August 1945. The month began with the world witnessing for the first time the frighteningly destructive power of the atomic bomb, as the USA dropped Little Boy and Fat Man on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The month ended with the unconditional surrender of Japan due to the devastation caused by the bombs.
Although the Nazis’ treatment of Jews and other “undesirables” in Germany and the occupied countries was horrific, they almost always adhered to the Geneva Convention guidelines when it came to dealing with POWs. The same cannot be said for the Japanese, who signed the 1929 convention but never ratified it, and whose management of POWs has been one of the darkest chapters of the War. Eric Lomax’s autobiographical The Railway Man is a powerful look at both the condition of the POWs under the Japanese and its effect on those who survived.
Born in 1919 to stolid English folk – his father worked for the Post Office while his mother was a homemaker – Eric’s childhood was one of relative ease. Born, as he called it, on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, he grew up fascinated with trams first and then steam locomotives of all kinds. At the time, the British railways were run by private institutions, and every region had their own types and makes of steam locomotives that were as famous among the trainspotters of the time as luxury cars are today. Eric too, grew up being an avid trainspotter, cycling for miles on his free days to get a glimpse of the exotic engines and exchange notes with his fellow enthusiasts. He also grew up fascinated with radios, a hobby that was to prove pivotal in his later days.
With schooling almost over, Eric’s father arranged for him to appear for the Civil Services examination, a must for working with the Post Office. While Eric didn’t have any particular liking for the career chosen for him, he didn’t have any plans of his own either and so he treated it as a way of earning money while financing his trainspotting hobby. During one of these trips, he met a fellow enthusiast who was also an evangelist for an ultra-orthodox church. Something about it drew Eric in, and along with trainspotting the services he attended became the fixed points of his weekends.
He was thus comfortably ensconced in his suburban life when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 and World War 2 began. As France and England in turn declared war on Germany, Eric along with many other young men enlisted in the army. Eric however, after seeing the drudgery of the common soldier, opted for Officers training followed by radio school, and was thus spared being shipped to Dunkirk and experiencing the ensuing disaster that occurred. As the English army licked its wounds and debated their next move, Eric was stationed on the mainland itself, able to continue meeting his parents and his fiancé, a girl he met in his new church.
When his marching orders did arrive, Eric was surprised by the destination; not Europe as he was thinking, but India. Sent at first to the northwestern frontier in present day Afghanistan, his unit was then transferred to Singapore when it became clear that there was no fear of the Germans arriving from the west. Eric’s unit was to take part in the defense of the coastal colony, protecting the airfield outside of Singapore. Accessible only by a single outdated ferry through miles of thick jungle, it was a location extremely difficult to both defend and retreat from. It was this location where Eric found himself on the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbour.
Within weeks, Singapore itself was under attack. Eric’s unit first protected the airfield, and when that ceased to be an objective, retreated with the Japanese at their heels. They ended up in Singapore, trying to hold out against the enemy, and he was among the survivors who finally surrendered on 15th February 1942. Ushered into the POW camp in Changi, they were generally left to fend for themselves while the Japanese took control of the city and exacted vengeance against its Chinese citizens. While initially happy about being left alone, the POWs soon found out that there were plans being made for them too.
To facilitate easy transport of troops and materiel towards their ever-moving front line, the Japanese were building the Siam-Burma Railway, and the captured POWs were a handy source of manual labour. Crammed into unventilated boxcars and shuttled to Kanburi, Thailand where the railway line began, the POWs were made to work for sixteen to eighteen hours a day with crude tools and below subsistence-level food; the Japanese rationale was that if one POW died, it could always be replaced with another. It was a natural thought process for them, since they looked upon surrender as a worse dishonour than death, and that by doing so the POWs had forfeited all rights to be treated as human beings.
Eric was one of the luckier ones; he and some other officers and troops who had knowledge of machinery were confined to the repair yard instead of being sent out to work on the tracks. As the old, worn-out parts of trains and equipment were brought to the yard, it was their responsibility to get it working again. They were also able to scrounge around for additional food rations, since they were allowed to go to the civilian area next to the camp to purchase food in bulk. The Japanese seldom bothered beyond a perfunctory guard; even if a prisoner escaped the camp, there was nothing around but miles of jungle and inhospitable terrain.
