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.
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.
This is the first of two posts taken from the diaries of my father, Captain Andrew Atholl Duncan, Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. He kept a diary throughout captivity in Java and Japan, written in pen in nine notebooks: pocketbooks, school exercise books and homemade notebooks bound with mosquito netting glued in place with tapioca paste. It started with him documenting his short lived and unsuccessful bid to escape from Java and continued throughout the next three years in prisoner of war camps.
We pick up the diary at the end of January 1945 while he was still at Zentsuji officers’ propaganda camp on the Island of Shikoku, Japan:
Jan 21st – 30th 1945
“Very little real news over this period except that an oven has been erected in the galley, grindstones put up in the canteen, so our long hoped-for bread looks like becoming a reality. The only snag is that officers have to grind the grain and I am hoping that this will not be the thin end of the wedge for getting us to work. Picture of the week – A very senior member of H.M. Navy seated by the window whipping “cream” in a cup with a look of rapt concentration on his face!!!! Most of us have a very healthy crop of chilblains on our hands and feet – I am no exception – and it is positive agony to wash clothes these days in the icy water at the washracks, with a northwest wind straight off the frozen wastes of Siberia whistling about ones ears. As a result of this, I have taken to shaving indoors but even then, with no hot water available, it is still a highly unpleasant and painful procedure. Ye Gods, but we do miss the simple comforts of life.
The siren has still been sounding both night and day, the latest drill for us when it sounds off in the evening being “Go to bed.”
That entry on 30th January 1945 was to be his last in the diary he had kept since the 8 March 1942. (Coincidentally, although he did not know it at the time, he would marry his beloved Elizabeth exactly one year later to the day). The sketch (Fig.1) was one of three that he did while at Zentsuji, where at times the regime was not too strict, and he was permitted to study. He used this as a cover for writing the diary and documenting the camp in sketches and detailed camp plans. The sketch was one of over a hundred pieces of artwork featured in the “Secret Art of Survival” exhibition in Liverpool (www.captivememories.org.uk) .
His reason for not writing in the diary again is explained in the notes he subsequently made at his third and final camp in Japan, Miyata, on the island of Kyushu. Here the regime was brutal and dangerous and there was no possibility of writing or sketching anything. The following passage comes at the start of 10 pages of handwritten notes, started on 15th August during his final few weeks in Japan:
“The following paragraphs were added to the diary after I had been released, to bridge the gap between the date I had to cease entries and the cessation of hostilities on August 15th, 1945.
The reason for this gap was that the Japs tightened up their supervision of us and as diaries were strictly forbidden and confiscated if found, I had to conceal the manuscripts by sewing them into the lining of clothes, under false bottoms in my packs etc.
The officers’ propaganda camp at Zentsuji was disbanded in June  the various nationalities represented in the camp being sent to different areas in Japan. The Australians were sent in two groups to the north of Tokyo, the Americans to the Osaka area, the Dutch to Nagoya, while the British were divided into two parties – one to the west coast of Honshu Island administered from Tokyo, the other party which I was in, going to Kyushu Island under the Fukuoka administration, to Miyata Camp.
Miyata Coalmining camp, Kyushu
The extract continues:
“Our new camp at Miyata was termed a work camp – and was very aptly named – for the other ranks were required to work down coalmines, while the officers were forced to work on agricultural projects ranging from clearing land and constructing padi fields to planting rice and vegetables.
“We left camp at 6.30 a.m. and did not return till 6p.m. and although we received a slightly increased ration of rice to that which was issued to us at Zentsuji, we were far worse off due to the heavy manual labour. The rules and regulations at this camp were very strict and woe betide anyone who stepped out of line, for savage beatings and torture were applied on the slightest provocation. Daily, we saw Allied aircraft passing overhead and on one occasion two Mustang fighters hedge-hopped over us about 50 feet up while the bombers that they were escorting sailed overhead completely unmolested.
On August 9th, while out working we heard the sirens sounding and not long after heard a long, drawn-out rumble. We looked at each other and smiled discreetly thinking that some nearby target had caught a packet. It had! However, it was not nearby, but about 60 miles away as the crow flies, for that rumble was the death knell of Nagasaki – the explosion of the 2nd Atomic bomb.
That evening, the Japs were obviously very perturbed about something and, to ease their pent-up feelings, decided to take it out of the British officers. We were lined up on the parade ground after evening roll call in two files, given a haranguing by the Jap duty N.C.O. – a sadistic swine by the name of Kurihara – who ended up by telling us about the British misdeeds in India and that he was going to show us what a Jap N.C.O. could do to British officers.
For the next forty minutes we had to stand at attention with our arms stretched above our heads while guards, armed with 2” x 4” timbers prowled up and down the files, viciously beating anyone who moved.
At the end of that time, we were ordered to assume the prone position and the real beating commenced. Every prisoner present was savagely beaten by 2” x 4” timbers, swung as hard as the guards could do it, the end of the spine and the kidney region being the favourite target areas. If anyone passed out a bucket of water was thrown over him to bring him round and the beating restarted.
Due to malnutrition, all of us had hardly any covering over our bones, so that it was small wonder that it was days before we could bear to touch the afflicted regions.”
Among the British officers who were also present that night were Flight/Lieutenant John Fletcher-Cooke RAFVR and army padre Captain Rupert Godfrey. Both described this incident in their respective memoirs: Fletcher-Cooke’s The Emperor’s Guest (1971) and Godfrey’s The Years the Locusts Have Eaten (2003).
His notes continue, describing the tense days leading up to 15th August and then the long wait for liberation from the camp five weeks later. During this time, he and his friend Lt Bill Balfour RE a fellow Scot, from Perth, made excursions to neighbouring camps, the village and the town of Fukuoka. In the photograph below they are seen with the Korean dentist and his family in the village of Miyata. By this time my father’s weight, regularly and meticulously recorded in one of the notebooks, had dropped to a little over six and a half stone. He looks gaunt and hollow-eyed but poised, with just the slightest hint of a smile.
On 20 September, the occupants of Miyata POW camp left by train for Nagasaki.
The feature film “Unbroken”, about US airman Louis Zamperini’s life and Far East POW experiences, is the only film that I’ve seen to come close to portraying what my father documented so vividly in his diaries, namely the appalling conditions and harsh winters in camps in Japan. It is an area of Far East captivity that is still little-known. In addition to Fletcher-Cooke and Padre Godfrey’s memoirs, Keith Mitchell’s book, Forty-two Months in Durance Vile, also depicts the harsh conditions endured by some of the several thousand British FEPOW sent to camps in Japan. Medical Officer, Major Frank Murray RAMC was one of those featured in Mitchell’s book and a new website shares Major Murray’s story: https://www.thebelfastdoctor.info/
Thanks to Mansell.com for the enormous amount of information that is available to anyone researching FEPOW history, and in particular the camps in Japan.
In my second blog post I share more of his notes, his long journey home and how he settled back into civilian life. I self-published his diaries in two parts: “Notify Alec Rattray…” in 2002 and “…A.A. Duncan is OK” 2003. Writing the books kindled a need to understand, and to research further the history of Far East prisoner of war captivity. That need continues.