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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.

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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.

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.

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!

Forgotten Men: Indian troops captured by the Japanese in the Second World War

Kevin Noles is starting the second year of a part-time DPhil at New College, University of Oxford, researching Indian PoWs of the Japanese. Below, he writes about his research into this little-known aspect of captivity.

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Indian prisoners from the Hyderabad State Infantry after their liberation in 1945. Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

A notable gap in the research on Prisoners-of-War of the Japanese, is the fate of the large numbers of Indian troops of the British Indian Army who were captured alongside British and Australian troops, largely at the fall of Singapore. The total number of Indian prisoners captured during the Malayan campaign was 67,000, a figure greater than the number of British and Australian prisoners combined. While the experiences of Indian prisoners were often similar to their European counterparts, a striking difference is that some switched allegiance and fought alongside the Japanese under the banner of Indian Nationalism, in a force called the Indian National Army (INA). It is this aspect that has received the bulk of the attention from historians thus far. In contrast, the scope of my research covers all Indian prisoners of the Japanese: those who served alongside the Japanese, and the majority who did not.

The research itself is still in its early stages, although it is clear that there are a number of relevant archives in Britain, India, Australia and elsewhere, some of which have only recently become available. Because of concerns regarding the INA, British Military Intelligence took a keen interest in their activities and in the process generated a considerable number of reports. These also sometimes contain information on Indian prisoners who had not joined the force. In addition, there were over one hundred post-war war-crimes trials of Japanese personnel, charged with the murder and abuse of Indian prisoners, and these also represent a rich seam of material. Although the number of memoirs is limited, not least because many of the Indian troops were illiterate, the archival sources now available provide a significant opportunity for new research.

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Lieutenant Colonel Ishaq, commander of the Hyderabad State Infantry, after his liberation. Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

One of the challenges of the project will be giving due weight to the full range of experiences of Indian prisoners. The ten thousand sent in labour gangs to the Southwest Pacific suffered some of the worst conditions and consequently suffered some of the highest death rates. Amongst them were the men of the Hyderabad State Infantry seen in the photograph at the start of this post. Under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Ishaq, the men of this unit had refused to the join the INA and were sent to the area to work as forced labour. Despite his new uniform the strain of Ishaq’s time in captivity is evident. The Japanese deployed Indian labour gangs throughout Southeast Asia, and such employment was the dominant experience for most Indian prisoners.

A category of Indian prisoner experience that has received little attention is that of those men who served with the Japanese, but were not members of the INA. This includes those who were commanded directly by Japanese officers, such as some Anti-Aircraft and Motor Transport personnel, as well as those commanded by Indian officers, such as the Changi Guard who were used to guard British and Australian prisoners. From a British perspective the Changi Guard represents one of the most notorious episodes involving Indian troops, not least because the Guard was used to execute British and Australian prisoners on at least one occasion. Understanding how such units operated is an important part of the overall picture.

Then there is the INA itself. Although it is probably the best-known aspect of Indian prisoner experience, it is over twenty years since a major work was published on the subject. The current project will not try and reproduce another general account of the INA military campaigns in Burma, but instead will focus on its propaganda and intelligence work on the front line and elsewhere.

Finally, one aspect of the research that has proved difficult relates to my wish to make contact with former Indian prisoners and their families. This is partly to learn more about the prisoners themselves, but also to explore how their captivity impacted their families, both during the war, and afterwards.

If anyone has knowledge of former Indian prisoners or their families please get in touch, as Kevin would very much like to make contact with them.

New play: Captain Duncan’s Diaries

A brand-new play has been written by Ann Warr based on the books by Meg Parkes describing her father’s adventures during three and a half years of captivity in Southeast Asia during the Second World War.

Based on the diaries that he managed to keep in that time, you will be amazed by this true-life story of Dr Duncan from Moreton, portrayed by our young actors during Wirral’s own premiere production.

The play is being performed on four dates as part of Wirral Arts Festival.

Dates and Venues:

October 3rd, 7.30pm: Church of the Good Shepherd , Wirral

October 5th, 7.30pm: West Kirby Arts Centre

October 10th, 7.30pm: Birkenhead Town Hall

October 12th, 7.30pm: St Mary’s Church, Wirral

Tickets are £5. For details of how to book , please go to the Wirral Arts Festival website and search for the play in the Events calendar.

