Tag Archives: FEPOW

The Far Eastern Prisoners of War

Further Shows at Sime Road

By Sears Eldredge

Next on The Barn’s Spring Season was Rag Bag Revue produced by Horner, Roberts, and W. Hogg-Fergusson. This is the first show in which the Dutch/Indonesian female impersonator, Henri Ecoma, appeared—dancing and singing “La Conga.” Beckerley, who liked to sing as well as act, became part of the “Barn Quartet.”

I liked singing. So did Joe Bernstein, a professional tenor, Ken Luke, headmaster of a Malayan public school, bass, George Sprod, Australian Smith’s Weekly artist and cartoonist alto, and me . . . somewhere between Joe and George; I quote Joe In short, the Barn Quartet. Under Bernstein we were really good. We sang in every show except plays.[i]

. . . .

Joe wrote music and made sure we learned the score. A hard master Joe! When he put his hands on his hips with that pained look and the shake of his head, we three knew we [were] for it . . . not infrequently. We were good because Joe was a professional.[ii]

Beckerley also appeared in a number of skits, and even Searle appeared in two offerings.

When not working on the sets I did quite a few of standing in as understudy for the young female roles: Man of Destiny and Bird in Hand were two at Sime Road. . .. Actors were often unable to rehearse being out on working parties. . .. I could invariably fiddle my stay in camp to fit with a rehearsal when needed. Searle did not favour my, I quote, ‘stage struck desire to appear in plays’. I reminded him of that when he and I were cast in “Hamlet goes Hollywood,”[1] I was Ophelia. . . Ron, Laertes cum American reporter. I come on stage with straw in my hair, nursing a bunch of flowers. As I cross the stage, I offer each flower to the audience: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.  There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts. There’s fennel that’s for you.”  (NOW HOLDING OUT A CHINA JAR) And [there’s] sulpher, that’s for scabies!” Audience loved it. Ron was good as the American reporter. He too loved it. His American accent was almost a Southern drawl, quite in keeping with the comedy. Stage struck.[iii]

The next show of the Spring Season was an adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s “Masterpiece of the Macabre,” Rope, produced by Jon Mackwood and W. Hogg Fergusson, which played between March 28 and April 1. The Dutch performer, Fritz Scholer, appears again in the cast. Then, on 4 April, Music Thru the Years, opened. The show was a cavalcade of music compiled by the pianist Bill Williams with songs, sketches, and dances. Beckerley took the part of a female character:

In “Music through the Years” Alan at five feet two. Alan is the black whiskered villain to my five feet nine damsel in distress. I sing, “No, no, a thousand times No, you cannot buy my caress. No, no a thousand times no, I’d rather die than say yes.” Alan, “Marry me or your father will die!” Me, “Oh, poor father!” Alan, “Into the water with him!”  Me, “Oh, but he can’t swim!” Alan, “Well, now’s his time to bloody learn.”[iv]

The Barn Quartet sang a number of times in the show: “One song, ‘Comrades in Arms’ was a sort of best seller; the audiences not allowing us to retire before a repeat of it. Stirring stuff! I liked it so no chore for me.”[v]

This show was followed on 11 April by Nuts and Wine: A Gourmet’s Revue, which contained “Bolero” and “Lady of Spain,” danced by Henri Ecoma.

Caricature of Henri Ecoma. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.
View more of Desmond Bettany’s artwork at: www.changipowart.com

P. G. Wodehouse’s comedy, Good Morning, Bill, was scheduled for 18 April, but for some reason it was replaced by John Drinkwater’s comedy, Bird in Hand. And the four original one act plays by Lt. W. H. Ferguson that were next on the schedule were also canceled. Scotch Broth, a hastily cobbled together Variety Show, went on instead, opening on 25 April. The Highland costumes are credited to Besser & Burn. And here again, was Henri Ecoma. This time he was playing the native seductress, “Tondeleyo” [sic] from the 1923 London hit play, White Cargo. Beckerley had distinct memories of Ecoma:

. . . Henri on stage was a girl, he didn’t have to convince anybody. Anybody can put on a wig, tart himself up etc., etc., but strip him and confront an audience in a dance designed to arouse sexual desires is something that made Henri unique . . . he moved like a girl anyway. He also had a disconcerting way of switching to Dutch when he got excited, which was not infrequently and expecting us to keep up, as it were.[vi]

In early May, The Barn Entertainment Committee announced their Summer Season, which would contain the usual variety shows, plays, etc.—even a Dutch show—a night of Shakespeare, and an A.I.F. Concert. But their plans for a Summer Season were scuttled when the Japanese announced that they were all moving to Changi Gaol to replace the European civilian men, women, and children who had been interned there since the fall of Singapore and were now to take up residence at Sime Road.

