Military history


The Railway Man

The British and American opponents of the Japanese fought with the resolution they did because they knew the consequences of falling captive into that enemy’s hands. During the 1930s, when the Japanese government fell progressively into the hands of ultra-nationalist military officers, recruits to the Japanese armed forces were subjected in training to a regime of deliberate brutalization. They were taught that to surrender to the enemy was worse than death and that prisoners taken from the enemy had, reciprocally, surrendered all right to humane and honourable treatment. Eric Lomax describes the consequences of falling into Japanese hands.


The guards conducted the five of us to the main guardroom where we were brusquely ordered to stand to attention, a few feet in front of the building and well away from any shade or protection from the sun. The guardroom was a flimsy three-sided wood and thatch structure, open in the front, with a table across the gap. A guard stood at attention on the side nearest the camp entrance; a few more were seated behind the table. Among them was a large, fat and rather elegantly dressed white-haired man, who now proceeded to address us in fluent American English. He ordered us forward. His attitude was aggressive, sneering and hostile as he checked our identities, making contemptuous references to Western duplicity and cowardice throughout the short procedure.

He ordered us back into the sun. There we stood beside a long ditch, neatly spaced like five telegraph poles along a road. The time was ten o’clock in the morning.

The morning and afternoon dragged on, every minute almost an hour. When you are forced to stand stiffly to attention in a blazing hot sun you have nothing to do but think; yet thought is a process that should be directed by the will, and under extreme stress thoughts spin away on their own, racing faster and faster like a machine out of control, one that has lost the touch of a human hand.

There was nothing we could do about it now: we stood there, knowing it was coming. The wretched little guardroom was no bigger than a domestic living room, and the few guards sprawling inside it or on guard behind us controlled the lives of several hundred men. So few to hold so many.

We stood for twelve hours with our backs to that hut. The nerves and flesh of the back become terribly sensitive and vulnerable when turned to an enemy. At any moment I expected to feel a rifle-butt on my spine, a bayonet thrust between my shoulder-blades. All we heard was their talk, their occasional rough laughter.

The intense heat of the sun, the irritation of flies and mosquitoes feeding on sweat, itching skin, the painful contraction of eyes against the light and even the fear of violent death had been superseded, by the evening, by the even more powerful sensation of a burning thirst. They gave us nothing to drink, all day, but they allowed us occasionally to go to the latrine. On one of these visits I regretfully disposed of my diary. The flimsy pages covered with neat notes on books, on grammar, on lists of collectable stamps fluttered into the stinking trench.

As dusk fell the five of us were moved into a closer and more compact group in front of the guardroom. The darkness came on with singular abruptness. We were lit by a weak light from behind us in the guardroom. A time signal was heard as a noisy party of Japanese and Koreans approached through the dark from the direction of the camp offices. They looked like NCOs, their uniforms dishevelled, one or two of them unsteady on their feet. All of them carried pick-helves. They stopped to talk to the guards, as though exchanging ideas about what to do with us.

Major Smith was called out in front of our line, and told to raise his arms right up over his head. His tall, gaunt figure, his thin arms held out like a scarecrow’s, looked terribly weak and pitiful. He stood there on the edge of the circle of light. I thought for a moment — a last gasp of hope — that this was the beginning of an advanced form of their endless standing to attention. A hefty Japanese sergeant moved into position, lifted his pick-handle, and delivered a blow across Smith’s back that would have laid out a bull. It knocked him down, but he was trodden on and kicked back into an upright position. The same guard hit him again, hard. All the thugs now set to in earnest. Soon little could be seen but the rise and fall of pick-helves above the heads of the group and there were sickening thuds as blows went home on the squirming, kicking body, periodically pulled back on to its feet only to be knocked down again. Bill Smith cried out repeatedly that he was fifty years of age, appealing for mercy, but to no avail. The group of attackers seemed to move in concert with their crawling, bloodied victim into the darkness beyond the range of the miserable lighting from the guardroom, but the noises of wood on flesh continued to reach us from the dark of the parade ground.

