During the early years of World War II, when joining the German army was still optional, my grandfather chose this path as a means to escape his stern stepfather. He anticipated the advertised life of adventure to at least qualitively surpass that of living under the same roof as his abusive fatherly figure. Soon he realized that this was not the case. The army moved him first to Italy, then North Africa, where he was put to service as a parachuter. Parachuting back then wasn't much like it is now - even if your chute did open, there was a good chance of being shot by those in differing uniform. "Perfect" drops had an impact bad enough to require a hip replacement at 55.

        Regardless, at some point his division was captured by the French. Like animals they were carted off to the camp where they were beaten into submission. The group my grandfather was in was asked to kneel, upon which some high-spirited soldier proceeded to beat their teeth in with the butt of his rifle. For a month they were served nothing but couscous, which always contained some selections of insects. Upon communicating his training as a locksmith, the French decided to move him along with a group of his friends to a nearby work camp run by Americans. This would have been the best of worlds for him and his friends, but the German government had made sure to make them think different. Anticipating certain death, they jumped off of the train and used the sky to orient themselves towards a residential area. Soon they found an Arab family in cahoots with German officials, and they were moved back north, where they would rejoin with the rest of the troop. Again, something went wrong. A still unknown member of the group ratted them out, causing the families to be exposed for smuggling the enemy and the soldiers to be recaptured. This time, they were put in a real military prison.

        He says he can't remember how long he was in the box, hours and days were the same in perpetual darkness and heat. Occasionally, food and water were thrown in, but barely enough to keep him alive. Once out, he began to play chess and learn mathematics from his fellow prisoners to stay sane. According to him, the only way to keep a level head in a place like that is to deal with it day by day, not counting the unknown days until one's release. Finally the day came. The war was over, and Germany was beaten. A group of captured planes took the prisoners from Casablanca to Berlin, where they would take the train to their respective hometowns. He hadn't seen his girlfriend and wife to be in years, but when a young man asked to take his place on the last plane of the day, he let him go ahead. Not five minutes passed, and the plane was shot down, exploding on the desert sand. The boat delivered him safely, he resumed his work as a locksmith and eventually married my grandmother... but he still can't stand even the smell of couscous.

My grandfather was a prisoner of war of the Japanese during WWII. As I was eventually to find out he had been stationed in Hong Kong not long before the outbreak of the war. He was a bandsman in the Scotch Guards (He used to talk about how he had been a French Horn player in the Hong Kong Symphony Orchestra).

However this story starts long before I was ever able to find out this much detail. In truth it starts back then when the Japanese invaded Hong Kong during December1941, in what was by all accounts a brutal invasion, before the British surrendered on Christmas Day. But this was all long before I became some small part of it, and I can only tell what I know and what I can piece together from the fragments that I have been able to gather.

I can not remember a time in my life when I was not aware of the fact that my grandfather had been a Prisoner of War , nor can I can remember a time when I knew anything more that this single stark fact. All through my childhood it was like a black hole, something that, no matter how hard you stared into it, never reflected back any light. All there was was a sense of bitterness and rancour that would occasionally spill out if anybody mentioned the Japanese and an impression of my Grandfather (actually my step-grandfather) as a man who could never quite settle down, who was always throwing himself into some new thing, some hobby or other, only to drop it a few months later before moving on to something else.

As a teenager I became involved in the peace movement and I remember the arguments it caused, how my grandfather would rage shouting that he was glad the Americans dropped the atomic bomb 0n Hiroshima. It was not as if I was unaware of the situation, and though curious to find out what might have been behind it I quickly learned to keep things to myself and it remained a black hole (This was nothing new in my father's family, who seem bereft of the expression of emotion and hid much away. Of my biological grandfather I knew only three facts -- that he had run in a trial for the Olympics, that he had worked in the factory that made Cat's Eyes, and had died of lung cancer when my father was twelve. I was in my late twenties before I was even able to find out his first name).

As I grew into an adult very little changed, everything remained as closed off as it had always done and though I learned to feel sadness for my grandfather it was to remain a private thing. Then a few years later I learned that my grandfather had returned to Japan. He had gone to look for the grave of a friend - I am still unclear what precisely had gone on but from what I know it seems his friend had taken the punishment for something he, my grandfather, and another friend had done. I am not sure what, only that it was something necessary for their survival, probably stealing food. As a result of this my grandfather survived the war but his friend didn't. When I first saw my grandfather after I had learned this I found myself in the presence of a changed man as if something had been released in him. For the first time in my life I heard him speak about his experiences in the camps.

