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#Bookreview Surviving the Death Railway: A Pow’s Memoir and Letters from Home by Hilary Custance Green (@HilaryCustanceG) A touching reminder of the people behind the history books and a well-deserved memorial

Hi all:

As I told you I’ve accumulated a lot of reviews that I haven’t had a chance to share yet. Today, I bring you a book I read recently (I’m afraid there won’t be a lot of order on how I share the reviews either). A fellow blogger (Hilary Custance Green) contacted me to ask me if I would be interested in reviewing a non-fiction book. As you know, I read and review mostly fiction books, but I’ve read many non-fiction books in my life, for my studies or personal interest, and when she explained her project, I couldn’t resist. Through her book, I got in contact with a very interesting publishing company from Barnsley, South Yorkshire, a stone throw away from where I live and with a great and varied catalogue. They kindly sent me a hardback copy of the book and I read it on my recent trip to Paris. Although I don’t mention it on the review, the book (that’s also available in digital copy) is filled with maps, photos of the letters, and pictures of the people it talks about, so a paper copy is a good investment.

And no more blah, blah, blah…

Surviving the Death Railway. A PlW's Memoir and Letters from Home Edited by HIlary Custance Green
Surviving the Death Railway. A PlW’s Memoir and Letters from Home Edited by Hilary Custance Green

Surviving the Death Railway: A Pow’s Memoir and Letters from Home by Hilary Custance Green

The ordeals of the POWs put to slave labour by their Japanese masters on the ‘Burma Railway’ have been well documented yet never cease to shock. It is impossible not to be horrified and moved by their stoic courage in the face of inhuman brutality, appalling hardship and ever-present death. While Barry Custance Baker was enduring his 1000 days of captivity, his young wife Phyllis was attempting to correspond with him and the families of Barry’s unit. Fortunately, these moving letters have been preserved and appear, edited by their daughter Hilary, in this book along with Barry’s graphic memoir written after the War. Surviving the Death Railway’s combination of first-hand account, correspondence and comment provide a unique insight into the long nightmare experienced by those in the Far East and at home. The result is a powerful and inspiring account of one of the most shameful chapters in the history of mankind which makes for compelling reading.

This is the link to the hardback copy in Amazon.co.uk:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/d/Books/Surviving-Death-Railway-Pows-Memoir-Letters-Home/1473870003/

This to the digital one:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Surviving-Death-Railway-Memoir-Letters-ebook/dp/B01ICYJNQW/

Here in Amazon.com:

https://www.amazon.com/Surviving-Death-Railway-Memoir-Letters-ebook/dp/B01ICYJNQW/

In my review, I share the publisher’s site, where you can also get a copy:

Thanks to Hilary Custance Green (who edited part of her family history and that of many others) and to Katie Eaton from Pen & Sword Books Limited  (www.pen-and-sword.co.uk) for sending me a paperback copy of this book that I freely choose to review.

As a reader, when it comes to stories about the war, I’ve always been more interested in the individuals (both in the front and back home) than in the way the battles were fought. I had heard, read, and mostly watched TV programmes and movies about Japanese war camps (I won’t forget Tenko in a hurry).  Probably lots of people have. This book provides the personal experience of a family whose lives were affected and transformed by the war. We get to know Barton (Barry) Custance Baker, born in Malaya, before the war; we later learn of his marriage to Phyllis and then we follow him all the way back to Malaya and read on as he becomes father and prisoner of war. We also read (thanks to the correspondence of the period, some that reached its destination and some that didn’t) about Phyllis’s life, the thoughts of those left back home and the way they tried to hang on to hope.

The book combines letters from Barry to Phyllis about his life in the East, most of the time not sure if any of them would make it to his wife, letters from Phyllis to Barry, trying to keep up his spirits with news about their son, Robin, and his family, and the diary Barry wrote, containing more details about his time abroad, although always trying to emphasise the positive and understate the difficulties. The combination of these narratives creates a complex and complementary testimony of the varied experiences of the war for those on both sides of the conflict, such as the difficulty of being away and separated from those you love for years, missing the early years of a son you hardly know and worrying that you might no longer know your partner when you go back (or when they come back), and contrasting the often mistaken ideas and thoughts about what the other party might be enduring.

Barry’s parents thought he would be bored as a PoW, never imagining he would be building a railway line, the Thailand-Burma railway, appropriately called Death Railway, as it cost so many lives (not only British). That he, as an officer, might be engaged in heavy labouring work, starved and ill did not enter their imagination.

Barry also had little concept of life back home and did not have news of his parents’ move to San Francisco to help with radio transmissions in Malayan or later, of the death of his younger brother, John. He imagines there might be some restrictions and even danger, but not how unsettling the lack of news was.

