The Railway Man by Eric Lomax: Book Review

This is an important book in that it chronicles the real-life experience of a prisoner of war in the hands of the Japanese army after the British surrendered in Singapore during WWII. The Pacific War is a part of WWII history that has often been ignored, other than the Pearl Harbour chapter. The British Empire in the Far East was dealt a deadly blow by Japanese invasions, and, British POW’s suffered not a bit less than those in Hitler’s death camps.

Japanese atrocities and war crimes have often been muffled in this our North American society. I don’t want to speculate why but yes, I do have an inkling which I will not discuss here. But as someone who had grown up in Hong Kong and came to Canada as a teenager, I can tell the difference in knowledge and perceptions when I compare the generally uninformed public of the West and those who themselves or their elders’ generation had lived through in Asia during the war.

Because of the general lack of knowledge on the Far East during WWII, Eric Lomax’s first person narrative as a POW in a Japanese labour camp and later military prison is all the more valuable. The memoir starts off with his love for the railways in childhood and how it turned into a youthful passion for engineering and radios that later led him to the Royal Signals Corp of the British army during the war in Singapore. As the colony fell to Japanese hands, Lomax’s life was torturously demented in subsequent decades until the very end.

The Railway Man Book Cover

Eric Lomax was a young 22 year-old when he was captured and moved with tens of thousands of POW’s to Kanchanaburi, Thailand, to build the notorious ‘Death Railway’ in 1943. It was a passage way for military transport from Thailand to Burma, and the route of a possible Japanese invasion of India. The conditions of forced labour were horrendous. Many POW’s died building the railway. This part of the world was the subject of the famous movie Bridge on the River Kwai, an unrealistic (even farcical now that I’ve read Lomax’s memoir) depiction of British POW’s inside Japanese military camps.

With his skills, Lomax and several others built a radio secretly to get news of the war. The radio was later discovered, together with a map Lomax had carefully drawn up of the railway line. Six of them were interrogated and savagely beaten by The Kempetai, or goon squad, as Lomax described them. Both his arms, wrist, several ribs, teeth, and his hip were broken. Two died from the beatings. While Lomax survived, more tortures and horrendous treatments followed in the days after. The experiences had left him permanently damaged psychologically for the rest of his life. Decades after the war, Lomax was still being tortured by terrifying flashbacks. The nightmares continued until he met his tormentor and forgiveness replaced hatred and vengeance.

So all in all, a significant story to tell. But while the book’s description is straight forward and clear, it leaves me ungratified as to its writing style and lack of deeper exploration, with all due respect to the author and his horrific, nightmares of ordeals. Yes, he had done a detailed job in reporting his personal journey from childhood to the war, the tortures and his suffering, other victims and their fate. As well, he recorded the aftermath of his horrific experiences as he re-entered ‘normal’ society, and sadly still, to a family that he no longer knew. His mother had died of a broken heart and his father had remarried. I was particularly engrossed with the after war effects in the last chapters.

However, the internal change of heart for the reconciliation with the Japanese interpreter had not been explored. After the bulk of the book describing his painful ordeals, the very last chapter of a happy ending looks off-balanced. It all started with the Japanese officer and interpreter, Takashi Nagase, who was present at Lomax’s torture, publishing his autobiography in his seventies. In there, he even mentioned the torture of Lomax, but due to his remorse, he felt he had been ‘forgiven’. Lomax’s second wife Patti, upon reading the English translation of the book, decided to write to Nagase regarding her husband. Patti’s letter opened up a chance for the later meeting between the tormentor and the victim.

Nagase had shown deep remorse, and dedicated his life after the war to help the Allies locate graves of POW’s, to ‘make-up’ for the wrongs the Japanese army had done. In his meeting with Lomax fifty years later, both in their seventies, near the bridge on the River Kwai, Nagase offered his visibly acute and sincere regrets for what the Japanese army had done to the British soldiers. A forgiving spirit suddenly took hold of Lomax and the two became friends. However, Lomax did not go deep into how his ingrained hatred and vengeance were alleviated, except noting that Nagase was a changed man now.

Further, the book had not answered a question I’ve always pondered. No, I understand it was never intended to delve into that issue as it is a personal memoir and not a political or philosophical treatise. But this question has been unsettling for me. What if the tormentor had no remorse, could reconciliation be possible? Other than Nagase, we know that many in Japan today still worship their dead WWII soldiers including war criminals as national heroes, unlike Germany’s denunciation of the Nazi regime. History textbooks had even been changed to tone down Japan’s aggression in the war. Even as recent as January 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited and paid his pilgrimage at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The controversial Shrine is a clear symbol of, in Lomax’s words, “an unashamed celebration of militarism”. In the book, we also read that Nagase had taken the unpopular and even dangerous stance of denouncing this war monument. To victims and their descendants of Japanese wartime atrocities, the chapter has not ended; in international politics, the issue remains.

