Pleasaunces, unpleasaunces and a book break

Christopher Lloyd said that all gardens have an unpleasaunce as well as a pleasance – ours has several. In the last couple of months my husband has created order out of chaos and we are unpleasaunce down and several compost bins, new fence and a log shelter up.

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The rest of the garden is half way through June as far as I can tell.

… I am being forced to use the new editor as I cannot upload media in the old one… and it is sending me crackers!! I have no idea why these images are different sizes. Here, I hope, is my art-house image of the garden.DSCN9375

This post is really to say a brief goodbye as I tackle the pre-publication launch parties for the new book. Copies were due last week… they will now arrive three days before the first party. I shall be away from my desk for several days. My sanity is hanging by a thread. I am trailing behind  with all your posts, so will be doing some leapfrogging. Sorry about the ones I will miss.Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 21.26.02

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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.

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.

Far East POWs – reflections

It is some time since I posted about the men I have been writing about who were Far East POWs (and their wives and families). The MS is currently being read by an historian so I planned to take a break. Nevertheless I have been thinking about the men rather a lot. In the past few weeks I have been labouring against the clock to clear the ground for a new fence where mature trees once stood (https://greenwritingroom.com/2014/03/14/). I have also been trying to make a level base for a greenhouse (a task I have never done before).

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In the course of these endeavours I have been very tired, very hungry and slightly injured. Then I contracted a feverish cold, and the weather became strangely hot for April. With each of these sensations I couldn’t help remembering the accounts of the extreme versions the prisoners suffered on the railway. I tried to imagine how it would feel to be sicker or to have no rest, or food. As I stamped down the earth on my greenhouse base-to-be, I found myself repeating the phrase my father had remembered from his days when they were building the embankment on which to lay the tracks on the Thailand-Burma Railroad.

 At the end of each days work we marched up and down on the newly placed earth stamping it down firmly. I remember the Japanese engineers shouting “Orr men stepping very hardly”.

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It sounds perverse to say that I also enjoyed myself, I actually like labour, something I suspect I have learnt from my father. Anyway the fence (done by professionals in contrast to my DIY)) is now up.

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I can now get on with the rest. There is still rather a lot of earth to move, rather a lot of sand to lay as a base and all that lovely marble (purchased for another purpose several years ago) to go on top. In the meantime I have managed a few hours of editing on the POW MS. The men are not forgotten.

First real news after 3 years – POWs 23

Some time at the end of April 1945, Phyllis, with the dossier of information and photos of Barry’s men, interviewed a Sergeant Smith, from the Royal Signals. Smith had been a prisoner of the Japanese and was rescued after the sinking of the transport ship Hokofu Maru. He knew Barry and other men from 27 Line Section. In her notebook Phyllis  scribbled entries for each man who Smith remembered having seen. For example:

Appleton. Saw him in June ’44. Excellent condition. Down ? Tech. Party due for Japan but hadn’t left [‘Japan party’ are the groups of men selected to be shipped to Japan]. Worked with Smith as Cook after completion of railway in Tamarkan hospital camp. One /or 2 attacks/malaria but survived them well, often spoke of his children and wife.

Bridge

Jim Bridge

Bridge. Died 1943??

Canning. Tropical ulcers on leg in Thailand sanatorium. April 1944. Ulcers healed unable to straighten his leg. Very clean. Mentioned wife & mother. Health otherwise O.K.

Canning

Hugh Canning

Dawson. Seen end Jan 44. Condition pretty fair. No party for Japan then.

Signalman William Dawson

Signalman William Dawson

Douglas. June 44. Sick in 1943 but recovered. Worked in Japan cookhouses as servant which gave him extra. Mentioned both wife and son. Kept out of trouble.

Jack Earnshaw

Jack Earnshaw

Earnshaw. 1944 June. Health quite good. Mentioned fiancée a lot. (sister?) Packed up on railway in 1943 August. No party for Japan.

Farrell

Henry Farrell

Farrell Plumber? Friend of Walls? Last seen June 44. Health fair. Trouble with asthma. Kept bright & cheery. In hospital October 43. Down for new San. (?) Looked after by Thai Red X.

Garrod 43. Last August 1943 Condition quite good – bright & cheery. Not due for Japan. Mentioned wife.

Graham June 44. Quite good health. Pelagera [pellagra – lack of vitamin B3] – but recovered by June 44. No party for Japan.

Harrison. Early 44. Quite well.

Jennings June 44. Quite well. Not on railway.

Reginald Jennings

Reginald Jennings

(In September 1943 The War Office had written to Mrs Jennings to say that her son, Reginald, had died of beri beri malaria on 18.7.43. Scepticism had long since set in among the relatives and she had still sent a photo and information about her son to Phyllis for the dossier. The War Office had been right and Smith must have thinking of another Jennings.)

Charlie Johnstone

Charlie Johnstone

Johnston. June 44. Might be sent on draft to Japan. Always speaking of his wife and children. Well & cheerful. Knew Barry. Kept going very well.

Jones. June 44. Working in hospital dispensary. 2 camp. Not changed – keeps well.

Kittwood Last seen early 44. Very seriously ill – malaria.

McDonald June 44. Good health. Worked on railway 10 months – Then hospital orderly in Tamarkan camp. In original 27 Line in France.

Neil McDonald

Neil McDonald

Parker. Same cargo boat for Japan. Probably killed.

Russell June 44. In quite good health – quite cheery. Always speaking of wife & 2 boys.

Walls  Speaks of wife and son. June 44. Well and cheerful. Pretty good health.

The Railway Man

Yesterday I went to see the film of The Railway Man (Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine, Hiroyuki Sanada). Last night I re-read the book on which it is based that came from my father’s shelves.

