Lest We Forget . . . Family History, Memorabilia and World War Two – Part 4

Dr Stephen Tate – September, 2020

Welcome to the latest instalment of the blog, Lest We Forget. As part of the WWII East Lancashire Childhoods project the blog has been attempting to examine how family memorabilia combined with shared recollections can help foster a better understanding of the generation associated with World War Two. If you recall, I explained in the opening blog how my late father, Arthur, served in the Royal Artillery as a teenager. He was taken captive when Hong Kong fell to the Japanese Army on Christmas Day, 1941, and endured almost four years as a prisoner of war in the Far East, he and his comrades used as slave labour in Japan’s heavy industries. He had joined up in Blackburn in late 1937 claiming to have turned 18, the minimum age for recruitment, when, in fact, he was still 15 and six weeks short of his 16th birthday.

Since the last blog was posted online the country marked the ending of hostilities in the Far East – VJ Day – on August 15 with a number of 75th anniversary commemorative ceremonies. The one at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire attended by Prince Charles was particularly moving, with the service of remembrance broadcast live on TV. The 150-acre site is home to 25,000 trees among which sit 400 memorials highlighting, in dignified solemnity, a wide variety of organisations and events of national significance, among them a number recording the suffering and fortitude of Far East Prisoners of War.

I think it is important to make the point here that this is not the appropriate forum within which to develop the issue of the ill treatment of captives in the Far East in the Second World War, nor the devastating atomic bombing of Japanese cities which forced Emperor Hirohito and his military leaders to accept defeat in 1945. That is not the purpose of this blog series. But it is important to at least acknowledge its presence.

The inhuman treatment of prisoners of war and, indeed, civilians, was a sub text to the conversations illustrated in the series of correspondence I touch on below. It was the context around which parents and son spoke to each other in print, of what was left unsaid but which, for son was the grim reality of every day, and for parents was the subject of a growing awareness as the war developed and the long years dragged.

Neither is this the platform to discuss the issue of empire and colonialism – Britain’s presence, and the presence of its troops, in the far-flung corners of the world, and of the growing appetite for empire within Japan at the time. This country’s colonial past has rarely been more open to debate, and the place of Hong Kong in the great sweep of international relations is before our eyes seemingly nightly as the former colony faces up to Chinese government attempts to integrate it more fully within its own political order. They are debates for another time, another place . . .

This project provided a welcome opportunity to discuss how memory, oral history and family artefacts can combine to provide a powerful image of the past, foregrounding the ordinary and the everyday elements of life that, together with the grand narratives of national sacrifice, help tell Britain’s World War Two story. In addition, it was a means by which I could share, in a small way, my late father’s experience of conflict and its impact on his parents, through examining some of the fragile official documents, correspondence and personal ephemera that have survived the passing of the years and that stand testament to a time of crisis in their lives – a crisis mirrored the length and breadth of the country in family narratives of war.

With this in mind, I turn to material that forms the bulk of my father’s ‘archive’ of imprisonment – very brief letters sent by his parents to their son in captivity and those they received from him. I have no way of knowing how complete the correspondence is. I never asked my father that question. But the messages are disjointed, not always a sense of one letter responding to another. Perhaps some are missing. It would be incredible, really, if they had all survived. And, no doubt, some never reached their intended recipient – lost, diverted, destroyed in the chaos of global warfare. There are more than a dozen items of correspondence – postcards, letters, telegrams – all showing signs of their age but surviving through a balance of serendipity and careful management. With each passing year the more I consider these fragile artefacts and the fact of their survival through warfare, the upheaval of freedom and then repatriation, together with the later bustle of civilian life . . . their presence seems ever more incredible . . . ever more precious.

Examples of the correspondence that passed back and forth between East Lancs and Japan

The correspondence dates between spring 1943, to September, 1945. After the surrender of the colony at Christmas, 1941, my father had endured a prison camp on the Hong Kong mainland until being part of the first draft of Allied prisoners to be shipped out to the Japanese home islands in September, 1942. He survived transportation on what became known as “hellships”, merchant vessels requisitioned by the Japanese navy and overloaded with prisoners who faced dreadful conditions at sea. In Japan he had been held in three different prison camps, originally near Tokyo and later, I understand, in the far north of the country.