Eric writes here of the ways the officers tried to keep morale up among the troops. Debating societies, book clubs, prayer services all were started and run to keep the minds of the people occupied; there was little they could do about their bodies, however. With the scraps they salvaged from the repair yard, some of the more dexterous officers built a rudimentary radio, capable of receiving broadcasts from All India Radio, and they shared news of the War among the POWs. Eric found his own way of coping with the imprisonment; drawing a map of the railway by hand – which he naturally took precautions to hide from his captors – and painstakingly filling in details of the surrounding terrain and the progress of the railway.
Although Eric never managed to discover how, the Japanese became aware of the presence of the radio in the camp. A thorough search unearthed them, and the paranoid Japanese believed it to be confirmation of the existence of an underground resistance cell. The officers’ repeated insistence that the radios could only receive and not transmit was brushed away and they were taken away at gunpoint to the local Kempetai barracks for further interrogation. Eric, at the last minute, hid his undiscovered map in his belongings to take with him.
It was here at the Kempetai garrison that Eric’s true ordeal began. On arrival, all the officers were forced to stand at attention outside the commandant’s office in the intense tropical heat for an entire day, without respite or even water to drink. When night fell, they were brutally assaulted by a bunch of drunk NCOs, who used clubs, sticks, and boots to beat them unconscious. Eric was the only one in the group who suffered broken hands, but by no means was he the most grievously injured; by the next morning, two of their number had succumbed to the beating. The rest of them were made to walk from where they lay to the doctor’s barracks, who had orders to heal them enough to withstand interrogation.
The doctor, a Korean prisoner, did the best he could to prolong their stay in the hospital, to give them more time to heal than they had. Once the Japanese thought enough time had passed, though, they simply had the prisoners moved to their cells – a small wire cage, barely large enough to fully stand or stretch out in. Meals were pushed in twice a day, never in adequate quantities. While they waited here to be questioned, it seemed the Kempetai were in no hurry, letting them sit in the cages in their own filth and ever-growing hunger; unknown to them, the psychological attack had already begun.
After almost a couple weeks of this, they were taken from the cages, ordered to wash up, and then the interrogation began. They were always questioned separately, and the Kempetai tried to play them off against one another, telling them the others had already confessed to the crime of running an underground resistance, and that they should do the same; none of them did, however. Eric’s interrogation was longer and more vigorous than the others because the guards had discovered the map he had hidden in his belongings. It further strengthened their suspicions about the resistance, and his explanations of having done it because of his trainspotting hobby were met with disbelief.
In later years, too, Eric remembered the interrogation vividly. He especially remembered the translator for the Kempetai, a small, slight looking Japanese who repeated the questions posed by the burly questioner in a blank monotone and conveyed his answers in the same voice. For Eric, the man’s disassociation with his surroundings and his dispassionate nature was somehow more frightening and loathsome than the emotional Kempetai, who would shout and scream the questions, but which only reached Eric through the expressionless translator. Even when he was waterboarded to coerce a confession, it was that toneless voice that terrified him more than the torture.
The interrogation went on for days, and at the end of it, the officers were loaded onto a train and sent to Bangkok, to face trial as war criminals. The trail itself was a show, with the proceedings being conducted completely in Japanese and the defendants not being allowed to speak in their defense. They were all sentenced to twenty years imprisonment for “conspiring against the Empire”. They learnt later that it could have easily been the death penalty instead, had the Kempetai procured any proof of resistance activities. To serve their sentences, they were once again loaded onto a train that brought them back full circle to where they began from – Singapore.
The destination this time wasn’t the Changi POW camp, but the Outram Road Gaol on the other side of the city. Constructed by the British before the war, it was a stark, foreboding edifice, made more terrifying by the strict rules enforced by the Japanese. The prisoners were put two in a cell and forbidden from speaking either with each other or with their guards. They were allowed out of their cells only for an hour each day, and even then, speaking was not allowed. The food, as usual, was below starvation level. The unhygienic conditions made sickness prevalent. Eric credits his having survived for as long as he did to the indefatigable spirits of his fellow prisoner officer, who kept them both going no matter what.
