Tag Archives: FEPOW

The Far Eastern Prisoners of War

On VJ Day 74: Letters between the generations

On the 74th anniversary of VJ Day, Ashley Prime writes for RFHG about his father, Lance Corporal Ashley Prime – a former prisoner of war in Singapore and Thailand – whose moving post-war letters have been published open access for all to read.

Ashley Prime
Lance Corporal Ashley Prime. Courtesy of Ashley Prime

I had of course always known that my father had been a Japanese Prisoner of War. I grew up with that always in our minds in our home, but it was never really seen as a negative. It was just there, and from my childhood, I recall kindly former colleagues of his visiting our home. They were always kind and I never felt any anger in the way they were. At least to me as a small child. 

Later in life, I was living in West Germany in my early twenties, and whilst back in London on holiday, I asked my father about the war and his experiences. He said he hadn’t really ever talked to me about it but did want to rectify that. We didn’t discuss anything further, but it was at that point that I started to receive a series of handwritten letters on A4 paper, over a period of around 18 months. He had been meticulous in keeping as many of the original documents as he had, including the postcards he had sent my mother, the only letter he had received from her and his record card. All in support of his letters.

And he wrote and wrote and wrote. Sadly he died in 1983 before he was able to complete his life story. He had written up to the mid 1950s and had therefore covered the fall of Singapore, captivity and liberation.

Ashley Prime’s letters can be accessed here: Ashley Prime: Calcutta to Singapore

 What did I take from the letters? And how did it change my view of my father? Firstly, there was throughout his letters a lack of anger, a lack of bitterness, with a pragmatic acceptance of his fate.  He said that ‘you will be back’ – the parting words from his wife – and ‘another life experience’ kept him going. 

 He had already said to me that forgiveness was one of the most difficult things to do. But holding on to bitterness eats us all away from the inside and doesn’t allow us to move on. And I think he did that with his captors, with the evidence of him giving them cigarettes, refraining from beating them and pitying them at the end of the war when the Japanese themselves became captives.

 And that is how I remember him. He was always kind, thoughtful, loving and caring. I rarely, if ever, saw him angry and he never raised his voice to me. I miss him today in 2019 as much as I do when he was here. 

 

All words © Ashley Prime, 2019.

26 June 1944: the sinking of the Harugiku Maru

To mark its anniversary, Dr Lizzie Oliver writes about the first of two sinkings of POW transport ships en route to the Sumatra Railway…

Seventy-five years ago today, 26 June 1944, a large contingent of Allied prisoners of war who had been designated to work on the Sumatra Railway were shipwrecked following ‘friendly fire’ by the British submarine HMS Truculent.

At the time, the former S.S. Van Waerwijk – renamed the Harugiku Maru by the Japanese – was being used to transport supplies from one side of the island of Sumatra to the other. What those aboard HMS Truculent didn’t know at the time, was that the ‘supplies’ being transported also included 730 Allied prisoners of war crammed down into the hold.

‘They had approximately 2’6” by 5’6”…in which to sit or lie with such kit as they possessed. There were no port-holes open on either side…There was such a congestion that the last 50 prisoners were literally beaten in the holds with sticks’. [Captain James Gordon Gordon, Royal Artillery]

Conditions during the voyage were exceptionally difficult, with meagre food and the only breaks up on deck permitted after the ship had been sailing for at least 18 hours. After much remonstration with their guards, groups of 25 men were able to go up for some fresh air every 15 minutes.

At 2pm on the 26th, two torpedoes hit the side of the ship. She sank within minutes; 180 POWs were killed, along with half of the 50 Japanese also on board.

After several hours in the water, the POWs were picked up and taken to River Valley Road Camp in Singapore. Here they would stay for three weeks until they were transported straight back to Sumatra. This time, they would find their intended destination: the jungle camps and exhausting labour of railway construction.

