Liberation at last
During early 1945, there were occasional air raid warnings, but no news from the outside world was available to the prisoners, though somehow the German surrender in late spring became known. Then spring turned to summer, and still no news, until one day in August, a Japanese guard was overheard saying ‘jasmay hasta’, meaning ‘no work tomorrow’. This was an unheard of event, and the men took it, correctly, to mean that Japan had surrendered. This occurred on 15 August, following atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August and Nagasaki on 8 August. Hiroshima was located 50 miles from the camp, but nothing had been heard.
After the 15th, the senior British officer took over the camp, and the Japanese guards started leaving. There then followed a long wait of several weeks, during which time supplies were parachuted into the camp by American airplanes. Eventually, on 15 September, departure arrangements were in place and the men marched out of the camp to the railway and travelled the long journey by train to Osaka and then Wakayama. The nightmare was over. They had survived. About 100 of them, out of the original 1,000.
My father, still desperately unwell, was stretchered on to an American hospital ship anchored there, and spent a week recovering on a very plain diet, even though there was plentiful attractive and nutritious food available. Then he was transferred to a packed Liberty troopship, and made the long sea voyage via Manila and Hawaii to San Francisco, enjoying evening films and the attentions of orderlies and nurses.
In ‘Frisco, the returning prisoners were accorded a very generous welcome by the inhabitants, with brass bands, garlands of flowers, handshakes, clapping and gifts. Thereafter, this kind of welcome continued, on a hospital train through California, at a huge US Army transit camp near Tacoma, and on the Canadian Pacific Railway train through Canada, which stopped three times a day and where there were joyous welcomes each time from the local inhabitants. Finally to New York and New Jersey, where the men joined the converted troopship The Queen Mary for the journey to Southampton, where the ship arrived on 19 November 1945. They were home, almost four years after leaving Glasgow in December 1941.
On being demobbed, my father received £50 and a suit. He spent the £50 hiring a coach to take his family and friends to a show at the London Palladium.
My father discouraged most talk of the war, or his personal experiences, though he was generous in lending copies of his memoir to his friends and family. Most readers commented that it was extremely well written and interesting and contained a surprising absence of bitterness.
He weighed around 7 stone (44 kg) in mid-September 1945, and around 14 stone (89 kg) in December. Within a few months, in austerity-Britain, he was back to his normal weight of around 12 stone (76 kg).
He suffered no serious medical or psychological after-effects from his experiences, apart from some serious nightmares at night in his 60s, and the diagnosis of an emerging tropical disease, again in his 60s, for which he was treated at the London School of Tropical Medicine. This was in contrast to many of his fellow soldiers, who found that on return they were suffering from tuberculosis caused by malnutrition. There was no counselling for possible PTSD for returning prisoners of war.
An organisation called FEPOW (Far East Prisoners of War) pressed the Government for compensation for lost earnings, for harm, or for reparations or even for an apology from Japan, but without success. There was much hurt among ex-prisoners when Japanese Emperor Hirohito and his wife were invited to the UK for a state visit in 1971. There were good geo-political reasons for re-instating Japan into the community of nations, but besides being Emperor, Horohito was head of the Japanese army which had committed so many unbelievably savage acts of cruelty and barbarism against captured soldiers and civilian populations. These had been seen in films such as The Bridge Over The River Kwai and The Railway Man, and recorded in many accounts such as The Naked Island by Russell Braddon.
Eventually some modest compensation payments and some kind of weak Japanese apology arrived in the 1990s, but by then my father had died.
He was unlucky to have been picked out for driving duties in the Far East, and he was lucky to have survived when so many of his fellow prisoners did not. His own chances of survival were helped by being young, fit and healthy himself at the start, and by his generally optimistic, willing and sociable outlook which attracted a very strong sense of comradeship and togetherness among his friendship groups. Unfortunately this comradeship didn’t extend to his British army officers, who evaded work throughout their time as POWs, and who were widely seen as being too close to the Japanese, not standing up for the enlisted men, and favouring themselves when it came to distribution of food and other supplies. Sad.
He retained a very close bond throughout the rest of his life with his Scottish friends. No surprise that. After all they had shared an experience which set them apart, not one which anybody could forget.