2015 has been a poignant year. Seventy years after the end of the Second World War, veterans and their families came together throughout the summer to reflect, remember and renew their commitment to sharing the stories of wartime.
This was particularly true of those commemorating the liberation of prisoner of war (POW) and civilian internment camps across Southeast Asia. Their summer of remembrance began on 5 – 8 June, when the Researching FEPOW History Group and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine convened Surviving Far East Captivity and the Aftermath: 70 Years On. I am one of the team who organised the conference. In the company of former POWs, civilian internees and their relatives, scholars and writers, a moving and intellectually stimulating three days took place. This included a ‘Night at the Flicks’ where Helen Langridge, director of BBC 4’s Building Burma’s Death Railway: Moving Half the Mountain, and Frank Cottrell-Boyce, screenwriter for The Railway Man, were in conversation with Eric Lomax’s daughter, Charmaine. We learned about the extraordinary power of reconciliation – Helen’s documentary led to former POW Sir Harold Atcherley inviting former Japanese guard Mikio Kinoshita to London – but that there can also be great challenges for families trying to overcome the impact of traumatic histories.
Lively and informative talks were given throughout the weekend, with international speakers from Thailand, Singapore and Australia. Dr Rosalind Hearder spoke of the different approaches to medical care taken by Australian and British medics in camp (resulting, ultimately, in similar survival rates), Professor Geoffrey Gill explained the post-war treatment for tropical disease, with some men being diagnosed with strongyloides worm infections 50 years after liberation. Yet it was clear: art, music and literature were as important to maintaining morale and psychological well-being, as the medics were in treating disease, malnutrition and injury. Meg Parkes introduced the work of some 32 amateur camp artists, and Professor Sears Eldredge offered a glimpse into camp entertainments staged by POWs in Changi. There was also chance to give attention to less well-known theatres of captivity. I launched a nominal roll of British former POWs on the Sumatra railway – a roll of 855 men that I began compiling whilst a CDA student at IWM.
A synopsis of each talk is available in the conference report.
The connections created in June were reinforced on 15 August, when many delegates met again at the various commemorative events that took place to mark VJ Day. It was an honour to be present at St. Martins-in-the-Fields in London: a service attended by Her Royal Highness the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, and the Earl and Countess of Wessex. Followed by another service at Horse Guards Parade and a veterans’ march down Whitehall, this special day remembered not only the sacrifices of many, but the strong spirit of survival too. When two young great-grandchildren of former POWs lit candles, the message for younger generations to learn and remember wartime stories was clear.