‘We walked…with our few worldly possessions – a sack or haversack, with a spoon and a dish, water bottle, a photo or two to remind us of loved ones at home, a toothbrush and razor blade which lasted me for 3 ½ years… We were to build a railway line…and the technical staff who were to supervise its construction, had already built a similar one in the north. We knew nothing of the Burma-Thailand line, nor that this one would be 220 kilometres long, and cross over the equator. So we toiled from daylight…until after dark, seven days a week’. [Allan Angus Munro, RAF; IWM ]

To read more, the paperback edition of Prisoners of the Sumatra Railway is available now. You can order it with a 10% discount via Bloomsbury here: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/prisoners-of-the-sumatra-railway-9781350118904/

Image: Wrecksite.eu

Special FEPOW Descendants’ Weekend – 16, 17, 18 November 2019

The SECRET ART OF SURVIVAL exhibition

25 October 2019 – 20 June 2020

Victoria Gallery & Museum (VG&M), Ashton Street, Liverpool L69 3DR

 SATURDAY 16thVG&M: FEPOW Focus Day 10.30am – 3.30pm

A FREE programme of activities focused on FEPOW family histories including:

·       Short talks ·       Practical workshop on looking after artworks
·       Exhibition tours ·       Sharing memories and stories
·       Archive and documentary films ·       Digital archiving of stories, artwork and artefacts

Please note this is a drop-in session and activities will be repeated throughout the day.

 

SUNDAY 17th noonFEPOW Remembrance Service, Liverpool Parish Church (near the waterfront)

Special FEPOW Evening at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (RLPO) Hall, Hope Street, L1 9BP

Doors Open 6.30pm, 7pm start

  • Welcome presentations, then in memory of all Far East captives, the RLPO Youth Choir perform the Vocal Orchestra arrangement of Dvorak’s Largo, created in 1943 by and for the Women of Palembang Internment Camp
  • Feature film – Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, starring David Bowie, Tom Conti and Ryuichi Sakamoto

The booking line for the film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra Hall (RLPO) is now open – https://www.liverpoolphil.com/whats-on/film/merry-christmas-mr-lawrence/3459 Tickets must be booked with RLPO, either online or by telephone: 0151 709 3789, there are no reserved seats.

MONDAY 18th10–1pm VG&M: private guided viewings of the Secret Art of Survival exhibition – regrettably these are now fully booked.

NB- VG&M is open Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10am – 5pm

 IMPORTANT

Please register your interest now, fepow.project@lstmed.ac.uk stating which events you wish to attend.

Accommodation: The Liner Hotel (www.theliner.co.uk) in Lord Nelson Street (to the right of Lime Street Station) is offering special room rates for FEPOW exhibition visitors, subject to dates and availability. To book direct, call direct on 0151 709 7050 (the lower rates will only be available when calling direct) and quote FEPOW Art.

The Bangka Island Massacre

Georgina Banks is researching the experiences of her Great Aunt Dorothy Elmes and is looking for any information on the Radji Beach Massacre. She writes for RFHG’s blog about her project….

dorothy-elmes
Dorothy Elmes, © Georgina Banks

My Great Aunt Dorothy Gwendoline Howard Elmes; NFX 70526, 2/10 AGH Hospital, commonly known as Bud or Buddy, was killed in the infamous Radji Beach Massacre in East Sumatra, Indonesia, on 16th February 1942.

When day broke on Radji Beach, there were around one hundred people who had washed ashore from the Vyner Brooke and the Pulo Soegi, over the last two days, fleeing Singapore: women and children, civilians, sailors, Australian Army Nurses and military personnel, including British servicemen. These ships had been bombed by the Japanese in the Banka Strait – or bomb alley as it was now dubbed. Since there were so many injured amongst them on the beach, they made the unanimous decision to hand themselves in to the Japanese. They made a big Red Cross on the beach and placed their faith in the Geneva Convention. A group of women and children departed to surrender and Sub-Lt. Bill Sedgeman (British) led the mission to get help for the wounded.

When they returned a few hours later, with around twenty Japanese soldiers led by Captain Orita Masaru, it was quickly noticed they had no stretchers with them. The Japanese split them into three groups: two of men and the other of nurses. One at a time, the two groups of men were marched around the headland, blindfolded, bayoneted and shot.