During this incarceration, Eric discovered how powerful a weapon silence could be. Not being allowed to speak effectively cut them off from anything that was happening outside their walls, and they had no news of the war. They weren’t even allowed books or writing material. Even when they eventually learnt to speak almost noiselessly and calculate the guards’ movements, it was never enough, and many of the prisoners simply lost their will to live in that place. Eric discovered that if one was seriously injured or fell sick beyond hope of recovery, they were sent to the Changi POW camp, where there was a hospital set up by the POWs. It became his goal to reach there by any means, since he was sure that any more time spent in these confines would see him dead or worse, reduced to madness.
After weeks of meticulous planning, his efforts bore fruit, and he was transferred to Changi, at the brink of death. Once there, the mere fact that he could speak again without being reprimanded, could read and write again and feel human again was enough to bring him back to life. It was a short-lived reprieve, as the Japanese made periodic checks of the hospital and moved anyone well enough back to Outram to resume their sentences. Eric was shielded for as long as possible by the Australian POW doctor but was eventually forced to return.
This time, Eric was determined enough to get out again that he broke his own leg within days of his return. He was thus recuperating in the hospital when the news of the atomic bombs and Japan’s capitulation reached them. As the Japanese running the camp surrendered themselves to their prisoners, the war was over for Eric, but his personal battle was just beginning. He and his fellow inmates were given time to physically heal, and then taken to India where the units were being organized for demobilization. Here, he had his first experience of being considered as lesser than the fighting soldier since he spent the majority of the was as a POW. It was a rude awakening.
Returning home, he expected to pick up the threads of his life as he had left them, but it was not to be. He found out that his mother had died within months of receiving news of his being MIA, and his father had remarried, something he was never able to come to terms with. His fiancé was still waiting for him, but while her world seemed to have frozen in the same frame as it was before the War, Eric was no longer the person he had been. Though physically back to a semblance of health, there were mental scars that were impossible to see and even more difficult to heal.
He found himself more and more averse to confrontations, preferring to walk away from them or quietly acquiesce without resistance. It was a carryover from his days as a prisoner where obedience was expected, and disobedience punished. His default response to any perceived threat became shutting down to protect himself. Eric married his fiancé, but it was a marriage built on flimsy foundations; his survivor’s guilt, PTSD, abused victim mentality combined with his wife’s inability to communicate with or understand him made it a paper relationship. He buried himself in his work, trying to lose himself in the organized labyrinth of the Overseas Civil Services. But while performing his duties well, there too was a barrier he raised between himself and his peers.
Over the years, his anger towards his captors never diminished, and seemed to find a focal point in the nameless translator who he remembered even now with astonishing clarity. Post the war, Eric had typed and submitted an after-action report detailing the torture at the hands of the Kempetai and their murder of the two officers, and it had been one of the pieces of evidence that resulted in the conviction of those officers, but the translator himself seemed to have been released without charges. His obsession built to the point of him trying every means possible to find him.
By this time, into the 1980s, he had separated from his wife. A happenstance meeting with Patti, a Canadian whose brother had died in the war and who had an idea of what he was going through led to him marrying again, though it was not easy the second time either. It was still hard for him to open up to another person, but Patti got through to him enough to encourage him to seek counselling. His search for someone who could help him through his trauma brought him into contact with Helen Bamber, the director of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, and for the first time in years met someone empathetic to his experiences and able to help him come to terms with them.
Sessions with Helen helped Eric achieve partial catharsis, but it could never be complete until he faced his erstwhile captors, something he had avoided ardently since after the War. During his earlier investigations about the Siam-Burma railway, he had been told of a Japanese POW by the name of Takashi Nagase who could speak English, and who had helped the party searching for the bodies of the civilians and soldiers who perished while building the railway. Takashi had been genuinely remorseful of his actions and was now an activist who promoted post-war reconciliation and spoke out against Japanese militarism. Once, during the course of his sessions with Helen, Eric visited one of his POW friends, and at his place found a photo of Takashi; it was the same interpreter who had been present at his interrogations.