Rice and Shine will be taking a short break in the New Year, but will return to continue the Changi story, plus cover a few other locations, soon!


[1] A comic sketch in Rag Bag Revue.


[i] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 04.

[ii] Beckerley, J. Ibid.

[iii] Beckerley, J. Ibid.

[iv] Beckerley. J. Ibid.

[v] Beckerley, J. Ibid.

[vi] Beckerley, J. Letter. 24 April 05.

Cinderella and the Magic Soya Bean

By Sears Eldredge

Cinderella and the Magic Soya Bean, opened The Barn Theatre on 22 February and ran for four performances with packed houses.[1] The “burlesque pantomime” was written by Alan Roberts, who took over as sole producer because Horner was suffering with septic sores on his legs and feet.[i] Searle designed the costumes and settings; the wigs were made by Dick Trouvat. Given the cast of characters, the panto seems to have been a mashup of characters from different traditional pantos with additional fictional and film personalities, as there are characters in it called Widow Twankey, Dick Whittington, The Genii, Groucho Marx, Prince Yesume,[2] Gestapo Chief, and Sherlock Holmes. The British and Australian cast numbered 15 with “Cinderella” played by Jon Mackwood and Jack Horner as the “King of Khanburi.”[3]

Costume designs for Cinderella and the Magic Soya Bean. Ronald Searle. ©1944 Reproduced by kind permission of The Ronald Searle Cultural Estate Ltd and The Sayle Literary Agency

Searle’s whimsical designs for the costumes (see above) contain detailed identifying the character, the actor playing the role, and on what fabrics or sources to use in their construction. Beckerley played “The Court Magician” second from left in the bottom row. The originals are in full color.

According to Reginald Burton, Searle even designed a coach for Cinderella’s trip to the ball: “They had a sort of mock-up of a coach which was really a cardboard cutout that they pulled across. And I think Cinderella walked behind it looking out of a window.”[ii] After the last performance, Horner crowed that ‘“Cinderella etc.’ has been a howling success.”[iii]


[1] The soya bean in the title is a reference to the soya beans the POWs were given with every issue of rice, which were not to everyone’s liking. Burton, R. 134.

[2] Yasume – Japanese word for “rest.”

[3] Kanburi. The Hospital Rehabilitation Camp at Kanchanaburi in Thailand. Their last camp in Thailand.


[i] Horner, R. 118.

[ii] Burton, R. “Interview.” 35-36.

[iii] Horner, R. 119.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

The Barn Theatre

By Sears Eldredge

Expecting Singapore would soon be subject to Allied long-range bombing attacks, the Japanese ordered a permanent “black-out,” so no shows could be given outdoors in the evening. In response, the concert party moved into “a large barn-like shed”[i] they would call “The Barn Theatre” [Hut #16]. And the concert party changed its name to “The Barnstormers.”[ii]

Ronald Searle designed the décor for the new theatre, including the logo of a cow jumping over the moon in the center of the proscenium arch with stars scattered on the front curtains. When Searle was finished, Horner wrote, “The Barn Theatre looks very good and is able to create a very intimate atmosphere.”[iii] Unfortunately, “intimate atmosphere” meant the size of the audience would be limited.

Searle’s “Sketchbook” has a list of “The Barnstormers” participants and their various responsibilities. The Entertainments Officer is now Capt. R. L. Homes and not Ronald Horner, who is listed as part of the Acting Company. Their Scenic Artist is Ronald Searle, and there are different Producers for different types of shows: Lt. J. Mackwood for Drama and Capt. Homes and Pte. B “Professor” Roberts for Variety. Bill Williams is listed as responsible for Musical Direction; Wardrobe Masters are Lt. Archer and Lt. Haynes; Electrician, Peter Pearce; Clerk, Jim Whitely; and Stage Manager, Jack Wood. There are now twenty-one actors in the company, including two Dutch POWs, Dick Trouvat and Henri Ecoma, a backstage staff of twelve, Scenic Artists, Script Writers, and five members of the Front of House staff.[iv] The concert party had big plans: they would be a repertory theatre and announce a “Spring Season” of productions.

