Planning to put on this next conference has had its challenges!
As seasoned delegates will know, RFHG run the conferences on a shoestring; we are all volunteers and rely on delegate fees to underpin all but the venue costs. We are indebted to the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine for its continuing support.
While we are all now learning to live with COVID-19, and with a further vaccine rollout this autumn, we still cannot be certain that something may arise to restrict plans once again. Therefore, in the event of another COVID-19 threat next year we must comply with the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine’s safeguarding guidelines within School during periods of rising or high infection rates (such as mask wearing and social distancing).
FIRST COME, FIRST SERVED
This means that initially we have limited guaranteed places to the first 55 people for whom we receive completed delegate forms, together with deposits. When guest speakers and the RFHG team are added, we reach the school’s maximum number of persons allowed in the lecture theatre under the 2-metre social distancing rules.
However, we sincerely hope that by Spring next year we will be able to invite another 30 or more from the waiting list to join the conference. We appreciate your understanding. We will inform all those who register if they have a confirmed place or are on the waiting list.
NB previous delegates had priority booking (from 1 September) so don’t delay booking to avoid disappointment! If we do not reach our break-even by 1 November, regrettably we will have to cancel the conference.
Queries? Get in touch via email: email@example.com, or to firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone – 0151 632 2017. We aim to respond to queries within five working days.
We sadly report the recent death of Dr Kamal Khan, who as a Consultant Psychiatrist befriended, treated and supported many hundreds of ex-Far East POWs who suffered mental health problems as a result of their experiences in captivity.
Dr Kamaluddin Khan – widely known as “Kamal” – was born in India in 1937, and qualified in science (BSc at Agra University) and medicine (MB,BS at Lucknow University). He later moved to the UK and trained in psychiatry, including as a Senior Registrar at Sefton General Hospital in Liverpool. It was here, in the mid-1970s, that Kamal was approached by Dr Dion Bell from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM). Dion was the tropical diseases consultant in charge of the School’s inpatient beds at Sefton. These were at the time mostly occupied by ex-Far East POWs (often known as “FEPOWs”) undergoing tropical diseases investigation. Dion was concerned that many had significant psychiatric disturbances related to their imprisonment, and asked if Kamal could see some of these patients. Kamal agreed, and after assessing a small number, was so concerned by their mental health status that he offered to see all the ex-POWs referred to the tropical unit.
The men had varying degrees of depression and anxiety, often associated with nightmares and flashbacks of their captivity experiences. Retrospectively, this represented a form of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but this diagnostic label had not at the time been clearly defined.
In 1977 Kamal was appointed to a Consultant Psychiatrist position on the Wirral (close to Liverpool) and continued to regularly assess and treat ex-Far East POWs, establishing a weekly “FEPOW Clinic” . He also began a major research investigation into the mental health of a randomised group of ex-Far East POWs, comparing them with a similar group of non-imprisoned members of the 2nd World War Burma Campaign. He found that 40% of the POW group had significant psychiatric consequences of their captivity, and the work was successfully written up for a PhD degree. All of this clinical and research activity was carried out in addition to his routine busy NHS caseload.
When he retired in 1995, many of his POW patients were devastated at losing such a caring doctor and good friend. In an oral history interview to the Liverpool Tropical School, one ex-POW said,
“he was a wonderful man… I was able to tell him things that I couldn’t tell anyone. I went on a regular appointment, there were lots of FEPOWs there ….. and each time he was wonderful”
Kamal’s contribution to the Far East POW community was immense, and his unique research was of major academic value to our understanding of the Far East POW experience and its outcomes.
My paternal uncle John William Purcell (known to family as Jack) served in the Royal Signals (service number 2589375) as a dispatch rider. He became a Japanese prisoner of war and sadly didn’t return home. I started to research my family history about 15 years ago. All I had was a box of photos and letters.
One letter, dated 10/2/41, was from a family in Cape Town, South Africa, who entertained Jack and his pals en route to Singapore. They wrote ‘Jack is a fine fellow, very fit and enjoying the journey’.
In 2008 I had a holiday in Thailand meeting up with my daughter living in Australia. Having done only a minimal amount of research I realised we should take the opportunity to fly up to Bangkok for a few days and go up to the cemetery in Kanchanaburi. With information from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission giving his grave location, we made a visit. I was very moved at the peacefulness, tranquillity and how beautiful it was kept.
