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:
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.
To coincide with the publication of her latest article in History Today, Dr Clare Makepeace writes for RFHG about her moving research into POW war graves in Thailand.
A few years ago, I visited Kanchanaburi and Chungkai war cemeteries in Thailand, which lie approximately 80 miles north-west of Bangkok. The cemeteries contain the bodies of thousands of POWs who died while constructing the Thai-Burma railway. I was backpacking around Asia at the time and, in between immersing myself in the continent’s wonderful food and culture, I was visiting every historical site I could reach. While staying in Kanchanaburi, I also went to the Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre and Memorial Walking Trail and the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre. I still regard the latter as the best museum I have ever visited.
Visiting the war cemeteries was a profoundly moving experience. I had gone to war cemeteries in the past, but this was something different. I think part of the difference was due to my physical surroundings. The cemeteries felt like surreal enclaves. Their beautifully-tended green lawns and the peace and serenity that reigned within them contrasted starkly with Bangkok’s cacophony and concrete, from which I had recently emerged. Another reason for the difference was that, unlike in other war cemeteries, I could picture quite vividly the circumstances in which these men perished, that is while in captivity, while being forced to work on the Thai-Burma railway and, in all likelihood, from one or a combination of five diseases. Dysentery, malaria, tropical ulcers, cholera and malnutrition were the main killers. Knowing the conditions and causes from which most of these men died somehow made them more human, more tangible and more real.
However, I was moved most by the personal inscriptions carried on each man’s headstone. These inscriptions ensured I was not just scrolling through reams of names, ranks and ages, but that I was seeing individual after individual, and grieving family after grieving family. I was seeing a son who would never take up his place at the dinner table again when I read ‘He sits no more at familiar tables of home, he sleeps beyond England’s foam’. Or, when I looked at the inscription ‘Secret tears often flow; what it meant to lose you no one will ever know’, I saw bereaved parents, whose stoicism was hiding an untellable loss.
I decided there and then that one day I would write about these epitaphs. I felt there was a powerful story to be told: about how the bereaved in the Second World War made sense of losing a loved one in such horrific circumstances.
In 2017, I spent a couple of months reading the inscription on every single headstone belonging to the 6,609 men from the British armed forced who are buried at Kanchanaburi war cemetery, Chungkai war cemetery and Thanbyuzayat war cemetery. Thanbyuzayat lies just over the border in Myanmar. It contains the graves of those who lost their lives along the northern section of the line.
When I read these thousands of inscriptions, some stood out for their tenderness, others for their intimacy, some for their anger and a few for their appalling stories of parental loss. I dug deeper behind the names and inscriptions, to unearth what I could about the life of each of these prisoners. Beyond these individual stories, when I looked at the epitaphs as a whole, I was able to draw some broad conclusions about how people made sense of their bereavement in the Second World War.
My research has just been published in this month’s edition of History Today. I’m delighted to see it in print but, if truth be told, I’m also feeling some trepidation. When we write history, we have to be as accurate and informative as we can. That’s a given. But the more I know about what prisoners of war went through and the more I understand the trials they faced, the more I hope I write about them with the respect and sensitivity I think they deserve. I feel an increasing sense of responsibility not to let their memory down. Today I feel that obligation more than ever. I’m not sure if that attachment to my subject makes me a good or a bad historian. I think I’ll let you decide. If you read my article, perhaps you can let me know.
In the latest edition of our guest blog series, Dr Terry Smyth – Community Fellow at the University of Essex – writes about his PhD study investigating the consequences of having a father who had been a Far East prisoner of war. Having now completed his doctorate, he reflects for RFHG on how it all started, where it has taken him, and a few thoughts along the way…
A Tale of the Unexpected
For 65 years, a PhD was never even a speck on my horizon. Why then after all these years did I choose to dedicate four years of my life to this task? At the heart of my research was a nagging question that demanded an answer. The selfish answer to this question was that I wanted to get to the bottom of how my own childhood had been shaped by my father’s captivity. Less selfishly, I wondered how far my experiences had been shared by others. And I realised that I could only answer these questions by getting off my backside and talking to others in a similar position.
My first stroke of luck was to be within easy driving distance of Essex University where serendipity had created a home for two formidable scholars whose academic interests neatly complemented my own – Professor Michael Roper and Dr. Mark Frost, who eventually became my PhD supervisors. Google these names to see how lucky I was.
Conventional wisdom has it that most FEPOWs did not talk openly to their families about their time in the camps. But my research taught me that many of the men did in fact find ways of communicating their feelings and experiences. Repatriated FEPOWs carried their emotional and physical scars of captivity into the home, in embodied if not spoken form. Intense emotions have a crafty way of leaking out, and of passing between the generations without words being necessary. In fact, the very absence of words was often its own message. Many interviewees were quick to recall their fathers’ ‘silences’, and the sense of ‘emotional distance’ which went well beyond the mid twentieth century norms of male reserve. My research showed that this ‘distance’ could inhibit the formation of warm and expressive relationships between father and child, and often stood in the way of a ‘secure attachment’ with the father. These emotional after-effects could have lifelong consequences, including our choice of remembrance activities. For some, this meant undertaking pilgrimages, delving into the details of their fathers’ histories, or curating domestic mementoes – each of these, and others, allows us to revisit our childhood memories, and rethink the relationships we had with our fathers.
