The Colonel & the Bombardier
The Colonel & the Bombardier (SirEdward 'Weary' Dunlop, artist Jack Bridger Chalker)
Seventy years to the day after myfather Jack Bridger Chalker arrived in Singapore as a green, 24-year-oldbombardier, my wife Askale and I stood looking over Keppel Harborwhere his boat had berthed. It was the 29th January 2012, and I was guiding aneducational group through Malaysia.From Kuala Lumpurwe had traveled to Taman Negara, then Malacca, and finally crossed the causewayto Singapore.In Singapore,Askale and I took the bus to visit the POW Museumand Chapel at Changi, where my father’s captivity had begun. I was consciousthat after the surrender the Japanese had herded the survivors of my father’sregiment along the very road on which we drove. It was a sobering thought.Changi was our first insight into the captivity of an army that had justsuffered the worst military defeat in British history. It was the end of myfather’s combat experience and the beginning of his battle for survival.
After the group had flown home, Askaleand I took the train from Singaporeto Thailand to shoot additional footage for a film I wasmaking on my father’s POW years. My motivation for this project was to gaininsight into his experiences as a POW and, by doing so, perhaps shed light onmy own experience as his son. In the end, the film I made was cathartic for usboth. When I presented it to him - for I made it for him alone - what the filmsaid to my father was that, I understood.
I grew up with one parent, my mother,and over the years had to endure a number of short, emotionally fraught anddifficult visits with my father, none of which brought us any closer. Otherthan the childhood trauma of my parent’s divorce and my mother's breakdown, theonly relationship that I had with my father was his absence. So, as my wife andI traveled through Malaya, my own issues wereas much part of my quest as was the search for my father’s missing years. Whowas he? Who was I? These questions were related and I had come here to search foranswers. As I made the film, I did not know if a better understanding of hisPOW years would help our relationship. I hoped very much that it would.
By 1980, the tragedy of war hadsufficiently dimmed for it to be replaced by a growing nostalgic interest inwar stories, and my father’s paintings of his POW experience, his story, andhis relationship to the Australian WWII national hero, Sir Edward Weary Dunlop,made him moderately famous in the UK. Subsequently he featured inmany documentaries and a number of his illustrations became some of the iconicimages used for FEPOW organizations. His friendship with 'Weary' Dunlop kepthis art work and his role in the international spotlight. I once asked anAustralian traveling on one of my Himalayan groups if he had ever heard ofWeary Dunlop. His reply was “….you ever heard of Jesus Christ?!!!” So it wasclear that Weary was a big fish in the Antipodes,and my father’s friendship with him was meaningful.
My father’s notoriety gave him onewonderful experience which he cherished his entire life. In the camps whenthings were bad, he remembers humming Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” and“Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover”, the music the boys had fought toduring the Battle of Britain. In the 1980s Vera Lynn came to one of hisexhibitions and one of the crowning moments of his life we to kiss the cheek ofthis icon and heroine to the troops.
By the time I made the film I wasfamiliar with the POW experience. I had read many books on the subject, biographies,histories, commentaries and diatribes. I had spent twenty years as a guide inthe Far and Middle East, and had led manygroups through Malaya and Thailand and Singapore. Partof my job was to lecture on the history, culture, politics and religion, so Iknew a little of the region, its colonial ties and the appalling tragedy ofboth world wars, and over the preceding year’s research, I had ingested a greatdeal of additional information. But it was not until I boarded the train from Singapore to Bangkok that, quitesuddenly, I had a ‘eureka moment’. Out of the blue I came to fully understoodsomething very basic about my father’s POW experience, something that I hadpreviously entirely missed. As we bounced and rattled along the same railwayline onto which my father and 60,000 prisoners had been herded like cattle in1942, I suddenly realized that my father had been in the very worst place, atthe very worst time. It was striking to me that I had spent my life to date withoutknowing this. I could only wonder why.
In late 1939 my father was living inBuckinghamshire and was to have entered the Royal College of Art in London. Instead he joined260 Battery of the 118th Field Regiment of theRoyal Artillery, Territorials. In May 1940, Churchill replaced Chamberlain asPrime Minister, the Nazis kicked the British out of France at Dunkirk, and Britain faced imminent invasion. Britain’ssurvival was now dependent on a few middle class college boys who had learnedto fly. Not since Nelson fought Napoleon at Trafalgar had England been inso dire a peril.
