'So many lives wasted. For what?'

During the Second World War, Arthur Titherington spent 1,300 days as a PoW in Japan. But it is from the British government that he now seeks compensation.
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The Independent Online

Arthur Titherington is an old soldier who is not prepared to let bygones be bygones. After 1,300 days as a prisoner of war in the hands of the Japanese during the Second World War, Mr Titherington says: "I do not forgive and I do not forget."

Arthur Titherington is an old soldier who is not prepared to let bygones be bygones. After 1,300 days as a prisoner of war in the hands of the Japanese during the Second World War, Mr Titherington says: "I do not forgive and I do not forget."

Earlier this summer it appeared that his uncompromising campaign for proper compensation for over 7,000 surviving Japanese prisoners of war had finally paid off. Newspaper headlines proclaimed a £70m victory for the former prisoners and another 100 widows because the British Government had accepted the morality and justice of their claim. But nearly four months later not a single penny has been received.

At the time reports suggested that even Tony Blair, had taken a personal interest in the plight of the World War Two veterans and had asked ministers to reach an agreement. But since then it has been, as one serviceman put it, "all quiet on the compensation front."

Martyn Day, the solicitor who for seven years has been representing the PoWs, expected a formal announcement weeks ago. It would, he hoped, have offered each former serviceman £10,000. Mr Day, a member of the Society of Labour Lawyers whose uncle was captured by the Japanese at Singapore, has been pressing the ministers for action. He even went to Brighton for the party conference to try to speed things along. "Noises coming from governement were sympathetic and I am hopeful there will be a positive outcome, but time is running out for the PoWs," he says.

With a general election around the corner and the public purse strings in the tight grip of an iron Chancellor, many of the former PoWs fear the Government may be having second thoughts. One concern is that lawyers at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) may have warned ministers that compensating soldiers for suffering caused by another country establishes a dangerous precedent. Latest figures published by the MoD show it is already paying record levels of compensation to its personnel in the Falklands and Gulf wars for events in which fault and liability can be proved.

To offer compensation for the ill-treatment of prisoners by the enemy would be to settle a claim based on a moral rather than a legal argument and, no doubt members of the General Staff will maintain, sends the wrong message to countries who do not honour the Geneva Convention.

But Mr Titherington and his fellow Japanese PoWs believe they have a special case which need not set any precedent. Compensation, they argue, would be recognition of the extreme suffering they experienced in the service of their country in a fight to free all nations from tyranny. Their legal battle to win compensation from the Japanese Government has foundered in the courts and they look no nearer to receiving a "meaningful apology" from the Japanese leaders.

If the British stall for much longer it will be too late for some of these men, many of whom are in their eighties and suffering from ill-health. Their leader, Titherington, who has become the personification of their struggle, recently suffered a heart attack during a visit to Japan.

In 1938 Arthur Titherington lied about his age so he could join the army at 17 and finally get to see the world. He was taken prisoner in 1942 when the British surrendered Singapore to the Japanese. From there he was marched to the slave labour camp of Kinkaseki, now part of Taiwan, where he worked in a copper mine for three years. Beatings and a near-starvation diet took their toll and when he was finally liberated in 1945 he weighed just five-and-a-half stone, exactly half the weight he was when he joined the army as a motor cycle dispatch rider.

"The scars on my body have healed but there remain scars that I am unable to show. Almost four years of irrecoverable youth were left in the depth of that mine. I do not forgive. I do not forgive."

At the end of his book, One Day at a Time, re-published yesterday, about his experiences as a British soldier and slave labourer, Titherington painstakingly traces the names of the other 1156 PoWs who were also forced to work, and in many cases died, at Kinkaseki. He also names the men responsible for the brutal regime.

In 1983 Titherington returned to Taiwan and to the camp where he knew some of these men. He recalls: "Kinkaseki still represented the worst fears I had ever known in my life. My fear of the place was not just an imaginary fear. Nightmares are real, and the sweat in which I was bathed when I awoke was also real."

As he stood at the mine head he says: "So many good men wasted and for what purpose? The Japanese had attempted to subjugate the other races of the Far East. They were brutal and inhuman and I still hated them and what they represented. But how easily it is forgotten, almost as if we get used to it."

For the past 55 years Titherington has been as much fighting so that people will not forget as he has for any award of compensation. In the Fifties all PoWs were offered £76. But prisoners from other countries were paid up to £2,000. Recently a series of agreements around the world have given the British PoWs real hope. In July a bearings manufacturer became the first Japanese company to agree to compensate workers for slave labour during the war. The Fujikoshi Corporation agreed in an out-of-court settlement to pay about £62,000 to three South Koreans it brought to Japan in 1943 to work at its factory in Toyama, north of Tokyo. This marks a departure from the Japanese companies position that a 20-year limitation on such cases protected them and that the use of forced labour was government policy.

Canada and the Isle of Man both recently agreed to payouts of £10,000 to former PoWs. A spokesman for the MoD said yesterday that there had been no formal announcement and much of what had been postulated was speculation on behalf of the media. But a settlement would bring to a close one of the most brutal chapters in British military history. When Japan invaded Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore in 1942, thousands of British servicemen were captured. Many worked on the Burma-Siam railway, described by veterans as close to a living hell and immortalised by the film The Bridge On the River Kwai.

"It is not a question of hatred or revenge, it is a question of justice," says Arthur Titherington.

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