The Nakon Pathom Incident
Translating & Interpreting in Thailand POW camps
I am trying to compile an account of how, in the Thailand POW camps, some news of the war was learnt by translating newspapers, Chinese, Japanese and Thai, that were brought into the camps. It’s part of the larger story of how individual POW’s, with their individual backgrounds, used their various skills to further the common interest, helping all their companions to stay sane. Reading newspapers was not as dramatic as hiding radios nor, initially, perhaps not as dangerous. I concentrate on it because of my father’s history and would be very grateful for any further information. This particular story culminated in what may be called (thanks to A.E. Nellis’s accounts) the Nakon Pathom Incident.
To summarise what I have learned and list the names of all the POW’s I know were involved. Many thanks to Keith Andrews, Walter Pollock and Mike Nellis, who have already been so helpful. A different kind of thank you is for eight extraordinary POW friends, who contacted my mother after the war: G.M. “Tiger” Coltart, Percy McNeice, Eric Nonweiler, Arthur Jordan, P.N. Knight, A. Noel Ross, Ronald Tytherleigh Wait, R.P.S. Walker and a Major in the R.A., c/o The Conservative Club, St.James’s Street, London, whose name I have been unable to read. Eight ex-POW’s, each of whom, in the maelstrom of the war’s ending, separately sought to contact the widow of a friend who had died in captivity, and who subsequently more or less disappeared from sight in the emotional chaos that enveloped so many people immediately thereafter.
There were a number of POW’s who knew Chinese. Probably most of them had been trained in the Malayan Civil Service. In particular (in order of age) Arthur Jordan, Alistair Hay, Jim Rea, Percy McNeice and Robin Band. The attempt to glean information from Japanese newspapers began at Changi. McNeice described this: “We used to get bits of news – this Japanese paper that was printed in English, you know, in Singapore, that used to be brought in. And If you read it carefully, and then occasionally a name would be mentioned and if you thought about it, you could draw some conclusions and we used to have these discussions. And I remember I used to have a little group and we used to say: ‘Well, the Japanese wouldn’t have printed so and so if it didn’t mean something.’ ”
More unusual were those, often not in the Civil Service, with a knowledge of Thai, such John Pollock, and of Japanese (Tytherleigh Wait). Many of these, perhaps because they had been captured as Volunteer soldiers, were shipped to Thailand together. The POW’s at Changi had evidently been reorganised into their original units after the chaos of capture.
Hay, McNeice, Pollock & Band left on October 28, 1942, and had all finished up at Kanyu 2 by early 1943. Wait was not shipped until “H” force, in May, 1943. So it was probably at Kanyu 2 that their translation activities started, as a way to back up news gained from the wireless. There must have been newspapers available in Thai & Chinese, locally published for civilians, and Japanese, for the army. I would like to know (but am not optimistic) exactly what newspapers were read, so as to find what news was learned.
A note on languages: The peculiarities of the translation work arose from the peculiarities of the languages. All three belong to entirely different language families. All three can be spoken without having any idea how to read or write them. Chinese and Japanese can be read with little or no ability to speak. Thai can be read only if its phonetic script (or its sources) is known. For Chinese, every single word is a distinct character and must be learned individually. Phonetic Japanese (i.e. kana) can be written & read fairly easily once 52 symbols have been learned. But each Japanese kanji must be learned separately.
Thai is related to some other Southeast Asian languages and is written in a phonetic script derived from South Asian forms. Chinese forms its own family and is written in an ideographic (not pictorial) script that had reached its essentially modern form by around the 1st century A.D.. Japanese also seems to define its own family, although origins in the Altaic and relations with other Pacific languages have been suggested.
The Japanese language is entirely and profoundly different from Chinese but, since originally Japan had no script, it had begun to borrow the Chinese written language by the 5th century A.D.. Unfortunately, Chinese written forms were seriously unsuitable. To begin with, Japanese borrowed Chinese characters, meaning plus pronunciation (now called kanji). Then it began to use Chinese characters as phonetic elements to represent Japanese words & sounds. This happened in several stages and, as a result, there can be up to four different ways to pronounce a kanji in Japanese today. The Chinese characters adapted as phonetic elements are called kana. There are two kana syllabaries (each symbol represents a sound rather than a letter). Hiragana is used to represent native Japanese sounds. Katakana is used to represent non-Japanese sounds. Up until WWII, the Japanese language used a very large number of kanji. Since WWII, the number of kanji has been much reduced. Thus, up until WWII, someone who could read Chinese could, if they had a teacher or a lot of ingenuity and energy, learn to read a Japanese newspaper.
