Eric Lomax, as a young Royal Signals officer, had the misfortune to get caught up, with a third of a million others, in what has been called a ‘logistic imperative’, an enterprise more vulgarly known as the Death Railway, planned and carried through by the Japanese Imperial Army. At any point in history a logistic imperative is something to be avoided at all costs, whether it involves cutting the Americas in two or building St Petersburg in a freezing swamp. It is familiar lore that on the labour-expendable rail route from Siam to Burma each sleeper represented a human life. More than twelve thousand of Lomax’s fellow prisoners of war died of disease and vile treatment, as did an estimated one hundred thousand ‘coolies’ from neighbouring lands. Lomax, for breaking his captors’ rules, had both his arms broken in a flogging to which was added water torture; his punishment was roughly equivalent to the old-time treatment for an obstinate sailor – the cat-o’-nine-tails and a keel-hauling. Mercifully, if surprisingly, no flashbacks portraying these events were shown in the lightly fictionalised television film Prisoners in Time, which was based on The Railway Man. Given what was done in the film The Bridge over the River Kwai, that stirring symphony of false notes, it can hardly have been an easy decision for Lomax to allow his life to be re-scripted and interpreted by others. Millions will have seen Prisoners in Time, but this well-written and well-judged book is the superior article.
Newspapers have told how, even now, survivors of the Far Eastern war have been paying thousands of pounds to self-publishing firms to bring out their fifty-year-old diaries or memoirs. For decades such accounts – some, supposedly, written at the urging of psychiatrists – have been turning up on publishers’ ‘slush piles’; scores more must have been despairingly abandoned in attics. Lomax had the advantage of an angle which seemed too good to be true, that of the railway fanatic sent to work on the worst railway in history, an experience akin to that of a keen oarsman sentenced to serve in a Barbary galley. But the better and more compelling angle was the successful quest of the tortured man to track down the torturer’s apprentice, the interpreter who, during the brutal interrogations, kept repeating, ‘Lomax, you will confess’ and: ‘Lomax, you will be killed, whatever happens.’
The publishers describe The Railway Man as a story of innocence betrayed. Certainly there is an engaging air of innocence about this young man, the son of a postal worker, born as one world war ends and thus of ideal age for service in the next. His home was Joppa, on the Firth of Forth, a ‘tram heaven’ boasting as it did one of the last cable tram systems (did he ever marvel at Glasgow’s strange-smelling subway in which coaches latched onto an ever-moving cable?). But steam was the thing and the great Portobello Goods Yard was young Lomax’s idea of paradise. He insists he was never one of those much-mocked addicts with no thought beyond logging engine numbers: he thrilled to the magic of the higher locomotion in all its manifestations. Train-watching was not without its perils, however, as when an older man in a long overcoat approached young Lomax on a lonely platform and lured him away to join a strict Baptist sect. At high school he was never much of a joiner; he had a passion – a disastrous one, as it turned out – for making lists and writing things down. He left school at 16 and joined the Post Office, studying telegraphy and telephony.
The Royal Signals, recognising his technical skills, decided he also had officer-like qualities and he was commissioned. Overseas service, for which he volunteered, introduced him to life in commandeered luxury liners, grand hotels, special trains. Footloose in Cape Town he spied the first locomotive ever to work in the Cape Colony, a small tank engine built in Leith in 1859. From Bombay he rode 1400 miles by Frontier Mail to Rawalpindi, where he was given a bearer and a dhobi and learned to ride. Join the Army and see the world, the posters used to say, and on leave he saw the ultimate wonders of Kashmir. Then came another voyage by the crack liner Orion to Singapore, and a few weeks later, along with 130,000 others, the railway man was ‘in the bag’.
The Japanese ignored the Geneva Convention and harnessed officers and men alike to their war machine. ‘It takes time to break an army,’ writes Lomax, but the Japanese put their mind to it. To the young Baptist at one point fell the task of holding his guard’s rifle outside a whore-house while his captor paid a call – an incident that has cropped up in other memoirs of those days. Lomax was assigned to a working party in an engineering workshop, where conditions were tolerable. The honourable course, when possible, was to do shoddy work slowly, in a way that could not be traced back (compare The Bridge over the River Kwai, fiction piled on fiction, in which British captives give of their utmost to build a fine bridge which will speed up the Japanese invasion of India, and a commando-type unit is sent out to destroy it). ‘I think every prisoner became a slacker, a saboteur, and of course many of us are doing it to this day, having spent so much time creating quiet havoc in our early manhood,’ writes the author, perhaps a shade harshly. Among the finest fiddlers of those days were the medical officers, trying to save as many men as possible from the horrors of the ‘hand-made railway’. The admirable Dr Robert Hardie, who served in Changi gaol, wrote in The Burma-Siam Railway: ‘I used to think that after these experiences I would never be able to tell the truth plainly again.’
