During their three and a half years of imprisonment in the Far East, POWS suffered overwork and maltreatment, but also undernutrition and exposure to various tropical diseases. This frequently led to attacks of malaria and dysentery, as well as various syndromes of vitamin deficiency. Tropical ulcers and cholera outbreaks also occurred – particularly in the jungle camps of the Thai-Burma Railway.
In September 1945, Professor Brian Maegraith of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) addressed a group of families in Blackpool, whose relatives were ex-POWs on their way home. Maegraith warned of likely relapses of malaria and dysentery, as well as psychological problems. Contrary to standard advice, he told the families to “let them talk” of their experiences. Below is a photo of this meeting published in the local Blackpool newspaper.
A letter appeared in the British Medical Journal in December 1945, drawing attention to the inadequacy of medical screening of returning Far East POWs. Dr F E Cayley (himself a former Burma Railway POW doctor) pointed out the high rates of intestinal parasitic infections amongst these men (notably amoebiasis – the main cause of dysentery relapses), and recommended routine microscopic examination of stool specimens. Such examinations were almost never done, the only relevant precautionary measure being an information leaflet given to some returning Far East POWs, the text of which is shown below –
INFORMATION LEAFLET FOR THE MEDICAL ATTENDANTS OF A REPATRIATED PRISONER Some diseases, which do not normally occur in this country, are present in the countries in which you have been serving. It is essential for the protection of yourself, your family and your friends and to prevent any possible epidemics of disease in this country that any illness from which you may suffer while you are on leave, or after your release from the Services, should receive immediate medical attention. Notes for Medical Practitioners The following diseases commonly occur in the Far East POW – Malaria, Dysentery (including Amoebic Dysentery), nutritional deficiencies, skin diseases and worm infestations.
Failure of adequate medical screening and follow-up of returning Far East POWs was a lost opportunity which was to have lasting effects. Post-war, over 4,000 of these men were seen at the military hospital Queen Mary’s Roehampton (1945 to 1967), and a similar number at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (1945 to 1999). There were early relapses of malaria and dysentery, increased tuberculosis risk, chronic intestinal worm infections, and permanent neurological damage due to vitamin B deficiency. Perhaps most importantly, over one-third suffered significant psychiatric illness, later recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Thankfully, there were some benefits from this unfortunate episode. The Liverpool School conducted a major research project on the long term health problems of ex-Far East POWs, leading to a series of papers in the medical literature. These have significantly contributed to the knowledge-base and clinical practice of both tropical and military medicine. As numbers of ex-POWs declined, the LSTM FEPOW Project has moved to recording the oral, art and medical history of the POW experience. This has resulted in the books Captive Memories (M Parkes & G Gill, 2015), Burma Railway Medicine (G Gill & M Parkes, 2017), and Captive Artists (M Parkes, G Gill & J Wood, 2019) – see the captivememories.org.uk website for more details.
In the Philippines, General Tomoyuki Yamashita formally surrenders all remaining Japanese forces to General Wainwright at Baguio. This is a reversal of when General Wainwright had been forced to surrender his forces to General Yamashita in 1942.
The unilateral cease-fire on 15 August should have resulted in an immediate improvement of the plight of the PoW. The Japanese had been ordered to do so. However, in some places the conditions had deteriorated to such an extent that the dying continued before the situation was brought under control.
The predicament at Palembang
RAPWI team ‘Blunt’ entered its assigned camp at Palembang, Sumatra on 4 September and four days later reported: ‘908 PoW, 272 hospitalized and 249 died of malnutrition and illness’. According to a message 10 September the situation had not improved: ‘British 470, hospital 150. Many dying. Civilian men, women and children. Need urgent medical relief air supplies.’ Another two days later SEAC HQ in Ceylon received a request from Palembang for a medical team immediately because ‘Doctors here are as weak as patients and cannot cope. Medical supplies […] urgently required. Immediate evacuation of sick essential; 50 by air and 200 by sea’. Even Lord Bevin (Minister of Foreign Affairs) in London was worried (message 12 September): ‘Almost complete absence of information about Java and Sumatra in contrast to voluminous publicity about other areas is causing alarm…. There is in fact ground for concern since deaths actually reported by Japanese through International Committee Red Cross in Geneva are much higher in proportion than anywhere else in the Far East.’
