Nagasaki: the forgotten prisoners


Sailing into Hong Kong in late August 1945, the Royal Navy battleship HMS Anson symbolised the Japanese defeat. Within a week of her arrival, the Anson hosted 500 recently freed ex-Prisoners of War (POWs) for afternoon tea, followed by a tour of the battleship. Reading this story recently, it struck me that tea and a tour of a battleship was, for those POWs, a marvellous confirmation that they were finally free. If this story is now being repeated, so must another.

In Nagasaki: the forgotten prisoners, John Willis examines a selection of Dominion, United Kingdom, and Empire (DUKE) prisoners of war, who, captured by the Japanese in the Second World War, found themselves working in Nagasaki when the atomic bomb was dropped.

Those readers familiar with Second World War history books will know that using the word ‘forgotten’ is unofficially reserved for books on the British war against the Japanese in South-East Asia. This book does contain the word ‘forgotten’. But, I am pleased to say, with good reason. Who knew of the British prisoners working in the shipyards in Nagasaki and their being beneath the bomb when it was dropped? This book can be read for this story alone.

These soldiers have experiences to share. Captured at Singapore by the Japanese Army and treated to years of terrible hardship, including construction work on the Thai-Burma railway and the journey to Japan aboard the notorious hell ships, their story would have been grim enough. However, these men then witnessed the most powerful weapon ever to be used in anger. It was in the aftermath of the blast, whilst searching for wounded, clearing rubble, and burying the dead that the prisoners found hardest. Be under no illusions, Willis has not spared the horrors that were inflicted on these men in the course of their imprisonment by the Japanese guards. But in the twisted, ravaged remains of Nagasaki, these British soldiers walked through hell on earth. The finest section of this book concerns the dropping of the bomb. In the horror, boundaries between guards and prisoners collapsed. In a haunting passage, a British man named Lawrence hands a disfigured child to a Japanese soldier, saying, ‘What have we done to you?’

Historian Robert Lyman, author of The War of Empires, has exploded many myths of the DUKE war in the Pacific. One of Lyman’s conclusions, that the Japanese proved excellent at killing Allied troops, just as long as these soldiers were unarmed prisoners, is worth repeating in this review. A point made by Willis is tied to this. Those POWs who survived the war all seemed to live to the grand old age of 101. Willis suggests that such longevity, despite the years of malnourishment and the exposure to radiation, proves that the POWs were ‘survivors’. Forced to watch as the Japanese troops murdered and raped civilians, or drawn up on parade to witness their comrades beaten or executed, these men became defiant in the face of death.

Willis has a background in television, and the clear and insightful text, with veterans accounts marshalled into an appropriate order, is reminiscent of a good history documentary. The narrative is successful in finding balance in this murky war. Willis explains that Indian soldiers, formerly of the British-led Indian Army, switched sides to fight for the Japanese. Furthermore, not all guards, and certainly not all Japanese people, behaved poorly towards the POWs. Lastly, the ordeal of the POWs was lightened by moments of beauty. Prisoners remember cricket matches, raucous variety shows, and majestic sunrises.

Readers will appreciate this book if they wish to read more from the ‘forgotten’ prisoners in the Pacific. But all those interested in war should read of the aftermath of the bomb because this book checks the notion that war is glorious.

Nagasaki: the forgotten prisoners, John Willis, Mensch Publishing, hbk (£25), ISBN 978-1912914425.