In the early 1960’s Basil Peacock found himself unexpectedly in Bangkok, some twenty years after his last visit to that city. He hired a car and with his wife and American friends and drove up to the river Kwai. The hire car manager charged little, exclaiming:
“You work on railroad! Not dead yet! You must have iron bones — I make special price.”
His companions listening to him talking about his time as a Far East Prisoner of War (FEEPOW) persuaded him to write up his story. It was published in 1966 and is, as he says, mainly about the:
“bizarre rather than the tragic. My memories of unusual, odd and even crazy incidents were vivid and detailed, but those of horror curiously blurred.”
Basil Peacock was a veteran of the First World War, he joined under-age in 1916, received the Military Cross in 1917 and was wounded and captured in 1918. This gives him a perspective on his later captivity that few other writers possess. Prisoner on the Kwai is an excellent, extremely readable account of the FEPOW experience under the Japanese. [It includes some non-PC language.]
In the last five years I have read more than fifty books by or about FEPOWs, some published, others as private accounts or diaries in museums. Contemporary diaries are rare; they contain truth that is of the moment, but the contents can be restricted by the fear of discovery. The early post-war accounts vary and were often rejected by publishers as too brutal, particularly those by ordinary soldiers. Many who felt the need to record the three and a half years taken out of their lives were not natural writers, and their accounts lack balance and structure; sometimes bitterness, sensationalism or vainglory overwhelm the story. Others are brilliant, painful, heartbreaking and heartwarming.
The basic truths that always emerge are the desperation of hunger, the dependence on mates and the extraordinary endurance of the human will under every conceivable insult to the body. Reading these accounts, will confirm that altruism is a real human quality and so, sadly, is sadism, and that luck plays a very big role in survival.
Another thing that also emerges is that each man’s experience is unique. It is almost unheard of for even two men to spend the whole of their captivity together. Prisoners were sent hither and yon with no predictability throughout the war.
Some entries from the diary of Edward (Ted) Hammond who served as an ordinary enlisted soldier in the 5th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment:
April 28th  Been at work on road making. Bullied about and beaten up by the Japs with sticks and iron bars. Kept at work until 6.15p.m.
April 29th  No work today. Emperor of Japan’s birthday. Usual breakfast, plain boiled rice and watery milk. Fine day after rain all night.
Sun. Dec 27th  Work on the railway. I’m very weak indeed. Two more funerals today.
Wed. Dec 30th  Work on malarial drains. Another funeral.
Sun.Feb 14th  Work as usual. Pte Jarvis died last night.
Mon. Feb 15th  Work again. One year ago today since the fateful day of Singapore’s capitulation and one year of hard work, chiefly on rice. Now we must hope for the best.
This is Ted’s last entry. He was marching up to the higher reaches of the railway, he was very cold at night, starving and his two particular friends were very sick. Work on the railway was lasting all day from dark until dark. He died on October 16th 1943 of bacillary dysentery and beri-beri.
See also pacific paratrooper on this subject.