John Beckerley recalled that one of the acting company, Capt. Robin Welbury, . . .

. . . wrote his own material and did a series in front tabs comedy sketches. They were very popular. One I remember very well. Browbeaten husband is told by bitch of a wife to put away the row of wine bottles before she gets home or else. She leaves. Robin details to the audience every action he takes putting the wine away. . . drinking it, from pulling the cork and filling his glass to staggering around the room drinking the cork, throwing the wine away, counting the same bottle lovingly over and over, now dead drunk etc. (Reading this it doesn’t sound funny at all: in fact, he had the audience in the palm of his hand and they loved it.)[v]

Searle designed most of the sets for the Barnstormers’ shows, and he selected Beckerley to become his assistant.

Ron Searle designed the sets, sometimes a large ‘backdrop’ with plain side flats. Guess who was detailed to paint those. Ron would draw outlines on his cartoon-like backdrop with precise directives re block colour with shading and fading in and out to produce ‘our now’ finished background. He understood my limitations, was always considerate and encouraged rather than criticized. I learned fast: it was in his interest that I did.[vi]

Royal Airforce O.R. John Beckerley.
Courtesy of John Beckerley.

As with other concert parties, one of their major concerns was how to obtain costumes. This dilemma was partially solved by the Japanese.

Costumes at Sime Road: load of clothes from Singapore (JAPS COULD NOT USE THEM SO ‘HELP YOUR SELF’) As with Music 78s, Books, Etc. We would have preferred medicines and food. Costumes cutting made by two professional tailors (POW SOLDIERS). Two gnome-like characters who actually sat cross-legged like Disney characters when working. Believe me, it’s true.  No conversations . . . never! Not even when fitting us.[vii]


[i] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 2004.

[ii] Horner, 118; Searle, “Sketchbook,” n.p.

[iii] Horner, R. 119.

[iv] Searle, R. “Sketchbook,” p. 27.

[v] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 04.

[vi] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 04.

[vii] Beckerley, J. Letter. 24 April 05.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

The Artwork of James Harston Pennock

James Harston Pennock, Aircraftman 1st Class in the RAF Marine Services was captured at sea off the coast of Singapore in February 1942. He spent the rest of the war in a Japanese POW camp in Palembang, Sumatra.

Photo of James Harston Pennock, Aircraftman 1st Class.
Courtesy of Anita Toscani.

Whilst a prisoner he drew (alongside fellow captured artists Rex Spencer and Bill Bourke) as well as carved pipes. James and Rex would also carve the names of those that passed away in the camp onto crosses. In a letter long after the war, and in a reference to carving onto the crosses, Rex wrote the “we just couldn’t keep up with the number dying”.

Although he rarely talked about his experiences in the camp, in a brief note he wrote years later he stated that “drawing saved his sanity”. His daughter, Anita Toscani, has kindly shared some of these drawings that he created whilst a POW with us so that more people may be able to see his artwork.

Anita would love to find out more about her father’s story, if anyone has any resources that could help, or recognises anyone in the Jame’s drawings below, please let us know.

All drawings by James Harston Pennock and kindly used with the permission of Anita Toscani.

“The Cathay Players”

By Sears Eldredge

Anticipating the return of the remainder of “H” Force in late 1943, Ronald Horner was posted from Changi to Sime Road to encourage entertainments and to be their Officer in Charge. On 9 December, he wrote: “Am in charge of entertainments here, so far can’t get hold of a piano, but we have an open-air theatre that needs patching up, but has a natural auditorium of a grass bank that will hold 3 or 4,000.”[i]

Caricature of Ronald Horner. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.
View more of Desmond Bettany’s artwork at: www.changipowart.com

After what they had been through Up Country, the POWs at Sime Road were eager to purge their memories of that experience and release their energies in more positive activity, so Horner was able to quickly established a small concert party, “The Cathay Players,” and started to produce shows. Unfortunately, it was the rainy season, so shows were frequently rained out.[ii] But the weather cleared for Christmas and Horner noted that their holiday show “was a great success” with an audience of about 1,500 in attendance.[iii]  

Among the musicians and theatre performers at Sime Road was the artist, Ronald Searle, who recorded the playbill for a Variety Show that went up on January 9th. This document tells us who those first performers in the “Cathay Concert Party” were. The show opened with the “Attap Serenaders,” followed by the comedian Charlie ‘Arvey. Then came Bill Williams as a “personality vocalist” followed by the Dutch Illusionist, Trouvat. Next on the playbill came the blackface comic duo Long and Whelan, followed by the Australian cartoonist George Sprod singing, and closing with Australian “Professor” Alan Roberts.[iv]

Royal Air Force O.R. John Beckerley, who had been captured on Java, became good friends with Alan Roberts at Sime Road.

