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POW’s diary reveals life in camp

Written in secrecy, journal records thoughts of British soldier who worked on Death Railway

by Shinichi Terada

David Moreton, 39, wants to publish the diary his grandfather, Albert, wrote during World War II.

David and Albert, who never spoke about his wartime experiences, have something in common: They didn’t choose voluntarily to be associated with Japan. They began their experiences with the Japanese in different times and in different ways.

“I think this is the destiny or just mysterious,” David, who is originally from Canada, said in an interview, referring to their coincidental experiences with the Japanese.

David, who has lived in Japan for more than 15 years, was sent to Japan on a volunteer project in 1988. Since then, he has been fascinated by the Japanese language and culture, and has studied it in college and graduate school.

He even lived in a temple while studying at Ritsumeikan University in the early 1990s. He also experienced the Shikoku Pilgrimage, which involves visiting 88 religious sites in Shikoku, and even wrote his master’s dissertation on it.

He now teaches English at Tokushima Bunri University.

David’s grandfather, Albert, was a British soldier who, after his capture in Singapore in February 1942, remained a prisoner of war until August 1945. He was one of hundreds of thousands of POWs forced to build the infamous Death Railway, the 400-km railroad linking Thailand and Burma (Myanmar).

The total number of POWs engaged to construct the railway is estimated at 239,711 and the total number of deaths is estimated at 98,044, according to the book “The Death Railway: A Brief History,” by Rod Beattie, curator of the Thailand-Burma Railway Museum, who researched the railway.

Albert’s journal is a rare diary-based depiction of life in the camps. His diary, which contains both positive and negative statements about his captors, records the conditions in the camp, where POWs were given very little food, clothing or medicine. Many also suffered malnutrition and debilitating diseases, including malaria, dysentery and cholera.

However, Albert did not seem angry with the Japanese soldiers. According to David, he recorded few complaints about his captors; instead, he groused about his fellow British soldiers in the journal.

Albert passed away in 1983 when David was 14. Albert, whom David described as a meticulous, disciplined and strong, said little about his experiences at the camp to his family.

“Albert never talked about the war, even to his children. My uncle Peter told me that he can only remember one time talking to Albert about the war. Albert’s only comment to Peter was, ‘If I was caught with the diary, I would have been shot,’ ” David said.

“We cannot let such firsthand records remain hidden from public view. If we do so, we will forget the craziness of war. He knew the danger of keeping a diary in such times, yet he faithfully wrote in it during his internment. Why? Perhaps he knew that such a story needs to be told to future generations,” David said.

After coming into possession of Albert’s diary, Peter tried to transcribe it, but found the job too emotionally painful. The fact that the diary included some Japanese words Peter did not know made it even harder to transcribe. Thus, the project remained untouched for more than 20 years.

After more than two decades, David revived the project. Not having spoken much with his grandfather, David decided he wanted to know what he had thought of the war and his life in general. It took a year and a half to completely transcribe the crabbed writing in the tiny diaries.

In the journal, there are frequent complaints about lazy and grumbling fellow Allied POWs, whom he described as greedy, selfish and lacking in consideration for others.

In an entry dated July 12, 1943, he wrote: “(When) fellows were asked to bring pieces of bamboo for the bonfire, only 4-5 brought bamboo, while the other 50 said, ‘Let them bring the bamboos, don’t see why I should carry any even if I am going to enjoy its light and heat when the talk is on.’ Selfishness all round.”

He also offered examples of Japanese who spoke words of compassion or those who treated him as something of value.

For example, on Dec. 19, 1943, he cited a Japanese doctor as saying, “In one year the fighting will stop, so you must look after health to go home to your wife and children.”

It seems, from Albert’s point of view, that both the Japanese and the POWs felt the same about the war.

On May 25, 1944, Albert stated that he was told that most of the Japanese troops “are fed up with this state of war and want to return home just as much as we do.”

David said: “I can only guess how these words encouraged him to persevere. He must have appreciated hearing such words in that world of gloom.”

In his journal, Albert referred more to his wife and children than to how he was treated in the camp. His hopes of being able to return home and see them again perhaps helped him survive, David said.

On Dec. 6, 1943, he wrote of imagining seeing his child again. “These things we think of keep us looking forward always full of hope.”

In his diary, and through his captivity, Albert wanted all the countries of the world to prosper again and for people to learn how they should treat each other with respect.

“All (countries) are in trouble and bigger problems face humanity now. When will it place its foundation on rock of humanitarian principles of good neighbourness? (with the words of Christ in mind ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’) or (with all people/countries fall into the) quicksands of greed, selfishness and hate.”

After the war, Albert wrote on Oct. 15, 1945, “What a golden opportunity for the world to unite like one family.”

For the past two years, David, with the help of volunteers, has been working on translating the journal into Japanese. He said he hopes to complete the project by the end of this year for publication next summer.