When he started to speak about this the words that came from his mouth were not tales of pain and suffering, instead he told one simple story that spokes volumes of the possibilities of forgiveness and of the potential to be human in the face of degradation. He told of how he had been taken to Japan to work as a slave labourer in a peanut oil factory in Honda Docks. One day the Allies had started to bomb the city, dropping incendiary devices that soon set fire to the wooden houses. The prisoners were taken out of the factory and given beaters, then sent out to fight fires as the incendiary bombs fell on roofs. He describes coming across a Japanese woman and her children, frightened, lost in the streets as the bombs fell around them. He talked of putting his arm around and running with her to the air raid shelter before returning to fight the fires.

As I listened to the story I had to choke down the tears amazed that of all he could have chosen to tell me he has told me a story of such simple humanness, of an act of kindness to what only a few years before had only ever been the enemy. Since that time I have a sense of my grandfather who has at last found a little peace because he has at last been able find some forgiveness. He has subsequently made other trips to Japan. He has never been able to find the grave.


I wanted to say a little of why I chosen to write this and why now? Today I have the feeling that I too have to make some kind of journey to release something from my past, to take a trip to my own Japan. The connection is somewhat accidental; something I read here put me in mind of my grandfather's story for the lessons I have learned from it seem clearly relevant -- that holding onto things from the past is likely only to perpetuate pain but that it is never to late to find a way back to release it.

I taught English for a number of years in Bangkok, and one of my students was a Thai man who grew up in the province of Kanchanaburi, where The Bridge on the River Kwai was (and still is). During WWII this man was a boy, and the Japanese peacefully occupied Thailand. The area around his home had POW camps which housed the (mostly farang, that is western) prisoners who were charged with building and rebuilding the bridge across the river, which would allow the Japanese access to Allied-controlled Burma. When I asked him what people thought about having these camps in their midst, he said that many felt sorry for the POWs and would sneak them food and other necessities whenever they could.

Once a Japanese military leader came to view his Boy Scout troop, and stopped and spoke to him. Perhaps this military man singled out my student because he was bright and good-looking; he remained a smart and handsome man well into his 60s, which is when I met him.

Kanchanaburi has large graveyards filled with almost 10,000 white crosses to memorialize those who died in the Japanese POW camps.

In the last few decades, as WWII veterans age, some of them have tried to find a kind of peace and resolution to this most horrifying yet seminal period of their lives by visiting Kanchanaburi. A number of European vets have actually met with their Japanese former captors in Kanchanaburi, apparently in some cases a cathartic reunion for both.

For many years after the fall of the Roman Empire, prisoners of war were simply killed by their captors. During feudal Europe, those attitudes changed. Prisoners were captured and used for slave labor or ransomed back to their homeland. These practices continued for many years until the seventeen and eighteen hundreds brought about new ways of thinking about many different subjects, including the treatment of prisoners of war.

De l'esprit des lois and Social Contract, by Montesquieu and Rousseau respectively, stated that the rights of the captor over a prisoner ended at the end of hostilities. This idea formed the basis for the modern treatment of prisoners of war. During the American Civil War the first written regulations on the treatment of prisoners of war was written by Francis Lieber . It was known then as Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field and is known today as General Order No. 100.

In 1899 the first convention discussing prisoners of war was held in Hague, Belgium. In 1907, a second convention was held in Hague again. However, during World War I, many of the points agreed to during the two conventions proved unenforceable because there was no language in either of the conventions requiring inspections of prison camps nor was there any correspondence allowed with prisoners. Because of this, the Red Cross began to lobby for a revision of the Hague Convention of 1907. In 1929, a new agreement was reached at the Geneva Convention which provided for the inspection of prison camps by neutral countries as well as for permission for prisoners to correspond with their families. The Red Cross would be in charge of that responsibility. Furthermore, the Geneva Convention also stated that a prisoner of war did not have to give their captor any information other than name and rank. Prisoners were also given the right to receive proper medical care and an adequate food supply.

After World War II, the treatment of prisoners as well as the refusal of the Soviet Union to release many German prisoners showed that the Geneva Convention of 1929 needed revisions. In 1949, the Geneva Convention reconvened to expand the categories of people entitled to prisoner of war status. This convention expanded the list to include organized resistances, militias, and volunteer corps. It also reaffirmed the idea of the immediate release of prisoners after the end of hostilities.

Almost all the countries in the world signed the Geneva convention agreement of 1949. Unfortunately, there have been many violators of these agreements in the years since. North Korea did not allow the Red Cross to access its territory, nor did it allow inspection of it prison camps. North and South Vietnam both violated the Geneva Convention agreements by torturing their prisoners. There have also been many violations committed in some of the more recent conflicts. For example, the conflict in the former Yugoslavia as well as in the Gulf War. Some people have even argued that the United States is violating convention rules by interrogating prisoners it has captured in Afghanistan. However, the United States claims that its prisoners do not fall under any categories spelled out in the Geneva Convention. Perhaps this situation may lead to future conventions which reaffirm, redefine, and introduce new language as to the treatment of prisoners of war.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.