From Palembang to Chichester – Singing to Survive

Last night we sat in the beautiful open nave of St Paul’s Chichester as thirty barefoot women filed past and took their places at the altar end. These were the singers of the Chichester Women’s Vocal Orchestra, conducted by Chris Larley about to re-create an extraordinary enterprise of WWII.

In early 1942, civilians caught up in the Japanese invasion sweeping across South East Asia, were rounded up and imprisoned. One group of about 600 women and children, from more than 20 nationalities, existed for the next three years in a series of camps on the island of Sumatra. They suffered starvation, lethal diseases and forced labour. For the full story see:

See http://www.singingtosurvive.com

By late 1943 morale had sunk disastrously and cultural misunderstandings between nationalities flourished. Then two women, Margaret Dryburgh and Norah Chambers, were inspired to create a language-free form of music. They created an ‘orchestra’ by dividing thirty women into four groups by voice (First and second sopranos, first and second altos). They then set well known quartet or even orchestral passages for these voices, using vowel and consonant sounds, but not words. The effect of this ‘orchestra’ on morale, cultural relationships was instantaneous – even their Japanese guards responded to the beauty of it.

Last night the Chichester Women’s Vocal Orchestra, with three members of the cast of Tenko, Stephanie Cole and Louise Jameson speaking and Veronica Roberts directing, performed the story. They used letters, poems and interviews with survivors for the narrative. For the musical passages, the choir used the original settings to recreate the  sounds that the women in this amazing jungle ‘orchestra’ made. They sang pieces such as the Largo from Dvorák’s New World Symphony, Beethoven’s Minuet on G, Bach’s Jesu Joy and many others.

The sound was unique and difficult to describe. It had a silky, liquid quality, softer and warmer in tone than orchestral or even string sounds. In a well-judged direction, we were asked not to applaud until the concert ended. This made the interleaving of story music even more spell-binding and fluent and there was a fully deserved standing ovation at the end.

Hospital reader and Lady Almoner – POWs 17

All through spring and summer of 1943 starving and diseased POWs from the up-country railway work camps (in Thailand) trickled south to the bigger camps such as Chungkai. Barry reached this camp in July 1943 and was soon fit enough to do some work.

My first and simplest job was basically as a storyteller or rather reader. I would take a likely book from the camp library and sit down on the end of a bed space in one of the sick huts, and read a chapter or two. Then I would move down the hut, twenty or thirty yards, and read the same piece to another lot of sick men. This was judged to be a useful employment, so I was never called on to join a maintenance party.

In October the two parts of the railway, Thailand and Burma, joined up at Konkuita and from then on sick and dying men poured into Chungkai transported by barges or on the railway itself. Meanwhile Barry began to enjoy the theatre and concerts got up by enterprising prisoners, but found that:

These jolly functions contrasted harshly with our work in the sick huts, which got steadily worse as more parties of sick and dying arrived from up river. We were burying ten, fifteen, or even twenty every day, and it was disconcerting during my readings to become aware that one or two of my audience were never going to hear the next chapter.

From Peter Fyans biography of Fergus Anckorn: Captivity, Slavery and Survival as a Far East POW, the Conjuror on the Kwai

From Peter Fyans biography of Fergus Anckorn: Captivity, Slavery and Survival as a Far East POW, the Conjuror on the Kwai

He progressed from reader to Lady Almoner

The job of Almoner, or “Lady Almoner” as it was called, involved the actual distribution of goodies bought from the welfare fund, to the sick men in the huts. The most useful purchases were eggs, honey, palm syrup, and occasional pots of vegemite, the Australian marmite. There was, of course, not nearly enough for everyone, the M.O. in charge of a particular hut would give me a list of the men due to receive these extras and the quantities for each one.

