Lessons in love

02 November 2006

Abused in Burma 60 years ago, a former POW thought he would never forgive his tormentors. Patrick Murphy reports

DURING the Second World War, the Japanese believed that surrender was dishonourable, and that, as a consequence, any prisoner could be executed or used as slave labour. Thousands of prisoners died through execution, torture, frequent beatings, over-work, starvation, or disease.

Unsurprisingly, many survivors returned to the UK unable to forget the brutality they had seen or the abuse they had endured. Dreadful nightmares, physical and psychological illnesses, and an intense hatred of the Japanese dominated their lives for decades.

One such man was a Royal Engineer, Roy "Blackie" Blackler from Plymouth, who was captured with many thousands of Allied troops after the surrender of Singapore in 1942. Mr Blackler was sent to the infamous Thai-Burma Railway that bridged the River Kwai, where thousands of prisoners of war (POWs) toiled to lay 400 miles of track through thick jungle.

Altogether, 12,500 British POWs died at the hands of the Japanese — one in four of those captured. But on the "Railway of Death", as it was called, 3200 out of the 7000 British POWs never returned home.

On one occasion, Mr Blackler was beaten with bamboo canes and rifle butts, and kicked unconscious as he lay in the dust. "I would have died if some of my mates hadn’t picked me up, taken me into a hut, and treated my wounds," he said. Once, he was forced to hold a heavy tin drum above his head for eight hours in the blazing sun. "Every time I lowered it, they kicked me or prodded me with a bayonet."

Mr Blackler admitted that, after the war, "I hated the Japanese and anything to do with them for more than half a century." In 1998, he went on a visit to Thailand organised by the Royal British Legion. There he met Keiko Holmes.

KEIKO HOLMES was born in Japan after the end of the war. She married an Englishman, Paul Holmes, and they moved to London. Mrs Holmes became a Christian, having been impressed by the strength of her husband’s faith. In 1984, Mr Holmes died in a plane crash, and his widow was overcome with grief. She said she "begged God to take my life". Yet she received reassurance from a verse in Corinthians: "My grace is sufficient for you." Through it, she felt that God was calling her.

In 1988, on a trip to Kiwa-cho, her home town in Japan, she visited a memorial to 16 Allied POWs who had died at the nearby Iruka copper mine. These POWs — the "Iruka Boys" as they were called — found conditions far less harsh than on the Burma railway. By the time they were sent to the mine, however, they were physical wrecks, barely capable of any work.

The British POWs worked alongside civilian Japanese miners and schoolchildren who had also been recruited into the war-effort. The guards had forbidden communication between the Japanese and the British, but the co-workers ignored the order as much as possible and taught each other their language and songs.

Keiko Holmes had visited Iruka before, but her second visit brought a surprise. The simple memorial that had once existed had been transformed into "a beautifully maintained garden, with a large copper cross and a marble stone engraved with the names of the 16 soldiers", she said. The work had been financed by local people and the mining company. They held a memorial service there twice a year.

Greatly moved, she returned to the UK, determined to contact the relatives of the dead and the remaining 284 Iruka POWs to tell them about this act of reconciliation. Mrs Holmes now felt driven by a mission: to heal others who had suffered at the hands of her countrymen during the war.

Some of her first visits to British ex-POWs or their families met great hostility. After much difficulty, she was allowed to speak at the annual Far East Prisoners of War conference in London in 1991. Her friends advised her not to go. "They will eat you alive," they warned. Their words proved true, as Keiko was "showered by abuse", she said.

She persisted, however, and gradually helped many ex-captives understand that they could continue to live in hatred and bitterness, or attempt to heal the trauma of the past through reconciliation with their former enemy. She called her organisation Agape — the New Testament Greek word for universal or unconditional love.

In 1999, she asked Mr Blackler if he would like to go on an Agape pilgrimage to Japan. At first, he was sceptical. "He met a wide range of Japanese people, but rarely smiled," Mrs Holmes recalled. As is the custom on some Agape pilgrimages, Mr Blackler stayed with a Japanese family, Mr and Mrs Kawamura and their young children. Although civil towards Mr Kawamura, it seemed to Mrs Kawamura that "Mr Blackler hated Japanese men — especially anyone of his own generation who lived through the war."

One day, Rika Kawamura, aged seven, and her sister Mari showed Mr Blackler the way to a nearby river to feed the fish. Rika knew very little English, and Mr Blackler knew only very little Japanese. Rika was too young to understand what had happened to Mr Blackler during the war, but she knew that "he looked very unhappy." What happened at the riverside changed Mr Blackler’s life.

"I felt a little hand slide into mine. I looked down and saw the smiling face of one of the daughters — it was seven-year-old Rika," he told me. "In that instant, more than 50 years of hatred vanished. I felt great warmth flow through me. I felt so at peace." He continued: "I thought that I couldn’t go on with such bitterness in my heart. These are not the people who tortured us."

Rika’s mother recalls: "Mr Blackler returned to the house looking like a different person. I felt he had unburdened himself from the terrible memories of the war."

IN AUGUST, Mr Blackler attended the Agape annual summer celebration in London. In addition to former POWs and their families was a delegation of 24 Japanese. Mr Blackler was one of the readers at the Agape service of reconciliation at Kensington Temple.

In a speech, he admited that he could not forget the atrocities he saw. After retelling the story of his maltreatment as a POW, and how young Rika had helped him find the power to forgive, he made an astonishing announcement: "I want you to meet the little girl who saved me."

Rika Kawamura appeared, now 12, with a smile on her face. "This is my little darling," said Mr Blackler, as they hugged. "She healed me."

Rika said afterwards: "I now understand a lot more about what happened to Mr Blackler during the war. I am so pleased he does not have terrible nightmares any longer."

On annual Agape pilgrimages to Japan, others have had similar experiences. Some former POWs have met the Japanese guards who mistreated them. Some guards have fallen to their knees and begged forgiveness. For these ex-POWs, such moments are powerful catalysts for reconciliation and peace of mind.

IN 1998, Keiko Holmes was awarded the OBE for her work. Sir Peter Parker is the organisation’s patron. "We must learn that reconciliation is the final victory," he said. Hiroaki Fujji, the president of the Japan Foundation, believes that "Keiko Holmes has been doing what government officials cannot do."

Some former POWs remain sceptical of Agape’s work. But, for Mrs Holmes, the task is simple: to bring together former enemies to help heal the scars of war through personal contact. "Miracles do happen," she says. For Mr Blackler, that miracle was young Rika Kawamura.


Healing old wounds: Keiko Holmes (above) who works for reconciliation and Roy "Blackie" Blackler (below) as a new recruit in 1937.


Songs of Praise will feature an interview with Roy Blackler on 17 October.

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