Literature and the Truth – the Far East in WWII

In researching my book (Surviving the Death Railway: A POW’s Memoirs and Letters from Home) I have read many accounts of the FAR East in WWII – first, second and often third-hand ones. Truth is an elusive commodity. Diaries contain the most truth, but their vision is necessarily narrow. Survivor accounts have the same problem, plus the interaction of memory and the layers history has added. Helpful sons and daughters can introduce bias, historians are more objective – but they weren’t there. Here are five contrasting publications that I have read recently. Each contains a fragment of the picture, each has a different sort of truth.

DSCN8667First a little slip of a book, POW Sketchbook: a story of survival by Judy and Stuart Dewey (Pie Powder Press). Judy and Stewart tell the story of the artist William Wilder, using his diary entries, his memories and his excellent drawings. You get a true picture of the daily grind: ‘Late dinner at night in dark. Up at 7 am, breakfast in the dark, just rice and sugar… carrying planks and heavy wood over rough rocks. Frightfully hot. … . It is really hell. Little drink, sun the bug-bear… .’ Or brief entries as he lay in hospital, ‘8 deaths in the last 24 hours.’ The following day, ’12 fellows died yesterday.’ He drew to survive, but his work was often taken by his captors or destroyed. 70 drawings survived. To have saved these and his diary was an act of extreme courage.

Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 18.10.37Next a slim but dramatic account, Out of the Depths
of Hell: A Soldiers’s Story of Life and Death in Japanese Hands 
by John McEwan (Pen & Sword – my publishers). This is a soldier’s account, lively, tough and full of the harrowing and detailed memories of the years spent, in his case, mostly in the grimmest slavery in the copper mines of Taiwan. His feelings about his mates, his captors and his views on life and religion make this extremely, though painfully, readable. The truth here is a personal one told through the long lens of memory.

 

This next one, The Burma Railway: The Original War Drawings of Japanese POW Jack Chalker (Mercer Books 2007) is one of the most beautifully designed books I have ever handled, I want to weep and admire at the same time.DSCN8664It contains over a 100 full colour illustrations. The calibre and scope of these is astonishing. Every part of the POW experience is there. They are beautiful and painful. He depicts individuals undergoing sadistic punishments and hundreds of men at work, he shows wards of sick men and, when he worked with the famous surgeon Weary Dunlop, precise depictions of ulcers that ate into the bone. Jack tell his story between the drawings.

All the above are personal accounts with one main viewpoint; they do not claim to be literature or even research.  They all contains inaccuracies.

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My fourth is another small volume The Death Railway: A Brief History of The Thailand-Burma Railway by Rod Beattie (Thailand Burma Railway Centre Co., Ltd). This is modern, practical, and factual. Rod is the great researcher of the railway, an Australian who has walked, recorded and uncovered every inch of the tracks. He and Terry Manttan run the Centre at Kanchanaburi in Thailand and know more about the railway and the individuals who built her than anyone else alive. In his book Rod assembles essential facts and corrects many railway myths.

 

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 09.56.38Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 22.18.43My last book is odd in this context – and I haven’t yet finished it – The Gift of Rain, Tan Twan Eng. It is high quality literature and a work of fiction. Set in Penang fifty years after the war, the story within it runs from 1939 to 1945. It is as multicultural at its setting – British, Chinese, Malay, Japanese and Indian characters cross the stage. Only in this mesmerising, page-turning book have I found a sense of how the war affected individuals of all kinds in that part of the world, and why cultures with opposing philosophies that had lived harmoniously until then, both helped and brutalised each other. You get a glimpse of why civilisation cracked up and again later was able to rebuild.

My Far East POW book is now in the publisher’s hands and I am haunted by all the books I have not yet read, the archives and museums I have not visited and all the threads I have failed to follow up. What troubles me is how little of the truth can be found in any one account. Maybe fiction can weave a truer tale.

