The children in this story experienced things no child is meant to experience — shipwreck, hunger, death of loved ones and even of playmates, prolonged separation from parents, violence, fear. Today we would readily acknowledge that many received psychological wounds in the process. But these boys and girls returned from their Japanese internment camps with little advice on how to cope in their new lives beyond 'don't talk about it', the catch-all motto of that stiff upper lip era. As a result many of the people who appear in this book have never spoken about how they felt while they were interned. The literature of internment has not focused on the unique problems encountered by the children who spent their formative years as prisoners.
Childhood memories are supposed to be happy — 'the happiest years of your life', as adults were fond of saying in those days. A great many memories described in this book are not happy ones. Yet, happy or sad, the memories of childhood possess a unique intensity, rarely matched by things we remember from later on. I have been struck by how often, describing incidents that happened more than sixty years ago, the teller's eyes — men as well as women — filled with tears. These are people now in their seventies and eighties. The past is always with me,' as one put it.' Several broke down when they recalled the loyalty and devotion of servants, many of whom trekked for miles to find them in newly liberated camps. Their emotion is undoubtedly bound up with the increasingly negative way colo-nialism has been depicted in the post-war era. Its image today is a blend of exploitation and heartlessness, which fails to acknowledge the mutual loyalty and affection that existed between many servants and their masters; many who lived through that era find this a hurtful misrepresentation. 'We can't have been that brutal if these people were prepared to run such risks to find us and help us,' was how one former prisoner expressed it.2 Many of the memories remain intensely painful. One man wrote to me from Australia describing how, as a twelve-year-old in a camp in China, he was so hungry after he had eaten his meagre ration that he cried, instantly prompting his father to give him his portion. He added, 'After so many years, typing this has brought tears to my eyes.' Others still feel grief at yet another wound inflicted by internment — losing a parent at a young age. The adults — particularly the fathers — emerged from camp with an assortment of health problems and found adapting to the post- war world hard. Many buckled under the strain. Of male prisoners between the ages of forty and fifty who returned from the Far East, 70 per cent were dead by sixty.
If for some recollections of camp are as fresh as if they happened yesterday, for others it is the opposite. Where their contemporaries have incidents branded into their minds, they have a blank. Memory is highly sensitive to shock and, consciously or unconsciously, these memories have been excised. One man who was in a camp in the Netherlands East Indies suppressed all memories because he felt that if he had dwelt on what he had gone through he would never have found the energy to start on his professional life.
For others the process was less conscious. One survivor, who as a fourteen-year-old girl watched mesmerised when Japanese soldiers administered a protracted beating to a woman caught smuggling, has no memory of the event today. She only knows she saw it from witnesses. A woman who found herself an orphan at nine when her mother died in camp remembers keenly the misery of being unwanted, but few details about her mother, or day-to-day life in camp.
What unites all the child victims of internment is the conviction that the dropping of the two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was horrific but necessary. The prevailing view today, especially among people born after the war, is that this was an unjustified atrocity because of the bomb's terrible power to maim and abort the most innocent of victims, the future generations.
The people in this story, who were prisoners of the Japanese, were aware that the Japanese army had instructions to kill all Allied prisoners the moment there was a landing on the Japanese homeland. For them, the situation looks different. One girl was celebrating her twelfth birthday on 9 August 1945 in a camp on Java, where women and children were sick and dying for lack of decent food and medical drugs. Though the prisoners were unaware of it, it was the day the second bomb was dropped, this time on Nagasaki. She speaks for the overwhelming majority of ex-internees when she says that without the dropping of those bombs she would have been unlikely to have seen another birthday and nor would hundreds of thousands of other soldiers and civilians.'
Many of these former prisoners have derived a measure of closure through a dogged campaign for compensation fought by the Association of British Civilian Internees Far East Region (ABCIFER). After six years of lobbying, about 3,000 civilian ex-internees, all that was left of the 20,000 originally interned, received an ex-gratia one- off payment of £10,000. This was paid out by the Labour Government headed by Tony Blair. Regrettably, about forty ex-internees are still waiting for their promised ex-gratia claims to be honoured. Many, while feeling that the payment did at last acknowledge their sufferings, were sad that it came too late to help their parents.
The miracle is that so many of these former internees have managed to put the past behind them. The majority have led useful and fulfilling lives and have raised families — with children and grandchildren who tease them uncomprehendingly about their strange, thrifty, hoarding habits. Surprisingly, perhaps, the internees are not resentful of what they endured. They are glad merely to have survived when so many did not. As one woman put it, 'I had an extraordinary childhood. I give thanks that my children had an ordinary one.'