Researching FEPOW (Far Eastern POW) History Conference


Researching FEPOW (Far Eastern POW) History Conference
National Memorial Arboretum, Alrewas, Staffordshire, UK
29th and 30th April 2006

FINAL REPORT - June 2006 by Meg Parkes and Jonathan Moffett

The impetus to stage a conference to examine FEPOW history and research came from Meg and Mike Parkes in September 2005, shortly after they had attended the official opening of the FEPOW Memorial building at Alrewas. They felt that something should be done to promote the fact that there was now a national centre dedicated to telling the FEPOW story. The fact that over 3,500 people, young and old, including many FEPOW and their relatives, attended the dedication of the building on 15 August seemed proof enough that there was a great interest in learning more about the subject. They approached Jonathan Moffatt and Julie Summers who were immediately enthusiastic. All were agreed that the FEPOW story had dominated very many lives since the war and the effect on families of FEPOW is still being felt. The time was right to try and bring together amateur and academic historians to learn more and to share information.

The inaugural Researching FEPOW History Conference brought together for the first time experts in the field of FEPOW research and family historians, many of whom have only just begun to seek answers to questions about parents, uncles and grandfather’s. The group anticipated around 65 paying delegates and half a dozen or so former prisoners of war but in the end the interest was so great that the conference numbered 120 people on both days, including 12 FEPOW. Delegates travelled from the USA, Holland and Thailand, as well as from all over the UK. It was an extraordinary meeting of like-minded people and the generosity of those who had information to impart and share was moving and impressive.

Speakers with expertise in all aspects of the FEPOW story were invited in order to make the conference as broad as possible. Roger Mansell from California, Director of one of the US Center for FEPOW Research, one of the largest US-based websites, was the first speaker to agree, by return of email, to attend. His expertise on the Guam POW is second to none yet his research has extended far beyond that and his generosity with his material was quite extraordinary. His talk on Sunday morning was gripping. He explained about the origins of his interest in the subject and then spoke at length, wittily and at times movingly about the way he has gathered the enormous amount of material which is present on his website.

Either side of Roger Mansell’s presentation delegates enjoyed two excellent talks from UK-based archivists. On the first day Roderick Suddaby, Keeper of the Department of Documents at the Imperial War Museum in London, explained to delegates how the collection had grown, mostly over the last three decades, and how almost weekly he was in receipt of new material that was coming from family collections. This comprised papers, photographs, diaries and memoirs. He is of the opinion that there is probably almost as much material still in private hands in the UK and around the world as there is in libraries, museums and other institutions.

Later on Alan Bowgen of the National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) at Kew gave us an insight into the way the National Archives function and gave delegates a picture of the extent of the material held a Kew. His expertise is not limited to the Far East but to POW in Europe from both world wars. He told delegates that only about 5% of what is calculated to have existed in documentary form is ever kept for posterity. This applies to the present as well as the past and gave many pause for thought.

Former US Merchant Marine, Captain George Duffy, 84, travelled from New Hampshire, USA to share his exhaustive research into the ships that carried POW to and from prison camps in South East Asia. He had been taken prisoner in September 1942. George was accompanied to the conference by his 17-year-old granddaughter, emphasising the link between past and present. See his website which includes a roster of Merchant Marine POWs of the Japanese.

Julie Summers gave a lecture about the research she undertook for The Colonel of Tamarkan her biography of her grandfather Brigadier Philip Toosey. Relying heavily on the magnificent collections in the Imperial War Museum and the National Archives she explained to delegates how she had balanced this with material garnered from letters, photograph albums and documents held by the family.

The final lecture of conference was given by Rod Beattie of the Thailand Burma Railway Centre. Rod’s participation was sponsored by Thai Airlines who arranged to fly him over to UK. He has worked for the past 12 years on uncovering the archaeology and history of the railway in Thailand. He outlined for the delegates the nature of his work which has included clearing, more or less single-handedly, the trace of the 1942-5 railway from Bangkok to Moulmein. Much of course is now lost and a good section of the railway is sunk beneath a great reservoir on the upper reaches of the Khwae Noi but this did not put him off. During a dry spell a few years ago the level of the reservoir dropped significantly and Rod was able to find the track bed and plot its route on his original and unique map. What was particularly moving for delegates was the care with which he undertakes his work and the deductions he has made as a result of the archaeology he has carried out. He has uncovered the places of many of the former POW camps and burial sites and the finds he has made in these areas has allowed him to build up a very clear picture of certain events that were known to have taken place during the war.

All of this material Rod has brought together into a museum at Kanchanaburi on a site overlooking the beautiful Commonwealth War cemetery. It is one of the most impressive museums on this subject and Rod was able to explain to delegates how he developed the story of the railway using both FEPOW information and Japanese accounts so that as neutral a picture of the construction of the railway as is possible is given.

In addition to the main lectures Jonathan Moffatt put together a programme of workshops which allowed people with specific interests to hear about certain areas of research. Dr Nigel Stanley spoke about researching medical aspects of captivity in the Far East and the detailed knowledge he has gained of tropical disease as well as of medical procedures carried out in the camps is enormous. He explained about the diseases suffered by many of the prisoners and of the work undertaken by the doctors in extreme conditions and included graphic illustrations of tropical ulcers. Pieter Tesch, a Dutchman whose father was a prisoner of the Japanese, spoke about the Dutch FEPOW experience and Paul Riches talked about the Malayan Campaign and Malayan Volunteer medals research he has been working on. Meg Parkes led a workshop entitled FEPOW Diary and Family Research in which she discussed her research into her father’s life in a prison in Java using his extensive archive of artefacts. This was particularly interesting to delegates who were interested in following up their own research. Jonathan Moffatt spoke about the researching the experiences of British Malayans 1941-1945, which is an area of great interest to families of those whose parents spent time in the Far East both before and during the War. David Tett gave a fascinating paper about FEPOW postal history, a subject he has been working on for many years. Little is known about how communication worked from FEPOWs to their families during captivity but David’s wide experience has led him to publish two volumes on the subject. A further workshop was held with Fergus Anckorn, a FEPOW in Thailand and a camp entertainer. He showed a variety of material including his Jap-Happy and a bracelet that was made for him by a Dutchman. Fergus was the youngest member of the Magic Circle pre-war and is today the oldest honorary member, quite a feat! He is still as good at magic as he ever was and treated the small group of delegates to some card tricks, which went down very well indeed.

Mike Parkes organised and ran the bookstall to which delegates and speakers alike could bring books and publications for sale. In addition there were a number of second-hand books which were readily snapped up to everyone’s satisfaction. The notice boards and tables around the conference hall were very quickly filled with a wide variety of material brought along by delegates and speakers. Such was the demand that use of the space was rotated over the two days to permit all exhibits to be given an airing.

In conclusion, the most important message to come out of the conference was that the time was indeed right for such a gathering. In researching history all the facts and figures collected together and shared only really make sense when one remembers that behind each statistic are real people. It was clear from beginning to end, that the pursuit of understanding as to what went on in the POW camps in the Far East is only just beginning to blossom.

There was an immediate and unconditional ‘Yes’ from delegates when asked if they wanted a further conference to be arranged and staged in the spring of 2008. The organisers will be seeking speakers of international standing to address the second conference and hope to cover areas of research that were not addressed in this year’s conference as well as hearing updates on research undertaken over the next two years.