A few years ago in another job I had the task of cataloguing a collection of about 100 Far East Prisoner of War memoirs. These stories of the terrible hardship suffered by military and civilian prisoners at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Forces during the Second World War were difficult – and humbling – to read, but truly showed how strong the human survival instinct is.
One book that wasn’t part of this collection was Eric Lomax’s The Railway Man. I always wanted to read it, but was hesitant. I honestly didn’t know if I wanted to read another FEPOW story. The other week I watched the recent film adaptation starring Colin Firth. It was a perfectly okay film, yet I knew there must be more in the book.
I requested the book, and am glad I did. Many aspects were familiar to me – capture at Singapore, time in Changi, being moved into the jungle to work on the Burma-Siam railway – but this book was different and not just because of the torture that Lomax endured. The story does not end at the end of the war; it goes on into great detail about the effects of his wartime experiences on his life and ultimately ends with forgiveness and friendship.
It is these aspects that set this book apart and make it a classic. If you’ve only seen the film, do read the book. If you haven’t seen the film, do read the book. But whatever you do be prepared to be appalled, astonished and deeply moved.
Tears in the darkness : the story of the Bataan Death march by Elizabeth & Michael Norman
This book’s title came from a Japanese kanji for “the loneliest despair” imaginable. So be warned, it is as heart-wrenching as it is compelling a read as you will ever find on the Second World War. The book recounts the desperate fighting in 1942 in which the American and Filipino force fought the Japanese until near starvation in the worst military defeat ever incurred by the United States. This was but a foretaste of the horrors which the 76,000 allied POWs faced on the notorious 70 mile long “death march” to the POW camps after surrender to the Japanese. During the march and their subsequent two and a half year long incarceration thousands of POWs were literally starved, worked and/or beaten to death.
Tears gives us a dimension that other recent books of ‘wartime voices’ (which tend to give excerpts of accounts from one side) often don’t – a biographical account of Ben Steele (one of the American soldiers) and accounts of his American comrades are juxtapsed with Filipino and Japanese accounts of the same events. So we get powerful insights into what this hell did to the bodies and minds of the POWs. It also lifts the veil on the psyche of the Japanese soldier. Certainly callous indifference through to deliberate cruelty typified many a Japanese soldier but some quite startling insights emerge as well. A film The Beast of Bataan about the post-war trial of the Japanese commander has been slated but appears to have stalled for the time being. If you would like this as an audio book it is available for download at Christchurch City Library’s Overdrive.
Slavery by Another Name : The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War 2 by Douglas A. Blackmon
The history of race relations in the U.S. has for long told of how slavery was abolished with Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation in 1863. Black Americans endeavouring to merge into mainstream American Society met fierce resistance from mainly white Southerners who waged a campaign of violence and enacted many laws that deprived Black Americans of their social and political entitlements. The Federal government’s resolve to help Blacks or to even roll back the so called ‘Jim Crow’ laws of the South quickly waned after the Civil War ended. But there was always more to the picture than this because it never fully answered the question of why the integration of Blacks into mainstream American economic and political life is still far from complete and why Black America is still littered with families and communities torn apart by violence, delinquency, drug addiction, crime and low self-esteem. At last, this book reveals the missing chapter. A chapter in U.S. history far more sinister than segregation ever was.
Blackmon’s book documents a little known but widespread and systemic exploitation and appalling mistreatment of large numbers of black American men by several Southern states between the Civil War and the Second World War. After it’s defeat in the Civil War, the South resolved it’s desperate shortage of labour through a very peculiar means which Blackmon reveals was often more barbaric, cynical and deadly than slavery ever was. He also shows how Federal officials investigating abuses were often meek or ignored in the interests of rebuilding relations with the South.
Ironically, it was the U.S. entry into the Second World War that quickly brought an end to this neo-slavery because President Roosevelt knew that his country’s own dirty little secrets could compromise its efforts to fight a moral crusade against regimes that brutalised their subject minorities. Reading Tears in the darkness soon after Slavery by another name certainly put the undeniable suffering of the American POWs and Black Americans into a jarring perspective. The POWs suffered and died for their country. Many Black Americans suffered and died because of their country.
What did you do in the war Daddy? – well that is an unanswered question for me in many ways as my Dad (in common with many Kiwi soldiers) didn’t talk a lot about his war experiences. He told some entertaining yarns about his time in training in New Zealand and England and as a POW in Germany and a little bit of serious stuff about his time on Crete but that was it. Since his death I’ve found myself reading all sorts of stuff about New Zealanders’ World War II experiences in Greece and Crete and the POW experience and I’ve gained a deeper understanding of the trials my Dad endured.
Now I’m reading a fascinating account of the POW experience called Dear Alison: a New Zealand soldier’s story from Stalag 383 by Christchurch man Dudley Muff. It is the facsimile of a notebook he kept as prisoner, written for his young niece in New Zealand. Illustrated with his own stick peopled drawings, there is an underlying tone to the adult ear that captures the boredom, frustration and sometimes anger, of the men who were imprisoned for four years.
You can see the original of his book in a special display at Our City during Heritage Week (October 16 to 26). The theme of Heritage week is Doves and Defences: Discover Christchurch in peace and conflict and the exhibition is called Never Be Afraid which is the postscript that Dudley added to the book on his return home to Christchurch: “Now I shall tell you in three little words what all my travels have taught me, NEVER BE AFRAID. With all the love in the world from Uncle Dudley”.