Held prisoner by the past

Henry McCreath feels the suffering of Far Eastern POWs hasn't been recognised, even at home. He tells his story to John Crace
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"You could sense when someone was going to die - you could see it in their eyes. The men knew it, too, and more often than not they were so ill or badly beaten that they wanted to die. We were lucky: we were allowed to bury our dead. In other camps, bodies were either left by the side of the railway track or thrown down the latrines."

Lucky isn't the first word that comes to mind when listening to Henry McCreath talk about life as a Japanese prisoner of war, and yet it's one that crops up with surprising regularity in his conversation. When thousands of your comrades have died in such desperate conditions and you've survived the beatings, the countless bouts of malaria and dysentery, and being starved down to six stone, then lucky is how you feel. But with the luck comes a sense of guilt. Mr McCreath still worries that he might have done more for his men, even though he knows that he did everything he could. Fifty years after the release of the Far Eastern Prisoners of War (FEPoWs) the torture goes on. Whether or not Japan ever makes an unequivocal apology for its wartime cruelty, some of its former prisoners feel their suffering and their achievements have never been fully recognised, even at home.

Mr McCreath lives in a comfortable house overlooking the Tweed in Berwick, just a few hundred yards from where he was born in 1915. On leaving school, he started working for the family grain business, fully expecting it to be a job for life. Along with many of his friends, he responded to the national call to double the strength of the Territorial Army in 1938 by signing up, and when war broke out he became a junior officer in the 9th Battalion of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. The battalion served with distinction in France before being evacuated from Dunkirk, and was on its way to the Middle East when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. It was then hurriedly re-routed to bolster the defences of Singapore, and arrived with the campaign already as good as lost on the 6 February 1942, just a week before the capitulation.

"We got the call to surrender over the radio at 4pm on the Sunday. We were told to lay down our weapons and wait by the side of the road. Many of us just sat down and cried." At first, the FEPoWs were sent to a holding camp. As the Japanese became more organised they began to arrange working parties, and Mr McCreath and 100 of his men were sent to the River Valley Road camp in Singapore town.

While Mr McCreath's initial feeling had been of humiliation that his men had not been given a chance to prove themselves, these were soon joined by apprehension. "Everywhere you went there were headless corpses of the local Chinese lying in the streets of Singapore. At every corner there were heads impaled on poles. On one work party we had to clean up the Alexandra Hospital after the Japanese had massacred virtually every doctor, nurse and patient. On another we were made to build a wall around the headquarters of the Japanese secret police. Each day was made unbearable by the screams of people being tortured inside."

The distant, veiled look that comes over Mr McCreath's face as he describes these events suggests that the memories are still vivid, but he speaks in short bursts, as if he has yet to discover a language with which to articulate the full obscenity. Since the war he has developed a bluff shorthand for talking to other FEPoWs that acknowledges the pain of their shared experience without having to relive it too deeply, and he readily admits that this is one of the very few occasions when he has been able to talk about his life in detail. "When I came home I tried to talk to people, but it was just too difficult. Even my wife, Pat, who was always immensely supportive, couldn't quite understand and I often felt that she thought I must be making some of it up. So I learnt to keep quiet. I've never really talked about it with my three daughters, either. They started to ask me some questions about it all a few years ago, but, to be honest, I found it easier to give them some books to read."

In September 1942 the PoWs were moved by train from Singapore to Thailand. "The wagons were just steel cages. There was no ventilation, and, in the heat of the day, with over 30 men crammed in each truck, it was like being stuck inside a furnace. Most of the men had dysentery by this stage, too. Whenever we could we slid the doors open and held the men outside the moving train so they could defecate, but more often than not this simply wasn't possible, and the men had to sit in their own mess. It was hard to know which was worse - the stench or the humiliation."

After four or five days the train reached Ban Pong, the southernmost end of the Burma railway. "We arrived in the rainy season, and the latrines had overflowed. We were crowded into huts with tiny bamboo slats to lie on. Most of us tried to go to sleep squatting down or standing up to avoid being submerged in raw sewage. The Japanese just hadn't got the accommodation to house us. We were just fodder for their railway."

The route for the railway ran alongside the River Kwai Noi, and the PoWs were ferried up and down river by barge, depending on where their labour was most required.

