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A World War Apart: Remembering the Far East POWs of Norwich on the 75th Anniversary of VJ Day

1: Working Men by Jack Bridger Chalker. Source: Captive Memories website

As a master’s student studying museums and cultural heritage at UEA, with a background in Japanese studies and history, I have spent the past few years researching memorials and heritage sites related to the Asia-Pacific War (1931-45) in Japan. Anyone familiar with Japan’s role in World War II will know the Asia-Pacific theatre saw several specific events which complicate the way the nation remembers its wartime identity. The pre-emptive strike against the US Navy at Pearl Harbour (1941) and atrocities committed across Asia such as the Nanjing Massacre (1937-38) and the forcing of women into prostitution, later known as ‘comfort women’, in Japanese-occupied territories portray the nation as a ruthless aggressor. On the other hand, the US Air Force meted out indiscriminate firebombing on major cities such as Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya (1944-45), culminating in the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945), all of which portrays the nation as a victim of the excessive violence of war. Caught between these two extremes, war memorials and memorialisation practices across the country clash over contradicting war narratives, all the while coming under intense international scrutiny. In the process, grassroots war memory initiatives are often obscured into the background. This is not, however, something unique to Japan. The phrase “history is written by the victor” is often bandied about to explain the global historical record in the aftermath of war, which is conceived in a simplified international paradigm of “the good nation won, the bad nation lost”. Such bias is not only limited to international narratives of war, but also when considering domestic narratives. My own research on war memory shows that this bias and ambiguity is something which can be seen in Norwich as well as Japan.

The Royal Norfolk Regiment fought in all theatres of the war. This article focuses on the 4th, 5th and 6th Battalions – the latter two deriving from Norwich – which were stationed at Singapore just before the Japanese launched an offensive on the British territory (8th – 15th February 1942). Nicknamed the “Gibraltar of the East”, Singapore was supposedly the British stronghold in South-East Asia, yet its force of 85,000 soldiers falling to 36,000 Japanese soldiers was infamously damned by Churchill as the “worst disaster” in British military history. The defeat saw 80,000 troops taken as Japanese prisoners of war, including the Royal Norfolk Regiment battalions, who were used as forced labour across Malaysia on such projects as the Thai-Burma Death Railway alongside Asian labourers. Many died of starvation and overwork, with only 37,500 British POWs liberated by the end of the war. Amongst the 2,000 POWs from the Royal Norfolk Regiment, only 1,400 survived their captivity.

Upon returning from their ordeal, many POWs found it difficult to discuss their experience, instead repressing their painful memories under the guilt of having surrendered and survived. Furthermore, there was little space in the British post-war narrative for the Far East POWs – known as FEPOW – in part due to the victorious atmosphere following the end of six years of global conflict, but also due to the great challenge to empire posed by the conflict, especially in the Far East. Where the Holocaust had thrown decades of positive rhetoric around eugenics sharply into question, the Fall of Singapore had challenged assumptions maintained by European empires of white supremacy on the global stage with a catastrophic defeat by a major imperial power at the hands of a non-white empire. In this context, the controversial history of the ‘Forgotten Battalions’ was negated from the official war narrative and survivors of Singapore from the Norwich battalions did not have a voice, let alone a space to speak, of their war experience.

However, not all of them suffered alone. Almost half of British Far East POWs joined clubs with other survivors where they could reconnect with the firm friendships that had facilitated their survival in such extreme conditions. When considering that only a tenth of five million World War I veterans joined the British Legion, this is not an insignificant number. Together, they twice raised their collective voice in 1950 and 2000 in order to not just be recompensated for their suffering, but to have their history recognised. Both times their calls were heeded by the British government. However, these calls of recompense have been grassroots war memory initiatives, struggling to make a neglected war narrative heard above the official discourse of remembrance. In spite of their successes in being put on the historical record, the question remains as to how their history will continue to be told as the number of living survivors dwindles.

As we pass the 75th anniversary of VJ Day, the world grows conscious of its passing into the post-living memory era of the World War II. Perhaps spurred on by the circumstances of COVID19, digital heritage appears to be coming to the fore in attempts to preserve the memories of FEPOW. Compiled resources can be found at the University of Liverpool’s ‘Captive Memories’ website and their ‘Secret State of Survival’ online exhibit. The Far Eastern Heroes website contains a wealth of testimonies from survivors, describing their ordeal in vivid detail. A more up-to-date resource, and indicator of future memorialisation efforts, is the COFEPOW – Children of FEPOW – website. The group is organised around the Our Lady and St Thomas of Canterbury church in Wymondham, the National Memorial Church of FEPOW.

Reinhart Koselleck wrote in his seminal work on war memorial, The Practice of Conceptual History (2002), that “war memorials lose their original emphasis … as soon as the last survivors pass away.” However, unlike stone cenotaphs, these digital heritage projects present a fluid, collaborative space for the FEPOW narrative to be managed by the next generation. For example, the Captive Memories website demonstrates the new possibilities provided by digital heritage in making war memorial a transnational phenomenon, providing translations in Japanese amongst other languages to broaden access beyond a domestic audience as classic monuments were limited to. While we cannot know how this will change the narrative, it provides hope that grassroots war memory initiatives will be passed on through an inter-generational, transnational format, opening up new possibilities for the future of war memorial in a globalising world.

Oliver Moxham
Project Support Officer, Sainsbury Institute

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