Some of the interviewees’ homecoming experiences contrast with the official 1945 version:
‘It was a wonderful home coming, and it was made even happier by the deputation from the Territorial Army Association of Cambridgeshire, which dodging back and forth with great rapidity, met every ship at both ports to welcome home each member of the Regiment and arrange transport to his own doorstep’.1
Both officers clearly remembered being met by, and having dinner with, the ‘Regiment’ on their first evening in Liverpool and being issued with first-class rail tickets for the journey home the next day. None of the other ranks can remember being met by the ‘Regiment’ on their arrival in Liverpool or Southampton and all were issued with third-class rail tickets. Both officers were met by their families and taken home. By comparison only one other rank2 was met by ‘volunteers’ and transported home by car. These three men were all released from Changi, a large accessible camp, and were amongst the first arrivals home. This may be the reason they were ‘officially greeted’. Of the latecomers, two other ranks hired a taxi and the remainder caught the bus home. None were met by their families because of their personal circumstances, cost or work commitments. In some instances they were the third member of the family to return home from service overseas to an austere Britain with a civilian population exhausted by war.
The questionnaire predictably brought to light discrepancies in FEPoW evidence. For example, when asked if they had any knowledge of CRUs, ten of the eleven interviewees said no, yet when asked if they had received a document3 concerning their appearance before the medical board, they all replied that they had. This document clearly states ‘A pamphlet explaining all about Civil Resettlement Units is enclosed’. Therefore, one must assume they had the relevant information concerning CRUs and either disregarded it, or at the time, did not feel the need to attend a CRU. Shephard points out that some 4,500 FEPoWs did attend CRUs4 and hopefully benefited from their experience.
There were also inconclusive responses within the samples. For example, when asked ‘were the officers and men together on VJ-Day?’, the interviewees’ answers varied and I was therefore unable to examine the point in Shephard’s article that it was thought that the FEPoW’s high morale was due to the fact that officers and men were not separated until late in the war as they had been in Germany: esprit de corps, the backbone of military morale, had reminded intact. The questionnaire also shows that different people responded to rehabilitation and readjustment in various ways. Also the different FEPoW experiences and status while captive, and their lifestyle on their return home, meant that they ‘coped’ in a variety of distinct ways. However, there are common factors in the rehabilitation and readjustment of FEPoWs.
There seems to be little doubt that the government was well prepared for the FEPoW release from captivity. For example, ‘explanatory leaflets’5 were dropped in to PoW camps and the ‘Welcome to Rangoon’6 pamphlet shows official preparedness; and FEPoWs, on their journey home, were issued with Army clothing in Suez.7 If there was any inefficiency at the reception centres in Britain it was almost certainly caused by the fact that officials wanted to get the FEPoWs homeward bound as soon as possible. However, the very fact that a psychological examination did not take place and that only a superficial medical was the best anyone could expect is inexcusable. The questionnaire provides evidence that at least one of the samples was in urgent need of immediate psychiatric treatment.
The only institution that was available to returning PoWs was the CRUs, which Shephard describes as ‘an imaginative readjustment scheme’.8 However, the CRU took no special account of the inhuman treatment withstood by the FEPoWs. This was not their only problem. Someone suffering from combat trauma was unlikely to be fit enough to apply himself to enter a CRU. The questionnaire discloses that one interviewee entered a CRU only after he had suffered a complete breakdown. This confirms that, whatever formal arrangements were in place to prevent the onset of serious stress-related illness, in this particular case they failed. Also the CRUs closed at the end of 1947. The reasons for this may have been that FEPoWs, because of poor publicity, were unaware of their existence, or were reluctant to use such a facility at a time when men were expected to ‘deal’ with their emotions. The government, in its turn, was either unaware of any ongoing psychological problems the FEPoWs may have had, or they quite simply ignored the legacy of Japanese brutality and closed the CRUs for financial reasons.