Living conditions improved slightly when the men were moved up river to Wampo camp in late 1942, but by then many were already seriously malnourished. "Our staple diet was dirty broken-grain rice sweepings. When you opened a bag you literally had to shovel the maggots out. But there were so many that you just had to shut your eyes and force yourself to eat.

"Malaria turned out to be the biggest killer. I was lucky. Only once, when I got cerebral malaria, did I think that I wasn't going to recover. Dysentery was also commonplace and there were frequent outbreaks of cholera. The doctors had no medical supplies, and improvised as best they could by making syringes out of sharpened bamboo. Our bones went spongy with beri-beri, and cuts would often turn ulcerous. In many cases the ulcers were so severe that the bone was left exposed. I used to go down to the river to let the fish nibble away at the dead flesh. It provided temporary relief, but it wasn't something the doctors recommended because the water was contaminated by bodies."

Throughout 1943 conditions steadily got worse as Mr McCreath was moved to camps at Tonchen, Kinsaiyok and Tarsao. "We would be out working from dawn to dusk. The Japanese didn't care whether you were ill; if they needed the men they would drag the sick out of hospital and make them break stones while lying on their stretchers."

The FEPoWs did what they could to sabotage the railway - a broken nail here, a missed staple there - but any resistance was dealt with severely. Having a radio was punishable by death, and Mr McCreath still gets edgy when talking about his camp's radio and is reluctant to go into detail, as if his knowledge were still dangerous. "You tried not to know what was going on, because you knew that the Japanese could beat it out of you if you did. The Korean guards were the worst. They would go berserk, hitting men around the head with their fists and rifle butts. Some men died from these beatings. The hardest thing was having to stand to attention and watch your comrades suffering, knowing that if you intervened it would make things worse."

Survival depended on luck, discipline, and the ability to soak up whatever was on offer without losing morale, but it is something for which they have paid a high price. Many were too emotionally and physically broken to work properly on their return. Mr McCreath has coped better than most. He is now 80 and, having returned to his successful career in the grain trade, he now enjoys an active retirement. But he is still aware of what he has lost. "For a long time I would get nightmares, and would wake up sweating and shouting. One particular memory still haunts me. A truck load of wounded Japanese stopped near where we were working. Most were in a pitiful state, and were pleading for water. Even though our men had been brutalised by the Japanese, they stepped forward to comfort them, but were beaten back with rifle-butts by the guards. When you see something like that, nothing is ever quite the same again.

"Spending so much time holding your feelings in makes you reserved. I used to enjoy meeting people, but after the war I tended to keep away from encounters with outsiders. Even now, I'm inclined to say nothing rather than get angry. I know it's not good for me, but I can't help it."

Mr McCreath tries to forgive the Japanese, but doesn't find it easy. His feelings about Hiroshima and Nagasaki are ambivalent because he believes that without the bomb neither he nor his comrades would have survived the war. He is not impressed with the Japanese prime minister's expression of "remorse". "It doesn't mean anything. If they gave a full apology it would be a something, but they should offer compensation, or even just a gesture to some of our charities."

What rankles with him most, though, is how little many people in this country seem to know or care about the FEPoWs' suffering. Even at the end of the war there was little understanding. A party was laid on for them in Rangoon on their release, and Mr McCreath was astonished to see rows of armed soldiers lining the room. "I was told that they were on guard as we were expected to run wild after three years in the jungle. We were far too shattered to even think of making trouble."

There were no welcoming parties for Mr McCreath's return in October 1945, and his wife was advised by the Ministry of Defence not to go to Liverpool to meet his boat. "We felt as if we were an embarrassment; while everyone else had been involved in a war of tanks and machine guns, we had been engaged in one of disease and malnutrition. Nobody was very interested in us, so we formed our own FEPoW associations to look after one another."

A few years ago, Mr McCreath's Berwick group came into contact with Helen Bamber of the Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture and, with her help, the veterans are beginning to find both a voice and a peace of mind. But it's a slow process, and there may be no happy endings. "I still sometimes wonder whether all the sacrifices we made were worthwhile," says Mr McCreath. Fighting for recognition of their achievements is proving to be the FEPoWs' longest battle of all, and time is running out.

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