Alan Roberts: university lecturer and known by all as The Prof! Very small, you could tap him on the head when he got cross: most of the time. He was most intellectual and most scathing with those who were not: like most of us. I had a long face, [and] a disciplinarian—an Army Provost Marshal Major—also had a long face.  Known as Desperate Dan he also had a foot wide ginger moustache.  Alan Roberts wrote a funny sketch where I as a female fortuneteller complete with large glass ball telling his fortune: how he’s going to get his hands on the good goodies stored wherever. ‘Much fiddling’, I say to Alan’s delight. “Just what I want to hear,” says Alan. “How do I get my hands on it?” LIGHTS GO OUT. . . THEN ON. I’m standing before him complete with a foot wide ginger moustache. Alan, “Good God, Desperate Dan!” The major was not a friendly man . . . standing ovation for me.[v]

    “Desperate Dan”
Caricature of Alec Morris Dann.
Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.
View more of Desmond Bettany’s artwork at: www.changipowart.com

The next week, the Variety Show showcased Trouvat with a 20-minute hypnotism act. Thereafter, the concert party began to produce weekly shows on Saturday nights.

Also at Sime Road was a Dutch/Indonesian café called “The Flying Dutchman” in Hut #4 where you could buy coffee and Indonesian finger foods. Here is where Ronald Searle displayed his posters for shows as well as his costume designs and set renderings.[vi]

By 17 January, the concert party had acquired a piano but they still needed a curtain. And they had grown in number to the point where multiple shows were in rehearsal simultaneously. Horner reports, “I’m producing ‘Cinderella and the Magic Soya Bean,’ we also have Shaw’s ‘Man of Destiny’ and Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ in rehearsal as well as ideas for a ‘Ragbag Revue’ . . . Jap interpreter has asked for words and music of my ‘When we’re free’ song—as I haven’t yet sung it here, I wonder how he’s got to hear it.”[vii]

On the 24th, there was a piano recital by Bill Williams, which greatly impressed Australian POW James Boyle:

With us at Sime road was Bill Williams — a sergeant in the RAF and a man in a million. He too could keep the interest of his audience from his first number to the last, and seemed capable of catering for all tastes. Bill’s programs usually consisted of popular songs for which he played his own piano arrangements, interspersed with a dash of light classical.[viii]

On 27 January, Horner, pleased with what he had accomplished in way of entertainment, wrote, “The Sat. night variety shows are going with a great bang, we have about 2,000 [in attendance] each time. Sang ‘When we’re Free’ tonight and got the audience to join in.”[ix] Surprisingly enough, the Japanese interpreter who had been given the lyrics had not had the song banned.


[i] Horner, 115.

[ii] Horner, Ibid.

[iii] Horner, Ibid.

[iv] Searle, R. “Notebook,” n.p.

[v] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 04.

[vi] Nielsen, Mrs. Jane Booker. Email 6/18/2015.

[vii] Horner, R. 118.

[viii] Boyle, 146-147.

[ix] Horner, 118.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Sime Road Camp

By Sears Eldredge

1943:

It was December, 1943, when the Australian, British and Dutch/Indonesian POWs in “H” Force returned to Singapore from Up Country. Because of a housing shortage in Changi, most of these POWs were shuttled to Sime Road Camp. A fellow officer told Lt.-Col. Reginald Burton not to worry about this location: “It was a camp in the open country part of Singapore Island, next to a golf course. It was hutted camp,[1] with showers, lights, proper roads. It sounded like a paradise to me.”[i]

Backstory: 1941-42

Before the war, Sime Road Camp, on the outskirts of Singapore, had been the Headquarters of the British Royal Air Force and then, in early December 1941, it became the Combined Army and Air Force Operations Headquarters Malaya Command—General Percival’s H.Q. –during the brief battles for Malaya and Singapore.