It is always a triumph to see true remorse and subsequent reconciliation. Lomax’s personal story is extraordinary for both himself and Nagase. In that sense, readers are gratified with a light at the end of a long, dark chapter of one life, a bright stroke on the large canvas of WWII history.

***

The Railway Man by Eric Lomax, first published in Great Britain, 1995 by Jonathan Cape. Movie tie-in edition by Vintage Books, London, 2014, 322 pages.

** Movie Adaptation: I saw The Railway Man the movie at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013. So far, there has not been a general, major release of the film here in North America. As much as I’d like to share my view on the film, with Colin Firth as Eric Lomax, Nicole Kidman as his wife Patti, and Jeremy Irvine as young Lomax, I intend to wait till there is a public release of the film before I post my review. Let’s hope I don’t have to wait much longer.

Related Links:

Pride and Pain of Patti Lomax

Railway Man’s Forgotten Family

What Japanese History Lessons leave out by Mariko Oi 

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

21 thoughts on “The Railway Man by Eric Lomax: Book Review”

  1. Wow — This sounds fascinating, almost bringing to the forefront as many questions as it might answer. Definitely not an “easy” read emotionally. It makes me wonder if the violence and brutality reflected in the book is accurately transferred to the screen has made an impact on the film’s release here in the states — or at least it’s popularity (for lack of a better word). With a cast led by Firth and Kidman, one would think it was marquee made.

    I have had similar feelings about the honoring of the Japanese war dead (including the criminals; actually, especially the criminals) particularly by leadership. I understand a family member or even a country recognizing their fallen soldiers and war dead. Win or lose. I also have issues with the no-remorse issues you mentioned and the comparison to Germany. I can’t help but think of the Calley/Vietnam tragedies. I know anyone, anywhere can break. And certainly his family will still love him, even if they are woefully aghast at what he did. But not the country. And I believe that’s as it should be.

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    1. Jeanie,

      Your mention of the Vietnam tragedies made me think of Kim Phuc Phan Thi, the nine year-old girl running naked down the road escaping a burning inferno in her village in 1972, in the famous Pulitzer Prize winning photo of the Vietnam War. I had the chance to hear Kim speak some years ago. She survived the serious burn on her body, and as an adult, had met the pilot who bombed her village. She forgave him and they reconciled. Kim had since been a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and made Canada her home. There are moving individual stories like these, Kim Phuc and Eric Lomax’s. Often it’s the larger canvas of human history, amidst nationalism and international politics, powers and preservations that mar the picture, making reconciliation not only infeasible but even undesirable.

      A note about the violence. The book’s description is even more graphic. Lomax’s injuries were much worse than the movie depicts. I’m not sure why it hasn’t been distributed in North America. I’m afraid the Far East chapter of WWII history just may not be such a profitable selling point for its audience as I’ve mentioned in my opening paragraphs. But I respect the filmmakers for choosing this true story to tell. Hope you’ll have the chance to see it one day.

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    1. nikkipolani,

      Unfortunately, Eric Lomax died at age 93, just months before the premiere of the movie adaptation of his memoir. Do click on the links at the end of my posts. The interview of Patti Lomax might shed some light. But yes, as a reader, I’d like to delve deeper into the internal struggles and coming around.

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  2. Interesting story. You are right, we don;t get many stories like this about WWII, they usually focus on Europe which is too bad. Good question whether reconciliation would be possible if the tormentor had no remorse. Perhaps it wold be not impossible but certainly much, much harder.

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    1. Stefanie,

      I always feel that it’s easier on a personal level. On the international stage of politics, powers, and domination, it’s harder to see eye-to-eye unless there are common interests/benefits from the ‘reconciliation’. Certain conflicts just may remain as they are, conflicts, for there’s no willingness or advantages in the mending of relations.

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  3. My uncle was also a prisoner of war in the infamous Japanese camp and was also involved in the building of the ‘death railway’. He never talked about his time in the camp and his wife, my Aunt Mary, said that he told her very little and was not the same man when he returned to Scotland. I always remember my Uncle John sitting quietly on his favourite chair. I have no memory of him ever talking whatsoever. I have the the Lomax book on my TBR to hopefully get an idea as to what my uncle went through during his incarceration.

