LONDON — A British former prisoner of war has been telling of the enduring friendship he built up with his Japanese guard after corresponding with him for 64 years.
John Baxter, 91, regularly exchanged birthday and Christmas cards with Hayato Hirano after the time they spent at a camp in the town of Inatsuki, Fukuoka Prefecture, during World War II.
Despite their two countries being former bitter enemies, the two men were anxious to heal the wounds of war through their exchanges.
This act of reconciliation contrasted starkly with the views of many former POWs who were virulently anti-Japanese due to the ill treatment they suffered during their incarceration.
Baxter first came across Hirano in 1943 and soon realized this guard was much more charitable than others, who could be particularly vicious with their prisoners.
Baxter, now putting the finishing touches on a book about his wartime experiences, recently said, “We struck up a rapport with him when we knew he wasn’t going to be any trouble to us.
“He showed us kindness and would smuggle in extra food for us. On a cold day, he came in with pasties and other small foodstuffs which his wife had made.”
After Japan surrendered in 1945, Baxter and his fellow POWs traveled to Hirano’s home and gave the family air-dropped food parcels as a way of thanking him for his kindness.
The British POWs realized that Hirano had put himself and his family at great personal risk through his actions.
But as they said goodbye to the family, little did any of the men know they had found a friend for life.
When they got back to England, Baxter and several of his former colleagues received their first Christmas card from Hirano, who contacted them via a social club for former POWs.
Initially, communication between Hirano and Baxter was a little sporadic, but the relationship endured and by the 1990s the two men were regularly exchanging Christmas and birthday cards.
“He would always ask after our health and hoped that there were no hard feelings between us,” Baxter said.
Communication between the two was enhanced by the fact that Hirano’s son had a good command of English and could help draft the correspondence.
Indeed, the friendship blossomed to the point where Baxter was invited to go back to Inatsuki and meet Hirano in 1995. Baxter says the entire village treated him as a friend and it was a remarkable experience of reconciliation.
Asked why Hirano showed this exceptional kindness to his prisoners, Baxter believes his faith was an important factor.
“He was a Buddhist, but they had to hide their faith during the war. He sent the cards because he was naturally attached to us and we never gave him any trouble,” he said.
Hirano, who died in 2009 at the age of 89, had previously fought in China and was officially a civilian employed to guard POWs.
“We never had a harsh word from him,” Baxter said. “We did try and sabotage some of the machinery and Hirano later told me that he had an idea we were doing this, but he kept quiet.”
Reflecting on his time in the camp, the former POW doesn’t think this relationship was unique, as some of the other guards also formed bonds with their prisoners.
Baxter, a corporal with the Royal Engineers, was captured in 1942 by the Japanese in what is now Indonesia. He suffered starvation and beatings during his stays in the camps. Using his skills as a heating engineer, Baxter was able to sabotage Japanese rifles and helped build a radio so that POWs could keep in touch with the outside world.
Baxter’s book, “Missing, Believed Killed: The remarkable story of a Japanese POW camp prisoner,” is expected to be published by Aurum Ltd. later this year.