After surrender, Sime Road became an Australian and British POW camp with British officer, Lt.-Col. Philip Toosey, in charge. At some point, a concert party was formed and an outdoor theatre, dubbed the “New Cathay Theatre” was built. The opening performance was on Christmas, 1942.

Program cover for New Cathay Theatre. William Wilder.
Courtesy Anthony Wilder.

Very little is known about the performers or the shows, and the only observation on their content is from Lt. Stephan Alexander: “Our new electricity supply was used to light camp concerts, at which the Aussies proved particularly uninhibited. (“Do you really love me, dear, or is that your revolver I can feel?”)”[2][ii] In early October, 1942, the POWs at Sime Road were sent Up Country to build two bridges over the River Kwai at Tamarkan in Thailand.


[1] Meaning there were wooden buildings.

[2] A direct steal from the American stage and screen star, Mae West.


[i] Burton, 130.

[ii] Alexander, 91.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Shocking Events

By Sears Eldredge

On 28 and 29 April, the remainder of “H” and “F” Forces who had been in hospital Up Country arrived back in Singapore “looking tired and dirty after their long train journey.”[i] Some were in such poor shape at the start of the rail journey that they did not make it and were buried beside the tracks enroute.[ii] 

On the 29th, the POWs in Changi got word that they would be moving soon—to the Gaol. The civilian men, women, and children who had been interned in the Gaol since the surrender of Singapore, were moving to Sime Road Camp outside the city. “Heavy sick” British and Australian cases in Roberts Hospital would be sent to a new hospital at Kranji in the northern part of the island, while “light sick” patients would go to a small hospital being established outside Changi Gaol. With all these changes, it appears the production of Macbeth was cancelled.

Playbill for May ’44. On 1 May, the murder-mystery, Suspect, opened at the Little Theatre, which Huxtable thought “a very good drama indeed.”[1][iii] On 6 May there was a concert with Denis East (violin), Cyril Wycherley (piano) and Doug Peart (tenor), followed by one on 13 May 1944 by the A.I.F. Orchestra. These concerts were meant to lower the POWs’ anxieties about their upcoming move. For Australian Stan Arneil, it was, “[a] glorious night of music . . . It is so easy, via music, to fly back home, that the jolt of returning to hard facts is softened by the memory of a good night’s music.[iv] That same night Leslie Buckley’s musical comedy, I’ll Take You: A Musical Review produced by John Wood, opened at the A.I.F. Theatre. In light of everyone moving elsewhere, the title was significant. No one would be left behind.

This would be the last show produced in Changi POW Camp.

I’ll Take You

Removal of the POWs to Changi Gaol and its immediate environs, and to Kranji, commenced in early May. By the 14th, Wilkinson observed, “Theatres and churches all knocked down in this area [Area 1] ready to be transferred [to Gaol]. More officers and men moved to Jail today. Weather exceptionally hot.”[v] Looking at all the commotion around him, Murray Griffin wrote, “Can you imagine the work involved in moving some ten thousand people with their furniture and belongings, their hospitals, workshops, churches, theatres — and all by manpower.”[vi]

On 31st May, 1944, Stan Arneil wrote in his diary:

Today we, so far, will be moving to the gaol. It is a simply glorious morning and the Straits of Singapore look all the more delightful for the fact that we are leaving them.[vii]


Author note:

It’s not possible to follow the POWs directly from Changi POW Camp to Changi Gaol without first checking out the entertainment activity in Sime Road Camp, as many of the prominent musical and theatrical producers and entertainers in the Gaol come from this camp.

RICE AND SHINE WILL CONTINUE IN OUR UPCOMING “SIME ROAD CAMP” BLOG SERIES.


[1] He went on to note that “A young Lieutenant, John White (British Army)—who had been the Princess in Aladdin—was one of the female impersonators: a few weeks later his sore lips and mouth extended suddenly to the throat and he died within a few days.” Huxtable, Diary, 154.


[i] Nelson, 135.

[ii] G’s Greyhounds, 334-335]

[iii] Huxtable, 153.

[iv] Arneil, 13 May ’44.

[v] Wilkinson, Diary. 14 May ’44.

[vi] Griffin, 71.

[vii] Arneil, 31 May 1944.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Worsening Situation

By Sears Eldredge

In late March, Wilkinson got involved with theatre again in a production of John Galsworthy’s one-act play, Loyalties. By early April, he reports that the POWs in Changi began to experience further food deprivations and that malaria was rampant in the camp—a result of the worsening ration situation.