Dr. Reeds analysis of the sharp increase in mortality is equally clear: ‘a policy of starvation’ as he called it. On 27 May 1945 the rationing was cut by the Japanese (measured in grams of rice):
none / ill
Even these rations were not met; one week only 233 gr was issued. On 21 August, a week after the cease fire, the rations increased. Dr Reed noted that before 27 May the main cause of death was disease (dysentery); after 27 May it was starvation. He also noted that the starvation due to the 27 May decease became apparent in 6 weeks; whereas the recovery from 21 August was immediate. Dr Reed allowed for the psychological factor of liberation and the increase in morale: “The general effect of being able to put a man off duty and tell him to lie back and absorb his 500g of rice per day had to be seen to be believed.”
Air Supply by the RAPWI
Before the arrival of the RAPWI teams, the RAF dropped supplies to all known camps in South East Asia. This operation to supply the camps by air was called ‘MASTIFF B’ and started with Red Cross supplies of a general nature. As the RAPWI teams entered the camps they would take stock of the material needs and place orders with RAPWI Main Control on Ceylon. RAPWI Main Control would make an assessment of all the requests of all the camps in SEAC and the availability of supplies and aircraft and allot them accordingly. There were 4 categories of supplies and 2 kinds of packing: containers and packs. For Palembang the supplies were delivered:
Capt Mockler RAMC parachute
The chart shows that the after the initial Red Cross supply droppings, the supply ceased until the RAPWI team Blunt managed to place orders mainly for food and medicine as well as an additional medical team.
Evacuation to Singapore
Following the advent of RAPWI team Blunt the situation improved and after 12 September things happened quickly:
12 live broadcast of surrender ceremony in Singapore shared with PoW
13 Medical team lead by Dr. Mockler arrived (by parachute) from Ceylon
14 Japanese finally cooperated: they were helpful in giving supplies of food and
clothing. “Their attitude has lately been correct” as RAPWI team Blunt put it.
15 new hospital was put in operation
19 Palembang visited by Lady Mountbatten which was ‘extremely popular’
15 – 20 all 240 ill PoW evacuated by Dakota to Singapore
21 – 25 evacuation of the 600 British by Dakota to Singapore
Medical evacuation of PoW from Pakan Baroe to Interview of PoW from Singapore, 17 September. Pakan Baroe, Sumatra Palembang in Singapore is not Palembang, but the scene was similar.
Two pictures of Lady Mountbattens tour on Sumatra 15-19 September, camp not known.
The Japanese should never have mistreated their PoW and put their heath and lives in peril. Throughout the war and in all camps the treatment had been brutal and negligent. But Palembang may have been one of the few camps genuinely in acute danger of mass starvation for whom the Japanese cease fire came in just time. It did not, however, result in an immediate improvement of the situation; this only occurred a week later when the rations increased. The advent of the RAPWI team Blunt on 4 September lead to improvements, although it took yet another week (11 September) before the RAF started delivering the supplies that were desired. But the end was in sight; the evacuation of the ill PoW commenced 15 September and after completion is was the turn of the healthy to leave.
One cannot undo the past, but one can count the possible difference made by compliance by the Japanese to the terms of the Allies and a much sooner arrival of the British RAPWI teams on Sumatra.
 Captain J. Mockler is one of the few RAPWI-personnel that died in active duty. On 5 November Mockler (IAMC) and J.W. Smith (RAA) were supervising the evacuation of RAPWI at Benkulen, Sumatra. They were attacked and Smith was wounded. Mockler died and was buried in Palembang; he now rests in Jakarta.
 The AWM description is problematic. There weren’t any Australians in Palembang and the men seem very emaciated despite having had food and rest for a month.
My father, Captain Atholl Duncan, kept a diary throughout his captivity in Java and Japan until 30 January 1945 when it became too dangerous. On 15 August that year he finally felt safe enough to resume chronicling events. Over the next few weeks made copious notes covering the intervening months.