Since then, working at Neston High School I was pleased to be involved in Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine’s Far East prisoner of war (FEPOW) project. Several departments including English, Art and Design and Technology contributed to Secret Art of Survival project, creating a wall hanging, artworks and a replica bamboo dentist chair, respectively. It was also a privilege to attend a thought-provoking yet beautiful service to commemorate FEPOW, on 17th November 2019 at Liverpool Parish Church of Our lady and St Nicholas.
During the FEPOW project I met Professor Gill and Meg Parkes. Meg was keen to see my treasured photos and letters including Uncle Jack’s original POW index card. Through Meg I was put in touch with FEPOW researcher Keith Andrews who was able to give me further information and another contact, Terry Manttan, the manager of the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre (TBRC) in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Terry was able to translate the index card for me:
‘The front of the card shows us that he was captured in Singapore and would have been held initially in Changi POW Camp. In the Number box we see the characters for Malai POW Camp Roll 3, which I believe would have been River Valley Road. The Malai characters have been crossed through and replaced by the one for Thailand POW Camp 1. This means he was transferred to Work Group 1 (Allied terminology), or Camp 1 (Japanese terminology) on the Thai-Burma Railway’.
Not long after, I was delighted to receive an email from Terry, via Keith.
‘One of those strange and unexplainable things that keep happening… today I was reading a man’s memoirs while researching another fellow and came across a reference to Johnny Purcell. Of course this rang a bell, and on checking it turned out to be the man I just sent you the info about’.
THAILAND SLEEPER AND RAIL LAYERS
Extract from…………BURROWS, NORMAN WILLIAM, L/CPL 2589933
‘Then came the cholera. Johnny Purcell, another DR, was the cleanest man you could imagine, always kept himself smart, and his mess tin was always sparkling. We went to bed that night and we were now …………under canvas. Twelve of us in the tent, and by the morning Johnny Purcell was dead, and three others were in agony with the cholera. You can imagine how we felt – the Japs were in a real panic’.
You can imagine what I felt when I read this little snippet of information.
Terry told me both men, Norman and John, were Signalmen:
‘It follows that John (Jack) Purcell would have most likely been with them from Singapore on the same train which left on 9th November 1942. This was one of the trains that got stopped in transit by the flooded railway in southern Thailand before going on to Ban Pong. As they got to repair the international train line on the way they ended up becoming the specialist group of “sleeper and rail layers’.
These men arrived at Kinsaiyok in July 1943. Cholera hit the camp and Jack was taken ill on 6th August 1943, died on 7th August and was cremated in Kinsaiyok camp. I believe his remains were reburied 6th April 1946 at Kanchanaburi CWGC cemetery in plot 8 H 48.
A very moving letter of condolence sent 3rd January 1946 from his sergeant, Thomas Woodhouse, was received by his mother Barbara Purcell.
‘It may ease you mind considerably if I told you that I knew your son practically from the capitulation until the time of his death and during that time he was in excellent health and spirits, fed well owing to his efforts in bartering with natives ‘.
I wonder how much of this is true.
My research has been an emotional journey, the more you learn the more you want to find out. I consider myself very lucky to have been to Kanchanaburi to pay my respects and I hope to return sometime to have a personalised pilgrimage led by TBRC returning to his known locations.
Fourteen years’ ago, I began recording interviews with Far East prisoner of war (FEPOW) veterans for the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM). Sixty-seven interviews later, during lockdown centenarian FEPOW Bert Warne accepted an invitation to be interviewed.
I spoke to Bert, who lives in Southampton, via Zoom In early November 2020. Interviewing anyone of such a great age is a privilege. However, when relying on technology, it’s not without its challenges. Bert’s voice is strong, and he speaks quickly with a broad Hampshire accent, which when coupled with a fractional time delay initially led to some confusion. Regrettably, worried that he could not hear me, I ended up shouting at him!
Like thirty-seven of the previous interviewees, Bert was captured in Singapore and later sent to Thailand. Every interviewee has a unique story to tell, Bert mentioned something about the railway that I’d not heard before:
Well then what happened was, when we went from that camp [Konkoita] we didn’t go back on the barge and what we done we used to travel, when we built that railway you could only go so far on what you call a steam locomotive. The thing is they’re heavy see, they’re a terrific the weight you see. So if you’d have gone up country and put a steam train on, it’d have fell through you see, ‘cos it was green see [referring to the wood used to build it]. So, what the Japs did do, which I thought was quite a good idea, their diesel trucks, their lorries, what they done they converted the wheels from the trucks to go on the railway, you see. So, what we used when we were on the railway, when you talk about people being transported on the railway, they weren’t transported with steam locomotives, they were transported by lorries.