In one letter posted from a prison camp near Tokyo and received in East Lancs, I think, in May, 1943, my late father writes of not having had a letter from home yet – a year-and-a-half since captivity had begun for him. The anxiety created by that silence, for all concerned, dad in Japan, his parents in Burnley, must have been oppressive. Official lines of communication had only gradually been opened, and there’s a typewritten letter from the military authorities to my grandparents drawing attention to a Post Office leaflet explaining the means of sending letters to prisoners of war held in Japan. In all the correspondence sent by my father he makes the point that he is well, in good health, and being treated well. All patently untrue but included so as to increase the chances of the letters being forwarded from Japan and, importantly, to ease the distress he surely knew his captivity had created for family and friends. That May, 1943, letter appears to have been the first received by my grandparents. Their letter, in response, postmarked June that year – “The happiest day of all to know you were still alive . . . hope your pals are still with you to make things easier” – was not received by my father until March the following year, more than two years into his captivity! Clearly, others would have been sent but had not been handed on. The relief in my father’s letter home in response is clear – “. . . I cannot tell you how happy I was to find you all safe and well . . . am looking forward to seeing you all again hoping it will be soon . . . “.

Examples of the correspondence that passed back and forth between East Lancs and Japan

The sequence of correspondence ended with the letter my father sent home to his parents in September, 1945, celebrating the war in the Far East ending and his release from the prison camps, which I mentioned in the second of these blogs.

Overall, the letters do not fit together seamlessly. They are disjointed, as are their contents. They reflect the time and conditions. There is no sign of censorship. I imagine the POWs were advised by senior officers as to what would be acceptable for the Japanese military to pass on, and those writing from Britain to the Far East would be equally circumspect over what they wrote.

In addition to the letters mentioned above, there are two pocket-sized prayer books among my late father’s POW ‘archive’. Both are imbued with a tremendous sense of poignancy . . . One is a brown leather ‘Pocket Prayerbook’ with an inscription on the opening page – presented in boyhood to my father on his First Communion Day. It had stayed with him throughout his ordeal. Within it, in a neat hand, written in pencil are the names of 21 fellow prisoners of war with their home addresses – 17 British, three American and one Australian. Perhaps the intention had been to keep in touch after release. I don’t know if they did. But they had shared a harrowing experience. There is also a small blue leather New Testament. On the opening page my father had written in ink, ‘Dropped on this POW camp August 28th 1945 by an American Transport plane’, and he had signed it. The war had ended a fortnight earlier and the business of finding the camps and the Allied prisoners, of getting urgent food and medical supplies to them, often by air, and then preparing to send them home had begun. What emotions had gone through my father’s head as he wrote that short inscription?

In the fifth and final of these blogs I intend to examine the material my father saved relating to his end of captivity and journey back home to Lancashire, together with a remarkable discovery I made when looking at that material to refresh my memory in advance of writing these posts.

The pocket-sized, leather-bound religious books that form a part of the archive

For those who want to know more about the plight of Far Eastern prisoners of war in World War Two, this link takes you to Captive Memories, a website containing research, and source material, conducted and gathered by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. The material is based on the School’s 70-plus years of engagement with service veterans, their families and their histories. The School’s initial involvement centred on the veterans’ health problems associated with the effects of tropical infections together with the psychological impact of incarceration. There is a fascinating section on artwork by prisoners of war, done in secret at great risk. The exhibition – ‘Secret Art of Survival – Creativity and Ingenuity of British Far East Prisoners of War, 1942-1945’ – was staged at the Victoria Gallery and Museum, Liverpool, and is now online.

https://www.captivememories.org.uk/about

I have ended previous blogs with a quote from the writings of historians that, I think, have a resonance and worth in this current context, and which offer up insight surrounding the very idea of what History is. Today is no different, and the following is from an article by Dr Anna Whitlock, BBC History Magazine, October, 2015 – “The past is alive, dynamic, controversial and hugely relevant. History is constantly being written and rewritten, contested and reinterpreted. History is more than looking backwards and studying the past – it is about critically engaging with the present and the future. It is about individuals, families, nations and the global community.”

