to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

29.1 Historiography

I have learned a new word: historiography[1]. I realized that that is what I have been doing on this topic for these past few years. I have been (and will continue) to analyze how history has been written about. IOW, I have no direct knowledge or experience of any of these event since they all occurred before my birth. I have been accessing numerous sources of information. Comparing and contrasting those sources. Examining and re-examining them. Extracting and amalgamating facts. Finding errors. Writing the story of these brave (and unfortunate) men.

With rare exceptions I have had no access to unique or unread sources of information. I have built my story like a jig-saw puzzle by gathering a fact or figure here or there and trying to place it in with other similar facts and figures until a clearer picture appears. Perhaps the most unique thing I have done is to find colleagues capable of 1) translating pertinent items (inscriptions on existing monuments more than documents; 2) leading me to other places to explore to expand a particular section of that puzzle.

Of course, I have done all of this from the luxury of my man cave. I sit with my laptop literally in my lap and explore the world via the internet. Except for a few actual books, the internet has been my ship of discovery. I suppose I owe a huge shout-out to the folks at GOOGLE for providing me with the ship that I can use to sail the ether to find these trinkets of information and rearrange them into a larger jig-saw puzzle picture.

I have learned a lot along the way. I don’t mean just the facts and figures that define the various parts of this vast saga. I mean the historiography – the way history has been written about; how it has come to be told by people with very different perspectives. I have also learned a lot about those who facilitate the writing and printing of these accounts. As to these latter, they are generally lazy! They often do not do their jobs particularly well. Of course, I am mainly referring to the many books written by the POWs themselves. In many cases these were published many years after the war. One of the latest was 2012. But I have discerned a pattern that is somewhat disturbing. On one hand, the editors who assisted these men wanted to allow them to tell their stories as they knew (remembered) them. On the other, few of the editors made any attempts what so ever to correct errors that inevitably crept into these narratives. Human memory is fallible to say the least. But dates, facts and figures are available from multiple sources to assist in correcting those failures of memory. I find it appalling that those editors made no efforts to correct dates and places, to ensure that the narrative being offered was in tune with the history that was already documented. I don’t mean to single him (them) out but it is most fresh in my mind as am adding this small puzzle piece to the larger narrative that British LtCol. Alfred Knight’s memoires are a perfect example of these failures. Two areas jump out of this narrative: 1) it is almost devoid of dates; 2) he names individuals throughout his story in such a way as to leave them completely un-identifiable. He rare proves a given name or he refers to a given name without a surname. He also refers to the same person in different parts of the narrative by a different name[2].

Knights generally keeps to a chronological narrative, meaning that he doesn’t jump about in time as he relates his story. But at the same time he rarely places his personal story in the larger saga with dates. And when he does these are more as part of the narrative than any interest in the date. For example, he speaks of what occurred at Christmas and only by doing so does he then place the events into alignment with history.

A more general failing of editors is the use of place names by the authors. The western POWs had considerable trouble with the names of the people and places they encountered along the way. Individual POW have described the places they remember with vastly different levels of accuracy. Hence the long lists of different names given to the same location by these POWs. Of all of these, my personal favorite is ‘Tamwin’. I struggled to find where such a place was to be found in Kanchanaburi. It wasn’t until one POW provided the key when he describes it as being about 10-12 kms east of the main ThaMarKam camp. There is only one place that fits that description: Tha Muang. So somehow Tha Muang was either heard and used or at least remembered as Tamwin when the story was put on paper.

I found it exceedingly rare for any editor to make a correction to the words of their authors. The simple addition of a footnote would have been sufficient to set the historical record straight, but hardly ever is one to be found. One could get the impression that the editor had not even fully read the text he was facilitating into print.

I don’t want to pick on Alfred, but there is another error in his narrative that could have been easily corrected with a simple look at a map. I only identify it here because it is quite often repeated in many memoires. He describes his journey from Kanchanaburi City to Tarsoa (which he mis-names as Tasoa) as going through LatYa. He is further mistaken in that he places LatYa on the opposite bank of the river from the city. It is not. The actual LatYa is about 10 Kms farther to the northwest of the city and would not likely have been on the route of anyone’s TBR-related journey. I have no way to identify the actual name of the place he is referring to and in in the overall context it is an unimportant factoid in his narrative, but the editors failed to make an effort and allowed his faulty memory go to print.

Relating such a series of failures is not meant to demean LtCol Knights. He told his story as he knew and remember it. The editors simply failed to make any effort to better define and correct his narrative. As I point out in the account of the placement of the VFW monument at Kanchanaburi, there are times when the best available information is still not accurate.

Cycling back the beginning of this section, we all owe a great debt to the dozens of POWs who took the time and effort to record their experiences. Without their contributions, a major portion of the history of the war in SEA would be lost. There are literally hundreds of such books, No one could possibly read them all. I have benefited immensely from the creation of eBooks (particularly those published in the format of the KINDLE FIRE as sold by AMAZON). One great aspect of such a format is that the text is searchable. One can return to the book time and time again and have it instantly extract items of interest.

