On the 74th anniversary of VJ Day, Ashley Prime writes for RFHG about his father, Lance Corporal Ashley Prime – a former prisoner of war in Singapore and Thailand – whose moving post-war letters have been published open access for all to read.
I had of course always known that my father had been a Japanese Prisoner of War. I grew up with that always in our minds in our home, but it was never really seen as a negative. It was just there, and from my childhood, I recall kindly former colleagues of his visiting our home. They were always kind and I never felt any anger in the way they were. At least to me as a small child.
Later in life, I was living in West Germany in my early twenties, and whilst back in London on holiday, I asked my father about the war and his experiences. He said he hadn’t really ever talked to me about it but did want to rectify that. We didn’t discuss anything further, but it was at that point that I started to receive a series of handwritten letters on A4 paper, over a period of around 18 months. He had been meticulous in keeping as many of the original documents as he had, including the postcards he had sent my mother, the only letter he had received from her and his record card. All in support of his letters.
And he wrote and wrote and wrote. Sadly he died in 1983 before he was able to complete his life story. He had written up to the mid 1950s and had therefore covered the fall of Singapore, captivity and liberation.
What did I take from the letters? And how did it change my view of my father? Firstly, there was throughout his letters a lack of anger, a lack of bitterness, with a pragmatic acceptance of his fate. He said that ‘you will be back’ – the parting words from his wife – and ‘another life experience’ kept him going.
He had already said to me that forgiveness was one of the most difficult things to do. But holding on to bitterness eats us all away from the inside and doesn’t allow us to move on. And I think he did that with his captors, with the evidence of him giving them cigarettes, refraining from beating them and pitying them at the end of the war when the Japanese themselves became captives.
And that is how I remember him. He was always kind, thoughtful, loving and caring. I rarely, if ever, saw him angry and he never raised his voice to me. I miss him today in 2019 as much as I do when he was here.
Georgina Banks is researching the experiences of her Great Aunt Dorothy Elmes and is looking for any information on the Radji Beach Massacre. She writes for RFHG’s blog about her project….
My Great Aunt Dorothy Gwendoline Howard Elmes; NFX 70526, 2/10 AGH Hospital, commonly known as Bud or Buddy, was killed in the infamous Radji Beach Massacre in East Sumatra, Indonesia, on 16th February 1942.
When day broke on Radji Beach, there were around one hundred people who had washed ashore from the Vyner Brooke and the Pulo Soegi, over the last two days, fleeing Singapore: women and children, civilians, sailors, Australian Army Nurses and military personnel, including British servicemen. These ships had been bombed by the Japanese in the Banka Strait – or bomb alley as it was now dubbed. Since there were so many injured amongst them on the beach, they made the unanimous decision to hand themselves in to the Japanese. They made a big Red Cross on the beach and placed their faith in the Geneva Convention. A group of women and children departed to surrender and Sub-Lt. Bill Sedgeman (British) led the mission to get help for the wounded.
When they returned a few hours later, with around twenty Japanese soldiers led by Captain Orita Masaru, it was quickly noticed they had no stretchers with them. The Japanese split them into three groups: two of men and the other of nurses. One at a time, the two groups of men were marched around the headland, blindfolded, bayoneted and shot.
They then came back from around the headland to deal with the nurses. Twenty-two Australian Army Nurses, including my Great Aunt Bud and one civilian woman Mrs Betteridge, were lined up on Radji Beach, facing the horizon, marched into the sea and machine gunned from behind. One woman, Vivian Bullwinkel, survived, due to her height, as the bullets missed her vital organs. She ‘came to’ in the water and crawled into the jungle where she met Private Kinsley (British), a stretcher case, who had been bayoneted where he lay but was still alive. Vivian survived both the massacre and the internment camps on Banka Island and lived to testify at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. Kinsley died in the mens’ camp.
Two other men survived both the massacre and the internment camps when they made a break for it in the water and feigned death: Eric German, an American Brewer and Ernest Stoker Lloyd, a British Sailor.
I am writing a book about my Great Aunt Bud, which includes a dramatised account of her last 48 hours, her letters written home from Singapore and my contemporary narrative retracing her footsteps, filling in the gaps and reflecting on the event two generations later.
I would be very grateful for any assistance with my research.
I am looking for:
Anyone still alive who was on the Vyner Brooke that I could talk to. I have spoken to Ralph Armstrong author of “Short Cruise on the Vyner Brooke”.
Anyone alive from the women’s camps. They were moved around a bit from Muntok to Palembang and then to Belalau. All of the surviving Australian Army nurses have now died – so it would be someone who was a child at the time.