I did not at first realise the difficulty of the job but it became clear soon enough. Most of the very sick men got nothing at all because, as the M.O. told me, they would die anyway. The extras, very carefully husbanded, would go to those men who were able to profit from them and might just recover with their help but who would die without. At least I was spared the agony of deciding who got what, but every day I was faced with the need to find answers. “I am much sicker than Joe, Sir, why does he get two eggs this week and I get none?” An unanswerable question to which I had to find some reasonable answer day after day. I talked to the other Almoners and had no comfort from them, all in the same position as I was. “Tell them Orders is Orders, and you are just doing what you are told to do.”

The Dark Lady of DNA

I have just finished reading Brenda Maddox’s autobiography of Rosalind Franklin. I have read it very slowly over several weeks, as it was my entertainment while I stood on a tilted platform for the supposed good of my Achilles tendons. Perhaps it was appropriate to read about her life while standing up. This story of a natural, dedicated, curious, passionate scientist working in a period and against a backdrop in which her sex, her religion, her family, her nationality all contributed to either hold her back, belittle or occasionally encourage her, is a story to stiffen the morale of any woman (and, I would hope, man).

This is not a hagiography; Rosalind could be abrupt, exacting and almost anti-social in some atmospheres, but when among people she respected and, more tellingly, who respected her, she was full of life and fun, much-loved and her company sought after. She was a passionate walker and climber, happily travelling in France (where she worked for several years after the war), Italy and America (where she attended conferences and toured the university labs).

She ended her life in charge of a devoted research team at Birkbeck. Dying of ovarian cancer at the age of 37 in 1958, she worked almost to the last moments, when most of us would have been curled up and nursing our pain. Although known now for her role in the discovery of DNA (not acknowledged in her lifetime), she published innumerable scientific papers, many on coal and graphite and on the tobacco mosaic virus. Obscure subjects but ones of great significance for all of us down the line.

The book is detailed, illustrated and brings this very complex and admirable woman vividly to life.

Writing to a Ghost – POWs 16

While Barry is slowly recovering his strength in the big base camp at Chungkai, Phyllis has managed to move out of her parents house. Like so many other relatives, she struggled to write again and again with absolutely nothing coming back. It was, as someone said, like writing to a ghost – which sadly many of them were.

In November 1943 Phyllis wrote:

DEAR DARLING I HAVE NOT WRITTEN FOR SOME TIME, BECAUSE THERE SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN SO MUCH DOUBT ABOUT WHETHER YOU WILL EVER RECEIVE THE LETTERS AND THE MUST BE TYPED [IN CAPITALS] NOW. I HAVE BEEN ABLE TO BORROW THIS TYPEWRITER FOR A SHORT WHILE THIS MORNING. ROBIN AND I MOVED UP HERE AT THE END OF SEPTEMBER AND ARE NOW REALLY GETTING SETTLED IN. I HAVE A VERY NICE SITTING ROOM OF MY OWN. … ROBIN HAS BEEN RATHER SEEDY SINCE WE CAME HERE … BUT IS NOW PICKING UP AGAIN.

Robin

Robin

HE IS, NEEDLESS TO SAY, A CONTINUAL SOURCE OF DELIGHT TO ME. HE IS DEVELOPING IN SOME WAYS VERY LIKE YOU, AND IS REALLY AN INTELLIGENT COMPANION TO GO ROUND WITH NOW, THOUGH THE CLARITY OF HIS VOICE IS MATCHED BY THE DIRECTNESS OF HIS QUESTIONS AND OFTEN EXERCISES ALL MY TACT AND PATIENCE WHEN IN COMPANY, BECAUSE HE NEVER MISSES A POINT OR ALLOWS ME TO EVADE A DIRECT ANSWER. … HE IS ALWAYS TALKING ABOUT WHEN DADDY COMES HOME. … AND WHEN HE COMES HOME AND WE ALL HAVE A …HOME, AND A LITTLE BABY SISTER (PLEASE I WOULD LIKE A LITTLE BABY SISTER) LIFE WILL BE PERFECT.

