Letter from King George VI welcoming returning prisoners of war from the Far East. © IWM (MH 27887)
IWM holds a vast collection of documents telling the stories of the men who were held captive by the Japanese during the Second World War. The collection includes diaries, memoirs, photographs, artworks and oral history interviews, and all of these resources are invaluable in helping historians, researchers, families and members of the public to learn about the day-to-day experiences of the men who were prisoners of war.
Alongside my research at IWM, I have written catalogue entries for documents that have been donated to the museum by men who were imprisoned on the island of Sumatra from February 1942 until August 1945. This has been a fascinating task. The materials from Sumatra are exciting sources because there are very few first-hand accounts available from this theatre of captivity. Yet these documents tell the stories of the prison camps from the perspective of the men who were there at the time, and who continued to remember it after their liberation.
Rare contemporaneous diaries give the reader a glimpse of the monotonous and harsh daily life of prisoners: ‘Making an embankment for the railway, just outside camp’, noted John Parsons on 27 January 1945. ‘Fall in 8.30 – start 9am, knock off 12.30 for lunch in camp, start again 13.45 and finish 18.30...Had a catastrophe and upset nearly all my tiffin’.
Although repetitive entries can be a challenge to read, the diaries are also packed with evidence of the ingenuity and practicality that men adopted in order to survive such difficult circumstances:
‘As I walk through the Hong on our afternoon off I see prisoners passing the time by, reading books from camp library, sleeping, playing cards, dominoes, chess & draughts...making works of art in wood, wire, metal, from chess sets to model battleships’ (Albert Simmonds, 15 December 1942).
Many prisoners like Frank Brewe used their precious supplies of paper to imagine a world beyond the prison camp, making lists of the books that they wanted to read, meals that they would make and the places that they wanted to visit when they were free.
But when freedom arrived, prisoner of war life remained with the survivors. Men like Joe Fitzgerald, James Cuthbertson and Allan Munro wrote their memoirs of captivity, often many years after repatriation. Unlike the diaries, these memoirs lend perspective to the experience. ‘I arrived home...five years and two days after I had left’, recalled Fitzgerald, ‘I found my parents’ house claustrophobic, and very quiet after the noisy life I had lived for so long. Nevertheless it was good to be back’.
The memoirs also remind us that many former prisoners of war wanted to, and did, tell their stories. With the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Far Eastern prisoners of war in 2015, resources like IWM's online catalogue, Research Rooms and Explore History Centre mean that these stories can continue to be heard and read by younger generations to come.