Lest We Forget: Family History, Memorabilia, and World War II Part 2

Dr. Stephen Tate
March 2020

A vast transit camp of military tents 15 miles outside Manila in the Philippines just 18 days after the ending of the war in the Pacific. A sultry heat touching 30⁰C (86⁰F). The distinctive voice of songstress Gracie Fields drifting through the canvas, singing on a concert stage ‘to the boys close by’. A 22-year-old Lancashire lad composing the letter home to his parents he had ‘been waiting years to write’ . . .

Welcome to the second post on the blog, Lest We Forget. As part of the WWII East Lancashire Childhoods project the blog aims to examine how family memorabilia combined with shared recollections can help foster a better understanding of the generations associated with World War Two.   

In composing this latest blog entry I found myself undecided as to how best proceed in recounting my own experience of family memorabilia and World War Two. In particular, my late father’s small ‘archive’ of material relating to his time as a prisoner of war in the Far East.

My original plan was to work briefly through an overview of dad’s collection of letters, documents and ephemera in as near to chronological order as possible as a means of highlighting the nature of family memorabilia, official sources and memory in the telling of history. And that is something I will do . . . on the next blog.

But for today, I want to jump out of sequence with that ‘archive’ because my original intention faltered as one powerful, recurring image came to mind again and again, prompted by perhaps the most distinctive-looking of the letters dad had been able to send home to Lancashire after the fall of Hong Kong on Christmas Day, 1941.

The letter is postmarked September 20, 1945.

It is just 21 centimetres by 16. About 200 words long. Written in a very neat, careful, deliberate hand. Small lettering in black ink on red-ruled, lightweight paper now faded by the passage of time. It is well crafted, well ordered. For a young man whose basic schooling had been interrupted by a variety of circumstances it shows clear signs of careful composition. It is a letter that had been several years in the making, mentally and emotionally.

Indeed, my dad’s letter to his father and stepmother opens on that very point.

“This is the letter I have been waiting years to write and I know you have been waiting just as long to receive it. A Free Man. Right through to the last I still retained good health also my spirit.”

He goes on to briefly recount a journey he and his comrades made by British destroyer-class warship from his final prison camp in northern Japan and then by air to the island of Okinawa and then on to Manila. He mentions the gradual arrival in Manila of “pals” from his regiment, scattered to different prison camps after the surrender of the colony four years earlier and now being reunited for transport home . . . “but I am very sorry to say only a few came through this hell”. In an aside, he reveals, “As I write this letter I can hear Gracie Fields singing to the boys close by”. He ends with a touch of humour, with a postscript to his father, saying he “can’t come home just yet I’ve got no hair on my head”.

I don’t recall seeing the letter I feature here in his lifetime. I worked as a journalist and now class myself as a historian – both trades seemingly reliant upon a questioning, enquiring mind. But I never asked dad about the practicalities of his repatriation from the prison camps. The mechanics of trans-Pacific movement. How could that be? Over the years I asked him very little about his wartime experiences. Again. How could that be? Perhaps a sense of avoiding risking memories too painful for him to relive? A silent, uneasy arrangement with the past within the family? Or, on my part, just the casual arrogance and thoughtlessness of youth before raising my own family took precedence?

And so, on reading the letter I had to do my own research about the repatriation of the Allied POWs through Manila; about the transit camps; the camp set up by the Australians where my father recuperated briefly; the onward journey home to West Coast America and Canada, and beyond. I checked singer, film actress and comedienne Gracie Fields’ role as troop entertainer and her Pacific odyssey in September, 1945, including concerts in the Manila troop hospitals and camps. I had half wondered if dad’s letter had meant he was listening to Gracie on the radio, but no, she had been performing for the ex-POWS just a stroll away. How much richer would that episode have been in the recounting if I had simply asked my father to tell me his wartime stories? I wonder what it would have meant to him for me to ask. Properly, with time set aside just to talk.

And that is a point I think that this blog encapsulates. It is the need, while opportunity presents itself, for us to know more of the older generation around us. To know their memories of childhood in the war years and their impressions of their own ‘elders’ . . . that past World War Two adult generation, my father’s generation. How much better to have that conversation now instead of, in my case, with time as an intermediary as my father speaks to me by means of a letter written on a scrap of paper 75 years ago?

On that note, I pose again a question or challenge I set in the opening blog:

What’s stopping you checking what you might have in the house that might provide a link with the wartime years? Why not have a root around? It’s good to talk. Start a family chat. Who knows what you might turn up, what surprises a relative might deliver up of childhood memories of the 1940s, or stories passed down to them by their own parents and elderly relatives? Perhaps saving them for posterity, either as an audio recording, video or as handwritten notes. It could be an enjoyable experience. Something for the family as a whole to combine in and enjoy.