HOW AM I? QUITE WELL, VERY BUSY, AND GLAD TO BE SO. TRYING TO POSSESS MY SOUL IN PATIENCE, NOT TO THINK WHAT LIFE MAY BE LIKE FOR YOU NOW, AND TO CONCENTRATE ON DOING ALL I CAN FOR YOU NOW BY WHAT I CAN DO FOR YOUR SON. ALSO TO SAVE AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE TOWARDS OUR FUTURE, … TO ONE IDEA I HANG ON FIRMLY, NAMELY THAT YOU WILL NOT BE WASTING YOUR TIME MORE THAN CAN BE HELPED, AND WILL BE LEARNING ALL THAT YOU CAN FIND ANYBODY TO TEACH YOU. ALSO, IF I KNOW ANYTHING OF YOU, YOU WILL BE DOING A LOT OF HELPING OTHER PEOPLE, TOO. SO MANY PEOPLE HAVE SAID TO ME THAT IF ANYBODY COULD ‘TAKE IT’ YOU CERTAINLY COULD. AND THANK GOD I KNOW THEY ARE RIGHT, MY DARLING. NEVER FORGET THAT I LOVE YOU, WILL YOU? EVER YOUR OWN, Phyllis

Sadly, Phyllis has missed notices in the post office saying that correspondence to Far East POWs has been limited by the Japanese to 25 words. Her letter is returned by the  censor.

Her next communications look like this.

permitted Far East POW letters

permitted Far East POW letters

Invisible DIY, finding heroes, writing and autumn outside

It been a busy week!

Today I relaxed by covering another two wall areas with thin woollen jackets. Our house has a mere nine solid inches of brick between us and the winter storms, so each year we add another layer here or there or another piece of secondary glazing. Some panes arrived with the new magnetic attachment system which works brilliantly (though to my embarrassment I had the dimensions of one of them wrong).

I needed to relax from the excitement of two days of Internet connections. Pierre Lagacé, of Lest We Forget, found a website for me with the story of my airman uncle’s Commanding Officer (http://www.marcusbicknell.co.uk/nigel/). I have been in touch with his son, Marcus, and had a a wonderful and productive email exchange and the blog (http://johncustancebaker.wordpress.com) has now become a rich repository of Mosquito and meteorological lore of WWII.

Signalman William Dawson

Signalman William Dawson

Both these activities have been punctuations in my all out blitz on the manuscript of Writing to a Ghost: Letters to the River Kwai 1941-45. A few weeks ago we visited the museum where some of the materials – letters to my mother from the wives and mothers of my father’s Unit, all Far East POWs – are housed. This time we photographed all the photos my mother had collected. I have been able to put faces to nearly half the men in the story. They are brilliant, but some of them make me weep.  I have also been following a friend’s advice as I worked over the manuscript.

Meanwhile, the sun has come out again and the air is warm, and autumn is raging outside. I want to be in the garden. (We did have lunch in the garden.)

Rosa Mary Rose

Rosa Mary Rose

DSCN4320

Acer palmatum Sengokaku

Acer palmatum Sengokaku

DSCN4321

Beyond the call of duty – POWs 15

As the cholera epidemic raged, the POWs including Barry and the remnants of 27 Line Section were still working long hours on the railway. He remembers:

Towards the end of June 1943 several of us found it increasingly difficult to swallow and digest even the small ration of watery rice porridge that was our daily portion. We rapidly became so thin and weak that we were no longer able to get out to the working site. I carried on for a few days trying to do something useful in the camp or cookhouse, but eventually gave up.

The Japanese commander decided to make up a party of thin useless men and send them south in barges. We were a group of about twenty, I believe, unable to walk and barely able to stand, it was assumed that we would soon die, which most of us eventually did.

