Following its very successful exhibition on local men who became Prisoners of War in the Far East during World War Two and moving commemorative church service, Belford Museum has organised a talk for the public on the experiences of Far Eastern Prisoners of War (FEPOW) based on an oral history study of 66 of the men over five decades of their lives.
Meg Parkes of Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine spoke on the ways in which the men used their knowledge and skills for survival in the camps, with a special focus on medicine and surgery.
The Liverpool School is the oldest such institution in the world. By the time Meg began her interviews all the surviving men were in their late 80s or 90s. Her study complemented ongoing research into the medical aspects of the camps in Thailand by Professor Gill.
Many of the findings came to light for the first time as men had been ordered not to talk of their experiences for fear of upsetting their families and families had been told not to ask them, for the same reason.
Fifty thousand British men were held in captivity in the Far East for up to 3½ years, 25% died in the camps. Because the Japanese did not ratify the Geneva Convention they had no obligations to PoWs and observed a principle of “No work, no eat” resulting in sick prisoners becoming even more malnourished.
The speaker’s own father had been held prisoner in Motoyama Camp. He kept a diary and other documents which he brought home. Meg also interviewed wives and widows who up until then had remained in the shadows but had valuable experiences and insights to contribute. Among the men from the North East who were interviewed were Henry McCreath, of Berwick, Bill Brown, of Wooler and Peter Barton, of South Shields.
The psychological problems of the PoWs were considerable. Isolation, fear and a sense of hopelessness dominated. Many took risks, eg escape attempts, making secret radios and documenting. They were strictly forbidden to keep diaries and make sketches. One man, Jack Chalker, was badly beaten when he was discovered sketching in the dysentery hut.
What kept them going was a mixture of luck and friendship. There were numerous accounts of men risking their own lives to help fellow prisoners. In the camps were engineers, doctors, carpenters, plumbers, academics, artists, dentists, who all contributed their skills in order to survive.
Several amazing examples of the men’s ingenuity were given, such as producing dentures from recycled rubber and metal and carrying out blood transfusions with improvised instruments.
Malaria was the most prevalent disease, made worse by gross malnutrition. Cholera and diphtheria were also common.
Afterwards Meg signed copies of her book, Captive Memories. Fiona Renner-Thompson, chairman of the Museum committee, announced that Belford Museum would become a centre for the North and Scottish Borders for documented memories of FEPOWS. Belford has been one of the very few places in the country to commemorate these men for the 70th anniversary of liberation.