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By

 James McNeil

The last time I saw Jimmy Spencer I drove him and his wife Beryl up to Waverly train station one afternoon after they’d been to visit.  I dropped them of at the corner of Waverly Bridge and Princess St and as he was getting out of the car Jimmy turned around and said something to me that I’ve never forgotten.  He said, “We need to have a chat about your Grandfather, he was different from the rest of us, but he was a good lad, next time I’m up I’ll talk to you about it.”

We never had the chance because Jimmy died not long after that.

What was he going to tell me?  Did he mean that he was different because he went to a private school and was educated?  My grandfather could have been an officer but wasn’t, partly because he chose not to be.  But I got the feeling that there was something more to it than that.  This might be wishful thinking, but I don’t think I’m too far away when I say that I think Jimmy was going to tell me something about the kind of person he was: how he survived, the way he survived, the way that he helped and cared for his friends, the way he kept his dignity, his nobility and his humanity.  I’ll never know what he was going to say and I’ll always wish that we had that conversation.

My grandfather was only 22 when he was captured on February 15th 1942.  He was 26 when he came home.  Throughout reading and transcribing the diary I couldn’t help but compare my twenty two year old self to his.  It was something I thought about a lot; the difference in our lives and what we’d experienced.  When I was in my early twenties I was bluffing my way through University and my biggest worry was who’d eaten my jam.  At the same age, my grandfather was on the other side of the world not knowing if he was going to live through the day.  He was going to bed at night, his embattled body wracked with a fever, and being told that he’d be shot in the morning if the fever turned out to be Cholera.  Comparisons like that are often dead ends though.  You live your life and deal with what comes your way.  Everyone has his or her own weight to carry and it’s how you choose to carry it that defines you.

It’s taken me far longer to write this that I imagined it would and it’s been drafted and redrafted more times than I can remember.  There are funny, light-hearted versions and serious, heartfelt tributes but none of them felt quite right; they didn’t have the right balance of poignancy, lightness of touch and heartfelt warmth that I was aiming for.  After much pondering and nail biting, I worked out why: I was trying to do too many things at once and I was worried that it wouldn’t be good enough and that I’d never be happy with it.  So, I thought about what mattered the most.  And that was simply that I wanted my grandfather to be proud of it.  I realised I was trying to hard and had forgotten that if I trusted myself and just wrote it without thinking too much, then there would be more of a chance of it coming out in the right way because that was how I felt.  So, that’s what I did and here’s the result.  I hope I’ve managed to achieve some of the things I set out to do. 

I can’t remember the initial reason why I wanted to transcribe my grandfather’s diary from his time as a POW.  I think I thought it would be a good thing to do; to tidy up a collection of tatty, loose, mixed up pages that are over fifty years old and put it together into a wee book with photographs.  I’d read a few books on it and it was something I was interested in, it seemed like a worthwhile project and it felt like a tribute as well.  I also thought it would be useful to document something properly so that it would be accessible to anyone who had an interest in it.  As it turns out, there is some interest in it.  The Imperial War Museum in London want a copy for their archives as they don’t have any personal accounts from Amagasaki/Osaka No. 6 Camp in Japan and they thought it would be a useful primary source for researchers.  But more than all that, I think I wanted to do it because the story of my grandfather’s time in the Far East is something that was very much a part of my life as I was growing up.  It was something I was always conscious of and very proud of.  I remember when I used to run from our house at 42 Pilrig Street through to the living room in the basement of number 46 in my pyjamas and slippers and sit of the poof (a cushioned and very comfortable maroon foot rest) so I could listen to my granda talking with Jimmy Spencer and John Lyndsey.  They, all three of them, used to sit and drink whisky and chat and their conversations would be littered with Jimmy telling stories.  He was good at it too.  I loved listening to him and I’m pretty sure he loved being listened to.  Sometimes they were more of a performance than just a part of the conversation and in me, he had a captive audience.  Unfortunately, I can’t clearly remember his voice, but I remember the strength of his presence, he was quite charismatic for a wee guy, and I remember how I felt.  I dearly loved those nights because they were filled with warmth; sitting beside the fire in my jammies listening to old stories with an endless supply of tea and toast slathered in marmalade – expertly made just the way I liked it by my grandma - my imagination took off and I was transported to dangerous and magical places full of possibilities for adventure. 

There is one night in particular that stands out; I was bored and found a box of what can only really be described as bits and bobs and proceeded to lie under the coffee table and tape the contents, which included screws, nuts, bolts, pens, pencils, pins and other various objects, to the underside of the table pretending I was a car mechanic.  It was the beginning and end of my career as a mechanic.  While I was fixing the engine of a car that only ever existed in my head, I was listening, unconsciously absorbing everything.  Those nights are precious moments.  So having a chance to put the diary together into a book felt like an opportunity to relive those memories and form them into something tangible.