The day chosen for the evacuation was a Sunday, one of our rare ‘yasme’ (rest) days. We had about 7km to walk to reach the barges. Two of my men helped me, one carried my pack and I was supported between the two of them. After a short distance we found that we were making poor progress and one of them took me on his back and carried me the rest of the way. The two names of Gibby Douglas and Corporal McWhirter are in my mind but I cannot be at all sure that this is a true recollection.

The first proper camp the sick men reached was Tha Khanun (Tarkanoon). One of the POWs there was Dr Robert Hardie. His diary describes: “a lot of very sick men are coming down from 211 camp in a shocking condition – gaunt spectres of men, riddled with malaria and food deficiencies. One can do very little for these people. They can’t assimilate the sort of food we have except eggs, of which we have very few”.

Barry, and the men who reached this camp alive, were welcomed by:

 a proper reception committee of doctors and orderlies who first examined us very thoroughly to make sure that none of us was carrying a cholera infection and then did whatever they could to restore our strength. After we had been thoroughly tested we were all weighed on a beam balance, built in the camp and calibrated against a 50kg rice sack. My weight, about average for the group, was noted as 5 stone 12lbs, or 37kg.

Walking, Walking, Long Time Walking – POWs 13

After constructing the Wampo Viaduct, Barry and the remaining men of 27 Line Section started a very long march up the river Kwai during the rainy season (early summer) of 1943. Barry had been born in Malaya and before he became a prisoner had been studying the language. This led, as he remembers, to a random encounter:

During the march after Wang Po, on the way up river towards 211 kilo, the weather became gradually worse and we were slogging through rain and mud with no comfort at the end of the day’s journey. I often passed the time by talking to myself in Malay and repeating some of the pantuns that I could remember. On this particular occasion I was marching beside a stranger whom I recognised as probably a Dutchman as his dress was different from ours, but he had no rank badges or any other recognition signs. I started to say aloud a particularly apposite pantun, which goes:

“Jalan, Jalan, sa-panjang jalan,
Singa menyunga di pagar orang,
(Walking, walking, long time walking
Looking over neighbours’ fences)

At this moment, half way through the pantun, the man beside me joined in and recited the last two lines,

“Pura pura men-chari ayam,
Ekor mata di-anak orang.”
(Is he perhaps searching for a lost chicken?
But the corner of his eye is looking at his neighbour’s daughters)

At the same time he put a finger to the outer corner of his eye, which was exactly what my munshi had told me that a Malay would do.

Most real Malays know hundreds of these pantuns and by saying a key word from them can indicate a meaning to another Malay, which might not be apparent to someone else. That “ekor mata”, the corner of the eye, is a hint that some one is on the prowl and that girls, and wives too, should be on the look out. This episode cheered me up very much during a wet and miserable period of our long march northwards, and we spent the rest of the day talking Malay to one another; mine very stumbling and uncertain, his accurate and fluent. I lost touch with him and found no other Malay speakers in our group.

Mother of the regiment – POWs 12

String of letters from Phyllis

String of letters from Phyllis

In 1943 while Barry and the men of 27 Line Section are sweating and starving on the Thailand Burma railway, Barry’s wife Phyllis is juggling her responsibilities. She is living at home with her parents, she has two-year old Robin and her mother (demanding and increasingly an invalid) to look after. She wants to move out of her parents home, but can’t unless she finds a job, and she needs one in which she can continue to look after Robin. She has heard nothing from Barry for over a year:

Dear darling, if I didn’t have to type this, which makes one stop to think what one is saying, and was not therefore very conscious of the censor, I could write you a real letter tonight. It is 11p.m. and I have been re-reading all the letters you have sent me since you left England. It has somehow brought you much nearer to me for a while…

Then there is her correspondence with the wives, mothers, fiancées and grandparents of Barry’s men. Phyllis heard that Barry was a prisoner in October 1942, 8 months after he disappeared. She wrote to the relatives over Christmas, replies like this came back:

A mother writes to Phyllis

A mother writes to Phyllis

By June 1943 some more relatives hear, more than a year after silence fell, that their men are prisoners.

