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.
First 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.
Next 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.It 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.
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.
My 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.