They then came back from around the headland to deal with the nurses. Twenty-two Australian Army Nurses, including my Great Aunt Bud and one civilian woman Mrs Betteridge, were lined up on Radji Beach, facing the horizon, marched into the sea and machine gunned from behind. One woman, Vivian Bullwinkel, survived, due to her height, as the bullets missed her vital organs. She ‘came to’ in the water and crawled into the jungle where she met Private Kinsley (British), a stretcher case, who had been bayoneted where he lay but was still alive. Vivian survived both the massacre and the internment camps on Banka Island and lived to testify at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. Kinsley died in the mens’ camp.

Two other men survived both the massacre and the internment camps when they made a break for it in the water and feigned death: Eric German, an American Brewer and Ernest Stoker Lloyd, a British Sailor.

I am writing a book about my Great Aunt Bud, which includes a dramatised account of her last 48 hours, her letters written home from Singapore and my contemporary narrative retracing her footsteps, filling in the gaps and reflecting on the event two generations later.

I would be very grateful for any assistance with my research.

I am looking for:

  • Anyone still alive who was on the Vyner Brooke that I could talk to. I have spoken to Ralph Armstrong author of “Short Cruise on the Vyner Brooke”.
  • Anyone alive from the women’s camps. They were moved around a bit from Muntok to Palembang and then to Belalau. All of the surviving Australian Army nurses have now died – so it would be someone who was a child at the time.
  • Any related documents, personal papers or diaries. I have seen the official statements for the War Crimes Tribunal in The Archives in Australia of anyone who witnessed either the aftermath of the massacre (by washing ashore later, or by being out at sea and viewing it at a distance). I have also been in contact with Stoker Lloyd’s granddaughters and they have nothing further
  • Documents related to the Japanese soldiers – any accounts from their perspective. They were two companies of the 229th Regiment of the 38th Division of the Japanese Army under Major-General Tanaka (the same Division that took St Stephens Hospital in Hong Kong and raped and killed British and Chinese nurses). There have always been rumours the nurses were violated prior but there is no definitive evidence I have seen. If it exists then I would like to see this.
  • Anyone who knew the nurses when they were stationed in Singapore.

If you have any information, please email Georgina at: gbanks01@optusnet.com.au

 

THE 7TH INTERNATIONAL FEPOW HISTORY CONFERENCE – Registration Open

Making and marking memory: widening perspectives on Far East captivity

5 – 7 June 2020, Liverpool

Co-hosted by the Researching FEPOW History Group (RFHG) and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM), our 7th international conference will focus on the stories and creativity that sustained prisoners, internees and forced labourers throughout captivity. We will also look at the made, recorded and preserved memories that subsequent generations have drawn upon in their own responses to this rich and moving history. In doing so, we will look for different perspectives and new voices to shed light on all that is yet to learn about – and from – the experiences of captivity, internment and forced labour across Southeast Asia and the Far East.

Taking place during the 75th anniversary year of liberation, and in conjunction with LSTM’s Art of Survival exhibition, the conference will encourage delegates to think of the objects, poems, artworks, and stories that resonated with prisoners and enabled their narratives to endure for many decades post-war.

Located at The Liner Hotel and LSTM buildings in the beautiful city of Liverpool, speakers already confirmed include: award-winning novelist Mark Dapin, acclaimed history writer Damien Lewis, representatives from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, British Red Cross, Imperial War Musem, the WarGen history project plus many more family researchers, academics, photographers and writers.

BOOK YOUR PLACE!

Spaces are limited, and are offered on a first-come, first-served basis. The registration form can be downloaded here: ConferenceBookingForm2020.  The form includes details on fees, a special discount code at The Liner for conference delegates. Please return your forms and deposits as soon as possible to the address on the registration form, or to researchingfepowhistory@gmail.com.

Hope to see you there!

 

POW War Graves in Thailand

 

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.

kanchanaburi2
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery © Richard Stokoe

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.

chungkai
Chungkai War Cemetery © Richard Stokoe

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.

basnett
© Mick Newbatt, CWGC.

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.

Clare Makepeace is the author of Captives of War. British Prisoners of War in Europe in the Second World War. She is also an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London.

All words © Clare Makepeace, 2019. Feature image: Kanchanaburi War Cemetery © Richard Stokoe.

A Tale of the Unexpected

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.

All words © Terry Smyth, 2018.