My father Stanley’s diary is among my most precious keepsakes. He wrote it secretly as a slave labourer in a Japanese POW camp near Kanchanaburi in Thailand, home of the actual bridge over the River Kwai. Dad never spoke of his experience, but kept surreptitious notes. It was only after his passing in 1981 that I got to know my father better by reading his diary, and visiting the Thai jungle where he’d been tortured, and speaking to men who knew him.
Dad was born in Vancouver in 1916. He graduated from the University of British Columbia, and in 1940 took a job with Malaya Fertilizers, a subsidiary of the U.K. conglomerate Sime Darby. His father-in-law warned him not to leave: “The Japanese will get you,” he said. Those haunting words proved to be true.
When the Pacific War broke out in 1941 Dad joined a ragtag group called the Federated Malay Volunteer Forces. They were allied volunteers. He was Gunner #13785. They were captured in the fall of Singapore, and some were conscripted as slaves by the Japanese to build the infamous railway. Thousands died of malnutrition, torture and disease in captivity.
Dad was sent to a jungle camp and assigned to a track-laying crew. They hacked their way through granite with pick axes, surviving on starvation rations. In one of the four episodes he recounted to my Mum, the late Isabel Weston, he once spotted a guard beating an inmate, and was punished for witnessing the crime. They forced him to hoist a boulder at arm’s length and run back and forth till he collapsed. Dad was convinced they’d kill him, too, but wrote he suddenly had a vision of Isabel, pleading with him to stand up. He dragged himself upright and looked his guard in the eye, and the soldier turned and left. Dad was free to live another day.
Later my mother recalled back in Vancouver she suddenly felt anxious and burst into tears, with a sense Stanley was in danger. After the war they spoke of the incidents: they believed they happened the same day. Dad called it God’s direct intervention, and that of his beloved Isabel.
After liberation Stanley was sent to London for the boat ride home; he wrote Isabel two beautiful letters which I treasure to this day. Dad said it was his faith in God and love of Isabel that allowed him to survive. When he arrived back in British Columbia, they were reunited at the train station in Mission. On the drive home Dad said, “Pull over; I’ve got something to tell you.” Mom braced for dreadful news. He said, “The last three-and-a-half years have been a nightmare; please don’t ever ask me what happened, because I’m not going to talk about it.” For the most part, he didn’t.
Dad was an outgoing man, an aggressive entrepreneur. He and Isabel were married on his return to Vancouver on Halloween 1945. They honeymooned in California, then he spent six months as a “day patient” in hospital. Together they returned to Kuala Lumpur where he excelled as a consultant to plantation owners.
They settled in B.C. in the 1950’s. Dad broke 1,500 acres of land in Fort St. John and won the 1958 world championship for alfalfa. He was a hero to me, a larger than life figure, but never mentioned the war. Occasionally he would go weeks without speaking a word at home; my Mum told me she’d quietly consulted with psychiatrists who explained this was typical of prisoners of war. It was a defence mechanism, a refuge in silence. Articulating feelings would force survivors to revisit horrors they’d survived.
Dad was not bitter towards the Japanese; he accepted they could be as brutal to their own people as they were to POWs. He would not dwell in anger. It took a longer time for my mother to forgive the Japanese for what they’d done; she worked for the B.C. Security Commission, in charge of internment of Japanese-Canadians after 1941. They had strangely symmetrical wartime experience.
I never spoke to Dad about his experience, and was discouraged from asking questions. He was 65 when he died of a heart attack. Most survivors died young due to of the deprivations they suffered.
I think my father rationalized his experience. I lionized him as a survivor, a man who endured unthinkable suffering. Later in my life, when I faced difficulties, I’d pause and remind myself the challenges were small compared to what Stanley have faced.
I have written a historical novel about my parents’ lives, Jade Across The Kwai. I wrote it to better understand their lives and my heritage. Hopefully, it will inspire my own children and theirs, if only to remind them from where they came.
(Editor’s note: the author is former Conservative MP for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country)