In the next blog I will examine the issue of oral history. The methods and ideas behind that most immediate of historical sources. The advantages and some of the pitfalls. And I will resume my father’s story, following his ‘archive’ in chronological fashion, from the surrender of British forces in Hong Kong and the means of families finding word of those missing in the pandemonium of war.

Incidentally, I watched a fascinating Channel 4 documentary in which actor Mark Rylance investigated his grandfather’s experience of captivity in the Far East – also in Hong Kong, although he remained in the former colony and wasn’t shipped to Japan. My Grandfather’s War, series one, episode two, was available on catch-up TV when last I checked.

In addition, for those wanting to know more about the end of World War Two in Europe, on May 8, 1945, I found the Imperial War Museum website a fascinating starting point, with information, links and powerful imagery on the Home Front celebrations. It can be accessed here.

I closed the first blog in this series with one of my favourite quotes on the nature of History and thought I would make it a regular feature. So here’s another observation that encapsulates so much of what I consider to be the essence of good history. Eric John’s remark, below, from his study of early England, is relevant for all periods. It cautions against too easy an assumption that an understanding of the past can come without a recourse to empathy, consideration and an awareness of context.

“If a historian does not understand the bounds of the social space within which the events he is studying occurred, all he is doing is to paint a picture of his own society in fancy dress”
– Eric John, Reassessing Anglo-Saxon England (MUP), 1996, p1

A wartime childhood in Blackburn: Interview with Richard Croasdale

Richard Croasdale, 16th January, 2020

Richard Croasdale grew up in Blackburn during the Second World War and here he shares his memories and stories of being a child during World War Two. Richard talks about what life was like in the family home, at school and playing outdoors in the local area. He remembers the end of the war, when the lights came back on, as the ‘most fantastic night of my life’.

Lest We Forget: Family History, Memorabilia, and World War II Part 1

Dr. Stephen Tate
March 2020

Welcome to the blog, Lest We Forget. As part of the WWII East Lancashire Childhoods project the blog aims to examine how family memorabilia combined with shared recollections can help foster a better understanding of the generation associated with World War Two.

A further aspect of this monthly feature will be a consideration of how historians use artefacts, the raw materials of their trade, to build a picture of past lives and societies. These can include the sort of objects some of us might come across in our own homes, from the official to the personal . . . even ephemera – material never designed to be saved or to have a lasting value, but which, by chance, carries with it a resonance of the past, an echo of other lives.

In addition, on a personal level, I want to use the blog to share my own experience of family memorabilia and World War Two. My late father, Arthur, served in the Royal Artillery as a teenager. He was taken prisoner 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, a week earlier, when, in fact, he was still 15 and six weeks short of his 16th birthday. Desperate for adventure and to join older pals who had already signed up, family lore has it that it was his second attempt to escape Civvy Street as a 15-year-old!

Dad and his parents kept what might be termed now a small ‘archive’ of objects that stand testament to his and his comrades’ ordeal. There’s a brief local newspaper cutting of him being missing in action in the confusion of the colony’s fall. A series of brief letters home from captivity. Campaign medals. Service documents. A prayer book distributed on his First Communion which survived the war years with him, within which he wrote the names of friends, fellow prisoners of war, before they became separated upon liberation and repatriation. A further prayer book dropped on his prison camp by American Air Force transport planes in August, 1945, as the business of signalling the end of hostilities in Asia, and of finding, saving, and transporting Allied prisoners of war home began in earnest. Ephemera associated with that long journey home across the Pacific, then by rail across Canada and another ocean crossing, this time the Atlantic. There are gaps in my understanding of the small collection. At times a lack of context and information that robs me of a greater understanding. And this is an issue, a pitfall, I hope this blog will develop and help others avoid in their own attempts to better appreciate  their own family’s World War Two associations.

For those of us aware of the fast-approaching VE Day 75th anniversary in May this year, there will surely be a realisation that whatever link we have with the World War Two generation is, unfortunately, fading. Many of us will have no, or very little, recollection of direct contact with family members, grandparents, perhaps, who lived through the war.

Maybe the forthcoming commemorations offer a fitting opportunity to reassess what we do know of our own family’s involvement in the war. A chance to dig out an old photograph, a newspaper cutting, letters, trinket box or ornament, a ration card, a postcard, the discarded wristwatch, a faded birth or marriage certificate, a battered and frayed favourite book of a grandparent, a commemorative coin or mug, a birthday or anniversary card, a piece of embroidery . . . Or perhaps, if we are lucky, a wartime diary, an Army pay book, certificate of service, record of discharge, a campaign medal, a souvenir of service or of a homecoming, a local newspaper obituary.