Barry’s efforts trying to ensure he kept track of his men and that he did all he could to keep them safe were echoed by those made by Phyllis, who tried her hardest to create a network of information to share any news between the relatives and friends of the men in her husband’s unit, sending encouraging letters, and even creating a dossier with as much data as possible about all the men, to facilitate the task of the War Office in identifying and reporting their fate.

The book is extraordinary too because it clearly shows the tireless efforts they all made to try and keep in touch at a time when communication with each other wasn’t only a click away, and when sometimes years might pass without any news of the other person (and in the best case scenario the news might be years old by the time they get it). Forget about 140 characters on Twitter. The rules of their communication kept changing and at some point they could only send 25 words to their loved one, and that included the date. And the best they could hope for was a prewritten card with only a few words added by hand.

If physically the experiences are very different (although not full of gross details, we get a clear sense of the trials and suffering the men had to endure), mentally, the toll of the lack of information, of the separation and the impotence is clear on both sides. And those letters of mothers, girlfriends, uncles, asking for information about their loved ones, sharing the good and bad news, but always trying to encourage the other person, no matter what their lot has been, are impossible to forget. Even the replies to Phyllis request for particulars about the men convey so much more than what is written. It is amazing how a few words to describe somebody can be so full of feeling and be so touching, and how much they say about unspoken emotions.

As readers, we can but share in the feelings, and are touched by the hopes, anxieties, and stress of the situation. We are given an extraordinary insight into the lives of people whom we might have known, and who could have been our neighbours, friends, or family. We read about their joy at the impending reunion and their wish to get to know each other (and the worry that they might no longer recognise or like the persons they have become). Barry and Phyllis become our ersatz family and we’re happy to learn they had more children and lived happy and fulfilling lives. I was particularly moved by a moment towards the end of Barry’s life when he’s ill in hospital and for a moment believes he’s back at the camp. When his daughter (Hilary) explains to him what has happened since and he realises he’s ill and dying but has lived a full life he says ‘I’ll settle for that’. I hope we all can say that when our time comes.

Hilary Custance Green, the editor of the book, and Barry and Phyllis’s daughter has found the way of letting the letters and the diary tell the story, with very little explanation or unnecessary interference, other than minimal clarifications or explanations when needed. The material is powerful enough in its own right. She has done a great job and the book is a great memorial not only to her parents but also to all the men and women who went through the experience. At the end of the book, there is a call to anybody who might have information about families of members of the Men of 27 Line Section to get in touch with the editor. Don’t forget to pass the message on if you know anybody connected to the men or with contacts who might have more information.

In summary, this is a fantastic book for those interested in World War II, both from the point of view of war action and of the home front, those interested in stories about PoW, tales of human bravery, valour, endurance and the heroism of extraordinary ‘ordinary’ people. Don’t miss this book and don’t forget to pass it on to anybody who might have known a member of the unit.

Here a bit about the editor of this fantastic book:

Author, editor Hilary Custance Green
Author, editor Hilary Custance Green

Hilary Custance Green was born in England, but had a European childhood, including two years at the top of the rock of Gibraltar and four years in a Belgian convent. She studied languages at school but was determined to become a sculptor. After her first degree, in Fine Arts at UEA, she went to St Martins in London and pursued her dream, working as a sculptor for twenty years while also getting married and having children.

She became fascinated by the brain and studied Psychology at the Open University, followed by a PhD at Cambridge University looking at Attention mechanisms in the brain. It was during this period that she started writing fiction. She found the contrast between the direct, clean arguments of academic writing and the rich, sensation-laden prose of fiction highly enjoyable.

Hilary aims to write entertaining, read-in-bed fiction, yet her books also look honestly and realistically at how individuals cope with what life throws at them. In 2003 Hilary’s first novel, A Small Rain, was published. She was interested in the way our social life is scattered, so you might practise music with one set of friends, take Spanish lessons with another and the confusion that can result when these groups meet. A Small Rain also looked at the way grief disrupts life and music and poetry can act as consolations.

Unseen Unsung was published in 2008 (with the eBook version appearing in July 2014). This opens in the ruins of a building and looks at the courage of ordinary individuals in extraordinary circumstances. In this book, Hilary allowed her passion for music free rein but always making it accessible to non-musicians.

In December 2014 her latest novel, Border Line, will come out in both print and eBook format. This is a love story set in Slovenia, yet it also explores the dilemmas of living with guilt and choosing suicide and the vexed subject of assisted dying.

