the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in the Far East during which approximately 130,000 Western civilian men, women and children were interned for at least three and half years by the Japanese.

In 1941/2 the interned civilians were traumatised by the battles. After the colonies surrendered, they immediately lost their freedom, were terrified of the enemy and fearful for their lives. Anxious about the future, they desperately missed loved ones, some of whom had been killed in the fighting. Their homes had been bombed and/or looted and they were now crammed into unfamiliar, unsuitable and unbearable overcrowded accommodation, surrounded by complete strangers from the outset of internment. 

In camp they were constantly aware of their enemy. They could see, hear and ‘feel’ their presence and often suffered physical violence. They must have felt powerless. But before long, many found ways to silently ‘mock’ their enemy, to circumvent their increasingly incomprehensible rules, avoiding contact whenever possible and in some cases perhaps found a way to accommodate their enemy.

Here and now, C-19 is our enemy. It is ‘out there somewhere’, maybe close, maybe not. We can’t see, hear, smell, feel or touch this ghostly, silent and invisible ‘presence’, until it strikes its unfortunate victims. It is hard to mock or to accommodate it. We too feel powerless. In order to survive, we must try to evade it, so mostly we abide by the rules imposed on us by our politicians and their scientific advisors, ‘social distancing’ friends, families and strangers. To quote the current political mantra, we are “staying home, protecting the NHS and saving lives.”

Historians have written much about how and why Far Eastern civilian internees found themselves in such a disastrous situation. Records show the disappointment, anger and frustration with politicians and senior military personnel who appeared complacent, under-estimating the capabilities of the enemy and the speed at which it would travel and overwhelm. It took just 100 days for the Japanese to conquer much of the Far East.

Evacuation plans were confused or non-existent. Western troops arrived late, and with local forces were under-trained, ill-prepared and equipped. As a result, approximately 130,000 civilians were interned with almost 15,000 dying, mostly from malnutrition and related diseases.

So, 75 years on, I think about how we are dealing with this C-19 enemy? Purportedly first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province, it reportedly arrived in the U.K. in January 2020. Since then there have been over 40,000 deaths. Questions and criticism abound – about lack of preparedness, under-estimating the timing of onset, the severity and potential of infection, the delayed start of lock down, inadequate medical equipment and testing, the disappointment, anger and frustration of exhausted NHS and care staff about PPE – all endlessly raised, discussed and debated by politicians, the media and the public.

Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing. But it should not be dwelt on if one wants to remain sane!

Looking forward then, comparing a C-19 ‘lock down’ with the experiences of Far East civilian internee internment, is manifestly incomparable. The mainly Dutch men, women and children captured and interned in Java and Sumatra suffered unbearable and unforgivable abuse and brutality at the hands of the Japanese soldiers. And although the internment of civilians in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines was perhaps less brutal, they also suffered interminable years of deprivation in dreadful conditions.

But how, after the initial shock and seemingly insurmountable challenges, did internees survive physically and mentally for over three years?

Daily routine was not a choice or an option, it was imposed by the Japanese. They had to adhere to Tokyo time, the Japanese calendar, rules and regulations, as well as adjusting to a harsh and alien environment. Morning and evening roll calls (tenko) were compulsory and could take hours. Days were filled with queuing for inadequate rations, washing and insanitary toilet facilities.

Their captors provided only meagre amounts of rice, rotting vegetables and occasionally meat. Hunger, starvation and weight loss were the norm, as was ill health, compounded by limited medical equipment, drugs and medical care. The overcrowding was constant and appalling, made worse whenever more people arrived. In Stanley camp H.K. it was recorded that:

There was a desperate shortage of clothes, beds, blankets, shoes, soap, toilet paper, brushes, disinfectant, refuse bins and material for fly and mosquito control.1

All rooms were overcrowded and in many cases one room contained a collection of men, women and children whether related or not. All possible odd spaces, holes under staircases, corners in passages, kitchens and pantries came to be occupied with no thought given to hygiene or public health.2

Of course, internees did not live without some strife. The overcrowding, stress, fear and uncertainties, the health of their children and whereabouts and survival of loved ones, were constant. But when I asked how they managed, the common response from all the women I interviewed was “We just got on with it”. 

But how?

After the initial chaos of internment, life began to settle to what we now refer to as a ‘new norm’.  Many internees eventually made new and unexpected friendships, they became creative, adapted old skills and discovered new ones. Innovation, adaptation and stoicism were the keys to survival in internment.

