Dr. Stephen Tate
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