A Wartime Childhood: An Interview with Olive Laurie (née Bailey)

Olive Laurie was a young child during the Second World War and here she shares her memories and stories on life with her older sister and parents in the family home, being evacuated, getting her teeth knocked out, watching barrage balloons and removing a ‘sizzling incendiary bomb in an eiderdown’ from her Auntie’s bedroom. We hope you enjoy listening to Olive’s memories and stories as much as we have done. Olive has also provided us with some photographs that capture memories of her wartime childhood.

Olive said: “The first time we had an air raid during the day, we were in the park with my mother and the baby. I was very anxious because my chair was in the house and it could get bombed. Now this chair had been a present to me off Father Christmas before the war, Christmas 1938. And this chair was the joy of my life and my teddy used to sit on it when I went out to play. When we got back home, we used to pass my Auntie’s house, and Nor went to tell Auntie Belle we were coming. My mum got the chair and my teddy bear for me. We raced back to the house and we got into the shelter and mum suddenly realised we’d left the baby outside.”

“Every time we had our bedroom painted, the chair would be painted to match so the chair has been white and pink and lemon. And then years later, after we got married, my husband had the chair, had the paint scraped off it, you know, had it done properly, and it’s been re-stained, and I’ve still got that chair.”

Watch the full interview with Olive below…

Blackburn Children’s University Poetry Competition

Well done to Afiya, Fatima and Muskaan who all won prizes in our poetry competition.

Children from Blackburn Children’s University were asked to write a poem about childhood and we had some great entries from all of our budding poets.

The poems will be collected in an anthology for our poetry slam which is due to take place in October to coincide with National Poetry Day on 1st October 2020.

Thank you to everyone who entered – you can see all the poems here…

Childhood poem, by Afiyah (year three)

We sing joyously

Enjoy the warm sun with friends

Laugh without a care.

I look back at my memories

Having fun at sleepovers, birthdays and parties

Making my dreams come true.

Now I am all grown up

With many things to do

Wishing I could go back to those days of freedom.

She, by Fatima (year five)

She held my hand from birth

She always puts me first

She taught me how to talk

She helped me balance when I first started to walk

She bought me fun toys

She gives me great joys

She always protects me from danger

She saves the day like a power ranger.

She stays up all night when I’m ill

She always pays the bills

She is full of energy

She makes decisions so cleverly

She has a heart of gold

She gives unconditional love

She is a friend, a playmate, a role model

She is a cook, a teacher, a nurse.

She loves me dearly with all her heart

She hugs me tightly

She keeps me safe

She is my guardian angel.

I love you so much

Long life to her

For there’s no other

Who can take the place of my dear mother

When I was small…, by Muskaan (year three)

When I was small

I used to fall

That’s because I couldn’t walk

But then I started to talk.

Even if I was never

Really ever clever

When I got things right

I felt so bright.

Sometimes I felt sad

When I found out my dad

Gave my brother more sweets

But my mum always gave me more treats.

I’ve grown up wearing glasses

That help me do better in classes

My teacher now gives me more passes.

I now no longer fall

But I’m still not that tall.

Childhood poem, by Mohammed Esa (Year one)

I like playing on my scooter and my bike,

I like jumping on the trampoline and sometimes taking a hike.

I like to run, jump and skip and sometimes I trip.

I have a bruise on my head,

If you look closely you will see it is big and red.

I like the blue sky and the green grass,

The sun makes me happy and I will always try.

Childhood, by Zac (year four)

Cuddles is what your parents give you

Happy is what it makes you

I love it when my parents do it

Day after, day after, day after, day

Having fun

On cold winter days, board games we play

On hot summer days in the park we run

Days of our CHILDHOOD we always remember.

Childhood, by Zara (year 2)

Playing in the park

Before it gets dark

Eating ice cream

All the children scream.

Riding on a bike

It’s what all the children like.

All my friends play

With me every day.

My prayer for Life, by Maryam (year 4)

Before I went to bed at night

My mum would always remind me

To kneel and pray and pray dua

Before going to sleep.

And it is always nice to know

That God hears everyone’s duas.

