Sibylla Jane-Flower

Bad presentation of a good cause

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Surviving the Sword: Prisoners of the Japanese, 1942-45

Brian MacArthur

Time Warner, pp. 512, £

Brian MacArthur’s credits as an author include three Penguin anthologies and a tribute to Princess Diana. He embarked on the emotive and complex subject of prisoners of war of the Japanese in 2002 and had completed his text with the help of three research assistants by the beginning of May 2004.

MacArthur’s aim is ‘to speak in the voices of the Fepows [sic] themselves’ and his source material includes more than 150 unpublished diaries. The quotations are linked by MacArthur’s commentaries on Changi military camp, the Thailand-Burma Railway, the ‘Hellships’, the prisoners in Japan, Haruku and Sandakan, and subjects such as food, religion, medicine, black markeeters and clandestine radios. The behaviour of the officer class in captivity is considered in detail in a chapter headed ‘Officers and Gentlemen’.

The first surprise is the subtitle of this book where MacArthur provides a date-range of 1942-45 for his subject rather than the usual (and historically correct) 1941-45. MacArthur does not explain why he mentions only in passing the first significant number of Allied servicemen (British and Canadian) to fall into Japanese hands with the surrender of Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941. Perhaps the introduction provides a clue. MacArthur writes, ‘As Japan’s army conquered the Far East [sic] in 1941 and 1942, prisoners were taken in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaya…’ — the order suggesting incorrectly that Malaya and Hong Kong were conquered after the surrender of Singapore.

MacArthur’s failure to check and evaluate his sources leads him to make statements which are manifestly false. In his appraisal of the 7,000 Australian and British prisoners who comprised ‘F Force’ which left Singapore for Thailand in April 1943, he considers the question of the death rate, which was far higher among British prisoners than among Australian. This he attributes correctly to the fact that people from disparate units survived less well than men from a cohesive force, but his comment that ‘the British had simply selected the required number of men without bothering about units’ implies a certain organisational callousness. This is unfair: it was impressed upon them by the Japanese. Furthermore, he suggests that the inclusion by the Australians of only 150 sick prisoners in this force (compared with 1,000 by the British) was somehow related to the Australians being ‘more suspicious of their host’s intentions’. Perhaps it is inevitable in a work that owes much to the influence of Australian popular journalism that such ‘Pom-bashing’ is recycled.

MacArthur’s lack of familiarity with military lore is evident from his text. Careless mistakes over ranks, units and decorations abound. J. S. Ullman is variously described as a lance-corporal and a captain; Ronald Searle’s rank is given as ‘signaller’ ( he was a sapper); the initials ‘AIF’ in the list of abbreviations is rendered as ‘Australian Infantry Force’ (in fact, the Australian Imperial Force was that country’s significant contribution to winning two world wars) ; we are informed of the presence in Thailand of an ‘18th Indian Division’ (it was British) and a ‘2nd Cambridgeshire Regiment’; members of the Indian National Army are described as ‘the Free Indian troops’ or ‘the renegade Free Indians’; and we hear of ‘British Malay officers’ — to identify only a handful of solecisms.

A moment’s inspection of the website devoted to the George Cross would have revealed that a decoration instituted to recognise acts of heroism by members of the Commonwealth was unlikely to have been awarded to a Thai merchant who aided the prisoners. The nominal roll would have confirmed this suspicion. Yet MacArthur awards a GC to this merchant, Boon Pong (in fact he was awarded the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom), and, furthermore, places him in the Free Thai Army, which he wasn’t. On the other hand the gallant Captain L.C. Matthews who was executed by the Japanese in Borneo did receive the GC (not, as in MacArthur’s text, the Military Cross).

It is regrettable that the Japanese and Koreans who appear in the text conform only to popular stereotypes and no attempt has been made to characterise them. (MacArthur’s comment that the Koreans showed ‘some respect for rank’ is unsustainable.)

MacArthur is apparently unable to accept that the structure of army life with its hierarchy and strict adherence to military law provided a framework in the camps without which anarchy soon descended. He quotes from the writings of officers and others (many new to service life) who despised the military system. By this means he is able to pour scorn on Lieutenant General Percival’s decision to retain the staff officers of Malaya Command in an attempt to bring order to a camp of up to 50,000 surrendered personnel, and even to question the sounding of reveille and retreat.

The information he gives about the perceived failings and self-interest of the officers is too biased to enable the reader to make an informed judgment. He begrudges them any concessions, but fails to make the significant point that the Japanese made better provision for the captive officers than for the other ranks. He neither discusses the problems faced by officers in commands of POWs’ camps containing up to 10,000 men nor considers the responsibilities borne by the warrant officers and NCOs, the backbone of any army, whose role in the administration of the camps was crucial.

MacArthur concludes his diatribe against the officer class as follows:

Officers did not have to believe in the principles of socialism to be good — though the behaviour of the ‘I’m all right, Jack’ officers as symbols of their class was undoubtedly a significant factor in the victory of Attlee’s Labour party in 1945.

The relevance of this statement to the Far Eastern prisoners of war is unexplained. As voting took place in the United Kingdom in early July 1945, some two months before the formal capitulation of the Japanese forces, the prisoners had no influence on the result.

That their voices are heard loud and clear above such tosh is the sole redeeming feature of this book.