I love great stories and those nights were filled with them.  It was an informal education and one that has fostered a love of stories, story telling, reading and writing that has never left me: A great gift to receive.  That was also that start of my addiction to tea and toast with marmalade, which I’ve never been able to overcome either and thankfully so.  Although I’ve never been able to make it quite as well as my grandma but I’m putting that down to the quality of her homemade marmalade and the amount of sugar she put in it. 

I started to transcribe the diary in 2006; it’s now 2012.  That’s nearly six years.  A long time considering the diary isn’t very long.  It was written in pencil on yellowed, loose sheets of fibrous paper that are around A5 size.  It’s rough and grainy and looks a bit like papyrus.  The handwriting is also small and tightly crammed onto the pages making it difficult to read.  I spent a lot of time bent over the pages with a magnifying glass trying to decipher words written over fifty years ago.  It was a painstaking process, but I loved it.  I always had a great sense of discovery, as if I was unearthing something.  In a way I was because I was opening up my grandfather’s story in a new way.  I felt like a proper historian and was half hoping for an Indiana Jones type mystery to expose itself and take me all over the world on a great adventure.  After a while, I got used to the handwriting, the style of prose and names of places, so it became easier and quicker to transcribe it, but, it still shouldn’t have taken me this long.  Here come the excuses - the main ones being: laziness, my unenviable gift for procrastination and the added distractions of living in Japan for two years, London for six months and then studying for my PGDE.  Despite all that - here it is.  And hopefully all the better for things I learnt during that time. 

When I was transcribing the diary, I was transported somewhere else, as I always am when reading good books.  I pictured the places and imagined it being written in scarce moments of snatched privacy.  Sometimes, I pictured my grandfather writing in the dark, lying on his side in a bamboo hut surrounded by withering bodies while the rain’s puttering on the roof.  But other times, during a respite from labouring, he’s managed to find a secluded spot in the jungle to write simple, concise sentences that would carry more emotional weight and significance than he ever thought they would over fifty years later.  During the summer in Japan, especially at night, the humidity closes in and wraps itself around you.  When it’s really hot it’s like moving through syrup.  It’s suffocating and if you’re tired it can feel like you’re a character in your own very lucid dream.  It’s after midnight during the late summer months of 1944, and he’s just finished a shift at the lathe in the copper factory. Skeletal, with jet black hair emphasizing hollowed cheeks and limbs swollen with Beri Beri, he steps into the bamboo hut with low sleeping platforms running down either side.  It’s dark but some moonlight slants through the holes in the walls and highlights bones shrinkwrapped in skin.  He finds his way around the ribcages and shallow breathing.  The sparse light makes the men look even more emaciated. He eases himself onto his bed painfully and uses a beam of light that slides between the roughly made shutters to write his two or three sentence entry for that day.  The sound of boots on gravel slogs through the heat and he hides the scrap of paper between the boards he sleeps on and feigns sleep.   

Keeping a diary was a brave act and managing to keep it hidden in those circumstances was no small feat.  But, ingenuity is often found in tight spots.  Using tree bark to help construct parts for a radio receiver and utilising petroleum jelly for frying to name just two.  If the diary was discovered, it’s likely that he would have been subjected to torture and very possibly killed.      

The first things that probably come to mind for the vast majority of people when thinking or talking about POW’s in the Far East are most likely to be negative; torture, starvation, disease and facing death every day.  But, what really stood out for me when reading the diary were the positives: people’s ability to show tenderness and compassion amidst the horrors surrounding them.  There is an underlying sense of humanity that runs throughout the diary and I think that’s the most important part of the whole thing because it reflects my grandfather at his best; that despite the difficulty of the situation he was in, he never gave up, he never lost hope and he never lost his sense of humanity.  If there is any one thing to be taken from the diary then it’s that: the ability of the human spirit to endure through the most difficult of conditions and survive.

Those who came home had a heavy burden to bear, survivors usually do.  Whatever it was they held onto and nurtured somewhere in the depths of their being is what kept them alive.  Every person who went through similar experiences to my grandfather and survived were fundamentally changed by it; they saw the very worst of what people were capable of doing to one another.  But, they also saw that even amongst sheer abject misery there could still be kindness and hope.

