My guest today is author Hilary Custance Green and she will be sharing the story her father’s imprisonment by the Japanese during World War II and the letters that were written to her mother Phyllis by the wives and families of other Far East Prisoners of War.
About Hilary Custance Green.
Hilary had a nomadic childhood moving between England, Gibraltar, Germany and attending school in Belgium and therefore studying languages might have been the obvious choice. But it was art that was to become the priority. Hilary took degrees in Art History and Art Sculpture and then spent many years producing some stunning pieces. You will find examples of her work on her website: http://www.hilarycustancegreen.com/Hilary_Author_Website/Sculpture.html
This was not Hilary’s only creative endeavour as she also immersed herself in poetry and music both of which would feature side by side with her experience with the more scientific approach to brain health in her stories.
As her two daughters were growing up Hilary added to her academic honours by completing an Open University degree in Psychology, followed by a PhD at Cambridge University. She put the PhD to use by working for the Medical Research Council investigating the language and memory systems of the brain by studying various forms of early-onset cognitive Disorders.
Whilst Hilary was producing academic documentation she also began her writing her first novel A Small Rain…The story reflects on how we hold a different role within the various groups of people in our lives such as family, work and friends but how these groups can often be connected and hidden.
Hilary’s second book which is also in Ebook version is Unseen, Unsung
Luca, a brilliant and self-absorbed young opera singer, is buried in the rubble of a collapsed building. A girl crawls through the debris to comfort him and then vanishes. Perhaps she died in the ruins, or perhaps she was a figment of his imagination. The truth is even stranger and he is unwilling to accept it.
Her third novel is Borderline in both print and Kindle versions.
“Of course love is the ultimate luxury, but I am unwilling to continue in the certainty of its absence.”
Grace, racked with guilt, is searching online for ways to die and she finds Daniel. Like a pied piper he leads her and nine other people on a trek across Slovenia. For twenty-one days they share stories and secrets, play games, surprise themselves with laughter… and make their final decision.
Border Line is a passionate love story told against the backcloth of the Slovenian landscape. It tackles contentious issues around suicide and assisted-dying and is both thought-provoking and ultimately uplifting.
Hilary’s latest book is the collection of moving letters between Phyllis and other families whose loved ones were also Far East Prisoners of War. Surviving the Death Railway.
Now it is time to hear more about the background to this deeply personal story from Hilary.
In 2010 I was sitting on the side of a bed in my father’s house three months after he died. I opened a box file and found the WWII letters between my parents, Phyllis and Barry. One letter I pulled out was in pencil on a page from a child’s schoolbook.
It was the first that Barry, now a free man, had written after three and a half years as a prisoner of the Japanese. I read on, letter after letter, touched to discover that with freedom came uncertainty. Barry writes: I don’t dream about you because I don’t dream at all. I just lie awake until the small hours and think about our next meeting.
Three months later in a military museum, I found another collection of WWII archives – the letters written to Phyllis by relatives of the Far East prisoners of war (POWs) in Barry’s Unit. These held the thoughts and feelings of ordinary mothers and wives about their men, missing in the Far East since February 1942. Mrs Hanlon writes:
Dear Madam I am writing on behalf of my sister Mrs Bamford as her and her husband is no scolar and I have to do all the writing for them,…[she describes her nephew William]… He had no nickname just Willie he did not speak very clear the last time we saw him but he had false teeth before he went over sea but we did not have the pleasure of seeing him with them in before he went away, …
By the time I came to read this letter I knew that Willie had died of cholera in 1943. One of his mates said of him: Grand kid. 100% liked by everybody.
In this same box there was a ‘dossier’, a simple page with information and sometimes photos for each of the 68 men in Barry’s Line Section. Here is Billy Dawson’s page:
I decided then that Willie Bamford, Billy Dawson and his parents and all the other men and women of 27 Line Section deserved more from posterity than to be shut away in a file in an archive in an inaccessible museum.
When Sally interviewed me at the beginning of 2015 (about my novel Border Line), I had been researching this story of Phyllis, Barry and 27 Line Section for five years and it was my dream to publish the book. Not long after this I was lucky enough to get a publisher – Pen & Sword – and the book was released this June 2016.
