Saturday, August 28, 2010

Book Review - From Hell To Eternity by Peter Firkins

Many moons ago, when I lived in the Mt, Bruce Ruxton, who was the Victorian RSL President at the time, gave a speech about Allied prisoners of war at Sandakan in North Borneo (at the time) and their forced death marches to Ranau. To hear that nearly 2500 Allied soldiers were later forced on marches [approx 455 began the marches] and only six survived was an amazing story. I gained an understanding of why Bruce Ruxton hated the Japanese so much although people of my generation did not have this hatred.

At the Save The Children Book Fair at UWA last weekend I noticed a book in the War/Military section. On the back it said "DEATH MARCH... WITH ONLY SIX SURVIVORS". I knew that I had to get this book and I knew what the story would be about. My copy is 25 years old but still in good nick. It took less than a week to finish.

From Hell To Eternity by Peter Firkins

The Japanese transferred many Allied POWs from Singapore to Sandakan. For three and a half years they forced them to build an aerodrome, starved, bashed and tortured them and failed to treat them according to the Geneva Convention (although the Third Geneva Convention is most appropriate), of which Japan was not a signatory. To the Japanese allowing yourself to become a prisoner was shameful and they therefore felt that prisoners could be mistreated in any manner.

When the Allies, Americans mainly, were looking to land in the area of Sandakan the Japanese forced the POWs to march to Ranau whereupon most of them malnourished men perished due to starvation or were murdered by the Japanese guards. There are some horrendous tales of maltreatment which I'd rather not go into. Some of the men weighed less than five stones (38kg) having been 10-12 stones in their prime. One of the six survivors, warrant officer Bill Sticpewich, maintained records of the war crimes committed and was instrumental in the Japanese being punished for their crimes in 1946.

An amazing story of survival most of the story revolves around the time spent as POWs as the marches themselves took between two and three weeks at the end of the war. It's still a harrowing read in places and not for the faint-hearted. Anybody wanting to read about the worst treatment of Allied soldiers (I'm sure that the German concentration camps were far worse and perhaps the Srebrenica massacre is the only comparable cruelty in living memory) should read this book. A hugely recommended read for those interested in real war experiences and not fiction. The language used is not taxing and just about the only terms requiring clarification were those relating to local Malay words.


Iris Flavia said...

Those concentration camps came to mind the moment I started reading your post.

No idea if you know how German school-kids get hit by this subject over and over and over.
My customer, Volkswagen, also has rememberance days and all.

I just fail to understand how humans can be so darn cruel.

On one hand I can´t hear it anymore!
But on the other... we should not forget, ... not repeat... and have in mind it still happens now in several places around the world.
It´ll never stop, no matter what we do.

We are so darn lucky we live in safe countries...

Anonymous said...

This book was my first insight into what my father - Bill Sticpewich actually endured. I read this in my early twenties some 10 or so years after he died. I had a vague notion of what happened but he never spoke of it to my mother, my sister or I (both of us being too young). I was amazed at their survival, their endurance and I never really realised what an amazing man my father was !! There are many 'versions' of the story and even some 'popular' fiction writers have taken licence and used some of this tragedy to colour their 'bestsellers'. I came across your blog while googling my fathers name - thanks for your blog !!

Hammy said...

Well, Mr Sticpewich, I'm glad you thought that my blog posting was worthwhile. I still can't imagine what those men went through and wouldn't want to experience even 1% of it. I'd say your father was a proud man who didn't want to dwell on the past or who didn't know how to express himself. So many people who experienced the horror of war were shattered by this experience and couldn't bring themselves to relive it. During the war crimes trials your father must have relived it and I'd speculate that that was the last he ever wanted to speak of it.