We are all familiar with the iconic stories of the Second World War in the Pacific. Images of American soldiers hoisting the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima, of the pulverised cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of Alec Guinness doggedly resisting his captors on the Burma Railway, are as familiar to us as those handed down from the European theatre of war – Cologne, Dresden, Auschwitz, John Stride crossing the Nijmegen Bridge armed with a rolled umbrella. The war, its history and its mythology, is something we think we know.
What few of us know, however, is the appalling story Paul Ham tells here, of the forced march of a thousand allied prisoners of war from the Japanese camp at Sandakan to Ranau in the heart of Borneo. Perhaps this is because only six of them survived, perhaps because there has been no public acknowledgement by the Japanese of the atrocities committed at Sandakan and on the march. Writing in a vivid, immediate and powerfully distressing present tense, and prefacing his book with a direct plea to the Japanese Emperor for a public apology, Ham seeks to set the record straight. His book is all the more moving for the inclusion of photos of many of the men who died in civilian life, a mute testament to the capacity of ordinary human beings for suffering and endurance and a reminder that there were no heroes here on either side.