Considering the abrupt end to the war with Japan, caused by Truman’s decision to drop the atom bomb, Shephard says the logistics of repatriating over 37,000 people half-way around the world were tackled with commendable efficiency.1 When this question was put to the FEPoWs they all initially agreed. However, further questioning revealed that there were a number of very different experiences. The FEPoWs were put into three categories. ‘’A’’ grading, the fittest, were those who left first; ‘’B’’ grading would be next and ‘’C’’ grade would be admitted to hospital and when they were sufficiently recovered they would travel home by hospital ship.2 All the interviewees who were ‘up country’ were graded either ‘’A’’ or ‘’B’’ and quickly transferred from the camps by rail or air to India or Rangoon, ‘fattened up’ and then sent home by boat. These journeys by all accounts may have been efficient but certainly were not always comfortable and they where often far removed from Shephard’s interpretation of ‘peaches and cream in Rangoon; the camp in the old Viceregal mansion in Calcutta where vigorous memsahibs tended their needs; the slow sea voyage, with plenty to drink and frequent ENSA entertainments’.3
The FEPoWs flew to Rangoon in Dakotas. Because these aircraft were used for supply drops they often had their rear doors removed and the terrified and freezing passengers ‘had to sit on the floor and fasten a rope around [them] which was secured to some part of the plane’s structure’.4 J. S. Cosford of the Cambridgeshire’s 1st. Battalion describes his reception in Rangoon as an excess of luxury after being whisked off to a centre where British nurses and WVS ladies sat us down at tables for a meal.5 On the other hand, within a month of his release one interviewee had the daunting experience of having to travel alone by rail from Calcutta to Bombay in order to board a ship for home. Another interviewee said his boat journey home aboard the Sobieski, a free Polish liner converted to a troopship, was ‘awful’. However, two other interviewee’s, both officers, were on the same ship and thought that the conditions were ‘fine’. They were issued with a daily chit which allowed the bearer one free drink. This was a privilege which other ranks apparently did not enjoy, or did not remember.
Shephard at the beginning of his article uses the experiences of Eric Lomax to describe the cursory ‘medical’ that returning FEPoWs experienced in Britain. However, Lomax’s other experiences in his book The Railway Man sometimes contradict Shephard’s version of events. Lomax’s ‘vigorous memsahib’ thought it right to speak her mind: she was sure that as they had been prisoners during most of the fighting they would be now be eager ‘to do their bit’. Her picture was of the PoW camps full of bored, underemployed and shameful men.6 Lomax added that on the journey home he was approached by FEPoWs whose officers had not been PoWs. ‘They were being allocated ordinary ship’s duties by regimental officers who had no conception of what these men had been through’.7 G. P. Peters was a prisoner in Japan and was repatriated by the Americans. He was taken to Manila where the FEPoWs were entertained by Gracie Fields and for their ‘own good’ rationed to 60 cigarettes, 2 ounces of tobacco, 6 cigars and 3 cans of beer a day! Peters eventually arrived in Canada and vividly describes the tumultuous reception which the FEPoWs received and says that they were treated like heroes all the way across Canada. This is in contrast to the disappointment of Southampton where he says, ‘a military band greeted us, that was our entire welcome party!’8 This is in stark comparison to Signaller Cyril Coombs’ description of cheering throngs of relatives that Shephard describes in his article.9 Almost all the FEPoWs I interviewed had different homeward experiences. Some FEPoWs were attended by WVS volunteers, some were not; some had good journeys home, others did not; some were welcomed at their port of arrival, others were not.
Through the questionnaire I attempted to establish how the FEPoWs marital and Army status affected their rehabilitation and readjustment. Four interviewees were married prior to captivity and six married soon after repatriation to England. The only interviewee who remained unmarried had severe problems and had the greatest difficulty of all the FEPoWs whom I interviewed in ‘settling down’. This soldier’s girl-friend had ‘gone off’ and, he said, ‘it knocked the stuffing out of me’.10 Whether this tipped his mental ‘balance’ is unknown, but this FEPoW, whose only family was a foster mother who had died while he was a prisoner, spent the next three years alone, unable to work, and in and out of mental hospital. It would seem too much of a coincidence that all the survivors who ‘coped’ had families to go home to and either were, or were soon to be, married. On the other hand, the questionnaire disclosed that none of the FEPoWs wanted to talk of their experiences to their families. Eight of the interviewees did not talk through choice. Of the others, one was told before arriving home that discussing his experiences would disturb his relatives, the other two did not talk because they were concerned that their information was secret.11 Their attitude relates directly to the War Office document, items 3 and 4,12 and confirms Shephard’s point that men were told not to upset their families by talking to them about their experiences. Shephard adds, ‘and their next of kin were instructed not to ask about them’.13 Yet, in informal interviews with survivors’ families, no-one could recollect being instructed not to speak about FEPoW experiences. However, they did not speak because they feared it could spark off bouts of depression and recurring nightmares. Paradoxically, the ‘family’ was a major factor in rehabilitation, yet ex-prisoners either did not or could not discuss their experiences with them. This repressive experience, which was fashionable at the time, contrasts sharply with modern counselling in which the ‘victims’ are encouraged to express their innermost feelings. Today’s counselling is a bone of contention with FEPoW: it sums up their deeply held conviction that nothing was done for them.