Rice rations have been reduced! I am permanently hungry! . . . Malaria is extremely troublesome here. In No. 1 Area, Officers and men go down with it time and time again. We are still rehearsing “Loyalties” but Malaria is hitting us hard and there is always at least two of the cast in hospital all the time. We have recast it three times owing to illness and it will be a miracle if it ever goes on as we have used up all our original understudies. Bill Auld is producing. . .. We’ll never be fit as so long as we are P.O.W. as this food is only just enough to keep us alive. One cannot really risk any sort of illness as there is no means of building up again. It’s still a case I’m afraid, of the survival of the fittest or the luckiest! It makes one quite anxious at times as things get gradually worse and here we are now beginning our third year![i]

Playbill for April ’44. All At Sea, at the A.I.F. Theatre, would play through April. On The Spot, a “Super, Do[o]per, Thriller” at the Phoenix Theatre was produced by Vere Bartrum, while the revue, Swingtime, produced by Forbes Finlayson, opened at the Little Theatre. Loyalties, it appears, never did go on.

Program cover for Swingtime. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

Swingtime

Swingtime by Mick Walker and Freddy Binns, was billed as a “‘moosical extravaganza (with apologies to the Great American Public).” Directed by Hugh Elliot, with the orchestra conducted by the American, J. J. Porter. Its huge cast of 22 characters was played by 18 actors with some doubling. All four acts took place in the USA and moved from “Placidville, DG,” (Act One) to “Studio of the ‘Miracle Sooper-Kolossal Films, Inc.’ NYC. USA.” (Act Four). But why this sudden salute to the U.S.A., unless their “dickey-bird” (secret radio) was telling them that the tide of the war in the Pacific had turned and the Americans were now taking the upper hand, and this was the subtext their audiences were intended to understand?


[i] Wilkinson, Diary. 3 April ’44.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

New Book: Captive Fathers, Captive Children

“Captive Fathers, Captive Children: Legacies of the War in the Far East”

By Dr Terry Smyth

Defeated and disorientated in the heat and humidity of Java, my father, Edwin Smyth, was captured by the Imperial Japanese Army. It was the spring of 1942, and he was to spend the next three and a half years as a prisoner of war, including three years in Japan enslaved as a coal miner. Until his death in 1995 he remained greatly troubled by his memories, and his traumatic wartime experiences had a profound effect on me and on the wider family.

While a young child, I also often felt ‘defeated and disorientated’, by the atmosphere in the home. As the years rolled on, I continued to wonder why seven decades after the war so many of us remained fascinated by our fathers’ experiences of captivity and why we invested countless hours and days researching the facts and attending remembrance events. I was desperate to know how my childhood experiences compared with those of other sons and daughters of Far East POWs, and in what ways our memories of childhood had shaped our later lives. (Some questions don’t go away do they, even after decades and decades?)

After retiring from full-time employment in 2003, I began to read through my father’s papers. This reading, together with burgeoning online resources, were the triggers for my wife and I to travel to Japan in 2010 where we were able to visit the site of my father’s incarceration (Hiroshima 6b camp, near Mine City). At that point, I had to make a decision: either I would have to commit to taking this research further, or accept that I had gone as far as I could.

Faced with this fork in the road, curiosity won the day, and I decided to tackle the question head on. In October 2013, I started a full time PhD in the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex, graduating in the summer of 2017 just days after my 70th birthday.

During my research, I had contact with almost one hundred children of FEPOWs from all corners of the British Isles (and a few overseas), and undertook lengthy interviews with forty. As expected, these conversations were wide-ranging, challenging and emotionally demanding, made more so by the fact that they covered several decades of lived experience. Without exception, each interview offered new insights and fresh understandings, and I am exceedingly grateful to every participant for their trust and openness.

In June 2020, I signed a book contract with Bloomsbury Academic, one of the UK’s leading publishers. The book is part of their ‘New Directions in Social and Cultural History’ series, and sets out the results of my research into the life time consequences of having a FEPOW father. It aims to show how memory and trauma became ‘worked into’ the psychic, social and cultural lives of the children, how individual lives are touched by global events. Every family was affected in one way or another by the father’s FEPOW trauma, and I have not shied away from discussing and analysing the more troubling aspects of the children’s experiences, my own included. Taken together, these examples provide incontrovertible evidence of the incredible strength, resilience and courage of the participants in this research.

