Category Archives: News

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 it was never used for its original purpose.

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.

AWM096911.JPG
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.

AWM096919
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.

POWs Sumatra Railway
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

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.

painting
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

Lisbon Maru Documentary: Call for information

A call for information from Laurel Films – please contact Major Brian Finch directly (details below) if you are have any information that may help.

Laurel Films are making a documentary film about the sinking of the Lisbon Maru on 2 October 1942 and we would like to contact relatives of all those British prisoners of war who were on the ship. Please get in touch if you are willing to share your memories, photographs, letters or any other material. We hope that your contribution will preserve and respect the memory of your relative and help us bring this terrible human tragedy to life.

Anything you share will be treated sensitively. Screenwriter and producer Fang Li, who runs Laurel Films, has a personal ambition to ensure that the 828 British prisoners of war who perished in the disaster are not forgotten, and nor are all the other British and allied servicemen who fought in the Far East – many sacrificing their lives and others facing terrible suffering – all in the defence of freedom.

Laurel Films is an established Chinese film company with a string of successful productions and the winner of international awards and plaudits. We have pulled together an award-winning team to produce a comprehensive and authoritative documentary about the sinking of the Lisbon Maru.

We will be collecting data, film footage, documents, photographs and other material from a wide range of sources in the UK, the USA, Hong Kong, China and Japan to compile the most complete record of the incident ever produced. Your contribution will help us produce the fullest possible account, fleshed out with individual human stories, many of which will be very moving. The event is not widely known about and our aim is to spread knowledge more broadly. The film will be produced in English for an international audience and will also be screened in other languages. Filming has already started and we plan to release the documentary in early 2020.

We have appointed Major Brian Finch as our UK liaison contact. Brian served with one of the Lisbon Maru survivors, and has recently published his English translation of a Chinese book on the subject, A Faithful Record of the “Lisbon Maru” Incident, published by Proverse Hong Kong in November 2017. He can be contacted at: bfinch@tiscali.co.uk.