Prisoner on the Kwai

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.”

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 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 [1942]   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 [1942]   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 [1942] Work on the railway. I’m very weak indeed. Two more funerals today.

Wed. Dec 30th [1942] Work on malarial drains. Another funeral.

Sun.Feb 14th [1943] Work as usual. Pte Jarvis died last night.

Mon. Feb 15th [1943] 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.

32 thoughts on “Prisoner on the Kwai

    • Like most children with a FEPOW father, this story is part of my childhood. Yes, I did find my reading harrowing to start with, then two things happened. I became a little hardened, but more importantly, time after time I came across instances of heroism, incredible spirit, inventiveness, capacity for joy in small things and amazing friendship. Since he died I have been working with a mass of letters from that period that I will bring to publication one day.

      • No, I have no connection to Basil Peacock. I am researching Far East POWs, especially those who worked on the Thailand-Burma Railway. His was a particularly good account. Are you related to a Far East POW?

    • I read because I want to understand this arena of the war as fully as possible. Much life, not only of the Allies, but more from the surrounding countries, was wasted, yet beautiful music was played, people learned foreign languages, people of different cultures met and found common ground…

    • Yes, bad stuff is certainly happening today and much of this experience was dreadful, but not all of it. The determination of the Japanese to build the railroad resulted in thousands of deaths, but, unlike the holocaust, there was no overall intention to kill the prisoners. Humanity has a long way to go, yet in spite of the news, I do believe we are less warlike than in earlier periods.

  1. It comes to mind that you show both courage and persistence in your willingness to dig deeper and deeper into the personal stories related by the FEEPOWs, Hilary. Obviously, you have become an expert in the area, I suspect one of the few. I liked your statement: “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.” –Curt

    • Thank you. I feel as though I have barely skimmed the surface of what is there (I have twenty unread books on the subject on my shelves) and there are many children of FEPOWs who are much more dedicated than I am. I have learnt a lot, though, and I hope to publish an account of the survival or families and relationships in the end – though I fear it will less coherent than Basil Peacock’s book.

  2. As a third-party account, you have both the advantage of distance, as well as the lack of first-hand knowledge, Hilary. But I think your book will be well worth the long soul-searching it requires. Of course, that’s easy for me to say …

    • Well, I hope you are right. I only planned to be the editor of my parents’ letters to each other, my father’s memoirs and the amazing letters written by FEPOW relatives to my mother during the war, but it has turned into something else.

      • I think that’s probably inevitable, Hilary. The more you learn from your parents’ letters and those of your FEPOW relatives, the more intense and immediate the whole thing must become. And to a writer such as yourself, I suspect that can only lead to a book — one I would very much like to read!

  3. I find it so hard to imagine that these men could have ever been forgotten. Not one story truly has a happy ending – survival of the horrors of hell is the best it can get.

  4. You have such eclectic tastes, Hilary my little love … What is it you intend to bring to publication ? – I mean, what form of writing ?

  5. Pingback: Prisoner on the Kwai | Janet's thread

  6. Your words are so eloquent here and express sentiments very well when you wrote, “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.” I honor and respect those who endured through very depressing days.

  7. How fascinating. I am intrigued by this time period myself. My area of Virginia was heavily populated by German POWs brought here during WWII as farm laborers. We know their accounts of treatment vary dramatically from those in Japan, Germany, and Russia. My uncle was a German POW placed in Alabama – an experience which probably saved his life as he lived out the worst of the war here in the States. I so wish somebody had asked him about his experiences while he was still alive – so many stories lost to time. This is a wonderful project upon which you embark.

    • Interestingly my father was stationed in Germany after the war. So as a child I met real ordinary Germans before I ever understood about their role in the war. This has helped me to understand that we are all the same underneath, though culture and powerful leaders can sway us in unexpected directions. I have been lucky that my father never threw away the letters he and my mother wrote and received during that period and that he wrote his memoirs (only because he was tied to a chair waiting for a hip operation).

      • I was born in Germany, Hilary, to an American GI and a German mother. We lived in Army quarters and at some point I figured out that my Opa’s army had fought my father’s. To a child who sees the world in black and white, this was a transformative realization really. Not to overstate it, but I think I was never again able to view situations without at least being open to the grays.

      • I feel this is the ultimate answer to world peace, if we keep stirring all the national pots until no-one belongs entirely to one nation perhaps… just perhaps… we will stop fighting to preserve some mythical superiority.

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