Japan had humiliated China in the 1890’s (acquiring Taiwan among other prizes). It invaded Manchuria in 1931 and opened full-scale war on China in 1937. Virtually every Chinese hated the Japanese. In Western (Nationalist) China, Japan was the enemy. Many Chinese lived in Thailand and Chinese newspapers were published there but they would have been subject to Japanese control. Thailand was very suspicious of Western nations, being flanked on the west and South by English colonies, and by French colonies to the east. To begin with, Thai’s were understandably either neutral or even pro-Japanese (as were also, for similar reasons, the Burmese, formerly under British rule). But much news could be gleaned from all these newspapers, although much interpretation was necessary also.
Since even knowledge of war news was reason for great suspicion by the Japanese, since the wireless was the obvious source, and since the Japanese frequently searched for radios and being discovered with one was generally fatal, reading newspapers was obviously a good alternative, if they could be read. The Japanese in general did not even suspect that Westerners might be able to read Chinese, or Japanese. The experiences of those, like Wait, I believe, who already knew Japanese, would be very interesting to hear about.
The issues of language had already arisen in Changi, in relation to self-education, as men began to exchange their individual skills, and as initial efforts were made to understand Japanese newspapers (I do not know whether Wait worked on newspapers -- I think I have seen a reference to his work as an interpreter?). Hay had fallen ill on the way up to Kanyu 2 and, when he rejoined his friends, brought with him a small Japanese dictionary that he was delighted to have found.
It seems, therefore, that Band, Hay & McNeice formed a translation team in Kanyu 2. But many of them were in poor health, the older men especially (Hay was already 44) and on 30 March, 1943, McNeice was moved to Chungkai. On April 4, 1943, Hay also was invalided back to Chungkai. A statement by A. Noel Ross notes that, at Chungkai, Hay continued translating newspapers “at great risk to himself.” Later recollections by McNeice confirm that the Kanyu team reconstituted itself for the year they were in Chungkai.
Max and William Webber, brothers from pre-war employment in Malaya, operated a radio in Chungkai. McNeice remembered that “we were … so careless … the news was sent round to us in the form of a written news sheet headed ‘BBC News,’ with the date.” A group of them was discovered reading such a sheet by a Korean guard. The sheet was resting in a hymn book and the men immediately started singing a hymn. The guard eventually retired in confusion.
McNeice was moved to Tha Muang on 28 May, 1944. Band must have gone with him, since McNeice recollected that the two of them continued to translate Japanese newspapers there. There was also a radio, so news from the two sources could be compared. On January 27, McNeice was moved to Kanburi. There was still a radio there, but the Japanese were by now stricter than ever, confiscating paper and pencils to prevent the circulation of news.
Jim Rea left a record that, in June 1944, Hay was moved to Nakon Pathom when it was opened as a hospital camp. By now, the radio as a source for news was increasingly unavailable (E.E. Dunlop notes that, after he had been worked over by the Kempeitai, he had passed is radio to Clive Wallis. Whether it was operating at Nakon Pathom, I don’t know (Wallis seem to have been a Medical Corps Major, a letter written by Hay to G.M. Coltart, three weeks before Hay died, states that “Wallis is pretty fit,” I don’t know whether this is the same person). but the Japanese, as their military situation worsened, in Burma at last, as well as in the Pacific, were often even more severe than before and became even more determined that no news at all should reach POW’s. Equivalently, once there was knowledge of the Normandy landings on June 6, POW’s must have finally foreseen the first incontrovertible hope of release and become even more desperate for news. Newspapers were by now more strictly forbidden. It seems that Hay very soon became involved in translating.
A Dutch POW, Mark Van der Valk, arrived in Nakon Pathom on August 20, 1944. As a scholar of Chinese, he was immediately introduced to Hay, who already had a Chinese newspaper “kept under the blotter of his desk” (a surprising image!). “Soon afterwards,” their reading of Chinese novels was replaced by Chinese newspapers, “which then began to come in more frequently.” Hay “had also acquired quite a lot of Japanese, enough to read a paper at least.” The two of them would co-operate on translation and together issue a “communiqué.” Some accounts hint at a third person. The earlier, painful experience had taught them to be very careful about revealing any knowledge of outside news. The communiqué was passed to hut commanders and they, after a delay, would disseminate it more widely. Writing anything down was forbidden by the POW’s themselves.
During the Allied advance through France, Bryan Young (?) looked after the maps, Bryan Green, Eric Nonweiler, O’Reilly [first name?], George (“half-American born in the Philippines) and others “in the neighbourhood” took part. Van der Valk wrote that he never really knew from where the paper came, perhaps thrown over the fence. But other accounts, although not entirely consistent, are more informative. At some point, Hay had been placed in the “Dying Hut,” part of the hospital complex where those with little hope of recovery were allowed, in the words of A.E. Nellis “to sleep and pace away in as dignified a manner as possible.” An advantage of this area was that the Japanese were generally reluctant to penetrate, and illicit activities were consequently safer.