IMHO, one of the best written and informative of these memoirs was offered by British Lt John Coast. But in the context of this discussion, I note that his editors added an appendix to expound and in some cases correct the names of individuals that he mentions, sometimes only in passing. This to my way of thinking is fulfilling the job of editor and keeping the historiography on track. In a few cases Coast intentionally refers to individuals by pseudonyms, perhaps to protect post-war sensibilities.

In contrast, is the short book (under 100 pages) offered by US POW W F Matthews. Even though his story is potentially one of the most unique among the US contingent, his editor Travis Monday fails miserably in relating it. Not only is it written a choppy and fragmented way (Monday was a newspaper reporter not a historian) it relies heavily on text taken from a colleague’s (Kyle Thompson) book to even take the story to 100 pages of text.

In contrast to these overt failures by many editors to present a historically accurate account of events in the texts they were responsible for, I am compelled to congratulate Dr. Ronald E Marcello. Over the course of many years, he conducted interviews with dozens of former POWs. I have been privileged to have read many of those interviews. While he allows the interviewee to relate his story in his own works – sometime quite inarticulately – he interjects questions that keep these interviews accurate. He would offer a date would keep the interviewee on track. He would often backtrack and ask that the person elaborate on a particular aspect of his story in such a way as to correct inaccuracies that he was aware of. He had become quite the expert on the TBR story and could easily see if the interviewee was straying from known facts.

I am also deeply indebted to Professor David Boggett. Over a five year period (2000-05) he published a series of essays in the Kyoto-Seika Univ journal relating many events that were little known. And yet, he too, fell prey to a few documentable errors. In his tenth article of the series he discussed the 1944 Japanese shrine / memorial to the romusha who died while building the TBR. But at the same time he states that that memorial includes the Japanese soldiers who lost their lives during this same period. I can find absolutely nothing to tie the Japanese soldiers to that memorial.

There is an ongoing discussion as to whether or not the Allied POWs were included in the concept of that memorial. There was reason to believe that the plaque at the entrance to the park was written as revisionist history to include them. So what better way to clear up the mystery than to look to the shrine itself? According to the translation provided by a colleague (a professional translator) the soldiers are in no way mentioned but the POWs definitely are.

One of the greatest contributions to the larger saga that Prof Boggett made was his in depth accounts of the plight of the romusha workers. To date, his is the most complete account I can find. One of most poignant accounts is of how post-war no government or agency stepped in to assist the thousands (tens of thousands?) of romusha who were consolidated at Kanchanaburi. Even though the majority of them were technically British subjects from Malaya or Singapore, London offered no assistance to their repatriation. I will not pretend to be able to document much less explain this failure. Survivor accounts tell us how quickly the TBR and Singapore-based British POWs were repatriated (many if not most were in England by OCT-NOV 1945). There is nary a mention of the romusha. Boggett (also a Brit) castigates his government for their callousness.  

In the same vein, there is a Ph.D. Thesis[4] written in 2017 that examines in depth the efforts (or lack thereof) of London to try to act to alleviate the sufferings of the POWs – particularly those held by the Japanese. They seemed to be all too aware that the eventual death toll or Asian POWs was approaching 25% while that for those held by the Germans was closer to 4%. Yet, there was little more than “diplomatic wrangling” and hand-wringing in London. They seemed more concerned about the story that they could offer to the families as to how and why the entirety of British holdings in SEA had fallen so quickly. The historiography here is not so much about the actual facts as to how to ‘spin’ them for consumption back home.  

In short, there is often a disconnect between the facts and figures of actual historical events and the way in which that same story is eventually related = historiography.

I must also acknowledge the value of the efforts of the website ANCESTRY in digitizing US NAVY documents they label as Muster Roles. Prior to the advent of computers and Hollerith cards, USN Yeoman typed thousands of rosters detailing the name, rank(rate), serial number and status of tens of thousands of US NAVY crewmen. Thanks to the efforts of the ANCESTRY contractors in digitizing many of these, we can track the movements of many of these men quite accurately. It is mainly through these ‘original’ documents that were can accurately state that only 4 of those WIA on 4 FEB 42 in the Houston’s turret attack, survived the war.


[1] the writing of history, especially the writing of history based on the critical examination of sources, the selection of particular details from the authentic materials in those sources, and the synthesis of those details into a narrative that stands the test of critical examination

[2] He talks of R D Hempson of the V organization as well as a Dick Henson. These are undoubtedly the same individual.

[3] WF Matthews LOST BATTALION SURVIVOR by Travis Monday. Lulu Enterprises 2004

[4] Andrew Chesworth Univ of Sheffield July 2017 PLANNING AND REALITIES: THE RECOVERY OF BRITAIN’S FAR EAST PRISONERS OF WAR 1941-1945