Burma railway survivor who forgave his tormentor




30-5-1919 8-10-2012

ERIC LOMAX, who has died aged 93, long nursed thoughts of revenge on his wartime Japanese captors, then, in his dotage, finally had the chance to act when he came face to face with his principal tormentor. His choice of reconciliation over retribution inspired a film now being made starring Colin Firth.

A signals officer captured at Singapore in 1942, Lomax was a prisoner at Kanchanaburi camp in Thailand when guards found a radio receiver, and a map he had made of the Burma-Siam "death railway".

He was made to stand for long hours in the burning sun. Stamped on, he had his arms broken and his ribs cracked with pickaxe handles later he was waterboarded, with his head covered and water pumped into his nose and mouth to make him feel as if he was drowning. At night he was confined, coated in his own excrement, to a cage. A doctor who examined him later said there was not a patch of unbruised skin visible between his shoulders and his knees.

During his torture, Lomax's English-speaking interpreter repeatedly demanded he confess to espionage, saying: "Lomax, you will tell us . . ." and adding "Lomax, you will be killed shortly." Knowing that an admission would seal his fate, Lomax remained steadfast. Such were the tortures inflicted upon him that he remembered calling out for his mother.

When the war ended, Lomax seemed normal enough. He returned to Scotland and found that nobody was interested in "the unpleasantness" experienced by prisoners of the Far East. But he found that his mental scars refused to fade: he was woken by nightmares, and his inability to talk about his experiences contributed to the break-up of his first marriage.

When he later met a Canadian girl, 17 years his junior, on a long train journey, he found himself able to open up a little about his wartime experiences. He sent her letters and tape recordings that described his war, but only up to the fall of Singapore, a moment he described as "the beginning of the descent into hell".

Lomax's loving second marriage to Patti Wallace in

1983 also came under stress, as she faced his immense stubbornness, which could suddenly switch to outright hostility so that he would refuse to speak to her for a week. Eventually she wrote to a doctor studying POWs' psychological problems, and Lomax read about the recently formed Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, which he started to visit.

At this point a fellow former prisoner gave him a cutting from The Japan Times about a former Japanese soldier who had been helping the Allies find the graves of their dead and who claimed he had earned their forgiveness. The accompanying photograph showed Takashi Nagase, the interpreter during Lomax's interrogation, and the man with whom he most associated his ordeal.

For two years Lomax did nothing. Then he obtained a translation of Nagase's memoir, which explained how shame had led the interpreter to create a Buddhist shrine beside the death railway. Patti Lomax then wrote to Nagase, enclosing her husband's photograph and suggesting that perhaps the two men could correspond. She asked: "How can you feel 'forgiven', Mr Nagase, if this particular Far Eastern prisoner-of-war has not yet forgiven you?"

The reply she received declared: "The dagger of your letter

thrusted me into my heart to the bottom." Nagase admitted that he still had flashbacks about torturing Lomax and thanked her for looking after her husband until they could meet.

When Patti Lomax wrote back she enclosed a formal letter from her husband. Eventually, the two elderly enemies arranged a meeting.

More than half a century after their previous meeting, the two men approached each other on the bridge on the River Kwai. After bowing formally, Nagase nervously acknowledged that the Japanese Imperial Army had treated the British appallingly. Lomax found himself saying: "We both survived." Later Nagase said: "I think I can die safely now."

When they next met, in a Tokyo hotel room, Lomax carefully read out a letter he had written assuring Nagase of his total forgiveness.

The only son of a General Post Office manager, Lomax

was born at Joppa, outside Edinburgh. He went to the Royal High School until 15, when he won a civil service competition to become a sorting clerk and telegraphist with the GPO. He joined a Baptist church, became engaged to marry, and enlisted in the supplementary reserve of the Royal Corps of Signals.

After the declaration of war he was sent to northern India before arriving on Singapore Island as a band played There'll Always be an England at the quayside. He was commanding a signals section of the 5th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, when he heard a rumble that turned out to be the sinking of the great warships Prince of Wales and Repulse. After two confusing months when he was assured that the Japanese could never attack through the jungle, and which he spent relaying contradictory orders from headquarters, Singapore was taken and Lomax went into captivity along with some 80,000 other Allied troops.

