The prisoner-of-war who refused to forget

Memories led veteran back to Thailand, reports Ethan Casey in Bangkok
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The Independent Online
WHEN he returned to Kanchanaburi, two hours west of Bangkok, to live in 1987, former British prisoner of war Trevor Dakin hoped to make a personal peace with the horrors of war he had endured there under the occupying Japanese more than four decades earlier.

"I thought by facing up to the most horrific period of my life that I'd be able to put the bad memories behind me," Dakin, a former army corporal who died on 15 April told journalist Micool Brooke in 1990: "I burned bridges back home to come here. I expect to live and die out here. But not before telling my tale."

The visit of Emperor Akihito of Japan to Britain next week could be overshadowed by former prisoners of war who will demonstrate to demand a formal apology from the Japanese for their behaviour - an apology that Dakin always wanted.

His tale of life in a Japanese prison camp was so harrowing that even half a century later, telling it remained his only way to ease the pain. "It's a form of therapy," he admitted.

"He got lots of backpackers dropping in to see him," remembered Brooke, a 35-year-old Australian whose articles in the Bangkok Post newspaper first brought Dakin to public attention, and who became his close friend. "He loved it. It gave him a reason for being there; he was doing something constructive."

Some 16,000 British and other Allied prisoners of war and 100,000 Asian slave labourers died of disease, malnutrition, execution and torture building what became known as the Death Railway, a line from Thailand into Burma that Japan needed for its planned invasion of India. Dakin, who had been captured in the fall of Singapore in February 1942, was one of the lucky ones.

"When the war ended they wept for joy," said Brooke. "Whenever he told that story he always broke down crying. He would quote the sergeant major, Sandy Goodwin, who walked into the barracks and said, `Boys, you're free.'"

Dakin returned home to Luton, in Bedfordshire, but had difficulty rejoining society. `I didn't like what I saw happening to England," he said. "For pounds 67 I was able to start a new life in Canada."

There he worked selling encyclopedias for the next 30 years. "He said he learnt the art of salesmanship by trading with the Thais for food when he sneaked out of the camp during the war," recalled Brooke.

The two met by chance in a Kanchanaburi bakery in 1989. "No one had ever interviewed him before. He was just living there, completely unknown," Brooke remembered. "And without his story to tell, I wouldn't have written my book."

When Brooke published an article about the Death Railway in a Japanese newspaper, a man named Nagase Takashi read it and wrote to him. Nagase became well known a few years ago as the torturer of Eric Lomax, author of the bestselling memoir The Railway Man. Brooke arranged for Nagase, who has made seeking forgiveness from his former victims his life's mission, to meet Dakin at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in 1994. In his book Captive of the River Kwae [sic] (1995), Brooke quotes Dakin telling Nagase: "I respect you because of your tireless mission of atonement."

Until Dakin died, he and Nagase were planning to tour Japan together this August, to lecture schoolchildren about the Death Railway.

"Some people were suspicious: What was Trevor's motive for being friends with Nagase?" says Brooke. "But I had seen him give lectures to groups of visiting Japanese, and he pulled no punches ... He was just being open- minded and trying to get through to the next generation of Japanese."

Dakin's experience living in Thailand frustrated him. "He didn't understand the Thais, and he was upset that the Thais didn't understand him," said Brooke. "He had a deep personal reason for being here, and the significance of that just didn't dawn on many Thais, including his wife ... The symbol of the cultural gulf was the tourism and the annual River Kwai Festival, when they reenact the bombing raid that blew up the bridge, which he thought was a honky-tonk carnival."

Even more offensive to Dakin was the award-winning 1957 film Bridge on the River Kwai."It was disgraceful," he told Brooke. `There was never any bloody commando raid or any rubbish like that."

Dakin's health began to fail early this year. "It was a real experience watching Trevor dying and fighting for life,"said Brooke. "He had everything to live for. And he was fighting for life just as he did during his captivity, when all you can do is lie there saying "I'm going to live, I'm going to live."

Dakin left no will, so after contacting his children in Canada and negotiating with reluctant local officials, Brooke was left to carry out his wishes, cremating him and scattering his ashes near Chang Kai War Cemetery.

Chang Kai, four kilometres from Kanchanaburi, occupies part of the site of the PoW camp in which Dakin was incarcerated.

Asked if his friend ever did find peace, Brooke replied: "Probably not. Maybe periodically, for a few hours at a time. But overall he remained very confused and a bit resentful."

Dakin would have turned 78 years old on 15 May. "There have been a few Second World War veterans who have come back to Thailand to live," said Brooke. "But he was the last."