A former prisoner of war returns to Japan
My recent letter to the “Pump” describing an enjoyable evening at the Japanese Embassy in London may have seemed a quick turn round from my declaration that I never wanted to meet a Japanese or visit Japan ever again. So here are the facts.
I belong to a small, but now diminishing, PoW Club called the “Java 1942 Club. In a recent quarterly journal the Chairman, a former camp and present friend, wrote an article describing his return visit to Japan, taken a month or two previously, stating that he felt he had benefited from his visit. I mentioned this to my family who urged me to consider making the journey myself. After some re-assurance from my friend, I decided with some trepidation that I must go.
Ten days before departure I received a letter from a Japanese gentleman, that I would be meeting there, thanking me for coming and asking me to write of my PoW years for him. I took him a copy of “Haku San Jou Nei”. My wife and I met four other ex-PoW’s as we started our journey from Heathrow. Travelling first class with All Nippon Airways, we had a very comfortable and pampered journey, our every need taken care of, and arrived at Tokyo Narita Airport the following day. We were rather amused when we found ourselves being directed to an exit marked “ALIENS”; had we really come from another world? Given permission to pass through we were greeted by our two guides who were to accompany us throughout our journey.
We were taken by coach to our first destination, an hotel at Hakone national park in the Mount Fuji area; a holiday and recreational resort. Our apartment looked out on to a large lake with two pirate ships tied up at the jetty. In the distance, Mount Fuji, covered in a light cloud, was a typical Japanese scene. I was definitely back!
After breakfast we met up with the rest of the party to discuss out itinerary and talk over any health problems with a lady doctor who was to accompany us throughout our journey.
We boarded a coach after lunch, which took us for a tour of the area, taking us further up the mountainside to the lower slopes of Mount Fuji. The whole area was steaming with smoke coming from fissures in the rock; the smell of sulphurous fumes was unmistakeable. A souvenir shop on site was selling eggs cooked in the hot pools, the shells jet black and tasting of sulphur; supposedly good for one’s health. Leaving there we were taken to a jetty where we boarded a pirate ship and journeyed back to our hotel.
Before dinner we had to pack our suitcases ready for collection at 5 p.m. In Japan no one travels with their luggage; it is always sent on ahead. So we had to decide hurriedly what we needed to wear that evening and, of course, the next day. This became a bit tedious, as we had to decide what we could carry in our hand luggage.
Our fourth day began with a 5.30 a.m. call, our coach starting off from the hotel at 6.30 a.m. with the hotel staff coming out to wave goodbye. After an hour we arrived at ODAWARA railway station where we boarded, and experienced, our first ride on a bullet train. This one was rather slow, travelling at a mere 120 mph, our destination NAGOYA, leaving at 8.07 and arriving at 9.28 precisely! Punctuality is a must. The tickets and platforms are numbered, the trains stop at the exact spot where you step in the rear of your compartment and passengers leave from the front. It is said that if a train were as much as three minutes late the Chief Executive would be expected to commit ritual suicide!
I must also mention the comfort and cleanliness, superb; also the Japanese ladies with trolleys of food and drink who bowed themselves out of the carriage. We had time to have a bite to eat before our train was due to leave for HIROSHIMA. We left for HIROSHIMA at 10.34 a.m. on a much faster train which travelled at 175mph. There was no sensation of speed except when looking out of the windows as we sped by. I learned that KAWASAKI is not just the name of a motorcycle, but also a town. We had travelled across about a third of Japan in 3 1/2 hours!
Arriving at HIROSHIMA we were met by a large group of people, which included a TV crew and photographers waiting to welcome us. It was here that I met the Japanese gentleman that had written to me before I left England. Some time later we boarded a coach, which took us to the HIROSHIMA Peace Museum, which is surrounded by a park and gardens.
In the museum is a life-sized replica of the domed structure that remained standing after the bombing, exhibits of clothing and twisted girders etc. I’m aware that the people of HIROSHIMA suffered terribly from this one bomb and many suffered radiation burns. I’m also aware that twice as many people died in Tokyo in one night when it was fire bombed. I also know that KAMISHI, which was around 15 miles from the PoW camp where I was being held, was shelled and bombed to the ground. When I visited after the war the only sign of where houses stood were the small concrete roads. They, like HIROSHIMA and Tokyo, also suffered. Many others, and myself all captives of the Japanese, were spared because of that bomb. On 17th March 1945, a telegram was sent to all prison camp commanders stating, “Prisoners of war must be prevented from falling into enemy hands. They should, either be re-located or, collected at suitable points and time with an eye to enemy air raids, shore bombardments, etc. They should be kept alive to the last whenever their labour is needed.”
I have since learned that these orders were carried out on islands that were re-occupied by the allies. PoWs used for the carrying of Japanese equipment away from the oncoming allies were then killed; some brutally, others shot. Hardly anyone survived in these islands when liberation was near.
Back on the coach we travelled 30 miles to a shipyard at MUKISHIMA where one of our travelling companions spent his working days as a PoW. A short distance from there we attended a service where a plaque had been erected in memory of 23 RAF men who died at the camp soon after their arrival from diseases caught whilst on the journey to Japan aboard the “Dia Nicchi Maru.” Another short coach trip then we were met by Japanese ladies in national costume, offering us trays of large strawberries and Satsuma’s.
We eventually boarded the coach again and were taken to our hotel in ONAMICHNI; our apartment overlooking the river. We’d had a very tiring day but it wasn’t over yet. We had roughly half an hour to grab some clothes from our cases, shower and be downstairs to a dinner laid on for us attended by a diplomat from the British Embassy in Tokyo and a Japanese Foreign Office spokesman and numerous business men. Lena and I sat at a table with seven men, some of who spoke English and who were keen to know about my imprisonment at Hakodate.
We had an enjoyable meal; the table centrepiece revolved with lots of dishes of different food, which our company were keen to help us chose. We then sat back to listen to speeches by the British and Japanese officials and from the PoW whose shipyard we had visited that morning. Another PoW spoke of his time in Burma. These two PoWs had been warned that they would be asked to speak so they had prepared their speeches in advance. Whilst the last talk was in progress, Mr Kayabaski, the gentleman I had given my story to, came to the table and asked me to speak next, as the present company were keen to know about Hakodate prison and how I survived the near arctic winter there. He also wanted me to sing the songs I had learned and sung at the camp; I agreed to talk but not to sing. He then asked me to tell him the songs; I repeated the lines that I still remembered and he said “OK, you talk I sing”. We received quite an ovation.
Incidentally, the War Graves Commission has recently published a list of the 94 men known to have died at this camp but state that are five or maybe six more men not accounted for. A memorial is to be erected at this site for the men who perished there; many were my friends.
I was surprised when returning to my table to see the businessman sitting next to me wiping tears from his eyes. He said he was so sorry for the past and the bad treatment of me by his people. He kept saying he couldn’t apologise enough. I have no idea of the time when we eventually returned to our room. We were shattered but needed to sort clothes ready for the morning and re-pack. Our cases needed to be put out ready for collection at 7.0a.m next day. Unfortunately, we had a problem. In my haste not to be late for dinner I had entered a wrong code when locking one of the cases. No matter what series of numbers I tried, the case wouldn’t budge. We eventually had to admit defeat and sort out the clothing we slung out when hastily looking for something to wear for dinner. I think we must have been on the go for around 20 hours when we fell in to bed.
To be continued…
Frank Planton (Joe Japan)