November 6 1945. On that day I was one of many Far East Prisoners of War, liberated from the now notorious Copper Mine Pow Camp at Kinkaseki, Formosa, more commonly known today as Taiwan. We were taken the short distance to a nearby port by rail where an American ship awaited us. I weighed barely six stone and though able to walk an American sailor must have thought otherwise. Without any fuss he picked me up and by way of the gangplank carried me aboard the ship, just as he would have a child. When he put me down I walked to the ship’s rail and resting my arms upon it, stood there as though riveted, while the ship’s ropes were cast off and the ship moved slowly out to sea. I could not even then bring myself to leave the rail and remained there till the island of Formosa became a speck on the horizon. I do not find it easy to describe in words my thoughts and feelings except simply to liken it to an escape from hell. Even though I had witnessed and come to understand some of the peculiarities of human nature, I never thought for one moment that it would only be a matter of years before I had a deep desire to return, Strangely, for a place that held so many bad memories, it became a country I grew to feel a strong affinity with and particularly at the advent of television, it almost became an obsession. Any news or programme, no matter how trivial, found me absorbed and avidly interested. As a country prominent too, for the export of goods, seeing ‘made in Taiwan’ had an impact upon me, not shared obviously by the vast majority of people.
During those years I cherished the wish that one-day I would return. Gradually, as the years passed however, for various reasons I gave up on the idea, but then completely out of the blue in the autumn of 1997 the fixation I had about returning was reawakened. I learned firstly that a memorial had been erected on the former campsite at Kinkaseki and was being unveiled in November 1997. Though I also learned there was an open invitation for any ex Kinkaseki Pow to attend the ceremony, personal circumstances and limited time left to make arrangements, made it impossible for me to accept. Fortunately, I was introduced to Michael Hurst, a Canadian living permanently in Taiwan and within easy reach of Kinkaseki. Having made contact with him, a friendship was forged and I got to know more about the Kinkaseki memorial.
It transpired that Michael Hurst pursued as a hobby, archaeology and military history with World War 11 of special interest. When he became aware of the wartime happenings at the Kinkaseki copper mine Pow camp it very much aroused his interest. Enlisting the help of others, a committee was formed mainly from the quite diverse English speaking community. With the friendly co-operation of the Taiwanese authorities, they worked tirelessly to get a memorial built in an area on the former campsite that had been wholly landscaped to form a public park. A plaque adorns the granite memorial with text, in both Chinese and English, to acquaint the reader that it was erected in memory of those that died there and to honour the Pows held captive at all the camps in Formosa. Receiving all this information was a very moving experience and when I knew a remembrance service was being held at the memorial site in November 1998, the first anniversary of its unveiling, I just knew this was an opportunity I simply could not let pass by. I knew too that Stan Vickerstaff and Ben Slack, two former Pows at Kinkaseki were also very eager to make the trip and once knowing they were quite welcome to do so, decided to join me. Arrangements were made and on Wednesday November 11 1998, the first time since leaving 53 years ago, my two friends and I began the road back to Kinkaseki, going together for each to fulfill a long standing dream.
We touched down at Chiang K’ai-shek airport, Taipei at 10 pm and was enthusiastically met and welcomed by Michael Hurst, who had arranged hotel accommodation on our behalf; as he had almost everything else for our 14 day stay. We met up with another ex Pow of Kinkaseki, Sid Dodds who had arrived earlier from Australia for several days’ stay. The remembrance service had been arranged for the following Sunday and at that weekend we were to be joined by Jack Edwards from Hongkong, another Kinkascki Pow, who has been a frequent visitor to Taiwan since 1945. It was felt we would prefer our first visit to Kinkaseki to precede the weekend service and accordingly was arranged for the Friday after our arrival. It was a gloriously warm sunny day; such as we could never remember and it was really some experience to walk around the former campsite. It stirred the memory too; to find that one of the original concrete gateposts at the entrance to the camp still existed. A plaque with the text again in both Chinese and English to provide authentication of its origin and history, had been attached to the post. As bad as the camp itself was however, the main nightmare of being at Kinkascki was the nearby copper mine where we were worked as slaves in the most appalling conditions. We were forced to work at depths and in circumstances so bad that only a few locals dared to venture. It was one of the factors that led to its ultimate closure several years later and though now derelict and overgrown the path taken to the mine and its entrance was sufficient to bring the memories flooding back.
