An Island of Compassion in a Sea of Hatred
David G. Mitchell
I have always enjoyed story tellers. There is something so much more intimate, and in many ways more meaningful, when a person tells his or her own story, as compared to the researched examinations of historians. That is why I look for oral histories and memoirs when I really want to find a book that I will be unable to put down. This week, that was just the case when I picked up Railway of Hell: War, Captivity and Forced Labour at the Hands of the Japanese by Reginald Burton.
Burton was a junior officer serving in India when war started in Europe in September of 1939. His regiment was quickly recalled to England so that it could bolster the island-nation’s defenses when the seemingly inevitable German invasion came. Of course, German losses in the air battle over Britain’s skies dissuaded the Reich from seeking to cross the English Channel. So, by late 1941, Burton and his regiment had been redeployed to Singapore to combat Japanese expansion.
Like so many other places that were unprepared for war, Singapore fell to the Japanese in only a matter of days. Even though the English troops continued to fight a losing battle in which they were poorly equipped and undermanned, the commander of the English force determined that the island had to fall and surrendered his men into what would become three and a half years of horrific captivity, starvation and torture for the fortunate, and death for the less so.
Burton entered his captivity unconscious. Before the Japanese ceased their offensive following the surrender, Burton was caught in the open by a Japanese artillery barrage. When he awakened, he was on a stretcher in a make-shift hospital, a searing pain in his back and many questions running through his mind. He recalls how he felt when an orderly told him that the English had surrendered.
Surrendered. I suddenly felt a bit sick. I turned my head away. I lay for a long time, trying to think clearly. What struck me so strongly was the wastage. The months of convoy. The few days of battle—and now captivity. For how long? What had happened to the battalion? How many had been killed? How many had been wounded? What had happened to Alan, my batman?
The questions poured into my mind. This was one of the blackest moments of my life. I was overwhelmed with despair and with apprehension, not just for myself but for all the men who’d served under me during the last hours of the fight. The dying light was symbolic of my own hopes and spirits. Fading out. I wished I could crawl into the darkness and be lost. I wasn’t afraid of death. It would be the pleasant way out, just to sink into oblivion.
But all that happened was that I slept. My body was very, very weary.
Burton would recover, of course, and he relates with tremendous attention to detail the privations that he and his fellow POWs endured in captivity. Indeed, when Railway of Hell was originally published as The Road to Three Pagodas in 1963, the British war office censored it because it was so graphic. Burton, at the time still a serving officer, was subject to the authority of the War Office and was told that “some of the grimmer aspects of Japanese brutality and atrocity had to be ‘diluted’ [because] it was not advisable, in the prevailing spirit of reconciliation, that the book be published as [Burton] had written it.” Freed from the limitations imposed by War Office after he left service, Burton published the current version in 2002.
The horrible suffering that the British POWs in Singapore and elsewhere experienced at the hands of the Japanese is well documented. There is no question that Burton endured much and he spares little in his retelling of his story. Indeed, he acknowledges that he could never forgive the Japanese people for what he experienced. At the same time, Road to Hell is somewhat unusual in that it often shares moments in which the Japanese were less than brutal and, at times, even humane. While readers unfamiliar with the conditions of life of the prisoners of the Japanese may think that such an observation is unremarkable, those who have studied POW conditions will know that most memoirists fail to recall those moments of humanity, perhaps because they were so rare. Burton recalls one Japanese soldier in particular:
The best, in my experience, was a very pleasant-looking little man named Kamita. He was well mannered and softly spoken. Kamita didn’t hide his sympathy for us and he seemed quite genuinely to feel for the hardships we endured. He even, in his friendliness, went to the dangerous extent of taking three photographs in Havelock Road, one of himself, two of our little group.
I don’t know how far his example influenced the others, but they certainly treated us as well as they could.
Kamita’s gestures may have been small but I have to believe that when faced with great oppression, as Allied POWs certainly were, any amount of kindness can result in a great deal of hope. Burton and many of his comrades would eventually be transferred to what would someday become Thailand to work on the Burma-Siam railway. That ordeal would force the men into harsh terrain and impenetrable jungle where the guards were brutal, the labor back-breaking, and the jungle disease-ridden. The prisoners would be pushed to the edge of their physical, mental and emotional endurance and many would not survive—as many as forty percent. With four out of ten men dying, I have to believe that anything that gave anyone hope, even the simple kindness of one Japanese guard, must have helped Burton and other POWs to find a greater willingness to persevere, or at least a greater willingness not to let death take them.
Railway of Hell is not so much about the building of the Burma-Siam railway as it is about the existence of the men who built it. Constructing a railway is a project. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. For the men who built the railway, however, there was no project. There was no beginning, no middle and no end. As Burton shows us, for the POWs—slave laborers, really—there was only survival in a perpetual moment.
Books mentioned in this column:
David G. Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library anyway. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts, and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. David currently has his own law practice. He is also a contributing writer at SavingAdvice.com where he finds connections between frugal living and almost every aspect of life, and a contributor to Renaissance magazine and Book Page. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle named Biscuit. Contact David.