Puzzled, I emailed members of the Researching FEPOW History Group (RFHG) to see if anyone had heard about these truck trains. Without delay our Dutch research colleague Michiel Schwartzenberg, emailed:
“He is talking about the ‘Flying Kampong’ a diesel lorry adapted for railroad usage.
The diesel-powered lorries were very practical, and to the Westerners a novelty. The Japanese had to devise something that could move heavy goods along the railway, as there was no road or a dependable river…. There was another advantage as a lorry can move short distances. A steam train has to develop pressure, power and then can move long distances. Obviously, a train can move much heavier loads, but on the railway this was restricted to 10 boxcars”.
Michiel sent these photographs:
Keith Andrews also responded:
“They were certainly used in some sections of the Railway. Capable of pulling four of the specially built wagons they were excellent for transporting maintenance parties or Japanese troops. They had been used by track laying groups and were in use until the end of the war. I will see what else I can dig up”.
(NB Bert had mentioned that the trucks could only go about 40 miles before they needed diesel).
And he contacted Terry Manttan the manager of the Thailand Burma Railway Centre in Kanchanaburi, who added:
“The converted lorries (truck-trains or “flying kampongs”) were mostly used for short to medium distance movements of working groups of PoWs as they were much more versatile and more readily available for such a function”.
If anyone has any further information about the Flying Kampongs do please share.
During their three and a half years of imprisonment in the Far East, POWS suffered overwork and maltreatment, but also undernutrition and exposure to various tropical diseases. This frequently led to attacks of malaria and dysentery, as well as various syndromes of vitamin deficiency. Tropical ulcers and cholera outbreaks also occurred – particularly in the jungle camps of the Thai-Burma Railway.
In September 1945, Professor Brian Maegraith of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) addressed a group of families in Blackpool, whose relatives were ex-POWs on their way home. Maegraith warned of likely relapses of malaria and dysentery, as well as psychological problems. Contrary to standard advice, he told the families to “let them talk” of their experiences. Below is a photo of this meeting published in the local Blackpool newspaper.
A letter appeared in the British Medical Journal in December 1945, drawing attention to the inadequacy of medical screening of returning Far East POWs. Dr F E Cayley (himself a former Burma Railway POW doctor) pointed out the high rates of intestinal parasitic infections amongst these men (notably amoebiasis – the main cause of dysentery relapses), and recommended routine microscopic examination of stool specimens. Such examinations were almost never done, the only relevant precautionary measure being an information leaflet given to some returning Far East POWs, the text of which is shown below –
INFORMATION LEAFLET FOR THE MEDICAL ATTENDANTS OF A REPATRIATED PRISONER Some diseases, which do not normally occur in this country, are present in the countries in which you have been serving. It is essential for the protection of yourself, your family and your friends and to prevent any possible epidemics of disease in this country that any illness from which you may suffer while you are on leave, or after your release from the Services, should receive immediate medical attention. Notes for Medical Practitioners The following diseases commonly occur in the Far East POW – Malaria, Dysentery (including Amoebic Dysentery), nutritional deficiencies, skin diseases and worm infestations.
Failure of adequate medical screening and follow-up of returning Far East POWs was a lost opportunity which was to have lasting effects. Post-war, over 4,000 of these men were seen at the military hospital Queen Mary’s Roehampton (1945 to 1967), and a similar number at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (1945 to 1999). There were early relapses of malaria and dysentery, increased tuberculosis risk, chronic intestinal worm infections, and permanent neurological damage due to vitamin B deficiency. Perhaps most importantly, over one-third suffered significant psychiatric illness, later recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Thankfully, there were some benefits from this unfortunate episode. The Liverpool School conducted a major research project on the long term health problems of ex-Far East POWs, leading to a series of papers in the medical literature. These have significantly contributed to the knowledge-base and clinical practice of both tropical and military medicine. As numbers of ex-POWs declined, the LSTM FEPOW Project has moved to recording the oral, art and medical history of the POW experience. This has resulted in the books Captive Memories (M Parkes & G Gill, 2015), Burma Railway Medicine (G Gill & M Parkes, 2017), and Captive Artists (M Parkes, G Gill & J Wood, 2019) – see the captivememories.org.uk website for more details.
Remembering captivity across Southeast Asia and the Far East during the Second World War