All through the phony war, blitzkriegand the Battle of Britain, my father was hunting for Fifth Columnists insouthern England.Like many young men, he longed to be a pilot, and like so many in 1940 he lookedup at the white condensation trails left by the Spitfire and ME109 dogfightsand listened to Churchill’s stirring speeches. Everyone understood what was atstake.
In October 1941, Gunner Chalker, alongwith the 118th Field regiment was issued tropical kit and entrainedfor Liverpool. They considered the pithhelmets they had been given absurd. On the 27th October they sailedon the RMS Orcades for Canada.Half way across they were met by an American convoy which escorted them intoHalifax, where they transferred to the USS West Point and sailed to India, via,Jamaica and Cape Town, arriving Bombay on 27th December, where theydisembarked. Recalled early, they were rushed to Singapore, arriving on Thursday, 29th January 1942.The naval base was under heavy airraid, thick black smoke rising high into the air, so theUSS West Point berthed at thecivilian Keppel Harbor. My father’s regiment was deployed tothe north east of the island facing the mainland. As they fired their 25-pounderguns across the causeway at the advancing Japanese, they had no idea what wasin store for them.
My father's regiment was overrun by theJapanese, and he fell back through the Japanese lines to Singapore town,not without incident. Singaporefell on 15th February 1942. A Japanese army of 60,000 had defeated a British andCommonwealth army of 160,000, and my father became a prisoner or war. He was 24years old and would spend the next three and a half years in slave labor,starved, tortured, and brutalized by his captors.
The troops captured in Singapore weremarched to Changi, to the north of Singapore island, and site oftoday's international airport. At Changi were a number of military barracks anda large gaol. It was in Changi that my father was given a small set of water colorpaints by another prisoner which he carried with him for the duration. After a stint in the Havelock Road work camp, my fatherjoined 60,000 other troops being sent by train to Thailand to build the DeathRailway. The journey took four days, and on Oct 19th theydisembarked in Ban Pong and began the long march up the Kwai Noi to Konyu rivercamp. They marched 160k in ten days through thick jungle, with little food, nomedicine, often in pouring rain and always in debilitating heat. The dying nowbegan in earnest.
About 180,000Asian laborers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war worked on the railway. Ofthese, around 90,000 Asians and 16,000 Allied prisoners of war died fromstarvation, disease, and torture. My father was in Konyu during the brutal‘Speedo Period’ from February 1943 onwardwhere the Japanese instigated 18-hour work days to complete the railway inrecord time. Thousands were worked to death. Pellagra, diphtheria, typhus,beriberi, dengue fever, dysentery and malaria patients filled every availablehut and tent. The ulcer patients suffered terribly, and the smell of theirrotting limbs permeated the camp. All feared the dreaded cholera, which wouldarrive in June during the monsoon. Conditions were appalling and the guardsbrutal. The Japanese considered the prisoners’ expendable. There was never muchchance of survival, and all the prisoners knew this. In Konyu river camp, myfather received two full days of severe beating and torture when some of hispaintings were discovered by a Korean guard. It nearly killed him and heescaped death only by chance.
As Askale and I explored the banks ofthe Kwai Noi, shot film in Hellfire Pass and walked through the long-desertedcamp sites, as we researched what had taken place 70 years ago in this beautifulhaven of nature, I found my emotions stretching and contracting. The past,although still imagined, was becoming more real. The sounds and the animalswere the same. The jungle plants and odors unchanged. As I looked through theteak trees at the rugged mountainous horizon, all was exactly as it had beenfor my father and his comrades 70 years before. In this I felt a communion; asense of opening up; a readiness to understand what this had been like for him.
It was in Konyu river camp during theearly 'Speedo' period that my father first heard of Col. Edward Dunlop, theAustralian medical officer of the adjacent Hintok camp, whose inmates had alsoworked the notorious Hellfire Pass cutting, a legend ofbrutality even amongst the prisoners. In March 1943 after months of slave laborand beatings, Gunner Chalker’s body finally gave out. He was sent by road toTarsau staging camp, a skeleton, unable to walk, where he ate the first foodthat was not rice sludge in many months. It brought tears to his eyes. Confirmedas seriously ill, he was sent to Chungkai hospital camp for heavy sick, wherehe remained until June, when the cholera hit, and was then transferred alongwith a number of prisoners to the huge Nakom Pathom hospital camp further downriver. Accompanying them was Col. Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop, who took charge of themedical team on arrival.
