LONDON – Haunting sketches of emaciated prisoners of war as seen through the eyes of one of their colleagues are being brought to Japanese readers to broaden their understanding about World War II.
Jack Chalker’s sometimes shocking and powerful drawings of life in Japanese prison camps, together with his own commentary, have just been published in Japanese, a treatment that has been afforded to only a few POW-authored books.
Stark images of guards beating prisoners, the various forms of punishment meted out to the prisoners and sketches of the horrific diseases sustained by British and Australian servicemen form the bulk of “Burma Railway: Images of war.”
“I hope it might open the eyes of people in Japan and be informative,” Chalker said. “A lot of this has been suppressed in the past.”
Chalker, now 90, was captured in Singapore in 1942 and for the next 3 1/2 years was a POW.
After a short time, he was transferred to Thailand, where he worked on the construction of the Thailand-Burma railroad. Hundreds of Allied soldiers died during its construction due to the hard labor and lack of proper medical assistance and nutrition. It was known as the “Death Railway.”
Although the Japanese were keen to ensure that none of the prisoners kept written material, Chalker was able to smuggle out bits of paper via the camp’s medical huts and used toilet rolls for his drawings.
A few guards provided him with paper. But on one occasion, some of his sketches were uncovered and he was severely beaten for breaking camp rules.
He also kept a microscopic diary, which proved useful when he wrote the book.
“A lot of the drawings were done when I was sick in the medical wing, half-dead, and during bouts of dysentery,” he said.
Before the war, Chalker was due to study medicine. As a result, he helped the doctors cope with the appalling conditions in the camps.
This gave him the opportunity to sketch some of the injuries the POWs suffered, including terrible leg ulcers that often became infected. Other images show soldiers in agony while suffering malaria, dysentery and starvation.
Chalker said it was quite easy to sketch patients in the medical huts because the guards were reluctant to go in due to the horrific illnesses being treated there.
All the POWs and doctors were anxious that the guards not find out that Chalker was recording the evidence of the brutal conditions. They felt it was vital that someone record the events so they could not later be denied.
The book also contains images of the guards, the prisoners and detailed sketches of the jungle camps and conditions on the railway. Some of the paintings included in the book were completed after the war.
Despite the brutality of some of the guards, Chalker recounts that several of the Japanese and Koreans showed acts of kindness and he could feel they did not want to be doing that job.
When the book was published in English about 10 years ago, it attracted much media attention in Japan and Britain. Now that it’s been translated into Japanese, he hopes it will have a far greater impact.
His drawings have already been exhibited in Japan and he was touched by messages from viewers after the showing.
The Japanese edition of the book contains a foreword by Chalker in which he says that if former enemies are to ever work together again, both sides really need to know the truth about what happened so there is no room for misinterpretation.
“The visual aspect of the book is quite a shock, but it was written to show what went on and to make sure that it never happens again,” he said.
The book includes chapters by several Japanese academics specializing in World War II.
“The Japanese edition was published in order to pave a path for historical reconciliation,” said Nobuko Kosuge, an expert on Anglo-Japanese reconciliation, who contributed to the book.
“The first step is to know wartime history as accurately possible,” Kosuge said. “Such drawings make it possible for us to share the original landscape of the victimization on the railway — beyond national borders, generation gaps and linguistic differences.
“Jack’s drawings are neither an exaggeration nor overstatement. His illustrations are all objective and calm, and as historical materials are highly valuable,” Kosuge said.
After the war, Chalker was made an official war artist and recorded the work of surgeons at the Australian headquarters in Bangkok.
After leaving the military, he entered art school and then taught at several prestigious educational institutions. He has also worked as a medical artist.
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