Any related documents, personal papers or diaries. I have seen the official statements for the War Crimes Tribunal in The Archives in Australia of anyone who witnessed either the aftermath of the massacre (by washing ashore later, or by being out at sea and viewing it at a distance). I have also been in contact with Stoker Lloyd’s granddaughters and they have nothing further
Documents related to the Japanese soldiers – any accounts from their perspective. They were two companies of the 229th Regiment of the 38th Division of the Japanese Army under Major-General Tanaka (the same Division that took St Stephens Hospital in Hong Kong and raped and killed British and Chinese nurses). There have always been rumours the nurses were violated prior but there is no definitive evidence I have seen. If it exists then I would like to see this.
Anyone who knew the nurses when they were stationed in Singapore.
10 October 2018, would have been Jack Bridger Chalker’s 100th birthday. Widely known as the “Burma railway artist”, he is famed and remembered for his remarkable depictions of captivity under the Japanese during the Second World War: a vivid and uncompromising documentary of disease, death and survival thanks to remarkable ingenuity, in camps along the Thai-Burma Railway. Meg Parkes and Geoff Gill write for RFHG about a remarkable man and his enduring legacy.
Jack Bridger Chalker: 10 October 1918 – 15 November 2014
Born in 1918 in London, Jack was educated at Dulwich College and later Goldsmith’s where he studied graphics and art. Awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, this was deferred due to the outbreak of war in 1939. He volunteered, joining the Territorials’ 260 Battery 118th Field Regiment Royal Artillery. In October 1941 Jack’s unit was posted to Singapore, sailing from Liverpool on the Orcades. Stopping briefly in India, his ship docked in Singapore on 29 January, just 17 days before the garrison faced a humiliating surrender to the Japanese on 15 February 1942.
After initial imprisonment at the vast Changi POW camp, he moved first to Havelock Road camp to work on the docks, before being sent north to Thailand arriving at Ban Pong on 19 October. Marched 160 kilometres north through raw jungle to Konyu River camp, Jack worked on the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway. Here the combination of disease, malnutrition and working like slaves meant mortality was high. A near-fatal bout of sickness had Jack moved south, first to Tarsau and then on to the larger POW “hospital” camp at Chungkai at the southern end of the railway.
During an interview in 2007, Jack recalled that early on in Changi he had drawn pictures of sexy ladies for his comrades for whatever the going currency was. But soon he was producing depictions of imprisonment in and around Singapore, including examples of Japanese brutality. On the railway he expanded this work to include the beautiful things that surrounded them – breath-taking scenery, exotic flora and abundant wildlife – as well as details of camp life. Later, at the base hospital camps, he concentrated on recording the medical problems and the improvised equipment used for treatments. In addition he also filled notebooks with anatomical studies. All this work was done at great risk as any form of record-keeping was strictly forbidden by the Japanese.
It was at Chungkai that Jack worked closely with the Australian surgeon Colonel Edward “Weary” Dunlop and, after the Japanese official surrender in September 1945, he was invited by Dunlop to remain for a while in Bangkok, acting as war artist for the Australian Army HQ. There he completed and added to his collection of drawings and paintings, some of which were used in subsequent war crime tribunals as well as in medical journals in Australia.
On return to England Jack took up his scholarship at the Royal College of Art. There followed a highly successful career, including posts as Director of Art at Cheltenham Ladies College, Principal of Falmouth College of Art, and later a similar position at the West of England College of Art in Bristol. He retired in 1974.
After the war, Jack did not involve himself with the Far East POW community and for many years his artwork from captivity was largely unknown in Britain. In the early 1980s, Dr Geoff Gill at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) noticed some of Jack’s drawings illustrating a 1946 paper, published by Dunlop in the Australian Medical Journal. These were attributed to “Gunner Chalker” and for some time it was assumed that the works were by an Australian. However, eventually Jack was tracked down to his studio in rural Somerset.
Jack visited LSTM where he underwent tropical disease screening. He brought photographic copies of his railway art collection, which he presented to the School. His links and friendships with staff in Liverpool continued throughout the rest of his life.
Jack’s reputation as a POW artist grew and he published his epic book, Burma Railway Artist, in 1994 with a revised and expanded edition in 2007 (Burma Railway – Images of War). Though remembered mainly for the illustrations, Jack’s text in both books was a perceptive and detailed reflection of POW life and conditions. Tim Mercer, who published the 2007 volume, said: “Jack was one of the most special people I have ever met. No bitterness, no regrets and he even said he would not have missed his time as a prisoner of war for anything…Cheers Jack..!”
Jack was married twice and had three children. Those who knew him remember a delightfully modest and unassuming man. He held no bitterness for what he had experienced, and even said that he had benefitted enormously because of “all the wonderful people I met”.
