By Meg Parkes
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.