The questionnaire provides evidence that Shephard was correct when he says, ‘These men were left to themselves. Time it was assumed, would take care of things’9 and that ‘on the families fell the load’.10 However, the interviews produced tangible evidence that although the family played a significant role in rehabilitation, FEPoWs, for a variety reasons, did not want to talk to their families. There is also substantial evidence that not only family, but employment and above all comradeship played a major role in the FEPoW resettlement. Repeatedly, FEPoWs stated no one can understand unless they had personally experienced the cruelty of the Japanese. FEPoW comradeship and ongoing rehabilitation grew from this understanding.
The interviews also proved that different FEPoWs dealt with the stress of war in different ways. For example, the officers dealt with combat trauma in a different fashion from the other ranks: the officer-only 18th Division Association, as opposed to the Yasume Club. There were, of course, reunions, functions and other events when all FEPoWs participated together. These times of celebration and ritual are another occasion when the freedom to ‘talk’ became part of their ongoing readjustment and rehabilitation.
Many FEPoW veterans are only now discovering the damage done to their bodies and minds. For millions, VJ-Day signalled the allied victory. However, for many, it marked the beginning of an even longer struggle. After the war, many thousands who had been captured by the Japanese led apparently normal lives; only fifty years later are they emerging as the last casualties, with severely disabling physical and psychiatric conditions. With age their resistance to the hidden effects of deprivation and brutality is declining sharply. In theory, they are entitled to war disability pensions or gratuity payments if they can prove their disabilities are linked to their experiences. However, so long after, definitive proof is often elusive. One interviewee’s Field Medical Card,11 issued after treatment in Rangoon, clearly states that he suffered from a variety of tropical diseases. His subsequent application for a pension was turned down by the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance even though they acknowledged that malnutrition and privation with postural defects, malaria and dysentery were attributable to ‘service’12. The victims themselves may not recognise the real source of their trouble and many men blame old age for problems arising from war disabilities. The National Federation of FEPoWs Steven Cairns has ‘fought on FEPoWs behalf since 1962 handling 9,000 pension claims and 542 appeals to independent tribunals. Today he is as busy as ever’.13 Another common factor is the collective annoyance FEPoWs feel towards Japan because she still refuses to acknowledge her appalling treatment of British PoWs or to compensate them realistically.
However, the idea that wartime experiences induced widespread feelings of betrayal and alienation is difficult to sustain once we turn away from the classic works of Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves and Virginia Woolf.14 The letters, diaries and memories of the ‘unknown’ men of Cambridgeshire were more likely to view their survival as a lucky and happy opportunity to create a sphere of comfortable domesticity than as a chance to reflect on their social alienation and despair. As Shephard pointed out, bitterness was one response to the FEPoW wartime experiences and their government’s subsequent ineptitude and ingratitude. However, it was a response that few returnees could afford to maintain for long periods, or were unwilling to maintain in the face of renewed hope for happiness. Indeed, the most striking thing about the survivors I interviewed was the extent to which they continued to be engrossed in the day-to-day domestic life of their family and comrades. Wartime experiences did not inevitably brutalise these men. The desire to forget the horrors of imprisonment by the Japanese was the dominant urge and the vast majority of Far Eastern Prisoners of War did not need recourse to professionals to regain a sense of sanity: the comfort of their kin, employment and their comrades was sufficient.
1 Col. Nicolson, History of the Suffolk Regiment 1928-1946, (Bury St. Edmonds, 1946), p.247
2 see Appendix A, Interview number 8 Supplementary question 18
3 see Appendix B, document number 7 p.109
4 B. Shephard, ‘A Clouded Homecoming?’ p.12
5 see Appendix B, document number 9 p.111
6 see Appendix B, document number 8 p.110 in L.L. Baynes Kept - The Other Side of Tenko (Lewes, The Book Guild Limited) p.190
7 see Appendix B, document number 12 p.114
8 B. Shephard, ‘A Clouded Homecoming?’ p.10
9 B. Shepherd, ‘A Clouded Homecoming?’ p.13
10 B. Shephard, ‘A Clouded Homecoming?’ p.12
11 see Appendix B, document numbers 10 and 11 pages 112 and 113
12 see Appendix B, document number 13 p.115
13 John, Illman, ‘Dividend of Peace’ in The Guardian, 31April 1994, p.12
14 Joanna, Bourke ‘Masculinity, Men’s Bodies and the Great War’ in History Today Volume 46 February 1996 p.11