And so to that midnight hour in the guardroom, when Lieutenant Lomax removed his spectacles and watch, laid them on a table, and went out to be flogged senseless with pick handles, having already watched that fate dealt out to two fellow officers, one of them a major of 50. The Japanese had found an illicit radio and were exacting revenge. Few of those 130,000 captives would have been able to reinvent wireless telegraphy from scratch, even in the best of conditions, but these victims had been cursed with technical knowledge. Shortly afterwards two British officers were flogged to death and their bodies thrown into latrines. Lomax’s ordeal was far from over. He was found to possess a well-executed map of the railway, even though all he had seen of the actual enterprise was the flow of doomed reinforcements passing the camp gates (and, one day, the sight of a magnificent turn-of-the-century locomotive by Krauss of Munich, complete with cow-catcher). The carefully drawn map convinced the Kempeitai, the secret police, that he was a spy, since they did not recognise such a thing as railway mania. There followed the water torture, a five-year sentence by military court and appalling months in Outram Road military gaol in Singapore, where starved prisoners came to resemble walking anatomy lessons. By this time the Death Railway was ceasing to be a logistic imperative, as the Allied victories at Imphal and Kohima wrecked Japanese plans to invade India.
Saved at last by the Bomb, the homing prisoners of war had their brief reintroduction to luxury. Lomax and a fellow survivor were taking tea in the Belvedere at Calcutta – one of those palaces the Forces were adept at picking up – when they were approached by a ‘vigorous breezy memsahib’ who said that as they had been captives during most of the fighting they must be eager to do their bit now. Yes, they could have replied, it was all a riot of Red Cross parcels and high-kicking theatricals. The veterans of Singapore were to find that their privations would generally be accepted with great stoicism. The War against Japan, the five volumes of official history, contain only ten pages in all about the prisoners of war, in striking contrast to the coverage in the Australian and New Zealand war histories. One day, however, Lomax saw a small item in the newspaper saying that two Japanese had been executed for their part in flogging the two British officers to death. ‘I knew that my statements had helped to hang these men,’ he writes, ‘and I felt a cold twinge of satisfaction.’
So what does a man who has been tortured, and who has acquired a talent for deviousness, do on Civvy Street? Lomax appears not to have contemplated a career on Dr Beeching’s railways, and who shall blame him? He rejoined the Army for two years, then became one of Britain’s last colonial officers, ending up dispensing justice on the Gold Coast. Later he lectured on personnel management, that art which had reached its nadir in Outram Road military gaol. On the face of it he had made an astonishing recovery. But the wounds of memory and recurrent nightmares haunted him and so did a desire for revenge on that Japanese interpreter. Perhaps it was unreasonable to reserve such loathing for the torturer’s apprentice, the clerk in unholy orders, but at least the man was identifiable and recognisable. It is no surprise to learn that Lomax’s private life was taut with tensions. ‘At times my good qualities, which I am self-aware enough to know that I have, could almost be crowded out by sudden triggerings of frightened anger. A confrontational edge to a voice could bring all my shutters down.’ And icy rages could be the reward of friendly teasing.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the torturer’s apprentice, the man who had watched as the hose-pipe was thrust down the victim’s throat, had identified himself and achieved mingled fame and notoriety on the banks of the River Kwai. (His face was seen frequently on British television in the staged reconciliations for the 50th anniversary of VJ Day.) Nagase Takashi had helped the War Graves Commission to locate scores of bodies buried along the route of the railway. He had built (with unexplained funds) a Buddhist shrine at the Kwai bridge. To the anger, apparently, of many Japanese he had published a small book expressing his contrition and shame for wartime events; and he had even described the water torture as he remembered it. Lomax read about all this with a chill scepticism, suspecting that the activities of Nagase might be a publicity stunt. How deeply felt was his regret? Was forgiveness on Lomax’s part even thinkable? He could not bring himself to approach him direct, but his second wife sent off a restrained and sensible letter setting out the situation. The reply from Nagase, to whom the letter must have come as a powerful shock, struck her as ‘extraordinarily beautiful’.
The reader knows all along how this bizarre tale will end (its last words are ‘Some time the hating has to stop’) but the account of how the final reconciliation is reached is stiff with suspense and rich with ironies. One day Lomax, his mind not yet made up, refreshes his memories – as if they needed refreshing – by visiting the Public Record Office at Kew, where he reads the documents, including his own typed statements, of the war crimes trial which avenged the two officers. At nearly seventy he becomes the first veteran of World War Two to be counselled by a newly formed body, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. In return for their help he assists their cause, bracing himself to face television cameras and to answer journalists’ questions. Then at last comes the confrontation beside the Kwai bridge, where the slight and agitated figure of Nagase bows and his victim says, in Japanese: ‘Good morning, Mr Nagase, how are you?’ Thereafter a wary courtesy prevails. Beside the great smiling Buddha there is ‘another benign presence ... a carefully preserved locomotive, a veteran of the Royal Siamese Railway, built in Glasgow, I noticed, in the year of my birth’. Thanks in some measure to Sam Spiegel and David Lean the site of the bridge is now a busy tourist area, which cannot have helped the process of reconciliation. Later the two men, with their wives, visit Hiroshima and the Japanese war memorial at Yasukini, where the presence of a monument in honour of the Kempeitai is partially redeemed by the display of an immaculate C56 locomotive, said to be the first engine to traverse the Burma railway, ‘its beauty a monument to barbarism’. Nagase has ‘a tendency to wish to make our encounter public, a symbol’, and there are always pressmen hanging about. The final meeting, however, is completely private and very different from the emotional exchange portrayed in Prisoners in Time. How much more convincing, always, are the cold facts.