I am not sure how long Hay was in this hut (and therefore how long the translation enterprise was centred there), for in some reports he sounds very active, at least intellectually. Van der Valk records that a Japanese guard who like to come in to play chess was “allocated” another POW, whose job it was to pin him down in a game. The remarkable Canadian surgeon and a man of considerable learning, Jacob Markowitz, worked in this section and used to visit Hay to discuss Greek and Latin verse. I now wonder whether Hay had been deliberately moved to the Dying Hut in order to isolate the work of translating newspapers. McNeice’s recollections suggest that this may have already been the case at Chungkai. However, in late September, Hay did, in fact, fall seriously ill with malaria and pneumonia.
In October, this news-gathering enterprise, perhaps the final organised effort, came to grief. One account, that of A.E. Nellis, relates that two Australian Privates, Wellock & Price, had gone outside the camp and were bringing back newspapers. Probably their purposes were multiple, including cashing a cheque for an officer, Lt. Col. Parker. According to one account, the Australian soldier(s) was/were caught by the Thai police. According to another, someone had informed the Japanese.
A roll-call was called in the middle of the night, including all the hospital patients. Major Finch-White, unable to account for the missing men, was beaten up on the parade ground and had an eardrum broken. Lt-Col Parker, described as an instigator of the events in one account, and probably implicated at once by having given one of the soldiers a cheque to be cashed outside the camp, “took the blame for everything.” Referred to by Hayward as “the indomitable Parker,” he was sent to Bangkok and sentenced to five years hard labour. Hayward says that “we never saw him again.” Wellock & Price, badly beaten to start with, were then sentenced to life imprisonment
It seems that the unfortunate results of the Australian soldiers’ arrest, although dire, were initially limited in scope to the matter of unauthorised absence and the cashing of a cheque. However, since the purchased newspapers were linked to the news-gathering service, and since everyone knew of the terrible consequences when other such work had been uncovered, a good many people were extremely worried.
According to Nellis, it also seems that, in a search provoked by the arrests, a piece of paper was discovered on which someone, against orders, had written down an item from the news service, and that it was this that, belatedly, that brought in the Kempeitai, the Military Gendarmerie. The Kempeitai put two and two together. Several people were brought under suspicion and interrogated, including Van der Valk, Roland Lyne and probably others.
Providentially, Hay had fallen into a coma and at 1:30 a.m. on October 21, he died, perhaps on the very night that the operation was discovered. There was immediate agreement to identify him as entirely responsible. As a result, there was no further serious persecution. Lyne wrote, “I believe the plan worked and I was relieved that my evidence was accepted without the usual 3rd degree accompaniment.”
Hayward wrote that the procession at Hay’s funeral was the longest he saw for any POW. Apart from any other factors, I would like to read this as indicative of how important the acquisition of outside news was to the POW community, and as an acknowledgement to all who had been involved in the efforts to achieve this. The translation of newspapers actually went on for another month or so. Van de Valk wrote that fresh newspapers were awaiting them when they returned from Hay’s funeral. By December, however, according to A.E. Nellis, POW’s were left only with verbal reports from Thais and Chinese.
Hayward wrote that Hay had also been acting as a camp interpreter, to the stress of which he partially attributed his death. For someone coming from a knowledge of the kanji, learning to converse usefully in Japanese, oddly enough, would be much more complicated than learning to read it. Japanese is a highly inflected language (achieved by the kana), unlike Chinese, in which the characters are impossible to modify. Functioning extensively as an interpreter would have been possible only after considerable experience.
The role of interpreters differed from that of translators, less dangerous but perhaps more stressful. If they came from the Japanese side, they were sometimes more inclined than their Japanese officers to understand the values of the POW’s. If they came from the POW side, they were forced to stand in a kind of No-man’s-land, often in a position to help their own but also open to attack from both sides. I have not seen any other references to Hay’s work as an interpreter and would very much like to know more about this aspect (and that of interpreters in general).
Hayward apparently wrote that, as a result of this incident, the officers were sent to form an officer’s camp at Kanburi. I think it more likely that the Japanese already had other reasons for doing this.
I would very much like to know what happened to Wellock, Price, Finch-White and Parker.
The POW’s mentioned in connection with the Nakon Pathom Incident are:
Robin Band (document in the IWM, I know)
George (American/Philippino, surname unknown)
Arthur Jordan (Hay’s wife retained contact for a while)
Bertie Keene (who apparently wrote a book about their experiences)
Percy McNeice (Hay family retained contact up until 1957)
Eric Nonweiler (made contact with Hay’s wife immediately after the war)
O’Reilly (First name unknown)
Lt. Col. Parker
Price (Australian private, first name unknown)
Mark Van der Valk (contacted Hay’s wife after the war)
Ronald Tytherleigh Wait
Wellock (Australian private, first name unknown)