Cover: “Captive Fathers, Captive Children:
Legacies of the War in the Far East”

The seven chapters that comprise ‘Captive Fathers, Captive Children’ are as follows:

  1. Life in captivity
  2. Bringing war into the home
  3. Remembering and commemorating
  4. Finding meaning in memories
  5. Home as a site of remembrance
  6. The search for military family histories
  7. Place and pilgrimage

Sir Tim Hitchens, British Ambassador to Japan from 2012 to 2017, was kind enough to write the Foreword.

Although the book has been published by Bloomsbury Academic, wherever possible I have written it to appeal to a wider audience, most importantly the families of FEPOWs, as well as to those scholars and others interested in methodology, intergenerational trauma, and the legacies of war more generally.

To date, the book has been published in digital and hardback versions, and the paperback will appear in July 2023. You can find further details on the Bloomsbury website.


Dr Terry Smyth is a Community Fellow in the Department of History at the Univeristy of Essex. You can view his profile here.

Rations

By Sears Eldredge

It is about this time that there is an increase in the mention of hunger in POW diaries and memoirs.[i] Wilkinson compared their rice allotment to what they received Up Country: “We get less rice than we had up country consequently we get less bulk and are always hungry and ready for the next meal. It has become increasingly difficult to buy extras for augmenting our meals.”[1][ii] Obviously, the Japanese supply chain was being severely disrupted by American submarines.

Playbill for March ’44. On 1 March, All At Sea: A Nautical Farce written by Slim De Grey and produced by Keith Stevens, with music by Bill Middleton, and setting by Bert West, opened in the A.I.F. Theatre. The Little Theatre put on Stardust: A Musical Revue 1900-1944 devised and produced by Ken Morrison. March 4th saw the play, Love On The Dole, produced by G. Kenneth Dowbiggin and Martin R. English, open at the Phoenix Theatre in Hanky Park. At the end of the month, the A.I.F. Concert Party performed their Second Anniversary Show.[2]

All At Sea

When the Japanese authorities saw All At Sea, they promptly announced they were going to film it for viewing elsewhere (propaganda purposes), which they did on 6-8 March. As Stewart reports, “A compulsory parade was made to the A.I.F. Theatre, where scenes from the current “All At Sea” were [reenacted] by the cast, photographs taken.[3][iii]

Love On The Dole

Walter Greenwood and Ronald Gow’s gritty three-act drama[4] takes place in Hanky Park,[5] a slum neighborhood of Salford (in Greater Manchester) during the Great Depression and has a strong socialist message—an unusually serious play for POW audiences. Charles Dolman, playing the lead role of the daughter, Sally Hardcastle,[6] who becomes a prostitute in order to help her family survive, was given star billing as his name is above the title on the program cover. Familiar names among the largely unknown cast were Graham Sauvage and Desmond Bettany.

Program cover for Love On The Dole. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

Australian O.R. Stan Arneil thought it “a rather sordid play magnificently acted by a group of English players.”[iv] But he was so taken with the show, he saw it a second time five days later. And then decided, “but I had best not see it any more. I dreamt about it all last night and woke up with a boomer cold (almost my first in the tropics).[v]


[1] This must have been while Wilkinson and others were recuperating in Kanburi Hospital Camp Up Country where the Japanese wanted to fatten them up before they were sent back to Singapore.

[2] This is the last entry in Val Mack’s list of their shows in his exercise log books.

[3] As far as is known, no propaganda film of this show has ever been found.

[4] Based on Greenwood’s documentary novel of the same name.

[5] That the play takes place in Hanky Park, England, and the POWs were in Hanky Park, Singapore, may have carried some significance.

[6] Besides its metaphoric significance, the family’s name, “Hardcastle,” must be a reference to the family in Oliver Goldsmith’s famous 18th cent. play, She Stoops to Conquer, in which the daughter, too, saves the family.  


[i] Thomas, Fax. 31 March 01, 9.

[ii] Wilkinson, Diary. 5 Feb. ’44.

[iii] Stewart, Leonard. extracts from A.I.F. ROs, Changi ’44. AWM PR01013.

[iv] Arneil, 10 March, ’44.

[v] Arneil, 15 March, ’44.