Hilary is also working on an exciting non-fiction project about Far East POWs in WWII. She has hundreds of letters written during WWII between a young couple and also from the wives and mothers of men imprisoned in the Far East. She wants to tell, using their own words, the story of separation and survival, hope and heartbreak that so many of our parents and grandparents lived through.

To see more about Hilary go to her website at www.hilarycustancegreen.com or visit her blog at www.greenwritingroom.com

I asked the author/editor, in case any of the readers knew somebody who might have information about the Men of 27 Line Section and she suggested it might be worth checking this post on her blog for more information. And don’t forget her website.

Thanks so much to Hilary Custance Green and to Pen and Sword Books Limited for this opportunity, thanks to all of you for reading and remember to like, share, comment and CLICK!

By OlgaNunez

I was born in Barcelona and after living in the UK for many years have now returned home. I teach English, volunteer at Sants 3 Ràdio, a local radio station, I'm a writer, translator (English-Spanish and vice-versa) and I'm a medical doctor and worked in Forensic Psychiatry many years. I also have a BA and a PhD in American Literature and Film, and a Masters in Criminology. I've always loved books and apart from writing them I review them often.
I write a bit of everything, check my books for more information and my about page for links.
My blog is bilingual, English and Spanish.

15 replies on “#Bookreview Surviving the Death Railway: A Pow’s Memoir and Letters from Home by Hilary Custance Green (@HilaryCustanceG) A touching reminder of the people behind the history books and a well-deserved memorial”

Olga, thank you so much for this comprehensive review and all the work to gather information around the book and my life. I have just returned from giving a talk about the book in the North of England to a group of people who were, many of them, alive during the war. I found their reactions and questions very moving. On the train I read, and enjoyed, Jessica Duchen’s Ghost Variations, thanks to your excellent review!

Thanks, Hilary. It was a great experience to be able to share the story. And thanks for introducing me to Pen & Sword, who are based very close to where I live and have a fabulous catalogue I’ll keep my eyes on. And I’m so pleased you enjoyed Ghost Variations. A wonderful book!

This sounds like an excellent personal story to add to the many about those camps, and POW conditions. I was reminded of the film ‘The Railway Man’, that I watched last year. Good luck to Hilary with her new book.
Best wishes, Pete.

Thanks, Pete. It’s very well done and a good addition indeed. I didn’t catch ‘The Railway Man’ but now I’ll try and get hold of it. Thanks, Pete!

Thank you, Pete. My hope was not so much to add to the (plentiful) supply of books about the horrors of war, as to show the extraordinary efforts made by very ordinary people, both in the camps and back in Britain, to survive and to maintain human contact.

It sounds as if you managed that very well, Hilary. My uncle was a POW of the Japanese, until late 1945, so I knew something of his story too. Badly damaged by the experience, at a time when we didn’t talk about PTSD and such things.
Best wishes, Pete.

I am a little out of date with my responses, Pete, but can you tell me the name and regiment of your uncle? Also whether he was in Thailand on the railway or elsewhere in the Japanese territories?

He was originally in the Royal Artillery, a regular before 1939. I don’t know which exact unit he served with in Burma, but he spoke of using small field guns, which were taken apart, conveyed on mules, then reassembled for fighting. There were native troops serving alongside him as well, doing some of the manual labour. He was not a prisoner on the railway as far as I know. I believe he was in a larger camp, somewhere else. Unfortunately, all my older relatives on that side are now dead, so I have no one to confirm anything with. His name was Harold Johnson. ‘Uncle Harry’ to me. I am unsure what rank he had when he was captured, but probably bombardier.
Sorry I cannot be of more help.
Best wishes, Pete.

Hello, Pete, (there doesn’t seem to be a reply button to your comment), so just to say thank you for this information. I have a good source of information about prisoners on the railway in Thailand, but I may not be able to find out more about your uncle. I will be at a memorial service for FEPOWs in Wymondham in a couple of weeks and at a FEPOW conference in Liverpool in June. So I will remember him.

Thanks, Hilary. I think the issue with the reply button is that it only allows for 5 embedded comments out of a single one. I have both your and Pete’s e-mails, so if you wish to exchange details for further communication, let me know. There would be always room for an update post in the future. Thanks and all the best.

I too find the war stories of the people more interesting than the fighting, Olga. Hilary has really done her homework — and so did you. I appreciate this detailed review, and the introduction to Hilary. Huge hugs!

You are kind, Teagan. It is one of the forgotten aspects of war that so many soldiers, who are never involved in fighting, suffer and die. In the group of 69 men (and their families at home) that I write about only one died in ‘action’; he was restoring power lines on an airfield during the battle for Singapore.

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