If you were fortunate to be interned with professional men and women then medical teams ‘built’ hospitals, gave medical care and worked together experimenting with drugs and medical equipment. Engineers, chemists and biologists surveyed the camps and created essential utilities. Gardening, after a fashion, became invaluable and essential to augment the meagre rations. Even in single-sexed camps the women formed work committees and allocated teams for various jobs. The ‘Womens’ Group’ in Stanley Camp Hong Kong argued:

“Above all our object as a women’s group is to be ready to undertake any work which is within our scope.” 3

And the Work Organisation chart prepared by the women in Changi Gaol records that:

“Office staff, Medical and Health Department, Education, Recreation, Labour and departments dealing with food, Finance, Red Cross and Creche….. Every woman had to clean her own sleeping accommodation, wash her own clothes and fetch her own food”….“ There were 247 other daily camp chores to be done but of the 398 women in the camp only 140 were available for heavy duty work and 186 for light duty, consequently many women found themselves doing more than one job.” 4

The work was unpleasant and demeaning. But the women found innovating ways to use it to communicate with their male relatives in other camps. As the women cleaned the drains they would shout and send messages through to the men’s section of the camp. The Changi quilts, recording the embroidered names of women internees and sent to the men’s POW camp a few miles away, are a perfect example of their sewing and embroidery skills and ingenuity; the ‘dustbin parade’, where notes were dropped in the bins for husbands to read:

“By the simple expedient of putting a note into a scarlet toffee tin in a dustbin and getting someone to warn my husband to salvage the tin”. 5

was another example of brave and subversive contempt for the rules. Both men and women used ‘selective’ wording in their Red Cross postcards home. 

Meanwhile each camp found ways to come together in groups, creating entertainments and other social activities – plays and concerts took place in most camps, although these had a ‘darker’ side:

“We were like a herd of elephants the women said, but had the nerve to do things we would not do normally as we might have been machined gun down at any time”.6

And even though there were fewer entertainments in the camps in Java and Sumatra, the amazing women’s vocal orchestra was created in a Palembang camp in Sumatra in 1943.

Has any of the above been reflected in this present-day C-19 situation?

I think it has. Engineering companies have changed profit-making production to produce ventilators and other breathing apparatus; willing volunteers are producing PPE equipment; scientists across the world are working together to adapt drugs to help alleviate the symptoms of C-19 and to create a new vaccine. In the community, there is home schooling, home-made face masks, gardening is becoming a lifeline for many with more people learning how to grow vegetables. Entertainments of course flood the TV, and for calming the brain exercise, jigsaw puzzles and books are the focus of much online shopping.

On a personal level, I have discovered the unexpected but welcome care and friendship of previously little-known neighbours who help with shopping and check on me daily. I have discovered new ways to communicate via Skype (Zoom was unsuccessful) and I am using email and text more. But should the internet collapse, I have discovered the joy of sending and receiving hand-written letters and cards. There is a new community spirit, as each Thursday evening more and more neighbours emerge from isolation to clap the NHS and other essential workers, to wave and chat – at a distance.

There are many families not so lucky, crammed into small flats with no outside space and little income, who are finding it even more difficult to adjust, cope and survive. Domestic abuse is rising, the virus is still active with no vaccine yet found. Covid-19 still holds us captive and, currently, ‘lock down’ remains in place.

Post War/C-19:

In due course historians, sociologists, medical, scientific, political and public enquiries will draw conclusions as to how we handled the invisible and stealthy C-19 enemy, and what lessons must be learned to avoid such a catastrophic global situation in the future. But when our ‘enemy’ is defeated there will be more and different challenges: economic and social, mental and physical health issues. How many people will have lost their lives or lost loved ones, homes, jobs and businesses? These are the inevitable consequences of every war or conflict.

What will our post C-19 ‘new norm’ be? Who knows?

Meanwhile I wonder what would civilian internees make of our responses to C-19 and ‘lock down’ today? Sadly, all the adults I interviewed have passed away, but it seems to me that implicit in their responses to internment, was the message: remain active both physically and mentally, adapt your skills, re-evaluate your needs and wants, standards and values, cherish friends and family.

Re-visiting the Far East civilian internees’ camp experiences has given me a whole new perspective on my C-19 ‘lock down’. It has lifted me out of my isolation inertia and highlighted ways to cope and manage these uncertain times. We are fortunate here in the U.K. that at least most, though undoubtedly not all, have enough food, ample clean water, functioning utilities, a bed to sleep in and the means, if only by telephone and the internet, to communicate with friends and family members.

And while we wait anxiously for our ‘liberating forces’ – the scientists – to find a vaccine to defeat the virus, we still have access to doctors and the medical and caring professions, some of whom are also making the ultimate sacrifice while helping others to live.

