Wednesday 21 March 2018

Review: History: The Emperor’s Irish Slaves – Prisoners of the Japanese in the Second World War by Robert Widders

History Press, £14.99
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ieor by calling 091 709350

Timothy Kenneally was only following orders. Like all Allied servicemen were supposed to, in March 1943 he attempted escape from a Japanese prisoner of war (POW) camp but was caught, tortured -- crucified -- and executed.

The Japanese Imperial Army recorded the 29-year-old's death on his POW index card.

Noting he was from Bishopstown in Cork and serving with the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, his final moments were simply recorded: "Escaped on March 8, 1943, and caught on March 23 and disposed of."

There was no mention of how he met his end. No mention of the appalling cruelty he suffered and terror of his final moments.

But now Robert Widders tells his story, and that of 650 Irish POWs forced to live and die in the most appalling and inhumane conditions, in the excellent The Emperor's Irish Slaves: Prisoners of the Japanese in the Second World War'.

This is the first book to explore the fate of the 650 British Army-serving Irishmen and women in Japanese POW slave labour camps, mainly on the Burma railway in 1942. Many were killed trying to escape or died from cholera.

The discovery of Fusilier Kenneally's body and that of three others is revealed in the book by his comrade, Sergeant George Priestman: "In the undergrowth we found three bamboo crosses, about seven feet by four feet. We also saw another bamboo cross jutting out of the ground. We uncovered it and found the dead body of a British soldier, tied to the cross with his arms outstretched. He had been shot.

"Nearby there were three mounds of loose earth. We did not uncover these mounds but built up four proper mounds and placed small bamboo crosses on top."

Fusilier Kenneally was one of hundreds of Irishmen and women imprisoned by the Japanese Imperial Army, many of whom met their deaths because of a lack of basic medical supplies, negligence and outright cruelty.

They included Sister Mary Cooper, who died in a POW camp in June 1943.

Two brothers from Cork -- Lieutenant Richard Duke and Private Basil Duke -- also lie buried at opposite ends of the Burma railway after dying from preventable diseases.

But rape, torture, deprivation and daily humiliation were the lot of the POW at the hands of a merciless army who saw their charges as sub-human.

The sinking of prisoner transport vessel the Lisbon Maru on October 1, 1942, perhaps best encapsulates the living hell that many POWs went through.

Conditions were cramped for the 1,800 prisoners on board, of which at least 22 were Irish. There were no medical supplies and food and water were not provided.

And when it was torpedoed by a submarine, its officers and crew left the prisoners locked under the hatches and abandoned ship, although it was not to sink for another 24 hours.

Some POWs escaped and started to swim for shore, but were shot dead in the water.

But why were the Imperial Army so brutal? Widders explains: "The Japanese army trained recruits by a methodology based on fear and brutality. Any mistake, no matter how minor, was punished by beatings with a fist or bamboo stick.

"It was a system based on blind, unquestioning obedience and terror. Given that this was the norm within the army, it was inevitable that similar disciplinary codes should have been imposed on its prisoners. Japanese soldiers were conditioned to believe that other races were inferior . . . it was a concept that would have lethal repercussions for the POWs."

But who were these people that left Ireland to fight in a far-flung land?

An examination of British Army records by Widders reveals that about 15pc of Irish POWs enlisted before 1930, and were career army officers.

The majority joined after 1931, and many in 1940 when the war was going badly for Britain.

And they came from all walks of life, from every county and every social and political background.

Private Jeremiah O'Connor from Kerry was a staunch loyalist, who said he was Irish but "British by birth".

POW Frank McGee was a republican from Carrick-on-Shannon, who joined with his nine brothers. Asked after the war why, he said: "The English are our enemies and nobody else is allowed to fight them."

This is a grim book, but an important one. No subject is avoided, including the issue of collaboration with some POWs killed by fellow inmates for being "Jap happy".

Despite the horrors, there are stories of men who sacrificed their lives for their friends, doctors who worked without basic supplies to ease suffering and the uplifting story of one serviceman, Gunner Michael Purcell, who escaped from captivity three times.

The role of Irishmen and women in the fight against fascism and the imperial march of the Japanese has never been widely acknowledged in Ireland.

Whatever about the merits, or otherwise, of pardoning members of the Defence Forces who deserted to serve in the British Army, the role these POWs played in what is perhaps the last 'just' war should be acknowledged, and appreciated.

They were ordinary men and women subjected to needless suffering by a monstrous enemy who enslaved them and treated them like animals.

This fine book helps put their stories on record.

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