Jack Chalker died on 15 November 2014, aged 96. Previously unseen examples of his artwork from captivity will be included in next year’s Far East POW Secret Art of Survival exhibition organised by LSTM and held at Liverpool’s Victoria Gallery and Museum, opening on 19 October 2019.
A new biography of Dr Bill Frankland is published in October 2018. Author Paul Watkins writes for RFHG about Frankland’s remarkable life.
The Toss of a Coin
On 28 November 1941, QSMV Dominion Monarch arrived at Singapore at the end of a two-month voyage from Liverpool. On board were 35 doctors from the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), a number of Army nurses and 1700 men of the Royal Artillery. The RAMC group included 29-year-old Captain A. W. ‘Bill’ Frankland. He had qualified from St Mary’s Hospital in 1938 and had joined the Army two days before the declaration of war, in September 1939.
The plan for the RAMC contingent was to form a General Hospital at Johor Bahru. However, four days after landing this changed and their fate was unclear. Bill Frankland, along with another new arrival, Captain R. L. Parkinson RAMC, was summoned to a meeting with a senior officer. There were two positions to be filled: one at Tanglin Military Hospital, working primarily in VD and dermatology, and the other as an anaesthetist in the newly opened Alexandra Military Hospital, a facility which Bill later described as ‘like Buckingham Palace’. Bill’s preference was Tanglin, as was Captain Parkinson’s; neither relished the prospect of administering anaesthetics. The senior officer broke the stalemate in a time-honoured way. A coin was spun: ‘You call, Frankland’ was the instruction. ‘Heads, Sir’. It was. Bill was sent to Tanglin and Captain Parkinson to Alexandra Military Hospital.
Four days later Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbour, Singapore and Hong Kong. Over the ensuing months Tanglin came under heavy attack. During this time Bill treated many allied casualties and was also responsible for treating a small number of Japanese casualties taken prisoner. In addition he served as ‘prisoner’s friend’ to Captain Patrick Heenan, the ‘Traitor of Singapore’, who had been found guilty of treason.
On 11 February 1942, with Japanese troops no more than 500 metres away, Bill evacuated the hospital to the Victoria Theatre in Singapore City. Two days later, on Black Friday, he assisted British nurses, who had assembled at Singapore Cricket Club, to make their way to Keppel Harbour. He oversaw their passage onto small vessels which took them to the waiting SS Kuala. This was the last group of nurses to leave Singapore; many having worked at Alexandra Military Hospital. Reaching the gangway of Kuala they were greeted by Australian deserters armed with rifles, who allowed the nurses to board but told Bill that he could not. His reply was simple: ‘I do not intend to, I have plenty of work to be done back on land’.
Saturday 14 February stands out as one of the darkest days in the history of Singapore. On that day, Japanese troops surrounded Alexandra Military Hospital, and despite Red Cross flags being draped over the building, proceeded to attack. On seeing the situation unfolding Lieutenant W.F.J. Weston RAMC, walked out of the hospital towards the advancing troops, waving a large sheet as a white flag. He was immediately bayoneted and killed; he was 27 years old. His headstone poignantly reads ‘Greater love hath no man than this.’ Soon the Japanese entered the hospital creating unimaginable mayhem. Anaesthetised patients were bayoneted them as they lay on operating tables. Medical staff were also attacked. Captain T. B. Smiley, a surgeon with the RAMC, was bayoneted in the chest, but the blade was deflected by his cigarette case (a gift from his fiancée). Nearby, Captain Parkinson was anaesthetising Corporal Holden – both were killed.
Few patients survived the massacre and overall, more than 200 men lost their lives. Had it not been for the toss of coin in late 1941, Captain Bill Frankland would most certainly have been one of them.
Now aged 106, the biography of Dr Bill Frankland is to be published on 16 October. Entitled ‘From Hell Island to Hay Fever’, it details the remarkable and long life of Britain’s oldest doctor. It describes several occasions when Bill Frankland has been next to death, both in war and peace. The book provides unique insight into the remarkable medical career of a man who survived incarceration by the Japanese, worked for Sir Alexander Fleming, developed the pollen count and treated Saddam Hussein – it will be of interest to many and is available to pre-order now from Amazon.
An illustrated talk by Paul Murray on his experiences in October as he follows the daily diary entries of his father’s secret Prisoner of War love letters written to Paul’s mother from the camps in Singapore and Japan, Feb 1942 to Sep 1945.
Saturday 10th March 2018, 7.30 p.m.
The Pavilion, St. Peter’s High School,
Stroud Road, Gloucester, GL4 ODD
Light refreshments will be provided by the School’s P.F.A.
Voluntary donations to the P.F.A. and Philomusica
Remembering captivity across Southeast Asia and the Far East during the Second World War