by Terry Smyth


Rain is in the air, but yet to fall. All around, the vegetation is dense and vibrant, its colours drawn from a rich palette of greens.

‘They want to know if they can do the interview now.’
‘Can you ask them if I can have a little more time, to look around, to take photos?’
‘Of course.’

October 2010, and I am in Omine Machi, Yamaguchi Prefecture, having traveled with my wife, Lalitha, from Suffolk, England. Between 1942 and 1945 my father, Edwin Smyth, lived in this place as a prisoner of war, forced to work in the nearby coalmines. My visit here will last barely ninety minutes: three years in ninety minutes. Three years of pain and anguish now embodied in a small but respectful memorial that local people erected in this clearing in September 1996.

In 1944, the 180 British POWs were joined by 280 US troops one of whom was the US senior officer, Captain Jerome McDavitt, whose daughter Linda also wrote an essay on her visit for the US-Japan POW Dialogue website.  Kinue Tokudome kindly put me in touch with Linda which then led to my writing this essay. As with Linda, my visit to Omine Machi was organised in large measure by Rev. Masami Hazama, Mr. Kotaro Ogata, Mr. Fumio Yamamoto and Mr. Koshi Kobayashi.

Mr. Fumio Yamamoto and Rev. Masami Hazama

As I stand in the clearing, my thoughts turn to what I know of my father’s and mother’s wartime experiences. For eighteen months, my mother knew nothing of what had happened to her husband. Then, the card arrived:

I am interned in Nippon.
I am working for pay.
My health is excellent.
My treatment has been good and you must not worry.
Please see that all at home are taken care of.
My love to you.
Edwin C. Smyth
(July 1944)

Imagine my mother’s reaction. She must have been overjoyed! Not only was her husband alive, but he was being treated well and his health was excellent! But the brutal truth was very different - the prisoners of war suffered from beri beri, dysentery, diarrhea, malaria, pellagra, denge fever, malnutrition……. They were fed rice, thin soup, insects if they were lucky. They were beaten and hit with rifle butts; many died.

Until we finally arrived in Omine Machi, all my impressions and imaginings of wartime Japan had been in black and white, in two dimensions. Blurry photographs of similar camps: wooden buildings, sticky, filthy mud, the dust, the heat, the cold. Now black and white has exploded into colour, and I can start forming new and more hopeful memories. This surprisingly beautiful landscape, so scarred by pain and suffering, has now been reclaimed by nature. What secrets might lie beneath the heavy foliage?

We are harried with great courtesy by the local news media. I am interviewed by a local television reporter. Some minutes after the interview, I spend time in front of the entrance to the coal mine where my father laboured for all that time. Later, I write:

A place abandoned.
Dark opening, derelict,
I greet my father.

The young reporter returns; he is looking earnest. ‘I am Japanese,’ he says in faltering English, ‘I am so sorry for what we did to your father’. He looks as close to tears as I am.

My father made it back to England in one piece, but he and his family were changed forever. I well remember him telling me how grateful he was for the care and treatment he received from the American doctors and nurses on board the USS Consolation. This is part of a letter  he wrote to my mother at the time.

I am writing this on an American Hospital ship from Wakayama to Okinawa (Japan). I have been ill from several things but I am getting better now – thanks to skilled attention.

            Well, I hope to put more weight on before I arrive home as I want you to recognize me.  After 3˝ years of the most horrible nightmare existence, which has left me like so many others weak, underweight & perhaps changed in many ways, we are at last released, something we dared hardly hope for.

Before the war, my father had been a sign writer. In the camp he was asked to write the names of the dead POWs on the boxes containing their remains. He struck up friendships with three American POWs, one of whom was a US Marine called Leonard Rogers, with whom he shared a love of art. An artist himself, Leonard worked for the Disney Corporation after the war. At the end of hostilities, while they were both recovering in a Fukuoka hospital, Leonard gave my father two drawings as mementos of their friendship. My father’s likeness is remarkable.

Unlike Linda’s father, my father spoke very freely about his POW experiences. As a small child, I often found this difficult to listen to. Yet, despite the constant ill-treatment and disease, he never once expressed any hatred towards the Japanese people.

Wherever we go in Japan we are flooded with kindness; overwhelmed by the tremendous friendship and help we receive. Young people are courteous, curious, open minded. The older ones hold painful memories but want to make amends, to move beyond past traumas and establish new friendships. War makes good men do bad things, I tell a group of elementary school children in Mine City. They sing to us, then invite us to join them in making origami.

We receive an official reception in Mine town hall. The setting is very formal and speeches are exchanged. The whole event is recorded by a crew from local television. It’s the first time in ten years that a POW or their relatives have visited Mine. In the evening we gather round the television in the hotel reception to watch the broadcast.

We speak to students at Reitaku, Seikei and Aoyama Gakuin Universities, take tea with the Ambassador at the British Embassy, and visit the immaculate British Commonwealth War Cemetery in Yokohama where a service is held. Our trip concludes with two nights at the Yokohama home of Mr. Noboru and Mrs. Rhuko Mori.

With every year that passes, fewer and fewer ex-prisoners of war survive to share their unique experiences with us. So now their children and grandchildren need to take on the mantle of promoting education and reconciliation. The world is too dangerous a place, and the legacy of past wars too corrosive, to allow this work to falter or lapse. In schools and in universities, we must search for how the different generations in the US, UK and Japan can best learn together. We need to help Japan’s young people grow more aware of this troubled period in their history. For me, as an educationalist, perhaps the most important question arising from my trip is, how can we achieve this in a way which is both sensitive yet truthful?

A joyful postscript

We are fortunate to be living through a period when electronic communications have advanced to the point where we can connect instantly across the globe to share a common purpose or interest. In September 2012, Randy Johnson, the great niece of my father’s American friend, Leonard Rogers, emailed me. This was such a surprise because it had been many months since I had first put an item in ‘Leatherneck’, an online magazine for the US marine corps, asking for help. Subsequently, I was delighted to be able to send her copies of Leonard’s drawings, reciprocating in a small way her great uncle’s generosity towards my father. This was the first time her family had seen any of Leonard’s work.

Terry Smyth
15 May 2013