Their Name Liveth Forever More‏: Far East POW Literature

Monday 23 June 2014 by

For many people thinking of a prisoner of war, the very first image that springs to mind is probably a European POW of WW2 vintage. Colditz, Stalag Luft – we’ve all seen The Great Escape (1963) haven’t we? The POW’s of the Far East (FEPOW’s) have until recently been much forgotten, their experiences and captivity a fact shrouded in some mystery, our pop culture knowledge stymied by the admittedly beautiful and cinematic but endlessly flawed The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Following the recent release of a Hollywood film based on the autobiography of Eric Lomax, The Railway Man, there has been rather a surge in interest from the greater public in this part of our combat history.

The very purpose of an autobiography is to be informative, and yet it must be entertaining too. I almost hesitate to use the word “entertaining” here in relation to this subject but many a former POW writing a book uses humour, deflection and good old fashion British phlegm in his work and these books do indeed make for a gripping read. Not here the adventurous escapes of Douglas Bader, Airey Neave and their compatriots, but the dogged determination and will to survive a hellish internment in the Far East. Before picking up a FEPOW book we know roughly how it will advance. After failing to ratify their signing of the Geneva convention, the Japanese did not have to their prisoners of war as the Germans did in Europe in accordance with the Hague Conventions. Torture, the barbaric conditions, enslavement, extreme forced labour, the capture and use of civilians as “comfort women” and outright murder were all known in the Far East and none of the books I list shy away from this. Indeed they should not, for too long the experiences and horror these men and women suffered were not spoken about. Now they are speaking and we should ALL listen.

The Railway Man, Eric Lomax, Vintage Classics, Book

Start with Eric Lomax’s The Railway Man by all means (only please do skip the film which does it, and the subject, no justice whatsoever). Lomax was captured following the Surrender of Singapore in 1942 and taken on a forced marched to Changi prison and thenceforth forced to work on the Burma Railway. His book is a matter of fact account of the torture and deprivation he suffered at his Japanese captors hands, and an exploration of the forgiveness that mankind can be brought to at the very end. It’s a well written account, very much a page-turner and the detail that Lomax is able to recall means that the fright and horror of the time is easily conveyed to the reader. The courage and dignity with which Lomax faced his situation something the reader can easily imagine. Lomax is an inspiration to those of us who strive to see and reconcile the nature of mankind.

Tomorrow You Die, Andy Coogan, Mainstream Publishing, Book

Andy Coogan was interrupted at the start of what was a very promising athletics career when the war broke out. He was enslaved in a copper mine, forced to dig his own grave twice and survived a Hell Ship voyage towards the end of his incarceration. His autobiography, Tomorrow You Die, runs the reader through his poverty stricken boyhood in the slums of Glasgow, through his early running career and into the prison camps and beyond. Coogan’s book is completely mesmerising – I’ve read it twice, dropped it in the bath, dried it out and read it again. From his writing shines the strength and charisma of a man never beaten down. He doesn’t whitewash the facts, it’s all there in the text, plainly written down. His black humour and the fluidness of style are engaging – the whole book feels like a conversation. I would not hesitate to say unputdownable and, in fact, one of the best biographies I’ve ever read.

The Forgotten Highlander, Alistair Urquhart, Abacus, Book

The Forgotten Highlander by Alistair Urquhart a young Aberdeenonian who was also taken prisoner in Singapore in 1942 and forced to work on the bridge over the River Kwai. Urquhart’s account is an altogether angrier and more volatile book than the previous two. His wartime philosophy was very much a “keep your head down and get on with it” ordeal. It is an uncomfortable read in places as his hatred and scorn for the Japanese nation really ring through to the reader. As this is a biography I can forgive the unbalanced nature of it (after all it is his own thoughts). I can’t quite help but feel that a more measured approach would have made for a better and more thought provoking book.

Of course, escape from incarceration in one of the camps in the Far East was nigh on impossible. The health of all the internees was extremely poor as they had to contend with barely any food, extreme forced labour, hideous tropical diseases, primitive medical care and the fact that any escapee would not be able to blend in with the local population were all insurmountable hurdles. These accounts from FEPOW’s showcase the camaraderie and ingenuity of soldiers pushed to the very brink of survival, their subsequent lives and how their experiences affected them.

If looking to move away from the autobiograpical accounts of the war and into the deeper history of the period; Surviving the Sword: Prisoners of the Japanese 1942-45 by Brian MacArthur and The Barbed-Wire University: The Real Lives of Prisoners of War in the Second World War by Midge Gillies are excellent places to start (the latter deals with both the European theatre of war and the Far East, but is nonetheless a fascinating account of what POW’s actually did all day). Films and TV on the subject include the aforementioned The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Railway Man (2012), as well as King Rat (1965) and Tenko (1981). The artists Ronald Searle and Murray Griffin were both FEPOW’s and have surviving pieces of work from the period.

You can follow Ana on Twitter: @AnaHellewell

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