Lizzie Oliver. Prisoners of the Sumatra Railway: Narratives of History and Memory. War, Culture and Society Series. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. Illustrations. 192 pp. $102.60 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-350-02414-4; $114.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-350-02412-0.
Reviewed by Rong (Aries) Li (Rutgers University)
Published on H-War (June, 2019)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
British scholar Lizzie Oliver’s first book Prisoners of the Sumatra Railway offers a much-needed study on the experiences and memories of the British prisoners of war (POWs) on the nearly forgotten Sumatra Railway during World War II. Her interest in this subject started with her desire to learn more about her grandfather who was a POW on Sumatra and whom she never met. As she investigates, she finds a gap in the scholarship. Scholars on World War II POWs in the Far East have only focused on the Burma-Siam Railway and created the assumption that it was the only “death railway.” In her view, by doing so, scholars have denied the POWs’ struggles and suffering in other places in the Far East, such as on the Sumatra Railway. To understand how British POWs narrated their experiences on the Sumatra Railway, Oliver mainly adopts discourse analysis methodologies to examine these POWs’ diaries, memoirs, artwork, and oral history interviews. To understand how the family members and later generations recalled these POWs, Oliver also consults the reunion records of these POWs and their families as well as several public exhibitions of POWs’ artwork. Oliver’s book provides focused research on a particular group of British men and fills a gap in the literature on Far East captivity by the Japanese during World War II. Her work is also welcomed and supported by the community of the descendants of British Far East POWs. Her book will stimulate more scholarly discussion on such understudied topics.
Oliver considers the Sumatra Railway as another “death railway” built by the Japanese with a high mortality rate of laborers. Considering the island’s strategic importance and rich natural resources, Japan started to build this railway in March 1943 with 100,000 romushas (forced Asian laborers), 80 percent of whom perished during the construction. Among the 4,986 Allied POWs who worked on the Sumatra Railway, 3,866 were Dutch; British POWs occupied a large portion of the rest, although Oliver does not provide an exact number in her book (p. 2). According to her, 13.5 percent of Allied POWs died on the Sumatra Railway, which was lower than the mortality rates on the Burma-Siam Railway (22 percent) but still double the death rate in the European camps (less than 5 percent) (p. 30). Oliver notes that since the Sumatra Railway was only half of the length of the Burma-Siam Railway but took almost the same amount of time to complete, readers can imagine the difficulties in constructing the Sumatra Railway.
According to Oliver, the public forgot the POWs on the Sumatra Railway for several reasons. During their captivity, Japan did not permit visits or provide official news about these POWs. Japan did not have a POW registration system until 1944, and most registration records were destroyed at the end of the war. To avoid causing pain to families and friends, Allied authorities discouraged the circulation of stories of Far East POWs in the immediate postwar period. Later, the notoriety of the Burma-Siam Railway as the largest forced labor project in the Far East during World War II overshadowed the stories of the Sumatra Railway.
British POWs on the Sumatra Railway used writings and artwork to document and interpret their experiences of captivity during and after the war. In chapter 2, through close reading of their writings, Oliver chiefly shows how these POWs tried to make sense of their experiences in diaries and memoirs. For example, during captivity, they adopted self-censorship in their writings to avoid being caught and punished by their captors, but they also imagined a future and freedom to maintain optimism and escape the reality of captivity. In chapter 3, Oliver mainly examines the unique linguistic features of their writings, especially their word choices, which combined English, Dutch, Malay, and Japanese. She believes that this special polyglot “POW camp discourse” offered the prisoners more opportunities to communicate and negotiate (p. 68). Oliver’s primary theme of chapter 4 is to understand the bodily suffering and degradation of these POWs mainly through analyzing their artwork. Oliver also reveals the haunting impact of captivity as shown in human bodies on these POWs and their families after 1945.
In the final chapter, Oliver examines the legacy of the British Far East POWs—how they chose to speak about their captivity experiences after the war and how younger generations have explored such memories. The British Far East POWs established associations to maintain communication with each other and publicized their stories and solicited public support in the following decades. The children and grandchildren of these POWs established their own associations and created archives and memorial projects to commemorate their fathers or grandfathers. Oliver also briefly discusses the public perceptions of these POWs mainly through analyzing the documented visitors’ responses to the Charles Thrale Exhibition at the British Imperial War Museum. She concludes that visitors did not have a unanimous understanding of the exhibit and that visitors’ responses were influenced by other aspects of World War II as well as events after 1945. For example, during the Korean War, the organizer had to remove fifteen paintings to avoid frightening the families of the British soldiers who fought there. After reading this chapter, readers might want a further discussion on the impact and legacy of these Far East POWs on the broader postwar British society and identity.
Oliver’s book neatly focuses on the British POWs themselves and their families, which leaves some topics unexplored. One example is the interactions between British POWs and the romushas. Oliver mentions that although British POWs did not live in the same camps with the romushas, they did work side by side with them. But she does not address how British POWs wrote about these forced Asian laborers. How did these white British POWs make sense of their status and identity in relation to the forced Asian laborers while working together under Japanese supervision? Oliver interprets the POWs’ use of stereotypical words and expressions, such as “King Kong,” “the Chinaman,” “the Aga Khan,” and “the Yid,” as “anti-language” to mock and resist their captors. She states: “the humour of such nicknames maintained a sense of resistance, of ‘hitting back’ when physical retaliation was impossible” (pp. 76-77). Not all readers will agree with Oliver that the use of racial slurs can be simply understood as a way to express resistance. Did such language have anything to do with these British men’s struggles to maintain their white manhood when serving as POWs under Japanese supervision? Oliver’s book would have made greater contributions if she had engaged more with the scholarship on British imperial adventures in south and southeast Asia and the scholarship on POWs’ struggles with manhood and superiority. As the first scholarly investigation on the experiences, narratives, and memories of these British POWs on the Sumatra Railway, Oliver’s book opens up these questions for further scholarly discussion.
. For example, Graham Dawson, Soldier Heroes: British Adventure, Empire, and the Imagining of Masculinities (New York: Routledge, 1994); Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2005); Christina Twomey, “Emaciation or Emasculation: Photographic Images, White Masculinity and Captivity by the Japanese in World War Two,” Journal of Men’s Studies 15 (2007): 295-310; and Juliette Pattinson, Lucy Noakes, and Wendy Ugolini, “Incarcerated Masculinities: Male POWs and the Second World War,” Journal of War and Culture Studies 7 (2014): 179-90.
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Rong (Aries) Li. Review of Oliver, Lizzie, Prisoners of the Sumatra Railway: Narratives of History and Memory.
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