 

On VJ Day, 73: the preciousness of tiny things

Chair of RFHG, Dr Lizzie Oliver, reflects on a year in which the lessons of history have offered a humbling reminder…

October 1945, Bangalore, India. Patrick Thomas Rorke sat writing an extended version of the words that he had spoken to his fellow POWs for the past three and a half years. They were words of patience and love from a man who had seen his compatriots severely beaten and killed before him. They were words of stoicism and forgiveness penned by a chaplain who had sold his vestments in order to buy fruit for the starving, sick men around him. Most humbling of all, they were words of hope and optimism, and of lessons learned during the bleakest of times.

‘Not many could live in the bad days, unless he had the support of friends…We learnt to give and to share and to lend without stint…What generosity and unselfishness was to be found in captivity; what patient and dogged care for those who were sick; what loyalty and comradeship and support for those whose circumstances were broken and bad’.
Patrick Rorke (1947), The Wisdom of Adversity.

Less than one month before his writing, Rorke had been liberated from Pakanbaroe, the base camp of the Sumatra Railway on which he had been held captive alongside nearly 5,000 Allied POWs and 100,000 romusha.

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Former POWs walking along the Sumatra Railway, September 1945. State Library of Victoria.

The railway was completed on 15 August 1945, the same day that Japan surrendered: this year sees the 73rd anniversary of its completion, and of the liberation of those held captive cross Southeast Asia and the Far East during the Second World War.

‘To have to wait, sustained by no real news, disappointed by the deceitfulness of rumours, on and on, week after week, month after month, for the great day. No one ever doubted that it would arrive; but when?’
Patrick Rorke (1947), The Wisdom of Adversity.

The anniversary of the Japanese surrender is always a poignant day for the communities of people who follow the work of RFHG. Many of us are the family members of those held captive. Many have undertaken painstaking research to find out the smallest details of a relative’s captivity, and have followed fascinating archival threads that help us to understand the why, who or how of this difficult history. As a result, we carry with us the stories that we have heard and read, and we hold fast to our aim of sharing them where we can, and as widely as we can.

After spending the last seven years reading and writing about the Sumatra Railway, and as the granddaughter of a man held captive on the line, perhaps it is inevitable that I  look from time to time to the histories of the camps not just to tell a story to others, but for a source of my own strength.

‘When one has lived so, for three and half years, and kept one’s soul and retained the ability to joke and smile, one feels that life holds no terrors any more. We’ve managed to survive this: we’ll cope with anything now’.
Patrick Rorke (1947), The Wisdom of Adversity.

Many of you know that at the start of 2018 I found myself in hospital, rather suddenly and unexpectedly, having broken my spine. The months since have been painful and frustrating, and there has been a lot of waiting to feel stronger and to be able to move easier. Plans have been put on hold as the precarity of life was brought starkly into focus.

And yet, I was lucky too. Exceptionally so. And all that waiting meant that I was forced to stop, completely, and appreciate what Rorke would call ‘the preciousness of tiny things’ – the memory of which he and his campmates came to treasure so much.

‘When a man has lost all that makes our life pleasant…he discovers for the first time, probably, the preciousness of tiny things… to sit on a chair and eat at a table from a plate; to walk in real shoes…to have paper to write on and a book to read…
We learnt the secret of contentment not merely by what we lost, but also by what was left to us: real and profound and lasting things that once we took for granted’.
Patrick Rorke (1947),The Wisdom of Adversity.

For all the stories of bruality that can be told about captivity, out of the horror and cruelty grew survival and resilience. The first contributors to our guest blog series have shown just how diverse the connections between history and memory can be: from Mary Munro’s pilgrimage to Hong Kong, to Meg Parkes’ FEPOW art study; Clare Makepeace cycling part of the route of the Sandakan Death March to Louise Reynolds exploring the transgenerational impact of these histories on FEPOW families.

They all remind us that there is much yet to learn from histories of Far Eastern captivity, as we remember VJ Day and those for whom we still tell these stories.

 

© Lizzie Oliver, 2018