I Survived For All That – A Tale of British POWs (それでもぼくは生きぬいた―日本軍の捕虜になったイギリス兵の物語)

By Hiroko Sherwin (シャーウィン 裕子)

Review by Akira Sugino

At Featherstone, 60 miles north of Wellington, New Zealand, 248 Japanese military POW’s were interned in 1943.  They had hidden in caves at Guadalcanal for many days without food before they were taken captive by the US forces and handed over to New Zealand.  Many of them, therefore, were in poor health and only about 45 of them were made to work.  The new Camp Commander, however, ordered 105 men to be put to work.  The Japanese NCO refused and sought a meeting with the Camp Commander.  The Commander ordered him to be detained for disobedience.  The Japanese soldiers surrounded him tightly so as to prevent his seizure.  Thereupon the guards opened fire with machine guns, resulting in 48 deaths and 74 injured in a matter of thirty seconds.

Contradicting reports about what happened were presented by both the ICRC local representative and the Swiss Consul-General in Wellington who both visited the scene. The New Zealand Government rejected a Japanese protest, stating that the Japanese prisoners had rioted with stones, tools and other improvised weapons, attacking the guards, who were obliged to restore order.

New Zealand soldiers who were taken captive by the Japanese army in the Second World War numbered only 112. Not many died as a result of maltreatment during their captivity [31 did not survive].* It has been generally understood, therefore, that there is little strong animosity against Japan, based on personal war-time memories.  A Japanese ex-soldier who happened to be on a visit to New Zealand recently, however, encountered a strong expression of anti-Japanese feeling, when he wrote a letter to the editor of a local newspaper which featured an article on the Featherstone incident, reflecting the official version of events.  He just wanted to point out its factual misrepresentation.

There was a flood of protest against the letter.  Without refuting the letter’s factual basis, readers widely accused the Japanese of atrocities in their POW camps and massacres at Nanking, and even of enslaving the Koreans under colonial rule.  The former Japanese soldier was shocked at the violent reaction and regretted that he had stoked anti-Japanese feeling by his careless rejoinder.  He was relieved to read several days later a letter from a grandson of a guard at the Featherstone camp, recalling that his grandfather was long unable to get over his nightmarish memories, and proposing not to take issue over the matter anymore.

Cicatrix manet.** One may apparently recover from a bad experience, but the scar remains for a long time.  It may never heal.

This book (in Japanese), “I Survived For All That ― A Tale of British POWs” by Hiroko Sherwin, is based on memoirs and oral histories by six former British soldiers who had languished in Japanese POW Camps in the Second World War.  Admittedly memoirs and oral histories will not be entirely free from errors of memory and bias of self-justification.  But the soldiers’ memories remain surprisingly vivid as much as bitter.  The authenticity of their accounts is fully supported by documentary evidence in the form of numerous war-time diaries and memoranda donated to the Imperial War Museum library.  Moreover their harrowing stories are carefully placed in a balanced perspective with hindsight and wisdom, by giving prominence to the fact that they had also encountered good-intentioned Japanese, even though their sufferings must have been overwhelming.

Notwithstanding the indescribably hard experience they were forced to undergo in their camps, they had never lost vigour to live through either by sheer dint of will-power or by engaging themselves in activities for self-advancement under extreme circumstances.  It should be noted that even those who had thus survived had to suffer, almost without exception, deep trauma caused by bitter memories for many years after returning home.

It was in October 1945, five months after the war in Europe had seen its end, that the returning soldiers from the Far East were reunited with their families.  People back home also had long endured hardship in their daily wartime life and would not bend an ear to what the demobilized soldiers wanted to tell about their experience in their camps.  They did not return as victorious war heroes either.  Thus they willy-nilly withdrew into their shell, and would not tell their whole stories till much later.  Though perhaps for different motives, it was much the same with the Japanese soldiers who had been repatriated many more months later in the following year.  They were sent back home utterly disgraced, without fanfare.

What is galling for the British ex-soldiers appears to be the fact that little is known in Japan about war-time histories, notably about the inhuman treatment meted out to them by the Japanese army.  A number of memoirs by British soldiers, “The Burma-Siam Railway“ by Robert Hardie, “The Railway Man” by Eric Lomax and “Through the Valley of the Kwai” by Ernest Gordon, to name but a few, have been translated and published in Japan.  A considerable amount of scholarly research has also been done by Japanese researchers on the subject, whose results are now well documented.  Nonetheless, Japanese soldiers themselves are understandably very reticent about their experiences, in spite of the fact that many wartime memoirs have recently been written and published.

Regarding this particular problem of POWs, a slim volume “Building the Burma-Thailand Railway 1942-43” by Kazuo Tamayama is probably the only English publication from the Japanese side which puts together short contributions by Japanese ex-soldiers of the Railway Regiments which took on the job of its construction, utilizing the workforce of POWs and Asian labourers.  Official records are also scanty.  The Japanese Imperial Army was disbanded by the occupation forces, and nine long years had to elapse before the current Self-Defense Forces were established.  It was much later that any meaningful work to preserve war-time records was undertaken, by which time much had been lost or stowed away.

Eric Lomax wrote, after describing how he had consented the hard way to meet his former Japanese captor for the sake of reconciliation, “Sometime the hating has to stop.”  Another British ex-POW said, “I have neither forgotten nor forgiven.  But I have stopped hating.  I like the modern Japanese and am happy to treat them as my friends.”  He drew a distinction between the older Japanese who had a hand in the war and the new generation who didn’t.  It would not have been an easy thing for them to do.  Those who had perished in their camps, and their surviving families for that matter, will have had no chance to do so, even if they so wanted.

The hand of reconciliation can only be extended by the sufferers, and the Japanese have only to grasp it.  What the Japanese can do and must do on their part is to learn the history and face up to the facts, however unbearable.  Life is lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.  This is a moral burden in the form of a historical legacy that the young generation has equally to bear.  For that purpose, this book will be a useful addition to anyone’s library, especially for Japanese people.

* According to a Tokyo Tribunal report on deaths of Allied POWs, 31 New Zealander out of a total 112 New Zealand POWs died during their captivity by the Japanese army.

** Cicatrix manet – Latin meaning “The scar remains.”

Akira Sugino (杉野明) is a former Japanese diplomat, who held many posts during his career including Ambassador to Chile as well as a Minster at the Japanese Embassy in London. As a young diplomat he read history at Cambridge. He is the author of Singapore Prisoner of War Camp – Sixty years on – war era testimony (ガポール捕虜収容所 戦後60年時代の証言), 2005.

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