Glorious homecomings were recalled win October 2011 when tribute was paid to the Far East Prisoners of War and civilian internees who returned to Liverpool during the autumn of 1945.
Exactly 66 years after the Dutch ship Nieuw Holland docked, carrying, among others, seamen who had been held in the notorious Changi jail in Singapore for more than three-and-a-half years, a repatriation memorial plaque was unveiled at the Pier Head.
The plaque, situated alongside other World War II maritime memorials near the new Museum of Liverpool, is the first memorial to those thousands of men, women and children who survived their ordeal in Japanese PoW camps.
During 1940-41 thousands of troops left Liverpool for service overseas, including some of the 50,000 British forces personnel later captured by the Japanese after the fall of Hong Kong (December 1941), Singapore (February 1942) and the Dutch East Indies (March 1942).
They were put to work as a slave labour force under appalling conditions of neglect and abuse and more than a quarter died in captivity.
More than 20 former prisoners from around the country, who are now in their 90s, were among hundreds of invited guests who attended the unveiling service at 11am on a gloriously sunny day on Saturday 16th October 2011.
A large, grey granite plaque bears the names of the 22 repatriation ships which docked there between October and December 1945. The ships are listed in two columns, either side of a central dedication.
The first ship – the Monowai – arrived on October 8 and once the 22nd and final ship had docked more than 20,000 FEPOWs and civilians had come home.
Meg Parkes, from Hoylake, who chairs the Researching FEPOW History Group, which raised the £4,000 needed for the plaque, says: “It will, we hope, remind generations to come that survival from captivity does not always mean liberation; it can sometimes lead to another war that has to be fought and, hopefully, won.”
Meg’s father, Andrew Atholl Duncan, from St Andrews, Scotland, was held in Java and Japan and returned home through Southampton on November 18, 1945. He and his wife, Elizabeth, later settled in Moreton, where they were GPs.
FEPOW widow Merle Hesp, from Warrington, who gave a reading at the service, was married to Harry Hesp, a crew member on the Empress of Asia, which was sunk by the Japanese in Singapore on February 5, 1942 – and he spent more than three-and-a-half years as a civilian internee in Changi jail and Sime Road camp.
Harry, who died in 2009, aged 85, and was only 21 when he returned to Liverpool on the Nieuw Holland, met Merle in 1956 – but she only found out he had been a POW from somebody else.
She recalls: “He never spoke about it. I had to work out some of the things that bothered him. He suffered greatly with claustrophobia and objected to food being wasted – that really upset him. Eventually, after quite a few years, I got him to talk about it. I asked him to write down his thoughts – he let me read some, but not all, of it.”
In 2004, they visited Changi before its demolition: “I saw the cell – B28 – where Harry slept on an infested rice sack and realised how confined the space was and where his claustrophobia had come from.”
But she adds: “Harry never thought of himself – he thought about all the lads who didn’t come home.”
At the moving service at Liverpool pier head a lesson was read by FEPOW daughter Pauline Simpson, the FEPOW Chaplain and the Secretary of NFFWRA.
Among those being remembered was the late Oxton-born Brigadier Sir Philip Toosey who, as a Lieutenant- Colonel, was the senior Allied officer in the Tamarkan Japanese POW camp. His men built the bridge on the River Kwai – the 1957 film of the same name outraged survivors because Lt Col Toosey did not collaborate with the enemy, unlike the fictional Col Nicholson, played by Alec Guinness).
Patrick Toosey, 77, NFFWRA Patron, who still lives in Oxton, recalls: “I was 12 when my father returned on the Orbita on November 9, 1945. There was just a sea of people and they included people who didn’t know whether their loved ones had survived. I can still recall one woman running and shouting ‘Has anybody seen my Johnny?’ We were among the lucky ones.
“My father kept things very much buttoned-up. They were told to get on with their jobs and lives, which wasn’t frightfully helpful. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that he sat down with Peter Davies, a professor at Liverpool University, who taped his recollections (which led to Prof Davies’s book The Man Behind The Bridge).”
Patrick’s father was knighted in 1974, the year before his death at the age of 71.
Two of Sir Philip’s great- grandchildren, Zach and Eliza Parsons, nine and seven, who live in Leicestershire, laid a wreath at the service, while former POW Maurice Naylor, MBE, 91, who also lives in Leicestershire and who served under Lt Col Toosey, unveiled the plaque.
Maurice says: “There are not many of us left now and soon there will be none. It is therefore to the great credit of the Researching FEPOW History Group that they conceived and have seen through to completion this lasting memorial to those who, having survived, nevertheless had to contend with the long-term physical, mental and emotional effects of captivity.
“It is a memorial, too, to the girlfriends, spouses, parents and grandparents who had to put up with us and our idiosyncrasies.
“And we must remember those many thousands of our fellow prisoners who, sadly, died during their captivity from disease, neglect and brutality in atrocious conditions. Their families continue to suffer too.
“Their sacrifice should never be forgotten.”
NFFWRA members at the unveiling at Liverpool dockside October 2011