This is the last photograph taken of him, newly liberated but still at Miyata camp on the island of Kyushu. He weighed under seven stone and was awaiting evacuation from Japan. His party of British officers, transferred from Zentsuji in June that year, finally left Miyata on 20 September 1945. He noted:
“On the 19th, the B-29s again paid us a visit, dropping more than 500 cases of food etc, and I was rather ironical to think that we should be deluged with supplies when they were of no use to us. However, the were not wasted as they were collected and distributed to Chinese POW camps in the area, and I have no doubt that they would not be long in polishing the whole lot off. The afternoon and evening were spent dumping all unwanted kit and attending to the hundred and one odd jobs which cropped up and as we were due for an early start on the morrow, I went to bed early.
Next morning, I rose at 4am and was ready to move off at the scheduled 5.15 when lorries transported us down to the special train which was to convey us to Nagasaki. Before leaving, we all bequeathed our cast off clothing and surplus food supplies to the Koreans who had been acting as servants to us for the past week or so; poor creatures, they almost fell on our necks and wept when they realised they could take what they pleased, and the last we saw of them as we marched out of the gates for the last time, was a line of bowing orientals, all saying, “Sayonara, hancho arigato gosiemus” or in English, “Goodbye, Sir, thank you very much”.
“The journey to Nagasaki was pleasant and uneventful taking about six hours to cover the 80 miles. We had heard stories about the destruction caused by the atomic bomb which had been dropped there but were quite unprepared for the sight we saw. The town lies at the head of a long narrow inlet which is surrounded by wooded hills, the factory region having been at the top of the “U”. The first thing that caught our eye was a hillside of trees completely stripped of foliage giving it the appearance of a petrified forest. We then came into what had been the town, but what was now a pile of rubble, twisted steel girders, tangled cable wires and charred ruins, and all the way down to the docks – a distance of several miles – the same utter and complete devastation existed. Nagasaki as a town had ceased to exist!”
This photograph, taken across the dashboard of a US Coastguard Jeep in mid-September 1945, shows part of the devastated city. Taken by US Coastguard officer Lt Richard C. Nomsen who was an officer on USS LST 795, part of the American repatriation force anchored in Nagasaki Harbour. The ship had taken part in the landings on Iwo Jima and Okinawa earlier that year.
Incredibly, rail links to the dock area were still open and Duncan described the scene awaiting their arrival on the quayside station platform:
As the train drew into the docks, we heard the strains of a band playing, “California, here we come”, and as we came to halt, men and officers of the US Navy and Marine Corps cheered us and then led us to a canteen where we were given doughnuts and coffee, and where two ladies of the American Red Cross bade us all a welcome.
The photograph above shows an earlier party of former POW arriving off a train on to the same quayside platform at Nagasaki on 13 September 1945.
A week later this photograph was taken on the same platform. Sent to me in 2003 by the photographer, former Lt Dale Rowland USCG a crewmember on USS LST 795, it shows my father’s party being led down a ramp to the awaiting US Red Cross teams at the station.
“Before we knew where we were we had been shepherded off to tables where orderlies and doctors questioned us about treatment, health etc, after which we dumped all our clothes, put any valuables we wished to retain in a bag for disinfecting, were given a shower, issued with new clothes, more food and drink, toilet kit, cigarettes, writing materials, towel, boots and a news bulletin, put on a landing barge and whisked off to waiting shipping, which was due to sail that afternoon. All of this occupied less than three quarters of an hour and is the finest piece of organising I have ever seen.”
Another of Rowland’s photographs is this one taken on board the LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicles and Personnel). The man on the left of the vessel, second back from the boarding ramp, facing the camera and with a cigar in his mouth, could possibly be my father, the resemblance is uncanny.
His notes continued:
“Before any of us had time to realise it, we were off Japan and on Allied territory – to wit, an American ship. Once again, our reception was terrific, everybody welcoming us and enquiring if there was anything we needed. I’m afraid they must have thought us all a bit queer as we fired question after question at them on every conceivable subject form war news to the prices of cameras and watches.”
