J. Alan Smith on an act of reconciliation
My father, Francis John (Jack) Smith, died in Mukaishima POW Camp on 28 December 1942. Mukaishima is on a small island off the southern coast of Honshu, the main island of Japan, near Onomichi. In fact, when the Air Ministry formally confirmed his death to my mother, the document stated that he had died in Fukuoka Camp, Kyushu Province, South Japan: I imagined this to be on the large island at the south-west of Japan. In August 2002 my mother and I attended an event at RAF Cranwell to mark the 60th anniversary of the surrender of the Far East Air Force on Java in March 1942. It was only then that we learned that my father had actually died at Mukaishima.
In recent years I have been invited to the Annual Receptions at the Japanese Embassy in London for former POWs and their families to promote peace and reconciliation. At the first one I attended on 19 July 2007, while making my way out I started talking to Paula Medcalf, the middle daughter of John Medcalf. John had been a POW at Mukaishima where he had been in the same room as my father. He survived the War, dying on 18 March 2007. During his captivity he maintained a diary (a brave thing to do) and Paula kindly emailed me a copy of the page where he had recorded my father’s death. I still have the strange feeling how remarkable it was that I should have started talking to the one person there who could have given me that piece of family history.
During the War, the bodies of the men who died were cremated and their ashes buried on a hillside on the mainland near Onomichi. After the War a nameplate was installed on the site containing the name of those who had died and a wooden grave post. Around 1947, the ashes were removed and reburied at the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Yokohama: presumably, the board containing the names and the gravepost were also removed as no longer relevant to the site. In October 1998, a party of FEPOWs and bereaved relatives visited the camp. One POW, Norman Widlake, raised the question of what had happened to the gravepost and the nameplate. A group of Japanese, led by Koshi Kobayashi and the Revd Mitsuo Minamizawa, a Christian Minister, decided to raise funds for a plaque to be made and installed on the wall of the former camp, by then the Mukaishima Spinning Company: this was completed in March 2002.
On Monday 16 April 2012, Paula Medcalf emailed me to say that the Mukaishima Spinning Company had gone out of business and the building holding the plaque was scheduled for demolition on 20 April, and asked me to use my political influence to preserve the plaque. Feeling that my influence may have been exaggerated, nevertheless I emailed Mrs [now Dame] Eleanor Laing, MP, the same day asking her to do what she could. On Thursday 19 April, I received an email from Mrs Laing, enclosing a letter from the British Ambassador in Tokyo to the Mayor of Onomichi City, stating: “on behalf of the British Government, I would like to register our concern that the memorial should be protected during the re-development, and properly re-established at the earliest opportunity. As you will realise, failure to do so would cause deep offence to the bereaved families of those POWs.” The result of this and other representations was that an unveiling ceremony was held for the reinstallation of the plaque on 15 April 2013, together with a plaque for some American POWs, on land provided by the supermarket ‘EVERY’ which had taken over the site.
At a recent Reception at the Japanese Embassy, I talked to a young Japanese naval officer. He told me that his father had been born just after the War and that his grandfather had fought in the War but never talked about it. That puts the War into perspective. Discussions about what happened during the War are not forgotten but belong to history, though not exclusively to historians. I suggest that the term ‘VJ Day’ be replaced by a term such as ‘World Peace Day’, making the point that 15 August 1945 marked the end of the Second World War. Further, I should like to suggest that the August Bank Holiday should be moved to the 15 August, except that, when 15 August falls on a Saturday, the Bank Holiday should take place on the preceding Friday and when it falls on a Sunday it should take place on the following Monday.