Mon, Nov 17, 2008 - Page 2 News List

FEATURE: POW returns to scene of torment

GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN Walter Kirkby survived three brutal years of forced labor in a Japanese POW camp in Taiwan during World War II. Many of his comrades did not

By Ko Shu-ling  /  STAFF REPORTER

Walter Kirkby lays a wreath at the POW memorial plinth in Jinguashi, Taipei County, yesterday morning.


When Walter Kirkby was incarcerated at the Japanese prison camp in Jinguashi (金瓜石) during World War II, one of the rare happy moments was singing a song composed by one of his fellow prisoners of war (POWs).

“It kept our spirits up,” said the 88-year-old Englishman from the northern county of Yorkshire.

Kirkby was one of the 1,100 British Commonwealth and Allied POWs interned at the Kinkaseki camp during World War II and the only one to return to the site yesterday morning to commemorate a time of torment.

Jinguashi was home to the infamous Kinkaseki “Hell Camp” from November 1942 until the surrender of the Imperial Japanese Army in Taiwan in August 1945. The POWs were subjected to inhumane treatment, denied the most basic of medical facilities and flogged by their jailers — some of who were Taiwanese. And many prisoners were, quite literally, worked to death.

Kirkby spent three-and-a-half years in Kinkaseki between 1942 and 1945 after being captured in Singapore and then shipped to Taiwan.

Singing the song Down the Mine on the bus to the picturesque Taipei County township yesterday, Kirkby said conditions in the camp’s mine were harsh — unbearably hot and humid. The prisoners had no proper gear and many got sick.

There were also many accidents, he said. One time the roof of the mine caved in, breaking his right arm and leg and injuring his back. He could not work for a month. His back still bothers him to this day.

Kirkby said he went down to the mine in the morning when it was dark and did not come back up until the lights were on. To go to the mine from the camp, Kirkby said he and his fellow prisoners had to climb up and down a mountain, a journey that took hours.

For a hard day’s work, they got only a small bowl of rice with a few vegetables and no meat or fish. Kirkby said if they did not get enough copper out they had to go back to the mine.

They were constantly punished, Kirkby said, beaten with sticks. He saw many of his comrades die in front of him.

“I can never forget them, never forgive them, never,” he said.

When asked whether he still held a grudge against the Japanese, he said “I certainly don’t like them, that’s for sure. The farther they are away from me the better. Let me put it that way.”

Kirkby said coming back to the site brought back bad memories and he was at a loss for words to describe how he felt. He was welling up at one point during the ceremony.

“It’s nice to know that some people think of what was happening in the past. It’s definitely important to remember,” he said. “You realize someone cares about you. Someone thinks about you.”

What the Taiwan POW Camps Memorial Society has done for the POWs is more than his government ever did, he said.

Christine Gate, Kirkby’s daughter, said that her father did not speak much about the days at the camp when they were growing up until 30 years ago when he began being active with the reunion with POW survivors. It was a reunion in September that made Kirkby want to come back to the camp, she said.

Gate said when she listened to her father’s tale, it was hard to imagine how a human being could do such things to another human being.

While Kirkby said he will never forget nor forgive his captors, she said the past is gone and it was important to forgive but that she understood her father’s feelings after what he went through.

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