The interview process itself was complex. Conventional oral histories tend to be chronological, with the researcher guiding the interviewees through their lives step-by-step. But my approach was deliberately unstructured: interviewees decided how they presented their recollections and thoughts with minimal help from me. I had anticipated the emotional demands involved in this way of working, but I was much less well prepared for the intellectual challenge. Reflecting on this, I eventually concluded that the challenge grew from the difficulty in handling time (or, more precisely ‘times’) within the interview. I found myself simultaneously balancing three different time dimensions: ‘clock time’ as measured by my watch, time in the ‘here and now’; ‘biographical time’ i.e. the personal events that interviewees were narrating (which, of course, I related to my own biography); and ‘historical time’, i.e. the historical events of the war in the Far East that framed all the personal stories. To complicate things further, my own emotional responses to these stories also began to make their presence felt. As the son of a former FEPOW myself I couldn’t avoid comparing, consciously or unconsciously, my own experiences with what I was being told. These reactions occurred during the interview itself, while listening to recordings, when transcribing, or during the process of analysis. Such emotional responses are inevitable when researching from an ‘insider’ perspective.
One final thought. Captivity in the Far East brought with it a unique twist: the enormous ethical challenge evoked by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As many of the children said, ‘had it not been for the bomb I wouldn’t be here today’. This existential unease formed the backdrop to the interviews, and it still colours our thinking about the war in the Far East. My personal response to these moral dilemmas has been to work towards reconciliation; on a personal scale to support and nurture greater mutual understanding between the descendants of former enemies. But that’s another story altogether.
The 7th International FEPOW History Conference
Liverpool, UK 5 – 7 June 2020
What you need to know:
Co-hosted by the Researching FEPOW History Group (RFHG) and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM), our next conference will take place during the 75th anniversary year of liberation in conjunction with LSTM’s Art of Survival exhibition.
An exciting line-up of speakers already confirmed, including acclaimed history writers, historians, novelists, photographers, museums, libraries and archives.
Places will be limited — be ready for booking to open in Spring 2019!
Captivity and internment across the Far East during the Second World War
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.
Please submit abstracts of a maximum 200 words, plus a 50-word biography to RFHG (firstname.lastname@example.org) by 25 January 2019.
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: email@example.com or contact us.
You can also download the Call for Papers here. Please share it widely!
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
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org or fill in the contact form and we would be happy to forward your message to her.
We’re thrilled to introduce the first in a series of exclusive blogs for RFHG by Meg Parkes, previewing the artwork of previously unrecognised British military artists (both amateurs and trained).
These men took enormous risks to record and keep hidden their documenting of conditions and life in and around POW camps across south east Asia and the Far East during WWII. Since 2012 this artwork – identifying the artists and locating and interpreting their work – has been the main focus of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine’s Far East POW (FEPOW) documentary art study. In addition to the six recognised British military documentary artists held captive in the Far East (i.e. Searle, Chalker, Meninsky, Rawlings, Thrale and Old), the study has uncovered artwork by over 40 more previously unrecognised FEPOW artists. Largely held in private collections, mostly by the descendants of the artists, much has remained unseen by the public.
LSTM in partnership with the Univeristy of Liverpool, is staging an exhibition to showcase these artists and their work. Liverpool’s Victoria Gallery & Museum will host the show, opening on Saturday 19 October 2019 and running through till mid-June 2020, the 75th anniversary year of the ending of WWII and Far East captivity. LSTM first became involved in the care and treatment of returned FEPOW in late 1945. It has stayed involved ever since.
Andrew Atholl Duncan
Andrew Atholl Duncan was born in 1918 in St Andrews, Scotland. He studied mechanical engineering at St Andrews university and was proficient in technical drawing. As a member of the university’s Officers’ Training Corps (OTC) he took a commission in the Highland Light Infantry at the outbreak of war. While serving in the British Expeditionary Force in northern France he transferred to 6th Btn Argyll &Sutherland Highlanders (A&SH) and was drafted east in January 1941 to join 2nd Btn A&SH, part of Singapore’s garrison force. He joined HQ staff, trained in ciphers and was transferred to Java under General Wavell to set up British HQ in mid-January 1942. He was promoted in the field to captain shortly before fall of the Netherlands East Indies (NEI).
Captured in late March 1942 he was held at Tandjong Priok transit camp, on the dockside north of Batavia (now Jakarta) in Java, for the first eight months of captivity before being shipped to Japan to work in the coalmining camps in southern Honshu. Later he was transferred to Zentsuji and finally Miyata, a Dutch camp under a harsh regime in the mountains due north of Nagasaki.
He secretly kept diaries throughout his captivity and also made several pencil sketches of the interior and exterior of huts at Zentsuji, as well as detailed plans of three of the four camps he was in, drawn to scale and complete with compass bearings.
His pencil sketches and camp plans show an eye for detail. The sketches reveal a good understanding of perspective and give a clear insight as to living conditions in the camp he spent the longest time in (Zentsuji). He kept his diaries and artwork hidden throughout captivity in a false bottom and inside lining of a Dutch kitbag he had acquired.
Following his repatriation in autumn 1945, Atholl Duncan decided not to complete his engineering studies but instead switched courses to study medicine, qualifying in 1950 and becoming a GP in Wirral in 1951. He said his decision to study medicine was in part due to the extraordinary work he witnessed doctors and medical staff doing in camp.
Through much of his post-war life he spoke little of his experiences, taking just a few close friends into his confidence over time. He did not join a FEPOW club. Neither did he ever keep diaries, or draw for pleasure; both had served a purpose.
His diaries were published after his death. Atholl Duncan is one of the “unrecognised” artists whose work will feature in the Liverpool exhibition.
Remembering captivity across Southeast Asia and the Far East during the Second World War