Homecoming. If a picture paints a thousand words it’s this one – on display in Liverpool on Saturday, at a memorial which is 66 years in the making.
It shows the sheer joy of reunion of a released Far East prisoner of war Lance Bombardier Albert Harvey with his wife after four years of separation.
At a reception at Blackpool mayoral parlour, the Royal Artillery (Blackpool Regiment) man also scooped daughter Sylvia into his arms.
“Golden haired Sylvia was very excited on meeting her daddy for the first time,” noted The Gazette of the day.
The paper meticulously noted the names of hundreds of prisoners of war released from camps in the Far East in the run up to repatriation in 1945 – just as it had recorded those known to be captured in 1942.
It supported the local council’s campaign to bring our boys home – for they languished long after celebrations of the end of war in Europe.
Repatriation ships such as Monowai, Dutch liner Boissevain, Orduna, Empire Pride, and others arrived to rapturous dockside scenes at Liverpool – Monowai’s captured by Pathe News.
Almost seven decades of pictures from our own archives, shared with organisers of the new permanent memorial to the Far East prisoners of war at Liverpool, still have the power to move.
Local history has not taught us what happened to Albert and that lioness of a wife, but they made their mark on history. The bravest of the brave, resort reservists celebrated by one officer as “the finest of men”.
The memorial at Liverpool’s Pier Head pays tribute to thousands of men, women and children, who survived captivity in Japanese PoW and internment camps, and returned to Britain in the autumn of 1945.
Meg Parkes, chairman of the Researching Far East Prisoner of War History Group, whose own father was held in Java and Japan, realised there was no memorial to repatriated PoWs and internees in Liverpool. It has since been funded by public subscription.
“The memorial is significant because it pays tribute to the survivors of the war, not to the war dead,” says Meg. “For many, the struggle to survive continued once they were home.”
These forgotten heroes, frail today, in their late 80s or 90s, health broken in camps but stoic of spirit, were subject to suffering beyond experience or imagination of loved ones.
Many could not bring themselves to speak of it. David Akhurst, son of Blackpool artist and Gunner Basil (Akki) Parry Akhurst, admits: “He would not talk of it.”
But his cherished pictures, cartoons and scrapbooks have been copied for safe keeping of Blackpool Central Library archivist Tony Sharkey, who says recognition for Akki is long overdue. The quest is on, with support of Meg, and Midge Gillies, author and editor of the group’s newsletter, for one missing link... a 237ft-long watercolour Basil produced for a FEPOW Federation reunion at the Norbreck Hydro in 1956. “I find it inconceivable it could be lost,” says Meg. David adds: “I can’t say how much it would mean to see it.”
Basil’s work and that of fellow Gunner Leo Rawlings, who used blood and plant dye to depict disease in camps proved invaluable to the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, which has close links with FEPOW. Research and extracts from the school’s oral history interviews can be found at www.captivememories.org.uk. Leo was cheered by 1,000 locals at Talbot Square in 1945, gathered to greet six repatriated local soldiers. He told the Gazette the “Nipps” had failed to break their spirits. Later he was reconciled with the Japanese and became a peace campaigner.
Almost to a man, the Blackpool Regiment (137th Field) fell into enemy hands with the Fall of Singapore, those who lived suffering years of hard labour, malnutrition and illness in jungle camps, which only ended with the surrender of the Japanese after the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima.
Some 20,000 servicemen and more than 1,000 civilian internees disembarked at Liverpool in eight weeks from October 8 to December 10. Many had started their journey there in 1941. Some signed up in 1938. They were left behind while Britain celebrated the end of war in Europe. Locals later campaigned for their release and repatriation.
Twenty former PoWs and families will join 350 invited guests for the granite memorial’s unveiling at 11am on Saturday outside the Pier Head.
Former PoW Maurice Naylor, 91, admits: “There are not many of us left now and soon there will be none. But this is a memorial too to the girlfriends, spouses, parents and grandparents who put up with us and our idiosyncrasies.” Organisers have also paid tribute to local historians and archivists who assisted – including Gazette archivist Carole Davies.
n For more information, see www.researchingfepowhistory.org.uk and www.captivememories.org.uk.