In Chungkai camp over the period late 1944 to early 1945 there were some highlights in the POWs lives, in particular the theatre provided not only distraction but some lifelong happy memories. Barry remembers:
In the summer of 1944, one of the Dutch POWs started a concert party and built a small stage. I was co-opted into the early productions as a stage carpenter and odd job man. Later on a fine new theatre for plays was built and used by several different groups of producers. As a small slim, handsome young man and a good dancer, my true potential as a chorus girl and romantic actress were eventually recognised. Most of the shows were mixed variety concerts with a line of chorus girls.
Leo Britt, a Corporal in the RASC, put on a number of straight plays in which I had minor parts. Leo was very strict with us ‘girls’. Report to the theatre after first rice and from then on wear skirts and high heels to become used to moving like a woman. Some of us became anxious that we might possibly be becoming ‘too too’ girlish, and to prevent this we kept a stock of barbells and weight bars (bamboo and logs) behind the stage, which we could lift from time to time as an assurance that our manly muscles were still there.
The parts for the plays were either copied out from books, which we happened to have in the camp, or more often written down by someone who knew the play well from having acted in it or produced it before the war. In my best scene (in Hay Fever), twisting around on a very hard bamboo sofa with the host, I was often worried that our kisses might cause giggles or rude comment, but we got away with it and the host, Leo himself, once whispered to me, “They’re taking it OK, do it just once more”. So we did, and the Japs who came every night and sat in the front row just loved it.
A small part with Dickie Lucas, the main leading lady at the time in a Café Colette show has given me my best-loved anecdote. We did a dance routine to the tune of “Yam” a popular song of the thirties. We danced separately and then as a pair, finally in the chorus line. When walking back to my hut after the show I overheard two soldiers, one of whom I knew, discussing the show. “Those two fucking tarts, they were more like real fucking tarts than any fucking tarts I’ve ever met”. My best theatre crit.
Other members of Barry’s original unit, 27 Line Section, who fetched up in Chungkai, were also stars of the stage. His lieutenant Bob Garrod acted in a very successful production of “Night Must Fall” in June 1944.
Meanwhile another member of the unit, Reg Hannam, was still on the railway driving lorries on maintenance work and in spite of this also performing regularly. His son (also Reg Hannam) found concert programmes for shows in Brankassi Camp at 208 km up the line. There was clearly a flourishing cabaret act in which Hannam and his friends performed to entertain their mates.
It is difficult to overestimate the morale-boosting effects of theatrical performances. The enthusiasm and dedication of those who performed were crucial to the survival of many of their fellow POWs. How much these events mattered can be seen by the fact that such fragile mementoes were preserved.
I loved this.
It was the part of his captivity that my father did talk about when we were children. He really enjoyed being on stage!
Fascinating bit of history.
Yes, human resilience and determination to squeeze some joy out of life is an amazing constant of history.
I am astounded to learn of these performances while in POW camps. Your artifacts are extreme treasures to say the least!
For real information about these POW camp activities – and they were very elaborate, though mostly in the bigger base camps after completion of the railway – see http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/1/
My father had photos of material now held in the Imperial War Museum. Reg Hannam’s programmes are in his son’s keeping.
The expert is Professor Seers Eldridge.
Reblogged this on Masako and Spam Musubi and commented:
A new educational discovery for me! I had no idea!
Thanks for the reblog.
Hilary – I loved that story. It’s hard to believe that they were allowed to create these performances…. but then again, I’m sure their captors enjoyed the break from routine also. I’m sure you must treasure these memories. Thank you for sharing.
I’m sure you’re right, the guards were bored, and enjoyed the entertainment. However performances were a privilege which could be withdrawn for any perceived misdemeanour at any time. They were also subject to all sorts of misunderstandings. For instance a show called Hey Diddle Diddle got banned, because diddle translates as cheat or swindle, so clearly the POWs were planning something wicked. In 1942/3, while the POWs were up-river building the railway in appalling conditions these affairs would have been impossible.
Very interesting. Great seeing the mementoes kept by the men as well too. Wonderful!
I think there is many a shoebox in an attic with mementoes like these, I just hope the families realise that they can share them.
Wonderful story, Hillary. I laughed when I pictured the guys wearing high heels so they could learn to walk like women. The human spirit is indeed irrepressible, even in the hardest of times. –Curt.
Indeed, and that even for a brief period captives and captors were laughing together and at the same sights.
Amazing story. I’m so glad our paths have crossed here.
Wow, I caught this on the reblog at Mustang Koji’s and WOW. It’s precious, precious memories and precious treasure in these pieces of paper. This is a fantastic post. Utter treasure.
i found this very interesting.i just sent some information to my friend pierre lagace in quebec
about information my sister sharon and i have collected about my dads time in a nazi prison camp during ww11.
our father had talked some of the other prisoners to draw pictures of ships and other items,which he saved and brought home with him.
they also had plays and other ways of entertaining each other in that camp.
i have forwarded my information to pierre so he can post it.
Hello Jim, I am much in touch with Pierre too. He has posted information for me about my uncle (http://johncustancebaker.wordpress.com/2013/11/21/a-very-unlikely-hero-redux/), a mosquito navigator who died in Canada. He does wonderful work helping us keep the memories of our parent’s generation alive.
hilary,my wife and i tracked down our family history.on my side we got back to 1495.
on my wife side we actualy found the papers her dad signed to join the canadian army during ww1.he was only 16 years old but filled out the papers saying he was 18 years old.
it is amazing what you can discover if you look hard enough.
i am enjoying your web site and thank you.