Victory in Japan Day: keeping memories of Far East prisoners of war alive
PUBLISHED: 17:36 07 August 2015 | UPDATED: 17:37 07 August 2015
Liz Bestic tells Anna Behrmann about discovering the story of her father, an officer captured by the Japanese
As a young girl growing up, Liz Bestic found her father cold and distant. She knew that he had been in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, but the details were hazy.
“He had told my mother bits and pieces, so I got stories secondhand,” she says. “There was always a sort of mantra in the house – don’t forget what your father’s been through. We knew that he had suffered a lot and was prone to bouts of depression.”
As she was growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Bestic started rebelling against her father, who she describes as “Victorian”. “It wasn’t easy. I think my mother found it hard, and I just wanted to escape and leave home, really,” she says. “I did my A-Levels early, went to secretarial college and became a journalist – I didn’t go home for a long time after that.”
When her father died 17 years ago, Bestic was left an overflowing box – a jumbled collection of letters and documents from her father’s time as a war prisoner in Java, an island not far from Singapore. It was only when she moved house last year in Crouch End that she decided to sort through her father’s belongings.
“I opened this box, and I can’t believe that I never opened it before, but there were all sorts of letters from him to my mother,” she says.
Bestic has been looking into her father’s story in the run up to Victory in Japan Day. William Woods, an RAF officer, fought in the Battle of Singapore in the allied forces’ Far East Campaign. He was taken prisoner by the invading Japanese army and held in prisoner of war camps in Java for three and a half years, from 1942 to 1945.
He could not communicate with his wife, Cynthia, and reassure her that he was alive. It was only when the war ended and Cynthia was told that he would be released that she received three cards from him, all arriving in quick succession.
Inside the box, Bestic found a detailed record by her father of the prisoner of war camp activities. As an officer, he had been responsible for around 100 men. She believes that he must have either kept this diary hidden from their Japanese captors, or started writing it in its minute detail on the long boat ride home.
As part of his war log, her father described the treatment that he received as a prisoner of war. “The tortures they suffered were horrendous,” Bestic says. She learnt about how their Japanese captors would “stake them out on the ground in the burning hot sun, with a glass of water just out of reach”. Bestic found out that some of the prisoners had to dig their own graves and those of their colleagues, and nobody knew if or when they would be called upon to do so. Her father had nightmares long after he returned.
Although Bestic started researching her father’s story in earnest just last year, she reconciled with him while he was suffering with dementia. As his memory started to fade, Bestic describes how her father just saw her as a “loved female thing”, and it became easier for her to chat to him.
Bestic learnt that although she had been brought up as a Catholic all her life, her father had lost his faith in the camps. “His sense of humour sustained him in the camp,” she says. “He had an incredibly strong spirit; he was stubborn, single-minded.”
Since finding out about her father’s story, Bestic became a member of the Far East Prisoners of War association, and has met and interviewed survivors. It is vital for her that people remember this part of the war, and the Allied captives in Java island and in the Far East. The Japanese prisoners of war were released three gruelling months after the riotous Victory in Europe Day celebrations.
Bestic is determined to keep their memory alive and to campaign for greater public education and awareness. “There were thousands of men who died in those camps, in horrendous circumstances, and I would like to see a decent memorial,” she says.
Victory in Japan Day is on August 15. Details of the Java Far East Prisoners of War Club can be found at thejavafepowclub42.org/history
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