I always say thank you God for

All you have given me.

I never need to be afraid

Because God is always with me.

I always try to please my

Friends and family so then I never fear.

I always do dua for

My parents for them

To have good health.

Halima’s poem (year one)

My hair is golden brown

I wear a golden crown

I have a medium-sized soft nose

And mummy gives me chores.

I have rosy-pink lips

I play with big toy ships.

I Have chunky funky legs

I wash my clothes with a sparkly, red peg.

My Childhood, by Madina (year 5)

It all started at my childhood

When I wanted to be as good as Robin Hood.

I was to be as sly as Mr Fox

And hide in my toy box.

Get a car

And eat a chocolate bar.

Stroke my neighbour’s dog

And walk her in the fog.

Pretend to make a cake

Which was fake.

Get a job

And my far cousin’s name is Bob!

Now they are my goals for

When I become an adult

When I was small, by Madina (year one)

When I was small

I had a big fall.

When I was small

I played with a ball.

When I was small

I got bigger and bigger.

I got tall.

When I was small

I got a call.

I went to the mall.

When I was small

I climbed on the wall.

When I was small

I did gymnastics in the hall.

These are my feelings as a child, by Fariah (year 4)

Cheerful I am every day

Happy is always my feeling

Inside me is so excited

Like any child I am so bubbly

Delighted I am all the time

Having fun is my style

On the moon I feel like when I am proud

On it I feel joyful

Do you see my feelings? I am beaming!

My Childhood Memories, by Ummarah (year 5)

Climbing trees and spying on people was always fun

Hide and seek outside with friends until Mum shouted ‘come home’.

I always loved my old childhood games

Late nights with my torch when mum thought I was sleeping

Doodling on the walls because they would look amazing!

Holidays collecting colourful sea shells on the beach

Outrageous tantrums which I could never have now.

Oh these were the days I wish I could have back.

Don’t ever wish your childhood away, it’s the best time of your life!

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Mehek’s poem (year 6)

Children making dreams come true

Happy things, for instance my first day at school

I look back at the good memories I’ve made

Leaving the past behind me whilst I start a new chapter

Dearest things that I love stay in my heart

Of all the things I look at my 10th birthday stood out

Opening new presents filling my day with joy

Dreaming all my life, waiting for the next chapter.

Childhood, by Beybars (year three)

Children love school

Because it’s cool

Children love treats

It’s fun to eat.

I love my dad

He is never bad.

I love my mum

She cooks nice food – yum!

Children have to go to bed early

But before that, they should brush their teeth

To keep them pearly.

Children read a book

And then tell their friends – look!

Children love treats

Although it’s bad to eat.

I do hard work

Don’t do low work.

Children should do chores

And help their parents shopping in stores.

Children are the best

They are looking for success.

Sports is fun

You could love to jump and run.

All the children should appreciate

Their parents’ efforts, and be passionate

About helping those less fortunate.

I love! by Aisha (year four)

I love my grandad

I love my grandma

I love my family

Especially my grandpapa.

I love strawberries

I love pears

I love grapes

But not that kiwi with spiky hairs.

I don’t like unhealthy foods

I don’t like fizzy drinks

Especially the boiled eggs

Poof! They stink.

I don’t like my sister fighting with me

I don’t like her when she calls my name and steals my things.

I call my mum and she comes

She says ‘don’t worry, I will buy you your favourite fairy wings.’

4 Seasons, by Leena (year five)

Autumn is the seasons of the perfect weather and coloured leaves

Winter is the season of cold and sadness and where snow brings joy!

Spring is the season of the magnificent flowers and the delicious fruit growing

Summer is the season where the sun puts smiles on children’s faces and holidays begin.

Children from Blackburn Children’s University show off their home-made graduation caps!

Even a global pandemic can’t stop these children from being creative!

Saturday 11th July should have been the day of the Blackburn Children’s University graduation ceremony, but unfortunately it couldn’t take place this year due to social distancing rules.

This didn’t stop some of the children making their very own graduation caps; and a great job they did too! It’s been business as usual during the lockdown and the children have been taking part in all sorts of activities, which are continuing during the summer.

We can’t wait until we can meet them all in person again!