It’s a common misconception that the guards were all Japanese.  It wasn’t a prestigious posting to be given and many of them were POW guards because they were not physically or mentally fit for frontline duty.  The officers and engineers in charge of building the bridges and railways were usually Japanese, but the men who guarded the POWs on a day to day basis were mostly drawn from the dregs of the Japanese military and from Korean and Indian men who were forced into service.  Stories of sadistic brutality and violence are common, but it’s important to remember that many of the soldiers in the Japanese army were conscripted and placed in situations where they were forced to do things they were ashamed of and were haunted by for the rest of their lives.  The stories of the brutality tend to steal the headline space, but there were guards who showed sympathy towards the prisoners.  I say this because I think it’s important to keep a sense of perspective.  I lived in Japan for two years and I loved it.  It’s an incredible, fascinating place and I met some very kind and friendly people who treated me like a member of their own family and I feel it would be unfair to them if I didn’t give a balanced picture here.  There are great people and idiots wherever you go in the world.  I met my fair share of both in Japan.  But it’s the great people that give a place a permanent home in your heart.

I once asked my grandfather why he wrote the diary and he looked at me as if the answer was the most obvious thing in the world.  “I just thought it would be a good thing to do, so I would remember what happened.”  In retrospect, I suppose the answer was obvious.  Why does anyone keep a diary?  There were many things in it that he had forgotten and many things that he couldn’t remember at all, so it was good to go through it as a good few more memories poured forth from his expansive mental library.  But, I think he also has a good reason to forget a lot of the things that happened, especially the things that he didn’t write down.  I think, in a cruel twist, it was the things he didn’t write down, the things that he wanted to forget the most that still come back to him in nightmares and resurface as the most vivid memories.

When I was in Japan and since I came back I’ve tried to find connections between my time and the time my grandfather spent there, but they’re so different it was hard to relate the two in a meaningful way.  Modern Japan is a product of the past fifty years and it’s a vastly different place from the one that my Grandfather saw.  The changes can be illustrated (in a crude way) through one statistic.  In 1945 over 50% of Japan’s GDP came from agriculture: It’s now 1.5%.  I started to transcribe the diary before I left for Japan and, coming back to it when I returned with a much deeper and more appreciative understanding of the culture and the people, allowed me to really relate to it in a way that I couldn’t before.  Pathways previously unseen opened up and wound through the dense jungle of over sixty years of history and helped me make some links.

There are a lot of blanks in my transcription because I couldn’t manage to read the original.  I went over a lot of them with my grandfather but he couldn’t read it or couldn’t remember what he might’ve written.  In some ways it would be good to have a complete version.  But, a part of me likes that there are blanks, that the story isn’t complete and that some things have been lost forever.  It reflects the chaotic and untidy nature of life.  Having said that, I did try to fill in the blanks as far as I could.  It’s because of the excellent training I had from reading History at Edinburgh University.  Despite all the hours, weeks, days and years spent working hard at avoiding hard work, I did manage to learn something.  I filled in as many of the blanks as I could with information from interviews, research and reading.  In addition to filling in the blanks, I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible in how I’ve reproduced it.  Where any word has been unreadable, I’ve left it blank.  Where there has been any doubt as to what a word might be and where the meaning of it could change the interpretation of the entry, I’ve played it safe and left it blank.  I have added some grammar, where necessary, to make the entries more easily understood and easier to read.  I also corrected some spelling mistakes.  But any other features, like capitals, hyphens, brackets or spelling variations have been left in place as they are.

The diary is a very subjective record, a product of a particular time, place and set of circumstances.  It’s a reflection of how my grandfather understood the world around him at that time.  Whenever we write we make choices about what to include and what to cut.  The judgement and decision making of my 23 year old grandfather to leave out the dehumanising things he went through is a great insight into his character.  He chose to focus on the simple daily routines and events that allowed a little light and freshness into the grim reality.  I’m sure many memories have been left behind, they weren’t just left out of the diary but they were buried somewhere in Thailand, Burma, Malaya, Singapore and Japan, alongside his friends.  They’re all small pieces of himself that he chose to leave there for his own good reasons.

Some of the things I thought that I wanted to read were the things that my grandfather chose to leave out: the torture, beatings, starvation, escape attempts, building a radio, being chased by an elephant.  Part of me wanted all the gory details, all the horror.  I thought that if I read about those things then it would bring me closer to him and help me understand why it’s still hard for him to talk about.  But, as you’ll see, the diaries don’t go into much detail about what he suffered through, the real darkness has been omitted.  It’s my grandfather’s burden and his alone to bear.  Can you truly express what it was like to experience those things?  I don’t think so.  Any attempt, no matter how beautifully written or eloquently spoken, will still only ever be a pale estimation of the reality.