Dear Mrs Baker, I am now able to tell you that my husband Dvr. E. Parker 2587178 has been reported a Prisoner of War in “Tai Camps”. I received notification of this from Army Records Office on 6.5.43.

 I am very thrilled, but sorry to say that none of the other Glossop Girls have heard any news as yet, but there are great hopes.

I will take this opportunity of thanking you with all my heart Mrs Baker for your unceasing comfort through those long weary hours of suspense.

My very kindest regards & wishes for your husband’s speedy return. Yours Sincerely. Marjorie Parker.

Phyllis writes to them and then to Barry:

Darling, I’m probably going to get a wigging from Mother, but I just must sit down and finish this letter to you. I have had letters from four more next-of-kin of the men in your section to say their men are POWs… I can’t type up in my room, as they can hear me, and it’s not worth having a row with Mother… (They get so worried at the time I get into bed as it is. With lots of sympathy for me, they can’t fully appreciate how much I dislike going to bed). But all day and every day I am thinking of you, either all the many many happy memories we have, or hopes for the future…

The news of bad treatment of Far Eastern POWs is beginning to trickle through. All the relatives are worrying, Phyllis writes:

Always now I think of the past, and only realise with my mind, not with my emotions, that you must inevitably have changed a lot. Only my darling please don’t let anything you have or are suffering take away that light touch that was so essentially part of you. It was that which comes back to me almost more than anything else when thinking of that mad summer, and our two years engagement… This letter is going all wrong. Partly I know that Mother and Daddy are waiting for me to come upstairs, and though my heart and mind are just full of you…

There is no way for relatives to know, but some of their letters do eventually arrive, a year or so after they are written. Barry keeps them on a piece of string held with a bamboo toggle. All except one are still readable today. The one below is from Barry’s mother, Barbara.

String of letters from Barbara & Alan

String of letters from Barbara & Alan

Remembering Far East POWs

The Researching FEPOW History website have published my article on the discovery of documents about the Far Eastern POW experience for both the prisoners and those left in their latest Newsletter. It contains several articles of interest to Relatives and Researchers in the field.

Click to access RFHG_newsletter_10.pdf

I still hope to make contact with some of the relatives of the men in the story.

They are prisoners; they are safe – POWs 10

For Phyllis, and the other relatives in England of the men who vanished in Singapore on 15 February 1942, their greatest fear was that their men had died or been wounded in the fighting. The best news they could hope to hear was that they were prisoners. They might be bored or hungry, but they would be safe from death until the end of the war. In addition they could be sent comforts, they would be able to communicate (when the authorities had sorted a route out) and all would eventually be well. So Barry’s father wrote to him:

“I know that you will understand how important it is in spite of the many difficulties of being a prisoner to try and keep fit in mind and body. I hope you will try and find some special interest. You have a real gift for languages try if possible to keep up your French and Malay to learn to write in Arabic characters, and if possible also to learn to speak Japanese. Also learning good verse will be a help and writing and composing yourself. Also if possible work with your hands. I’m afraid that as yet we cannot send you any parcels but perhaps you can get some books in Singapore.”

Relatives have no information about those who have already died. Relatives of these men would go on writing into the blue, waiting and hoping, sometimes as long as three years. The War Office struggled to get reliable data, from any source. Sometimes relatives heard before they did. One wife wrote to Phyllis on 5 January 1943:

“I have had no official news of my husband, but a friend of his, serving in the Middle East, sent me an airgraph, telling me my husband was a prisoner, he wrote as though I had already heard the news, so each day I hope the good news will arrive, and as soon as it does I will let you know.”

The situation never improved. On the 5th of November 1945 nearly three months after the end of the war in the Far East, one of the mothers wrote to Phyllis:

“I am sorry to trouble you, but I wonder if you could try & find out any information about my son, we have not heard a word about him, & as they are nearly all home, makes us wonder if anything has happened to him.”