The Rising Sun On My Back
When we returned in November 1945, VJ Day celebrations were over and we docked at Southampton to a bleak homecoming. Customs officials came aboard and searched the belongings of most junior ranks and soldiers and confiscated all the cigarettes, stockings and other presents we had brought home for our families. I lost a valise full of such presents, and was left with only one carton of cigarettes; we could not afford the duty they demanded on the remainder.
We disembarked and marched along a deserted dock to waiting lorries which whisked us away to a transit camp on the outskirts of the town. That evening we were issued with money, tickets, and other requirements for leave and in the morning soon after breakfast we were transported to the station to begin an extended leave.
The authorities did not consider that after three and a half years of mental and physical torture, on a diet unfit for human beings, that we warranted even the most cursory medical examination. We felt we were an embarrassment to them, to be rid of as quickly as possible.
Roberts, my long time P.O.W. buddy and I had been bonded together in a friendship which should have lasted forever, yet it did not even survive the journey back to reality and our need to forget. But I could not forget, the names of the hell holes came back to plague me. Ban Pong, Kanu, Tarsau, Tamuang, Changi, the tented camp with no name between Kanu and Hintok, and Tukuoka in Japan. The cumulative efforts of my treatment came home with me, to venture out and mock me for daring to imagine that I had escaped.
I suffered a personality change which was obvious to those who were dearest to me, yet too complex for them to understand or to talk about. I felt an outsider, they had not changed and I did not recognise the change in myself. I had seen my father and so many others die, and had become practised at keeping my distance because I was afraid that if I got too close it would mess up my mind which I had conditioned to my circumstances.
My spirit was hardened, I had become adept at excluding everyone and there was room only for me in the fortress I built in my mind. I could not get close to people and dodged even the smallest gathering; I was embarrassed and caused them embarrassment because I could not join in their ordinary conversations. One would think that the experiences I had endured might never have happened - the subject was taboo. Left alone with my mixed up feelings I found solace in drink. I drank heavily and always carried a flat half bottle in my battledress blouse.
On my return to duty I was despatched to Lydd, Devizes & Bury on rehabilitation courses, to learn soldiering again and to pick up my trade. For four months, with other ex P.O.W.’s I embarked on a continual round of “binges” which began every morning with a scotch before rising from my bed. We were spending £10 a day and were rarely sober. In June,1946 (seven months after returning home) when I married the girl who waited for me, four years accumulated pay had vanished. The fact that Ena did not give me my marching orders was indication of her feelings for me. She still wanted to marry although I know she saw the marked change in me. My return to normality was very gradual and it was she who inspired all that was best in me. Buried deep within me was an anger and a fear which I wascontinually trying to suppress, and our marriage was punctuated by outbursts of fury when things did not go exactly my way. As time passed, the frequency of my outbursts decreased, due to a beloved wife whose sense of truth and right was my strongest incentive and whose approbation was my chief reward.
In 1981 my past returned to haunt me. I plumbed the deepest depths of depression; the effort to think was too much and life to me was meaningless - I contemplated suicide.
My psychiatrist said that I had been sustained by a very strong subconscious will to survive, but now I needed help. The depressions are maintained now by drugs at a safe level. I have to settle for this. My war will never be a buried memory. There is still something there simmering beneath the surface and I am haunted by a fear that cannot be identified. I am convinced now that my own secret world will never be penetrated, and I no longer strive for an answer. There are thousands like me and yet I feel different, unique - When you know that you are one of fifteen to have survived in the valley of death, you feel set apart, and you know that nothing can hurt you ever again.
I have questioned doctors and psychiatrists about the fear and the anger which lies beneath the surface. They say meaningless words like “deep hidden depression” or “post traumatic stress”. My own theory is based on our own experiences and that of ex Vietnam prisoners and the American hostages held in Iran. We were prisoners for three and a half years. The ex Vietnam prisoners of war were held for various periods of time, the hostages about a year. Environmental conditions and treatment varied considerably, but there were two common factors; the fanaticism of the captors, and the ever present fear of death. Within days of the first American hostages arriving in the U.S.A. nine were hospitalised, suffering from depression, which id what my psychiatrist explains all the ex P.O.W.’s under his care suffer with; exonogous meaning incurable but controllable with drugs. From this information I have concluded that his fear of death that we all lived with every day we were prisoners has left a deep permanent scar on the nerve system which controls our emotions. It is an emotional disturbance not a mental one; every ex P.O.W. I know suffers in the same way and are all intellectually normal.
Were I but capable of interpreting to the world one half the thoughts and feelings which are buried deep within me I should be the medium of a greater benefit to it, than is ever likely to arise from anything that I have been able to write.