He found himself first in Changi jail, where the Japanese began the systematic humiliation of their prisoners. For two months Lomax and several hundred others were forced to clear the jungle to make room for a Japanese war memorial. Then he endured five days in a stifling railway boxcar as he was transferred 1900 kilometres north to Ban Pong,

80 kilometres west of Bangkok.

There he and several others built a radio receiver from scrap, huddling around it at night as it brought news of Allied progress in the war. The men kept the radio in a biscuit tin and, despite the risk of discovery, took it with them when they were transferred 160 kilometres north-west to Kanchanaburi.

It was there that prisoners were forced to work on the 672-kilometre railway line to Burma, a task that included erecting the notorious bridge

on the River Kwai. Lomax's treatment was better than most: sent to the railway's repair shop, he was spared the physical hardship of prisoners ordered to clear the ground and lay the rails.

An unannounced search then uncovered the radio, concealed beneath the bunk of another man in Lomax's hut. Shortly afterwards, Lomax and four other prisoners were told

to prepare for interrogation. Lomax, fearing execution, grabbed a map he had compiled, reasoning that it would be essential if the men were to make a break for freedom. In the event, the men did not run, and the map was quickly discovered. Two of the five would indeed die of the injuries inflicted on them.

After being forced to stand to attention in the sun for a day, Lomax was brought in for questioning. He could not remember how long it lasted, only that beatings were followed by more sophisticated torture by the military police. When he regained consciousness he was dragged back into the camp. There a Dutch doctor who treated Lomax told him that he had counted

900 blows in six hours.

Two weeks later, barely recovered from his battering, Lomax was taken to the headquarters of the Kempeitai, or military police. It was there that he first met Nagase who, as interpreter, became the focal point for Lomax during his torment. It was he who asked Lomax about the radio and map, and told him to confess that he was a spy and to name fellow "conspirators" among the prison population.

Lomax refused to break and make a false confession. He

was sent to Bangkok and put

on trial, charged with being a bad influence. Sentenced to

five years, he was then told that his name had been abolished and that he was now prisoner No. 615.

In jail back in Changi, he deliberately starved himself in order to be transferred to the prison hospital, which proved so luxurious by comparison that, when he was discharged, he deliberately fell downstairs to have himself readmitted.

On returning home after the war with a mention-in-dispatches, he found that his mother had died believing he was dead. He married the fiancee, who had waited for him since 1941, and signed on with the army for another two years to teach young undergraduate officers about radios.

The post-traumatic stress never left him, and in fact grew worse after his retirement in 1982. Then he read about the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, and made a 960-kilometre journey to attend it every six weeks.

In 1995 Lomax published The Railway Man, a memoir placing his wartime experience in the context of his whole life.

It won the J. R. Ackerley Prize and the NCR book award, and prompted other former Japanese prisoners to write

from all around the world.

Disgusted by his own wartime actions, Nagase considered suicide after the war, but instead opened an English language school. He married, then began making pilgrimages to Kanchanaburi. Back in Japan he started making speeches promoting reconciliation between former Japanese soldiers and Allied prisoners.

He persevered despite a hostile reception from many of his countrymen, and in 1976 introduced 23 ex-POWs to

51 former Japanese soldiers at Kanchanaburi.

In October 1989, Lomax read Nagase's memoir, Crosses and Tigers, which described how the interpreter was still haunted by the brutal torture of one particular prisoner. "That prisoner was me," Lomax said.

The film of their story, also called The Railway Man, is due out next year.

Lomax is survived by his wife and a daughter from his first marriage. A son and a daughter predeceased him.

Want access to our latest research and new buy ideas?

Start a free 15 day trial and gain access to our research, recommendations and market-beating model portfolios.

Sign up for free

Join the Conversation...

There are comments posted so far.

If you'd like to join this conversation, please login or sign up here

Related Articles