DSCN4650The film was a moving depiction of a man finding redemption late in life, through the love of a woman who helped him to confront his traumas and finally to meet and even make friends with one of the men responsible for his traumas. It is ‘based on’ rather than an exact version of the true story.

The film also does two important things:

It renews my shame, as a UK citizen, at being even distantly connected to inhumanity of Guantanamo Bay and what the American military are still doing there. We have in the last twelve years thrown away the right to condemn any other nation for treating people inhumanely.

It gives me hope that people have the capacity to forgive their enemies, if they can only meet and talk.

The film is only a brief window on a relationship in trouble and the torture Eric Lomax underwent during interrogation. What the film does not, cannot, do is give the full long-term picture of what Eric Lomax and thousands of other men suffered as Far East POWs and the suffering consequently visited on their families when they returned. After lengthy torture, Eric spent a year or more in unimaginable squalor and imposed silence in Outram gaol. After release, first in India, he met the ignorance and indifference to his their sufferings that blighted these men’s lives – a lady volunteer who suggested that since they had been POWs during most of the fighting, they must now be anxious to ‘do their bit’. In England, so much had changed. Eric’s mother had died in 1942 and his father had remarried. People had suffered and were not keen to revisit, let alone deal with, something that was over and done with.

The book, not surprisingly, tells a more profound, detailed and informative story. There are many tributes to the book. Ian Jack of The Guardian writes: ‘This beautiful, awkward book tells the story of a fine and awkward man.’

Boon Pong – and other forgotten heroes

Tucked into one of the books on Barry’s shelves about Far East POWs was a little photocopied leaflet of 1998, being re-issued for ‘X’mas 2000’. It starts:

I am one of the persons who had seen the event about the railway construction from Kanchanaburi to Myanmar during World War II when I was 19 years old, 1941. As a saleswoman at Khao Chon Kai (Chungkai) War-prisoner Camp.

page 1 of Lulu's story

page 1 of Lulu’s story

Her name was Lulu Na Wanglan and she tells her story, explaining that even after 50 years, ‘I dreamed of those war-prisoners before I started to wright.’. She supplied prisoners until she had ‘no more capital to trade or sale goods.’ At this point she was given some money, probably by the local underground, to continue supplying prisoners. She was suspected of spying by the Japanese and warned by Mr Bunpong (Boon Pong) in time to escape. The prisoners thought she had been shot (confusing her with a brave French spy, ‘Lulu’ who had been killed by the Japanese) and they missed her. After the war UNO staff painted Lulu on their vehicles. Prisoners remember her in their memoirs.

Boon Pong (Boonpong Sirivejjabhandu) was a Thai trader whose sympathies were aroused by the state of the prisoners. In early 1943 he became the interface between the V organisation and the prisoners. The ‘V’ organisation was run by an interned British man, Gairdner, with a free Thai wife, Millie, and many free business connections. Many others were involved and as the prisoners’ conditions worsened they raised large sums of money on loan. Millie was among the those who dared to risk passing money and drugs directly to prisoners via the many POW lorry drivers.

Boon Pong Sirivejjabhandu

Boon Pong Sirivejjabhandu

The upriver camps had almost no supplies of medicine and very little food, especially higher up-river where barges could not go. Conditions became dire beyond imagining and their only source of relief was the money and drugs that Boon Pong managed to get to them, acting always as a legitimate trader. He also obtained and supplied ‘Canary Seed’ (radio batteries), if the Japanese had discovered this he would have been tortured and killed. There were other traders, but his prices were lowest. He worked the length of the river, but after the railway was complete and the men poured down-stream in vast numbers to the big base ‘hospital’ camps, his role became even more crucial in saving lives with supplies of food and medicines and even violin strings.

In a story by Brian Brown of the Royal Signals in Beyond the Bamboo Screen (ed. Tom McGowran) he quotes another POW saying the Boon Pong’s wife swam their camp moat at night with medical aid round her neck. The effect on morale of the efforts by this family were incalculable.

Australian Surgeon and POW, Colonel Weary Dunlop, kept a diary. 25 October 1943 reads: The hospital today obtained some most useful drugs and money *. The footnote reads: By grace of that magnificent man, Boon Pong. His entry 30 December 1943, A Valuable supply of drugs and 3,000 ticals [this was due to the wonderful services of Boon Pong, the river trader]. And so on.

In the aftermath of the war in September 1945, Boon Pong was shot outside his shop in Kanchanaburi in front of his wife and father. Julie Summers in her book about Colonel Toosey, The Colonel of Tamarkan writes:

A British officer, …Captain Newall heard the shots and rushed to the scene. ‘He had been shot through his neck and left arm and he had also been shot clean through the back. There was a large hole in his chest where the bullet emerged and spent itself. He looked up at me. “Thai police kill me.” That was all he said.’

A British medical team gave him blood transfusions and operated on his wounds and, amazingly, he eventually recovered. In 1947, Colonel Toosey heard that Boon Pong, now running a bus company, had got into financial difficulties.

Bangkok

Bangkok

Toosey asked fellow prisoners to contribute and they raised £38,000. Boon Pong’s company became successful and his sons now run it. He received the MBE in 1948. He is popularly supposed to have been awarded the George medal, but Clifford Kinvig in The River Kwai Railway, says there is no official record of this.

Boon Pong and ex POW in his shop after the war

Boon Pong and ex POW in his shop after the war

He died in January 1982 and in 1988 The Weary Dunlop Boon Pong Fellowship (http://www.surgeons.org/member-services/scholarships-awards-lectures-prizes/international-scholarships/weary-dunlop-boon-pong-exchange-fellowship/) – an Australian exchange fellowship for Thai surgeons, was set up.

Boon Pong is remembered in many memoirs and I have only given a rather scrambled outline here of his contribution to humanity. I apologise for any errors.