The unexpected haunting of the River Kwai

Last month we had a wonderful holiday with family on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan, with sunsets, wine-tasting and much good American food. IMG_1173 DSCN8355 DSCN8360Tabor Hill Winery

On one of our expeditions we visited the Fernwood Botanical Garden. There were woodland walks, prairie meadows and formal areas, DSCN8366 DSCN8378DSCN8368but one particular display grabbed our interest for a long time. We became kids again.  DSCN8377A walk-in area of wooden structures and natural landscape with trains running in and out DSCN8371 and suddenly reappearing where you least expected them. It was wonderfully complex,DSCN8372 engaging and utterly charming. There was so much to see, we didn’t know which way to look. DSCN8374 DSCN8375  DSCN8382We watched these trains dipping in and out of the foliage, creeping round the sheer edge of a wooden cliff, or traversing great gaps balanced on twig like structures. Yet all the while I felt a sense of haunting, a constant tug by the images of another railway.  This is the Wampo (Wang Pho) viaduct,Wampo pc4 and this Fernwood.DSCN8383 and this shows the bamboo scaffolding for the Bridge on the Mae Klaung (now renamed Kwai)and Far East prisoners of war and conscripted labourers at work on the Thailand-Burma railway in 1942/1943.Screen Shot 2015-10-15 at 15.56.10                         This is Fernwood again.DSCN8370 - Version 2

Some of us cannot forget.

Surviving the Death Railway – to be published

Surviving the Death Railway: A POW’s Memoirs and Letters from Home

To my intense joy and relief the military publishers Pen & Sword and will be launching this title in June/July 2016.

For six years I have been researching and editing a story using a unique collection of letters and a memoir. The letters between my parents, Barry and Phyllis, and my father’s memoir of life as a Japanese POW tell a chronological story of a young couple during World War Two – these are special, but not, perhaps, unique.

What is unique is another collection of letters and a dossier. Phyllis spent the war looking after her baby son AND trying to look after the relatives of the men in Barry’s Royal Signals Unit, 27 Line Section. There were 68 men under Barry’s captaincy and Phyllis had addresses for many of the wives, mothers and fiancées. She sent circular and individual letters, at first to keep up spirits, later to co-ordinate information, and towards the end of the war to create a simple dossier of the men to help identification by rescued POWs at the War Office. To do this she gathered information about each man.

If it is of any help my son was a jolly natured chap, with wavy hair and a gap between his front teeth.

Although there was nothing outstanding in his appearance… he had a tattoo done on his right forearm, it began at the wrist, and went almost to the elbow. It was the figure of a highlander in full national costume…

These letters are heart-breaking and heartwarming and give and insight into the lives of ordinary people coping with the wall of silence that came down with the Fall of Singapore on February 1942.

Barry memoirs record, without  bitterness or bravado, what the lives of the men were like during those years.Wampo pc1He helped to build the Wampo viaduct, he nearly died, he became a chorus girl and he assisted at amputations. After giving blood he remembers a happy encounter with one of the men from his Unit:

“Sir, yesterday I had some of your blood, and last night I dreamt about a woman for the first time since capitulation!”

This story records the two streams of life in Britain and the Far East. What I find so moving is that year after year these relatives wrote into the blue. Although some received a few multiple-choice field cards; no one, as far as I know, ever received an answer to a letter in three and a half years.

Please forgive me, but for the next two months I will only be a very rare visitor to your blogs.  I am already deep in the final editing of the manuscript, gaining permissions for the ninety odd illustrations and preparing them and the maps for publication.

 

Tomatoes (plus a little DIY and writing) rule my life

Now that the DIY on our two rotten windowsills, after much resin filler and elbow-grease, is nearing completion, I can concentrate on my writing…

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Except that last year my new greenhouse was a pitiful desert. All I managed to grow were three sweet peppers (on one plant). Everything else got fried or damped off as I was ignorant about managing the ventilation. So this spring, I sowed madly… perhaps a little too madly. I was miffed when tomatoes failed to germinate, so I sowed more. Various seedlings got potted on and moved into the garden and veg plot, but new tomato seedlings – unlabelled – kept popping up in unlikely places.

Apart from three pepper plants, tomatoes now rule the greenhouse and my life. There are more than 34 plants. The greenhouse ones need constant  water, and ventilation and they all need non-stop disbudding (a skill I have acquired late in life, but will lead, I am assured, to more tomatoes and less greenery).

DSCN8100DSCN8099 DSCN8097 DSCN8095 DSCN8088 And the hosta, of course, just keeps on growing. DSCN8024I am still writing, and I have exciting news on the POW letters book front, but I will wait for tangible confirmation before sharing it.

