By Paul Murray
I have recently published a book, “From the Gaeltacht to Galicia: a Son’s Tale”, which includes, as one of its main themes, my father’s experiences as a POW in Changi between February 1942 and May 1943, his transfer on the prison ship Wales Maru to mainland Japan, and his onward journey to the northern island of Hokkaido where he was imprisoned in six further camps until September 1945. My book follows on from the setting up of a website by my brother Carl in August 2020 called thebelfastdoctor.info where he published the secret diaries in the form of love letters from our Dad to the woman who was to become our Mum.
Using the diaries in which, apart from one month, there is an entry every day for 42 months, I travelled to Singapore in October 2017 and on to Japan to follow in his footsteps. This special pilgrimage proved to be an emotional roller coaster but I was so glad that I went as, with the help of a guide and an interpreter, I met numerous historians and museum curators who were able to piece together the story of some of the British, Dutch and American POWs in the ten camps on the island. I even met an elderly Japanese man who claimed to have met my father when he was imprisoned in what proved to be the worst of the camps, Muroran.
My father’s name was Major Francis J. Murray and he was the chief MO as well as the senior CO in two of the six camps on Hokkaido where he was in charge of 350 British prisoners. He was awarded the military MBE when he returned to N Ireland after the war to set up a practice as a GP in a working class area of north Belfast.
During my visit to Singapore, I met up with one of my sisters who flew in from her home in Canada and, together with the son of the country’s former first chief minister in 1955, David Marshall, we re-enacted our dads’ walk from the Padang beside St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral along the route of the 14 mile march into captivity at Changi.
On Hokkaido, Dad was incarcerated for one week in Hakodate, four months in Yakumo, 19 months in Muroran, five weeks in Raijo (all the POW accounts I have read including my Dad’s know this camp as Nishi Ashibetsu), two weeks in Utashinai, and two months in Akabira. The only building still standing on its original site on the island is now a café in what was once the compound of the camp at Hakodate on the outskirts of the town. A television crew from Japan’s national station NHK together with a reporter from a local newspaper covered my visit to Hakodate and Yakumo. Later on my first day at Hakodate, I was taken to a temple which used to be the camp hospital and which has been reconstructed in another part of the town. There is a small plaque in the temple with the names of some of the British and Dutch POWs who died during captivity. Included on it are some of the thirteen men who died on my father’s watch and who are all buried at the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Yokohama. On my visit to Tokyo a few days earlier, I had laid poppy crosses at the graves of each of the men. Our guide at the camp at Hakodate and the Eizenji Temple was Masatoshi Asari, an elderly local historian, who was responsible for erecting the symbolic plaque of reconciliation and for bringing the story of the foreign prisoners to the attention of school children on the island.
My visits to Yakumo where the men constructed an air strip in the summer and autumn of 1943, and Muroran where they provided slave labour in the Wanishi Iron and Steel Works, proved to be equally fascinating though tinged with great emotion when I learnt more details about the tragic deaths of Signalman Stan Faunch at the former, and Private Raymond Suttle among the twelve at the latter.
My book has a special focus on two Japanese officers whose treatment of the POWs was markedly different. Lieutenant Kaichi Hirate was camp commandant at Muroran and Raijo. Lieutenant Colonel Shigeo Emoto had overall responsibility for all the camps on Hokkaido between March 1944 and May 1945.
The stunning autumn colours of the interior were in stark contrast to the bleakness of the port at Muroran and it was so very special to gather in a clearing in the middle of the woods at Dad’s fourth camp, Raijo, to picture what he called his proudest moment when, on 5 September 1945, he was presented with a giant scroll of tribute by the British and American POWs.
I am indebted to two women from the POW Research Network Japan, Taeko Sasamoto and Yoshiko Tamura, who gave me so much assistance throughout my special pilgrimage to their country. They are among a number of volunteers who are continuing to bring the stories of the Allied POWs in all the camps in Japan to the attention of its people and, ultimately, to a far wider audience with the future publication of a book.
As for my own book, it is available for purchase in paperback form at thegreatbritishbookshop.co.uk Any money I make from it will go to the arthritis charity NASS.