They were using pickaxe-shafts: like solid, British Army-issue handles, and perhaps that is indeed what they were. The guards behind us did not move. There was no expectation that we ourselves would move, intervene, run away: merely the slack, contemptuous knowledge that we were trapped. That first blow: like a labourer getting into the rhythm of his job, then the others joining in, a confused percussive crescendo of slaps and thuds on flesh and bone. They kept kicking him, getting him up, putting him down — until he stopped moving altogether, unconscious or dead, I could not tell. Nor could I tell how long it all took. How does one measure such time? Blows had replaced the normal empty seconds of time passing, but I think it took about forty minutes to get him to lie still.

The gang came back out of the night. My special friend Morton Mackay was called forward. I was next in line. As they started on Mackay and the rain of fearful blows commenced I saw to the side another group of guards pushing a stumbling and shattered figure back towards the guardhouse. Smith was still alive; he was allowed to drop in a heap in the ditch beside the entrance.

Mackay went down roaring like a lion, only to be kicked up again; within a matter of minutes he was driven into the semi-darkness and out of the range of the lights, surrounded bv the flailing pick-helves which rose and fell ceaselessly. I remember thinking that in the bad light they looked like the blades of a windmill, so relentless was their action. In due course Mackay’s body was dragged along and dumped beside Smith’s in the ditch.

The moments while I was waiting my turn were the worst of my life. The expectation is indescribable; a childhood story of Protestant martyrs watching friends die in agony on the rack flashed through my mind. To have to witness the torture of others and to see the preparations for the attack on one’s own body is a punishment in itself, especially when there is no escape. This experience is the beginning of a form of insanity.

Then me. It must have been about midnight. I took off my spectacles and my watch carefully, turned and laid them down on the table behind me in the guardroom. It was almost as if I was preparing to go into a swimming-pool, so careful was the gesture of folding them and laying them down. I must have had to take a couple of steps backward to perform this neat unconscious manoeuvre. None of the guards made a move or said a word. Perhaps they were too surprised.

I was called forward. I stood to attention. They stood facing me, breathing heavily. There was a pause. It seemed to drag on for minutes. Then I went down with a blow that shook every bone, and which released a sensation of scorching liquid pain which seared through my entire body. Sudden blows struck me all over. I felt myself plunging downwards into an abyss with tremendous flashes of solid light which burned and agonized. I could identify the periodic stamping of boots on the back of my head, crunching my face into the gravel; the crack of bones snapping; my teeth breaking; and my own involuntary attempts to respond to deep vicious kicks and to regain an upright position, only to be thrown to the ground once more.

At one point I realized that my hips were being damaged and I remember looking up and seeing the pick-helves coming down towards my hips, and putting my arms in the way to deflect the blows. This seemed only to focus the clubs on my arms and hands. I remember the actual blow that broke my wrist. It fell right across it, with a terrible pain of delicate bones being crushed. Yet the worst pain came from the pounding on my pelvic bones and the base of my spine. I think they tried to smash my hips. My whole trunk was brutally defined for me, like having my skeleton etched out in pain.

It went on and on. I could not measure the time it took. There are some things that you cannot measure in time, and this is one of them. Absurdly, the comparison that often comes to my mind is that torture was indeed like an awful job interview: it compresses time strangely, and at the end of it you cannot tell whether it has lasted five minutes or an hour.

I do know that I thought I was dying. I have never forgotten, from that moment onwards, crying out ‘Jesus’, crying out for help, the utter despair of helplessness. I rolled into a deep ditch of foul stagnant water which, in the second or two before consciousness was finally extinguished, flowed over me with the freshness of a pure and sweet spring.

I awoke and found myself standing on my feet. I do not recall crawling out of that ditch but the sun was already up. I was an erect mass of pain, of bloody contusions and damaged bones, the sun playing harshly on inflamed nerves. Smith and Slater were lying on the ground beside me, blackened, covered in blood and barely conscious. Mac and Knight were in a like state a few yards further away. We were only a few feet from the guardroom, close to the point where we had been standing the previous night. Slater was nearly naked; a pair of shorts and some torn clothing lay on the ground behind him, mudstained and bloodstained.

The guards simply ignored us. They stood in front of a barely moving, battered pile of human beings under the fierce sun and acted as though we were not there.

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