Much of the emotion was tempered however, knowing I was there of my own accord and could do as I please. That was a big difference, a great feeling and what really mattered. On the Saturday evening we were guests of honour at a banquet and this was a tremendous success. We former Pows delighted our hosts with the rendering of popular prison camp songs such as ‘Down the Mine and ‘Laughing Boy’ and the reciting of verse that also emanated from the camp. The Sunday was another lovely warm day and being led to the memorial by a solitary piper added poignancy to the occasion. A very simple but moving service followed and it was arranged for the former Pows attending to be involved in the proceedings. As this is my personal account I pen only my contribution, which were a few verses I had written for the occasion.
1. We’ve made this special journey
To stand upon the soil
Where once we were so distant now
And made to sweat and toil.
2. The camp we knew has vanished
And we’re thrilled to see in its place
This beautiful park and memorial
Majestic in all its grace.
3. We’re here this day to honour those
Of our comrades long since met
Their memory is ours to cherish
And none should ever forget.
Referring to the service afterwards, the Chairman of the Kinkaseki memorial committee, Jeff Cox commented I don’t think there was a Remembrance Day ceremony anywhere in the world this year that could have been more meaningful than this one
Other highlights of my stay in Taiwan were the visits paid to the two other campsites where I was held captive. As it had been at Kinkaseki, returning to them were uncanny experiences. At each place, with much thought and help from Michael Hurst we held a simple but dignified little ceremony to leave poppy crosses, not only to commemorate our visit but also to the memory of our former comrades. There is no doubt that I coped far better than I would have done had I returned years ago, for I am convinced it would have been a far more emotional occasion. On the other hand it could be that a visit then would have ‘laid to rest a few ghosts’ and possibly lessened some of the ensuing nightmares The experiences of the entire visit was made more exceptional by the fact that though there had been many changes and developments during the last fifty or more years, many recognisable landmarks remained. Meeting local people too who remembered us Pows being there, even though some of them were only children at the time, was almost unbelievable.
All former Taiwan Pows I know, feel very privileged at having this recognition and are deeply appreciative of the Kinkaseki Memorial Committee for all the efforts made on their behalf. Those of us who made the visit in 1998 are most grateful, I am sure to Michael and his wife Tina for their hospitality and help in making most of the arrangements. Tina, a Taiwanese lady was tremendously helpful as our interpreter, adding much to the warmth and friendliness very much in evidence from the Taiwanese people, strengthening even more, my affinity with them. I am personally indebted to Michael Hurst too, for the encouragement he gave once knowing of my dream and his enthusiasm, help and dedication to see that it was fulfilled.
As a postscript to it all, upon my return home in 1945 and for many years after, I was often asked, "How did you manage to survive"? Apart from the. Obvious mention of luck, I usually confessed it was such a miracle that I had no simple answer to the question. In recent years I have often wondered whether that reply has become too much of a cliche’ and over-dramatise the situation. So much so that I found myself posing the question, "was it really as bad as have been portrayed’1? Having now retraced many of the. steps taken all those. years ago and virtually relived some of the experiences, I can only reiterate that it really was every bit as bad as has been said and my survival undoubtedly was a miracle. In the same way that it is true ‘time is a great healer", so it is that ‘time fades the memory’ and how much worse it would have been if it were not so.
The late Maurice A Rooney
Chairman of the former Norwich Branch of FEPOWs (closed June 2001)