One Far East POW described their work as "soul-destroying, heart-breaking labor" for which they were paid ten cents a day. Survival was as much about finding mental release as physical endurance. In many detention camps the men turned towards books and classes to relieve their minds of their suffering. By learning new skills and uncovering talents, they stole back some of the months and years that the war had robbed them of. Study kept boredom and depression at bay and it offered a hope that the years in captivity would not be entirely wasted.
Author James Cavell wrote of his POW experience in WWII: "Changi became my university instead of my prison. Among the inmates there were experts in all walks of life -- the high and the low roads. I studied and absorbed everything I could from physics to counterfeiting." Amid the hundreds of skills that soldiers imparted to one another were sewing, Roman history, Arabic (and a dozen other languages), pig-farming, accounting, painting, chess, shorthand, and acting. (Denholm Elliot and Clive Dunn pursued acting careers after the war.) POWs from many different backgrounds enriched each others' lives with their treasure troves of knowledge.
|Painting done in captivity by Terry Frost|
It is important to remember the huge difference between the prisoners held by the Germans and those held by the Japanese. European POWs had access to books, letters from home and Red Cross parcels - and a one percent death rate. Some of them studied law, took exams in the mail and became lawyers after the war. Most POWs in the Far East had few books, letters and packages and twenty-five percent died from malnutrition and tropical diseases. It was a good thing that Gillies wrote of the European prisoners in the first section of the book because once she described the deprivations of the FEPOWs, the others' hardships appeared trivial in comparison.
A fascinating book!