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Survival in Extreme Conditions and Transition to Peacetime

By Edgar Jones, Professor in the History of Medicine & Psychiatry, King’s College London

Much has been written on the physical privations and diseases suffered by Far Eastern prisoners-of-war (FEPOWS) but less has been said of the psychological challenges and the post-traumatic illnesses that they experienced when in civilian life. The resourceful, fortunate and resilient group who survived provide an opportunity to study coping mechanisms and survival techniques in the most extreme circumstances.

Evidence gathered from survivor accounts suggests that there was no single method that worked for all. Prisoners devised coping strategies that fitted with their pre-capture skills and personality traits. Alistair Urquhart, for example, distracted himself through music and song, and a determination to survive:

‘I decided to stay apart from everyone else and focus totally on survival. I lived a day at a time in my own little world, a private cocoon, and adopted the position of self-sufficient loner… If someone spoke to me, I replied but there was no sense of community’.

By contrast others formed themselves into small groups so that if one fell sick or struggled to work, the others would provide cover or find extra food. Crucial for many was a skill or experiences that had prepared them for the challenges of captivity. Lt Arthur Scrimgeour of the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force had medical knowledge acquired in his job as manager of Glaxo’s Far East Company. When suffering from beriberi, he treated this by swallowing the husk polishings of uncooked rice as they contained vitamin B and used banana leaves as dressings for leg ulcers.  Religious faith has been shown in many studies to serve as a protective factor during captivity and torture. Eric Lomax, a member of the Episcopal Church, wrote that his ‘moral conviction of being saved, that I really had found God’ reinforced his determination both during captivity and afterwards. Ashley Prime who had grown up in multi-cultural India was able to identify the good in people from whatever race they came.

Although these coping mechanisms enabled prisoners to survive extended periods of privation and danger, they were not a guarantee of an easy transition to civilian life. Urquhart and Lomax both reported troubling thoughts and enduring symptoms even when settled in civilian life. Recurring dreams of war were often a reminder of the trauma they had suffered. Urquhart wrote, ‘even after I married, life could be hell. To this day I suffer pain, and the nightmares can be so bad that I fight sleep for fear of the dreams that come with it’. Yet Urquhart also demonstrated the skill of being able to take something positive from adversity, adding ‘my sufferings as a prisoner taught me to be resilient, to appreciate life and all, to appreciate life and all it has to offer’.