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.
Len was a proud Sunderland man through and through. Born in one of the world’s great industrial cities, he had a lifelong passion for the power of education to improve one’s circumstances. He also had a passion for music, which was to help save him and others in his time of greatest trial. And he was a born story-teller all his adult life, to his friends and comrades, to the generations of children he taught, and to the historians and researchers who increasingly beat a path to the door of his bungalow in the Wearside village of West Herrington which he loved and in which he ended his days.
Born to hardworking god-fearing parents, he had three sisters and attended West Park Central School. He already loved music and was a chorister at Bishopwearmouth Church, becoming the senior boy and soloist. Leaving school during the Great Depression, he found work alongside his father in a timber factory. But he above all wanted to be a teacher, and took evening classes studying Science, Maths, English and French. When years later this writer asked him what other than music he mostly taught in his later career, he smiled and said “just about everything, really.” He also found the Empire Theatre had cheap tickets for operas. He attended “Madam Butterfly”, and cried. Whenever he heard it again in later life, it still brought him to tears.
With war looming, in early 1939 he joined a new Territorial Regiment of Artillery and trained as a signaller. On 1 September 1939 the Regiment was called to active service, and in 1940 reconstituted as an Anti Tank Regiment and moved to home defence duties in Norfolk. There followed over a year of moving around the UK, until finally on 28 October 1941 the regiment embarked at Avonmouth to cross to Halifax in Canada, and then again headed round the Cape of Good Hope to Bombay. En route Len entertained with his proudest possession, his banjo. And en route they also heard of the attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941.
On 4 February 1942 Len’s convoy was attacked eight miles from Singapore by Japanese aircraft and all were forced to abandon ship. Len, a non-swimmer, floated in his cork lifebelt towards a boat which hauled him and others aboard and took them into the chaos of the last days of the defence of Singapore. On 15 February Len and his unit learned of the garrison’s unconditional surrender, and Len entered 41 months of Japanese captivity.
The details of that harrowing time are recounted in Len’s memoir “A Wearside Lad in World War II.” He was moved first to Changi, then to the River Valley Camp to work clearing debris from the city. He had lost his precious banjo when his ship sank, but now built a new one from scrap materials, and later built a guitar which he taught himself to play. He also began to compose music.
On 24 October 1942 began the long rail journey to a series of camps in western Thailand, where Len and his work battalion were to construct the Burma-Siam railway. Len would later recount the daily horrors in his typical understated way—stifling heat, forced labour with few tools, a poor and highly inadequate diet of rice, tea, and “gippo” (basically hot water with added scraps), sickness, voracious insects, vermin, and beatings by the guards. Len like his comrades contracted typhus. He also had his appendix removed, without anaesthetic, by the legendary surgeon “Weary” Dunlop. Len kept himself going, and his comrades entertained, with his guitar music. He was by nature a forgiving man, but he said later to this writer “I cannot put in my book everything that happened, because it’s meant for my family. And I cannot forgive the Japanese what I saw them do to my friends.”
In April 1945, when Japan was clearly losing the war, Len and those of his comrades who had not died on the railway were moved to Khiri Khan in the Gulf of Siam, and thence into the interior, to work on completing the cross-isthmus Mergui Road. He said he found conditions much worse there than on the railway—poorer food and much more sickness. But he survived. On 15 August Japan surrendered, the guards were seen busily burning records, and Len and other survivors were marched back to Khiri Khan. At the end of the month a British officer arrived at the camp and began the long process of getting Len and others home. He travelled via Rangoon (where the day his ship left local radio played “Monsoon”, a piece he had composed during imprisonment) and the long sea voyage back to Liverpool, and recuperated in Ryhope General Hospital in Sunderland. There he met a lovely nurse called Ruby Pounder, and married her.
After the war Len achieved his ambition of becoming a schoolmaster, and for 17 years was Headmaster of Hasting Hill School in Sunderland. He and Ruby, who was to pre-decease him, had a son David and a daughter Jennifer. He always retained his love of music. He loved family gatherings: Jennifer described to this writer a gathering of over 90 in the extended family, where Len appeared as a sort of Pied Piper, entertaining everyone. He also remained committed to Far East POW organisations like COFEPOW, visiting the sick and needy and appearing at regular veteran gatherings throughout the North-east.
As he grew older interest seemed to grow in the experiences of so many young men who had fought in the Far East War 1941-45. Len was tireless in addressing groups in his factual understated way, “telling it how it was”. He had an endless fund of tales from the time in the camps which brought the story home to listeners young and old; of course he was never without his guitar, and some music to play. He was awarded the British Empire Medal in 2009, and as a proud Sunderland man opted to be invested by the Lord Lieutenant at Sunderland City Hall.
Finally he was amazed by the historians who came to see him to record his experiences. He gave his last interview, shortly before his final illness, just three months ago. The historian wrote afterwards that he was struck by Len’s power of recall, his sharpness, and his positive attitude, to which along with his love of music the historian attributed Len’s survival when so many others had perished in the camps. Len said to him:
“I’ve had a wonderful life. I wouldn’t change a moment of it.”
Remembering captivity across Southeast Asia and the Far East during the Second World War