I was also lucky that I had my father’s memoirs of his life as a prisoner as well as all the letters. This meant that I was able to make a continuous story of both the men in the Far East and their mothers, wives, fiancées, grandparents, brothers and sisters in Britain. These relatives waited months, even years, for the news that their men were POWs to reach them. Some families heard nothing until their man did, or did not, come home in late 1945.
The story starts in 1941 when Barry and Phyllis were both 25 with a baby, Robin and Barry was given the captaincy of a line section of 70 men to take to Malaya (where he had been born).
The section left for the Far East in July 1941. They were a mixed bag with some Dunkirk survivors, some small groups of Midlands and Cumbrian soldiers and a large contingent of Scottish reservists from the Post Office and similar occupations. Before they embarked on their troopship, the Scotsmen organised eight Eightsome Reels simultaneously, so Barry remembers: ‘…my last memory of England for four years was dancing on the platform at Liverpool Docks.’.
In February 1942, the men were all captured when Singapore fell to the Japanese. From then on they became navvies, many of them on the Thailand-Burma Railway. The worked with hand tools, clearing trees and jungle scrub, building embankments, bridges and viaducts through virgin territory. They suffered from malaria, dysentery, beri-beri, horrific jungle ulcers, cholera and, above all, starvation. They were still put to work even when sick. Over a third of the men died.
They also kept each other alive by inventing, making and mending anything and everything from blood transfusion equipment to a double bass. They put on shows in the bigger camps, they sang and danced, and cared for each other.
In Britain in February 1942, a wall of silence came down. Phyllis sent out a circular letter to the families of Barry’s men. One wife replied: You tell us to keep a high heart and hope for the best, and so I shall. For the rest of the war Phyllis gathered and shared news with these waiting women and men.
Later in the war she created her ‘dossier’ to help the War Office debrief some Far East POWs rescued after a ship was sunk. The letters sent to her by relatives are full of delightful and often heart-breaking details of the boys who set off in 1941. Mrs Lane writes about her grandson Arthur: I brought him up as a Baby having lost his mother and father and unfortunately I lost my husband so I was forced to put him and his brother in the National Children’s Home… . Then there is Mrs Farrell who describes her son disarmingly: Although there was nothing outstanding in his appearance… he had a tattoo done on his right arm, it began at the wrist and went almost to the elbow. It was the figure of a Highlander in full national costume… .
Surviving the Death Railway is a story about ordinary men and women, such as postman Neil MacDonald, who got married to Margaret on his Embarkation Leave in 1941.
It is not so much a story about the horrors of war and imprisonment, as about the amazing support these men and women gave each other during those weary years. Their hope for a better life never left them and when their men came home they all worked to achieve it.
One of the reviews for Surviving the Death Railway
This is an extraordinarily interesting book. It reduced me to tears several times. It is so much more than just another account of the harrowing conditions experienced by Far Eastern prisoners-of-war. The memoirs and letters of Barry Custance Baker, who suffered on the Burma railway, share equal billing with the experiences of his wife in England. Phyllis became known as the “Mother of the Regiment” as she kept in touch with the families of the men of 27 Line Section who had served under her husband in Singapore and were taken prisoner with him.
Letters from these families have all survived and are a testament to the anxiety of the women whose husbands, brothers and sons were prisoners of the Japanese. In addition to all this, the letters between Barry and Phyllis written after his release, during the months of his recuperation and long voyage home, show the rebirth of a love affair interrupted by war.
In breathing life into the story of her parents’ struggles during these years, Hilary Custance Green has not only written a moving tribute to two extraordinary people, she has also widened the canvas to pay tribute to all the men of 27 Line Section and their families. I cannot recommend this book too highly.
Buy Surviving the Death Railway: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Surviving-Death-Railway-Memoir-Letters-ebook/dp/B01ICYJNQW
Details and links to buy Hilary’s other books : http://hilarycustancegreen.com/Hilary_Author_Website/BOOKS.html
Connect with Hilary Custance Green
Twitter : https://twitter.com/HilaryCustanceG
Photographs ©Hilary Custance Green
My thanks to Hilary for sharing the background to this moving story that was a true labour of love to research, compile and edit.
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Thank you for stopping by and it would be great if you could share on your own networks. Sally