FEPoW employment was another aspect of rehabilitation that I considered. Eight FEPoWs returned, after repatriation leave, to the same employment and two ex-prisoners, out of choice, went to alternative full-time employment. All these FEPoWs agreed that the common factors of employment and family were a major constituent in their successful readjustment to civilian life. There were experiences in common but no two experiences were the same. In addition to common factors, there were personal circumstances that had to be addressed in order to rehabilitate. For example, one interviewee, his brother (another FEPoW) and a third brother who had served in Germany, constituted the children of one family. While overseas, and unbeknown to them, their mother had died, their step-father had remarried and in the process relinquished the family home. On their return, therefore, they had to take different lodgings and were separated. My interviewee lodged with his pre-war girlfriend’s family and married her shortly after his return, a common factor in rehabilitation. There were also numerous other problems which FEPoWs and their families had to face. For example, one FEPoW needed to sleep on the floor for many years after his return: after years of sleeping on rice sacks, he simply could not get used to a bed. Another man, whatever the weather, had to have the bedroom windows wide open at night. This FEPoW had for months lived under the threat of the Japanese burying him alive if they lost the war.
Two interviewees said they did not suffer from anxiety or trauma at any time after their release. It is worth noting that one of these prisoners spent his entire period of captivity in Changi and the other prisoner, after one year ‘up country’, spent the remaining two and a half years in Changi. Changi was where Len Baynes said ‘conditions were incomparably better than we ever again experienced’.14 J. English, a signals major, called the early days in Changi, ‘the erstwhile dream haven of no work, running water, electric light and regular news bulletins’.15 It is almost fatuous to say one horror is better than another horror, but the remaining nine interviewees all either did or still do suffer from anxiety and trauma and all still have recurring nightmares.
As Shephard had not mentioned pre-war friendship as part of the readjustment process, I decided to see if it did play a significant part in the rehabilitation of my sample of FEPoWs. However, the questionnaire revealed that pre-war friendship did not play the role that I had expected. Often old friends had either been casualties of war, married, moved or were busy with their own rehabilitation process after returning home from service in the forces. Former friends were therefore not vital to rehabilitation because they no longer had sufficient in common with FEPoWs. One interviewee pointed out that when he returned home it was almost six years to the day that he had left for service overseas; therefore, not only his friendships but all his personal relationships had changed quite dramatically. One FEPoW, who adjusted very well to life in ‘civvy street’, on his return to Britain moved to a different part of the country. Significantly he married and moved back to Cambridge within the year in order to work and consequently to renew his connection with old comrades and the Cambridgeshire Regiment.
1 B. Shephard, ‘A Clouded Homecoming?’ in History Today Volume 46 (8) August 1996 p.12
2 W. Taylor, With the Cambridgeshire’s at Singapore (Cambridgeshire, 1971) p.68
3 B. Shephard, ‘A Clouded Homecoming?’ p.12
4 M. Bentinck, Forgotten Heroes, (Cambridge, 1995) p.39
5 J.S. Cosford Line of Lost Lives, (England 1988), p.191
6 E. Lomax, The Railway Men, (London, 1995), p.202
7 E. Lomax, The Railway Men, p.203
8 G.P.G. Peters, I Walked to the Station Around the World And Walked Home Again, (Private publication 1987), pp.74-81
9 B. Shephard, ‘A Clouded Homecoming?’ p.12
10 M. Bentinck, Forgotten Heroes, (Cambridge, 1995), p.41
11 see Appendix B, document number 14 p.114
12 see Appendix B, document number 4 pp. 100-106
13 B. Shephard, ‘A Clouded Homecoming?’ p.12
14 L. L. Baynes, The Other Side of Tenko, (Chippenham 1984), p.64
15 J. English, One for Every Sleeper, (London 1989), p.191