 

Surviving Far East Captivity

Dear friends, I have missed many of  your posts, and I have no hope of catching up, so I will have to skip many of them – my loss.

I have just returned from a conference titled:

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This was convened by the group of dedicated researchers at Researching FEPOW History, held at, and sponsored by, the Liverpool school of Tropical Medicine (LSTM). For two and a half days I have listened to surviving Far East prisoners (FEPOWs) and interned civilians, military historians, doctors, museum curators, family researchers and the children of Far East Prisoners.

The hairs on the back of my neck rose many times on every day. I laughed, and cried in almost every talk. Every delegate had stories to tell and the venues buzzed as we tried to exchange these stories with each other. I have come back loaded with books, but here is the star of the show. Screen Shot 2015-06-07 at 22.23.43

Meg Parkes

Meg Parkes

Meg Parkes, One of the authors of Captive Memories, was also the lynchpin of the whole conference, taking in radio and TV interviews as well as keeping the whole show on the running.

Of the speakers and attendees, the three surviving FEPOWs, provided some brilliant insights, and much laughter. An interview and discussion session with Eric Lomax’s daughter Charmaine McMeekin and Frank Cottrell-Boyce, the scriptwriter of the film The Railway Man had most of us sobbing. This was the first time Charmaine had been among people who, like her, had been brought up by a father so badly damaged by his war experience.

There is much more to say, but I must sleep…

Four-decker book sandwich

DSCN7753As usual I have (mis)managed my reading by finding myself in the middle of four books simultaneously. I don’t know how many of you have the same experience, but there is a strange crossfire between books as a result… I have just checked my list and realised that three more books have crept into this sandwich (this is embarrassing, but I have finished two of these and lent the third to a friend who had left her iPad behind).

DSCN7754 - Version 2So, I started David Willetts’, The Pinch, on holiday in the wonderful library in Borgo Pignano, and ordered a second-had copy on my return. As a Baby Boomer myself, I’d like to understand this discrepancy between what we have had and what our children will inherit. What I have read so far, about how the historical structure of the British family make  it different from the rest of the continent (and much of the rest of world) I find fascinating. I reserve judgement on some of the lines he is taking.

 

[I ended the holiday by re-reading an old friend, Mary Stewart’s Airs Above the Ground. Returning to my stacked bedside I picked up The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey, a serious and riveting piece of research taking in the upper echelons of British Society, and WWI. Don’t be put off by the way it is uncomfortably dolled up for marketing purposes as a ‘True Gothic Mystery’. The research and the story are good and very revealing. I finished this in time for the visit last week by the kind friend who had given it me.]

DSCN7756 - Version 2A WWII Spitfire pilot, Geoffrey Wellum, appeared on TV the other night and my husband dropped the book he published in 2002, First Light, onto my desk. Had I really not read it? With an Mosquito navigator uncle and Halifax pilot father-in-law, I should have read this enthralling classic  So I started and am totally involved. This is heart-beating stuff told without the least swagger, carrying you from the schoolboy who writes to the Air Ministry to the (very) young Spitfire pilot trying to keep his end up in the battle of Britain.

DSCN7755 - Version 2However, I have a reading group meeting tomorrow night, so, slightly out of breath, I started Longbourn by Jo Baker. This is unpromisingly billed as: Pride and Prejudice – the servants’ story. It turns out to be an excellent read, full of interesting life and detail and a totally absorbing story in its own right. The P & P narrative is there, above stairs, and acts as a brilliant backstory, because we already know it. I am impressed and read happily and quickly.

DSCN7757 - Version 2In the meantime the winner of the Poetry Business Competition, is a young poet, Paul Stephenson, whose work I really enjoy. The result of the win is his first published poetry pamphlet, Those People. I can’t resist browsing. Some I recognise from individual magazine publications, others are new. There is a delightful mixture of his impish (Passwords) and tragic (Birthday Cards) take on life and delight in words (Wake Up And…) and sharp and hilarious observations (Angle End) and all these elements crossfire within the poems.

***

I’ve finished Longbourn, and returned to First Light; The Pinch next (though I need to fit in Golding’s The Spire for Other Reading group) and I’m dropping in on Those People at intervals. Now I must get down to the serious business of the Researching FEPOW (Far East POW) History conference this Friday in Liverpool.

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.