So, if they were here today the civilian internees would quite rightly be telling me to “Stop the self-pity, stop the moaning and just get on with it”!

******But Note to self: Next time get hair cut immediately before lock down! 


Footnotes:

1. Dean. A. Smith and Michael F. A. Woodruff. ‘Deficiency Diseases in Japanese Prison Camps’ in Medical Research Council Special Report. Series No.274 HMSO, 1951.p.14

2. Report by C.C.Roberts, billeting officer in Stanley Camp. Thanks to Charlotte Havilland for a copy of this report.

3. Hong Kong Public Records Office (HKPRO). Phylis Ayrton private papers, H.K.M.S No.72.

4 IWM. Dr. M. E. Hopkins papers.

5. AWM PR89/59. Letter, 4 September 1945, from Helen Beck to Colonel Stahle, pp 4-5.

6. Correspondence with the author from ex-internee, February 1992.)

On VJ Day 74: Letters between the generations

On the 74th anniversary of VJ Day, Ashley Prime writes for RFHG about his father, Lance Corporal Ashley Prime – a former prisoner of war in Singapore and Thailand – whose moving post-war letters have been published open access for all to read.

Ashley Prime
Lance Corporal Ashley Prime. Courtesy of Ashley Prime

I had of course always known that my father had been a Japanese Prisoner of War. I grew up with that always in our minds in our home, but it was never really seen as a negative. It was just there, and from my childhood, I recall kindly former colleagues of his visiting our home. They were always kind and I never felt any anger in the way they were. At least to me as a small child. 

Later in life, I was living in West Germany in my early twenties, and whilst back in London on holiday, I asked my father about the war and his experiences. He said he hadn’t really ever talked to me about it but did want to rectify that. We didn’t discuss anything further, but it was at that point that I started to receive a series of handwritten letters on A4 paper, over a period of around 18 months. He had been meticulous in keeping as many of the original documents as he had, including the postcards he had sent my mother, the only letter he had received from her and his record card. All in support of his letters.

And he wrote and wrote and wrote. Sadly he died in 1983 before he was able to complete his life story. He had written up to the mid 1950s and had therefore covered the fall of Singapore, captivity and liberation.

Ashley Prime’s letters can be accessed here: Ashley Prime: Calcutta to Singapore

 What did I take from the letters? And how did it change my view of my father? Firstly, there was throughout his letters a lack of anger, a lack of bitterness, with a pragmatic acceptance of his fate.  He said that ‘you will be back’ – the parting words from his wife – and ‘another life experience’ kept him going. 

 He had already said to me that forgiveness was one of the most difficult things to do. But holding on to bitterness eats us all away from the inside and doesn’t allow us to move on. And I think he did that with his captors, with the evidence of him giving them cigarettes, refraining from beating them and pitying them at the end of the war when the Japanese themselves became captives.

 And that is how I remember him. He was always kind, thoughtful, loving and caring. I rarely, if ever, saw him angry and he never raised his voice to me. I miss him today in 2019 as much as I do when he was here. 

 

All words © Ashley Prime, 2019.

26 June 1944: the sinking of the Harugiku Maru

To mark its anniversary, Dr Lizzie Oliver writes about the first of two sinkings of POW transport ships en route to the Sumatra Railway…

Seventy-five years ago today, 26 June 1944, a large contingent of Allied prisoners of war who had been designated to work on the Sumatra Railway were shipwrecked following ‘friendly fire’ by the British submarine HMS Truculent.

At the time, the former S.S. Van Waerwijk – renamed the Harugiku Maru by the Japanese – was being used to transport supplies from one side of the island of Sumatra to the other. What those aboard HMS Truculent didn’t know at the time, was that the ‘supplies’ being transported also included 730 Allied prisoners of war crammed down into the hold.

‘They had approximately 2’6” by 5’6”…in which to sit or lie with such kit as they possessed. There were no port-holes open on either side…There was such a congestion that the last 50 prisoners were literally beaten in the holds with sticks’. [Captain James Gordon Gordon, Royal Artillery]

Conditions during the voyage were exceptionally difficult, with meagre food and the only breaks up on deck permitted after the ship had been sailing for at least 18 hours. After much remonstration with their guards, groups of 25 men were able to go up for some fresh air every 15 minutes.

At 2pm on the 26th, two torpedoes hit the side of the ship. She sank within minutes; 180 POWs were killed, along with half of the 50 Japanese also on board.

After several hours in the water, the POWs were picked up and taken to River Valley Road Camp in Singapore. Here they would stay for three weeks until they were transported straight back to Sumatra. This time, they would find their intended destination: the jungle camps and exhausting labour of railway construction.