The great fear was that they would besent back up jungle to Konyu or Hintok camps, where they knew survival wasunlikely. As my father slowly recovered the ability to walk, he became involvedin the design and production of theatre performances, so critical to morale andso well remembered by the survivors. Under Dunlop’s inspired medicalleadership, my father was set to work in the rehabilitation unit using massageand physiotherapy to rebuild muscles destroyed by tropical ulcers. Dunlop notedhis artistic ability and commissioned my father to keep a visual record of theconditions, illnesses, surgical treatments, and the brutality of the camps. Itwas a death sentence if caught by the guards, but it was worth it, and myfather was not alone taking such risks. Out of this association the colonel andthe bombardier became life-long friends.
As the summer of 1945 approached, theJapanese high command issued orders to exterminate all Allied POWs as theJapanese army withdrew. Machine guns had been set up along the camp perimeterwalls and ditches were being dug when the Atom bomb was dropped. On the 15th August, 1945the Japanese surrendered. The bomb saved my father’s life, along with over40,000 other survivors. It was a close run thing.
After the surrender, my father wasseconded as an artist to the ANZACS to assist with the war trials in Bangkok. Here he workedwith Weary Dunlop and others to outline the history and conditions of the campsfor the incoming allied authorities. He stayed in Bangkok, painting from the notes and sketchesthat he had made in the camps, until 6th November, when he boarded aDouglas Dakota transport to Rangoonin Burma,boarded the SS Duchess of Richmond,and sailed to Englandvia South Africa.He was not the same person that had left England four years before. Like somany returning POWs, from a child he had become a man, then the man had beenbroken and tortured, and had witnessed sights impossible to erase from memory,and all of this in four short years. My father was terrified of returning home- scared his wife and family would not know him, unsure whether he could everfunction again as a normal human being after what he had experienced.
Askale and I returned home to Seattle in rather morecomfort. I was pensive and thoughtful. I edited the film, researched archivalmaterial and read many statements written by other prisoners and theirfamilies, mostly on the difficulties faced by torture victims duringrehabilitation. As I did so, I began to understand that my father was a just aman, like me, with his own weaknesses and strengths; that the relationshipbetween a son and his father was fraught at the best of times, but when torture,brutalization and the knowledge you were to be murdered and you helpless toprevent it was added to the mix, then understanding and compassion was the onlyoption. I could never know what it is to be forced to shut down, to be reducedto survival mode, where the sensibilities and finesses of normal life andnormal relationships have neither traction nor benefit.
I began to realize that through makingthis film I had undergone a transformation of sorts, a realization that the woundsinflicted on my father by the Japanese, were my wounds, too. They were passedto me by my father, not through choice, but through an inability to go back, aninability to return to the man he was before the war. One does not come backfrom such experiences. The only option is to learn to live with them. Manycould not, but my father managed it, and in many senses thrived. He built alife for himself that had many successes, although all were flavored by thejungle-sweat and fear of his time as a POW.
As I made my film, the same instinctualunderstanding I glimpsed at Hellfire Pass now returned, thesense of something enormous that my father had overcome, but which had scarredhim deeply. I realized that his absence from my life was not due to my inadequacyas a child, it was due to the burden that he carried, every day, with everythought and every action. I felt a great weight lifting from me, a weight I hadcarried since childhood. Far from being an insurmountable barrier between us,it now appeared the burden he carried was something we shared.
It was the answer I was looking for.
VISIT THE BRIDGE OVER THERIVER KWAI: 12-26July 2020
Come and touch history with us - Join JackBridger Chalker’s son, Adrian Chalker in Thailand as he lays his fathers ashesto rest in a dedication ceremony at The Bridge Over the River Kwai, the final‘last post’ for an WWII allied soldier in Kanchanaburi. On the itinerary we visitSingapore, Bangkok, Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai, and Kanchanaburi, exploringthe Fall of Singapore and POW sites throughout, but also the main touristicsites, plus Chiang Mai & Rai in the north for the jungle and tribalexperience. The itinerary is designed as a balanced itinerary so all the familycan enjoy the activities and visits, not just the history fanatics! Travelers from Australia, New Zealand, the UK,Canada and America are anticipated. VIP and celebrity attendance at theceremony will involve media, and documentary film/s may be made of the grouptour, with some participant interviews anticipated. Please visit the followingwebsite for full details of the itinerary and to book your place on this uniquetravel experience: https://www.adventures-abroad.com/tour/singapore-and-thailand-the-final-last-post/ww75