The chances of these objects’ survival are often slim, especially in our increasingly throw-away culture. They might be on the verge of that once-and-for-all domestic clear-out as the memory of their significance is finally lost or deemed too tenuous to justify house room. And if, on the last occasion, they managed to escape the clutter purge (just), what chance of their value being appreciated or hinted at for the next generation when, sadly, it’s their turn to weigh up what to keep and what to discard? It’s a common, if distressing, rite of passage. But it can be overcome and decisions made easier with a little foresight and planning.

If you are lucky enough to have material that links your family to one of the most momentous events of the Twentieth Century, then make time to write down what you know of it. Who you think it belonged to and why you think that. Jot down all you know of that person or that event and who told you about them or it. What was their relationship to the person connected with the object? What was their relationship to you? Provide as much detail as you can.

Not surprisingly, when we take time out to think about something, with a little focus and free of distractions, we often find we recall more than we originally thought possible. Perhaps there might be an opportunity to check your own impressions with those of a brother or sister, aunt or uncle, cousin, parent. Add their recollections, too. And, most importantly, keep the information and ideas you collect and jot down together with the object under consideration. Make sure they won’t become separated.

The History students I teach will confirm that a constant plea of mine when they are answering questions or planning assignments is that they add context to the topic they are considering. Nothing happens in a vacuum. A knowledge of what went before and what occurred at the time of the topic or event under review helps our understanding of it. It gives it added meaning. It helps us make sense of it. The time you take to mull over, discuss and write down your thoughts on the objects you find or rediscover, will provide your own context and help others interpret and enjoy them now and at a later date when the links in time are even more distant.

All is not lost, however, if you find yourself bereft of actual World War Two-era objects. What about a spot of oral history? Why not make time to chat to an elderly relative who has some childhood memories of the 1940s, or who can recall stories passed down to them by their own parents and elderly relatives? Saving those for posterity, either as an audio recording or as handwritten notes could be an enjoyable experience. Something for the family as a whole to combine in and enjoy. This is a particular idea I will develop further in a later blog.

By the way, as the blog develops I will be keeping an eye open for other internet sites, museum exhibitions and archive events touching on family memorabilia, World War Two remembrance and the nature of History and will, where appropriate, provide links to, and information about, them.

Rather ironically, the material I have chosen to illustrate this opening blog (above) is not from my late father’s ‘archive’. I decided to use a couple of newspaper editions acquired by me a few years ago to help provide that vital research ingredient, context. They are newspapers – the Lancashire Daily Post, December 20, 1941, and the Daily Mail of March 11, 1942 – printed as the Hong Kong garrison made its last stand, and then after a few months of troop internment. They are of their time – written in the uncompromising and bruising language of war. They were read at breakfast tables and in works canteens across Britain. They would have been read by my grandparents as they awaited news of their son, the man who would become my father. They provide a sense, however limited, of the psychological horrors they, too endured in time of war.

In later postings I will be returning to the themes raised in this opening blog, suggesting further ideas, considering how both professional historians and family enthusiasts tackle the job of recording the past. But before closing, I would like to pose a question or, if you like, set a challenge to the readers of this blog!

What’s stopping you checking what you might have in the house that provides a link with the wartime years? Why not have a root around? It’s good to talk. Start a family chat. Who knows what you might turn up, what surprises a relative might deliver up?

I’ll call an end to this first blog (hoping it has provided food for thought) with one of my favourite quotes on the nature of History. It’s by Jonathan Clark, in his book Our Shadowed Present (London: Atlantic Books), 2003, p.13. It considers the place of the past in the present. The way our lives and expectations are governed by what has gone before. You may or may not agree with the sentiment, and it took me a few readings before, I think, the concept sank home, but its eloquence is undeniable and, for me at least, it seems a fitting spur to reflection on the topic of this opening blog.  

The future is a blank, the present a fleeting moment in which we cannot stay. We live in the past, and our only choice is between alternative pasts which might supply our mental furniture. We walk backwards into an unknowable future, and what distinguishes us is only whether we are myopic or long-sighted as we do so. What makes the future recognizable as we enter it is nothing substantive in the idea of “the future” itself, which recedes continually beyond our grasp, but rather the continuities in ourselves and our contemporaries, continuities established by our historical sense. To look forward, to display foresight, to show prudence is not to penetrate the future, for the future is and must always remain to us a featureless silence; it is to reflect intelligently on the past, and to understand what lessons can and cannot be learned from it.– Jonathan Clark, Our Shadowed Present. Modernism, Postmodernism and History (London: Atlantic Books), 2003, p.13

Wartime Childhood

02nd November 2019, University Centre at Blackburn College

Children from local schools belonging to Blackburn Children’s University participated in an event to learn about childhood experiences during World War II. Staff and students from the School of Art and Society led events including a dig for victory, writing evacuee letters, singing wartime songs, making poppies, learning about rationing, experiencing an air raid shelter, and playing games.