“Captive Fathers, Captive Children: Legacies of the War in the Far East”
By Dr Terry Smyth
Defeated and disorientated in the heat and humidity of Java, my father, Edwin Smyth, was captured by the Imperial Japanese Army. It was the spring of 1942, and he was to spend the next three and a half years as a prisoner of war, including three years in Japan enslaved as a coal miner. Until his death in 1995 he remained greatly troubled by his memories, and his traumatic wartime experiences had a profound effect on me and on the wider family.
While a young child, I also often felt ‘defeated and disorientated’, by the atmosphere in the home. As the years rolled on, I continued to wonder why seven decades after the war so many of us remained fascinated by our fathers’ experiences of captivity and why we invested countless hours and days researching the facts and attending remembrance events. I was desperate to know how my childhood experiences compared with those of other sons and daughters of Far East POWs, and in what ways our memories of childhood had shaped our later lives. (Some questions don’t go away do they, even after decades and decades?)
After retiring from full-time employment in 2003, I began to read through my father’s papers. This reading, together with burgeoning online resources, were the triggers for my wife and I to travel to Japan in 2010 where we were able to visit the site of my father’s incarceration (Hiroshima 6b camp, near Mine City). At that point, I had to make a decision: either I would have to commit to taking this research further, or accept that I had gone as far as I could.
Faced with this fork in the road, curiosity won the day, and I decided to tackle the question head on. In October 2013, I started a full time PhD in the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex, graduating in the summer of 2017 just days after my 70th birthday.
During my research, I had contact with almost one hundred children of FEPOWs from all corners of the British Isles (and a few overseas), and undertook lengthy interviews with forty. As expected, these conversations were wide-ranging, challenging and emotionally demanding, made more so by the fact that they covered several decades of lived experience. Without exception, each interview offered new insights and fresh understandings, and I am exceedingly grateful to every participant for their trust and openness.
In June 2020, I signed a book contract with Bloomsbury Academic, one of the UK’s leading publishers. The book is part of their ‘New Directions in Social and Cultural History’ series, and sets out the results of my research into the life time consequences of having a FEPOW father. It aims to show how memory and trauma became ‘worked into’ the psychic, social and cultural lives of the children, how individual lives are touched by global events. Every family was affected in one way or another by the father’s FEPOW trauma, and I have not shied away from discussing and analysing the more troubling aspects of the children’s experiences, my own included. Taken together, these examples provide incontrovertible evidence of the incredible strength, resilience and courage of the participants in this research.
The seven chapters that comprise ‘Captive Fathers, Captive Children’ are as follows:
- Life in captivity
- Bringing war into the home
- Remembering and commemorating
- Finding meaning in memories
- Home as a site of remembrance
- The search for military family histories
- Place and pilgrimage
Sir Tim Hitchens, British Ambassador to Japan from 2012 to 2017, was kind enough to write the Foreword.
Although the book has been published by Bloomsbury Academic, wherever possible I have written it to appeal to a wider audience, most importantly the families of FEPOWs, as well as to those scholars and others interested in methodology, intergenerational trauma, and the legacies of war more generally.
To date, the book has been published in digital and hardback versions, and the paperback will appear in July 2023. You can find further details on the Bloomsbury website.
Dr Terry Smyth is a Community Fellow in the Department of History at the Univeristy of Essex. You can view his profile here.