Knowing my grandfather and reading about what happened to him, what he was a part of, filled me with a lot of different emotions at once: pride, sympathy, compassion, admiration and respect.  Having the physical and mental strength and stamina to endure two and a half years of starvation rations and intense manual labour in tropical heat whilst being riddled with disease is one thing.  But having the strength to carry those experiences for as long as he has with the dignity and humility he has is something else entirely.  That’s where the real victory lies.  The Atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the 6th and 9th of August respectively stopped the conflict, but the real victory is how my grandfather, and the others who survived, has lived the rest of his life and how his life has had such a deep and positive impact on all of ours.

The interviews were meant to help fill in some of the blanks and expand on what’s in the diary.  I don’t think the first few interviews are very good; they’re a bit monotonous because we’re just ploughing through the diary entries.  If I’d done it now I’d have approached it differently, but that’s the benefit of hindsight.  I was nervous and apprehensive about it too because I was worried I’d discover something that would change the way I see my grandfather.  It was suggested that I film them,  but something about that felt a bit morbid and it would’ve made it feel a bit too formal and like I was trying to capture something of him before it's no longer an option.  

 Asking my grandfather to remember things he's got good reason to forget made me feel very self-conscious.  I was trying to make someone drag memories that they’d spent a lifetime coming to terms with into the open and lay them bare for me.  It didn’t feel fair and I was conscious of it.  I knew it was painful for him to talk about certain things and I felt bad for bringing them up when he clearly didn’t want to talk about it.  I was intruding and asking him about things which I could never really understand and which he could never really explain to me.  There were occasions where I didn’t ask certain things and other occasions where I pushed him more than I should have done.  There were also touching moments though, when I knew that I’d hit something and could see it plainly on his face; a whole range of emotions tempered over sixty years but they were still just under the surface and they still had a raw, cutting edge.  I once asked him if he missed his friends, if he missed Jimmy Spencer.  I knew the answer, but I still asked it.  He didn’t answer but there were tears in his eyes.  I felt bad about that because I was probing and it upset him.  I remember the best interview we did was when I didn’t bring the tape recorder.  I forgot it for some reason so we just chatted away instead for a good hour and it was the best conversation that we had because it was just that, a natural conversation.

 The quality of the recordings varies.  The first one is very quiet and in the second there are large parts which are obscured by interference caused by a loose cable.  It's annoying and makes them hard to listen to and a little disappointing, but in the later interviews the recording quality is much better.  Hopefully the quality of my interview skills improved over time too.  Due to them being done over such a long period of time, sometimes several months between each one, and because of my erratic preparation, a lot of the same stories and points are repeated.  However this does get better and as they go on, it does, I hope, become less intrusive. 

 There are moments when the interviews flow naturally and the conversation, as good conversation should, takes off on a tangent and at times like that I tried to give my grandfather as much room and flexibility as possible so as to let any memories or ideas come to the fore without derailing his thinking and losing a story which might have been bubbling away.  

From a personal point of view it feels like spending two years in Japan and transcribing this diary has allowed me to bring an epic generational story full circle and write this, the last chapter.  The first lines belonged to my grandfather as he stood on the deck of a ship bound for Singapore and contemplated what kind of life the ocean was going to roll him towards.  The last lines are here.  Everything in between has become part of the intricate mesh of adventures that entangle all our lives and connect us in a multitude of ways.  Of course, it’s not really the last word because the story isn’t finished yet.  It never will be.  We all have a lifetime of stories to tell, each one of us locked into the rest in a broader picture that very rarely makes sense except where we connect the different parts to each other through the people we know and love; family and friends.  Isn’t that who it all comes down to?  They give us a foundation for all those stories and adventures to start from.  And, if we’re lucky it’s a foundation we can keep coming back to.

The years between 1942 and 1946 are just one of the many stories that make up the greater patchwork of stories that is my grandfather’s life.  It’s dateable as a part of history, but it’s also timeless because of the theme that runs through it: Mankind’s ability to find an understanding of what humanity really is in the face of complete dehumanisation; to hold onto the spirit that gets us through.  I read in one book about POWs that when a man stopped doing something, some small habit, maybe shaving or combing his hair, that he’d be dead in two weeks.  To survive an ordeal like that, you needed an unbreakable spirit and an absolute, unshakeable belief in yourself.  There are things he told me that can be attributed to divine intervention, blind luck and sheer good timing.  He was lucky.  But, luck only got him so far.  He survived because he has something that exists somewhere, hidden away from prying eyes, buried in the part of him that is his alone, that somehow kept him going then and still does now. 

 

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Singapore 1942

 

 

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