‘We walked…with our few worldly possessions – a sack or haversack, with a spoon and a dish, water bottle, a photo or two to remind us of loved ones at home, a toothbrush and razor blade which lasted me for 3 ½ years… We were to build a railway line…and the technical staff who were to supervise its construction, had already built a similar one in the north. We knew nothing of the Burma-Thailand line, nor that this one would be 220 kilometres long, and cross over the equator. So we toiled from daylight…until after dark, seven days a week’. [Allan Angus Munro, RAF; IWM ]

To read more, the paperback edition of Prisoners of the Sumatra Railway is available now. You can order it with a 10% discount via Bloomsbury here: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/prisoners-of-the-sumatra-railway-9781350118904/

Image: Wrecksite.eu

D-Day

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:

http://www.far-eastern-heroes.org.uk/Your_Gods_Stronger_Than_Ours/

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.

The Bangka Island Massacre

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….

dorothy-elmes
Dorothy Elmes, © Georgina Banks

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.

If you have any information, please email Georgina at: gbanks01@optusnet.com.au

 

THE 7TH INTERNATIONAL FEPOW HISTORY CONFERENCE – Registration Open

IMPORTANT UPDATE HERE

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.

Hope to see you there!

 

POW War Graves in Thailand

 

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.

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Kanchanaburi War Cemetery © Richard Stokoe

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.

chungkai
Chungkai War Cemetery © Richard Stokoe

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.

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© Mick Newbatt, CWGC.

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.

Clare Makepeace is the author of Captives of War. British Prisoners of War in Europe in the Second World War. She is also an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London.

All words © Clare Makepeace, 2019. Feature image: Kanchanaburi War Cemetery © Richard Stokoe.

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

 

Harry Stogden’s Pocket Watch – Louise Reynolds

In our latest guest blog, Louise Reynolds talks to us about her new research project looking at how the experiences of captivity across the Far East has affected subsequent generations. If you would like to be involved with Louise’s project, her contact details at the end of this blog.

Harry Stogden’s pocket watch

HS pocket watch
Harry Stogden’s pocket watch, courtesy of Louise Reynolds

This precious pocket watch is one of the very few items that Bernard Stogden owns, which belonged to his father, Staff Sergeant Harry Stogden, RAOC. Harry was a FEPOW who tragically died in September 1945 on the boat on the way home. He had carefully etched the details into the cover of the watch: it was purchased in Cape Town in December 1941, just one month before the allies surrendered in Singapore. Bernard says:  “I wonder how he managed to hide it from the Japanese?”  Then he says:  “I was only 4 years old when he went to war. I have gone through life without a father. I missed him then and I still miss him now.”

As the child of a FEPOW myself (Padre Eric Cordingly) I feel there’s an area of our research which has been somewhat neglected, which is how the experiences of the FEPOWs impacted on their families: the wives, children and grandchildren, and how it still echoes down through the generations today.

Some, like Bernard, grew up without a father, and others had frightening and negative experiences because the men were so traumatised by what they’d been through.  Other families were inspired to find out more about their relative and undertake extensive research which has been of benefit to the whole FEPOW community.  Some had fathers who wrote diaries and a lucky few have discovered bagfuls of treasures which survived the war and were put away in cupboards to be found years later.

Jeremy Stacy’s father, Eric, was a chartered architect in civilian life and when he was a prisoner he helped to design some of the little chapels they built in Changi, Singapore, and up-country, beside the Thai-Burma Railway. He made some beautiful paintings of them, one of which Jeremy is holding in this photo: St George’s “in the Poultry”, close to the chicken runs in the officers’ area and within the Changi gaol walls.

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Jeremy Stacy with his father’s painting of St George’s “in the Poultry”. Courtesy of Louise Reynolds

That’s why I’m getting this project together. I feel it is helpful for us to recognise that, as children, we have all been affected in some way or another.  The men returned home and many were told to keep silent, or their stories were neglected or ignored. That’s why so many of us have struggled to share their histories with a wider audience.

I’m trying to document the various ways in which the impact of the FEPOWs’ experiences affected their families and to understand how difficult it can be for later generations. It’s not an academic study: it’s a chance for us to tell our stories.

I’ve already completed several interviews, and I’m looking for more.   If there is anyone who would like to talk about their father, grandfather, uncle or other relative, and how his experiences in the Far East affected them and their families, please do contact me.

I’m aiming to have all the research completed by Christmas 2018 so please get in touch as early as you can.  You can reach Louise directly at:  louisereynolds99@aol.com  or fill in the contact form and we would be happy to forward  your message to her.

Words and images: © Louise Reynolds