It was a watershed moment; should he write to Takashi and reveal himself as the person whose torture he was complicit in, or avoid the confrontation as he had done till now? Helen was of the opinion that meeting with Takashi was the only way he could exorcise his demons fully, but Eric kept procrastinating. In the end, it was Patti who wrote to Takashi, introducing them and mentioning their shared history, and then letting her husband know what she had done. Takashi’s reply, when it came, was not at all what Eric had expected. The former Japanese soldier instantly recognized him, and his letter was a fervent plea for forgiveness.
Takashi begged Eric to meet him at Kanburi camp where he and his fellow officers had been imprisoned; through years of efforts, Takashi had built a Buddhist temple and memorial to all the POWs and civilians who died, and it was at the very site that he wished to seek forgiveness from Eric. Both men were now into their eighties, and Eric understood either one of them could be gone soon, without having met or given each other the resolution they desired. Procuring the funds to travel was a problem though, one that was again solved through Helen. A news channel interested in Helen’s work offered to sponsor the travel and the meeting, and in 1993, Eric finally decided to travel back to where it all started for him.
Arriving at Kanburi, Eric had mixed feelings about the fact that there remained hardly any traces of it; it was now a small hamlet populated by the locals. He could, however, still see the beginning of the railway, the now infamous bridge, and the memorial created by Takashi on the other side of the river where they were to meet the next day. Eric and Patti stayed in the only hotel in the place, whose proprietor knew Takashi and was an active supporter of his work. The next day, both Eric and Patti awoke early and headed over to the memorial. A simple structure, it housed artifacts discovered along the railway line, as well as photographs and details of some of the people who had perished there. And, like a steady hand of support from the past, the courtyard exhibited a steam locomotive used by the Japanese when the line was fully operational.
When they finally met, the former POW and the frail Japanese interpreter, it was the moment for both of them to begin healing again. Takashi had never forgotten Eric, and tearfully asked for his forgiveness for what he and his countrymen had done to him. It was a day spent in halting reminisces, small advances in conversations and the starting of letting go of everything the two men had carried with them for more than fifty years. They spoke of Eric’s torture, of the futility of building the railway – of which only a third now remained operational – and though Eric was not yet ready to grant the forgiveness Takashi so desperately sought, Takashi realized and respected that. At the end of the week, they no longer looked upon each other as enemies; the rift was closing slowly but surely.
From Thailand, Eric travelled to Japan next, his first ever visit to the country. Takashi and his wife treated them as honoured guests, and after a long time Eric was able to see the Japanese people without hatred or animosity. Visits to the Nagases’ house were followed by more somber ones to Hiroshima, where Eric and Patti paid their respects to the Japanese dead, something he would have never suspected himself of doing till now. And at the end of his visit, reading out a long, heartfelt letter, Eric gave Takashi the forgiveness he had been seeking; it was an action that gave both the closure they searched for, and they departed as friends, staying in touch with each other for the rest of their lives.
The Railway Man, while not unique in terms of the writer’s experiences, is nonetheless one of the most articulate and expansive personal accounts of the events that unfolded once the Japanese conquered the Allied colonies in the Far East. It is a tribute to Eric’s habit of meticulously recording everything, first as a trainspotter and then as part of his job at the Post Office that undoubtedly helped him remember and write about it with remarkable accuracy. His chronicling of the prison life, of the attitude of some of his own countrymen towards the repatriated POWs, and of the gut wrenching physical and mental manifestations of his treatment at the hands of the Kempetai all bring the book to vivid life.
Equally vivid is the description of the split in Japanese society, where even today many war crimes have been unaccounted for, and a faction of the population still believes Japan to be the victim of American aggression instead of the other way round. Some of the places Eric speaks of, like the Yasukini shrine in Tokyo, have become centerpieces of the rising imperialism and extreme nationalism in the country. It is a split that is as prevalent now as it was when Takashi and Eric met in 1993.
In the end, though, the book isn’t about war crimes or bringing those guilty to justice. While giving it its due importance, Eric focuses more on the process of healing, of being able to forgive and let go which is important both for the victim and the perpetrator willing to show remorse. As he tells Patti when they were standing in front of the graves of all the POWs, “Sometime the hating has to stop”.