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
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 grandfathers.
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 Mansells 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
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. Rods 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 fathers 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 Davids 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 everyones 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 years conference as well as hearing
updates on research undertaken over the next two years.