By Louise Reynolds, Author
Good research requires several specialised skills but I never thought that the ability to decipher my father’s handwriting would be one of them. When my mother died in 2011 we discovered files full of papers connected with my father’s time as a FEPOW in Changi and then up-country in Kanchanaburi. My father, Eric Cordingly had brought home with him maps, artwork by fellow POWs, and even a complete typed diary of his first year in Changi, together with a Burial Records book, some hand-written sermons and some scribbled notes on odd pieces of paper. It was an extraordinary and vivid collection from his three and a half years as a Padre and prisoner of war, during which he faithfully carried out his duties as a priest under the most desperate conditions.
I immediately decided to publish a book containing these unique papers and set about putting it all together. The typed diary was a gift, it was just a matter of choosing sketches and paintings to illustrate the text. And, fortunately, for his final year back in Changi, he had written a report for the Assistant Chaplain General’s office in Rangoon.
But how could I cover the most critical time when, with F Force, he was based in Kanburi (as they called it) beside the River Kwai ? I came across a thin and flimsy Thai child’s exercise book containing detailed pencilled notes and some airmail paper with more notes about the conditions in the hospitals where he was working and from where he buried over 600 young men who had been labouring on the Thai Burma Railway. He instructed the doctors to let him know if anyone was close to the end and he would try to be at their bedside when they were dying.
But his writing, never easy at the best of times, was scribbled in haste and sometimes words or sentences were crossed out and so I began to transcribe it with great care and a lot of anxiety. I gradually discovered that if I took a run at it, so to speak, it was much easier to read because often the clues were in the context. Turning these delicate pages which may not have been touched for 70 years was a tactile experience in itself, and reading his eye witness account of the horrors of daily life was breath-taking:
“It is too harrowing to picture vividly a ward of men whose sole kit consists of a tin and a spoon and a haversack and a piece of rag, lying on bare bamboo, or rice sacks with no covering until later, blankets were issued. The patients present a sorry picture, their exhaustion is so complete that no pain is suffered, they slip into a coma and the end is peaceful. Each morning several bodies are lying still.”
The words I was transcribing told a sorry tale. The strange thing was that after twenty minutes or so of this painstaking and absorbing work, I felt that I had plunged into the jungle with them, and, when I emerged, blinking, into daylight, I was astonished to find the normal world going on around me. This happened to me several times. The cumulative experience of touching and transcribing the papers was very powerful. I wonder if other RFHG researchers have encountered this phenomenon?
You can read more in Down to Bedrock The Diary and Secret Notes of a Far East prisoner of war Chaplain 1942-45, by Eric Cordingly Published in 2013
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