“The boat which was to take us away from Japan was L.S.T.–795, or Landing Ship Tanks, No.795. It had a doorway and ramp in the bows and when our landing barge drew alongside, the bow doors were open, so we ran onto the parent vessel. Cabin accommodation was provided for officers while the men were housed in the main tank deck with camp beds on which to sleep. That evening, after we had sailed, a cinema show was put on for our benefit – Cary Grant in ‘Once Upon a Honeymoon’ – and when we retired for the night onto beds with spring mattresses and brand new snowy white blankets, we all agreed that it was hard to believe that in 24 hours so much could have taken place.”
Duncan shared a cabin with Coastguard officer Lt Richard Nomsen during the two-day voyage to Okinawa. Perhaps they discovered a shared interest in photography as Nomsen gave him four photographs, two of the ship’s crew and two of scenes around Nagasaki.
On the back of the crew photograph the third signature is Nomsen’s and below him, Commanding Officer Lt Shevlin (my father has written the ship’s name at the bottom).
While on board he wrote a letter home to the family and his fiancée Elizabeth, enclosing the handwritten notes that he had made since 15th August. At Okinawa he transhipped to USS Renville for the longer voyage to Manila in the Philippines, arriving on 1 October. After nearly three weeks in an Australian tented transit camp there, on 19 October he boarded the USS General Brewster bound for San Francisco. They docked on 1 November and while the rest continued their homeward journey travelling by train to Canada, he stayed in nearby Oakland with family friends for a few days. A few days’ later he took the train to New York where, on 12 November, he boarded HMT Queen Mary for the final leg of his journey around the world. He docked in Southampton on Sunday 18 November.
The Argyll’s pipe and drum band was playing on the quayside where his father was waiting for him. They arrived back to the family home in St Andrews two days’ later.
Two months’ later, on 30 January, he married Elizabeth. By April he had returned to the university in St Andrews having transferred courses from engineering to study medicine. He qualified in 1950 and became a GP in Wirral in 1951.
The diaries are a precious reminder of those years. He allowed me to transcribe them providing copies for myself and my sisters, finally entrusting them to my care. He never forgave the Japanese for the needless neglect, brutality and suffering meted out to POW and innocent civilians during the war. He never forgot the friendships he made, nor those he had to leave behind.
The diaries were self-published in two parts, “Notify Alec Rattray…” (2002) and “…A.A. Duncan is OK” (2003). Sharing the diaries led to my working with Geoff Gill at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Visit www.captivememories.org.uk to find out more about our research. My thanks to Dad for allowing me access to his diaries in my early 20s, and for sharing so much about his captivity. Thanks to the late Dale Rowland, who in 2002 shared photographs and invaluable insights with me about the first leg of my father’s journey home.
Paula Kogel a young German woman married to a Dutch man and interned with her two young sons in Tjideng, Batavia (now Jakarta)
From ‘The House at Ampasiet’ (British publication by Matador). Used with kind permission from Lore Ridings, Paula’s daughter.
August 1945: One day (no date given) at around ten in the morning we were summoned to roll call on the main square….A Japanese officer stood on a small stage so that he could oversee us all and we were forced to look at him…There was no longer an aura of power emanating from him, more loss of spirit,… finally he started to talk. It was clear he found it difficult.
“Ladies, we have to tell you that Nippon has been forced to capitulate. The capitulation came after a new type of bomb was dropped on my country which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of victims. You are now free.”
We stood there a crowd of shabby looking women and children…We stayed silent. Nobody cheered, nobody moved. The terrible second world war had ended – but nobody had a Dutch flag. And nobody celebrated the liberation.
Life slowly came towards us, to greet us with a smile.
Things were happening fast, the camp gate was wide open and left so. When a group of English officers first marched into Makasar some women bowed to them until they were told to stop. My father walked through the camp gate one afternoon. We had not seen him for three and a half years. He was not a big man… “Jongeetje, let your mother and me talk” he said in a low tone. But no-one called me Jongetje “little boy” any more; old little boy maybe.