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    1. Chris,

      Yes, this was exactly what Eric Lomax was like after returning to Scotland. The silence lasted for a long while. His first wife and their daughters had suffered due to his post-war traumatic syndrome. The marriage disintegrated after many years of dysfunction. Only when he met Patti, his second wife, who took a more ‘assertive’ role in helping him confront his nightmares that he finally came around. Of course, connecting to Nagase was the ultimate cure. I urge you to read this book. I’m sure it can help you understand your uncle and your aunt in a different light. This is just poignant that you know someone who had gone through the same experience.

      Do click on the first two links at the end of my post to read about Patti’s view and that of Eric’s daughter with his first wife.

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      1. I’ll certainly be reading it soon. The links were very interesting indeed. Sorry for being pedantic but Eric lived in Scotland not England.

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  4. I have only read recently about the war crimes that were happening in the Pacific during WWII. So many horrors and so many like you said, did not have remorse/were not brought to justice. I found it super hopeful that Nagase’s journey led him to a change of heart.

    Have you read Unbroken? Another unbelievable account of how horrible it was to be a Japanese POW. Very well written, since it’s authored by a writer rather than just the author’s diary. I loved reading Lomax’s story but I did not feel like he was just recording events rather than telling a story. I really want to see the movie, but I could watch Colin Firth read the phone book and be amazed. 🙂 (Sidenote: I wish his wife was played by someone more compelling.)

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    1. Alison,

      Yes, I’ve heard of Unbroken, waiting in line for it from our public library. It is being made into a film too, with Angelina Jolie directing, and interestingly, the Coen bros. writing the screenplay. So, that makes me want to see it. But I want to read the book first. Or listen, since it’s an audiobook I’m waiting for. It’s good that all these ‘testimonials’ are coming out as published works… maybe it takes so long for the victims to finally open up and tell their traumatic experiences.

      As for the movie adaption of The Railway Man, you may have a better chance of seeing it in the UK than here in NA. As for the roles of Eric and Patti, with CF and NK, actually they are quite well matched. I’m not a fan of NK, but thought she had done a good job here. Would love to hear what you think of the movie after you’ve seen it. 😉

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  5. It’s only been in the past year or two that I’ve become somewhat aware of what was happening in the Pacific Theater during WWII. I became curious after finding that my Uncle Jack is buried in Manila, after being killed in 1944. I have several letters he wrote to my dad, but until I read them, I had missed hearing about many of the battles, or the important islands. As I recall, in school, Japan was mentioned only in terms of Pearl Harbor and the final terms of surrender. Strange, really.

    One question that occurred to me while reading is what role Japan’s proximity to China and North Korea might have had in maintaining Japans militaristic outlook. I don’t have an opinion, one way or the other, because I’m not well enough informed.
    But there’s no question North Korea is a looming threat, just as China is for Hong Kong. And while China’s leadership can be calculating, North Korea’s is — shall we say — unpredictable.

    In any event, Lomax’s story is both terrible and fascinating. This is one I want to read. Individual stories often are the best way into an historical epoch.

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    1. Linda,

      I can’t answer why the Pacific Rim and S.E. Asian WWII history is so neglected in the Western world, but can only speculate it’s because this is a chapter of defeat for both Britain (as in Eric Lomax’s story) and for the U.S., among other reasons. I suppose for most Americans, WWII began with Pearl Harbour. But for Asians, esp. the Chinese, WWII began with the Japanese invasion and occupation of Manchuria, China, in 1931, leading to the full-fledged invasion in 1937, years before Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, the event that kicked off the European side of the War. There was only one aggressor in the Pacific Theatre during WWII, Imperial Japan, which had already occupied Korea since 1910. Japanese invasion of China happened during China’s civil war when the Nationalist Chiang Kai-Shek was head butting communist leader Mao Tse-Tung. They were in no shape or had any intention to invade other countries. I’m sure you’ve heard of The Rape of Nanking (Nanjing) (Dec, 1937), at that time the Capital of China. US casualties in Pearl Harbour amounted to about 3,000. In the City of Nanking alone, the number of civilian casualties had been estimated at 300,000. Here’s a link to the War in the Pacific in the U.S. Holocaust Museum site.
      Also, do click on the last link at the end of my post, which leads to a BBC article, written by a Japanese teacher from an insider’s POV.

      I’m listening to the audio version of another book which is presently much more popular in North America than The Railway Man, and much better written I must say, it’s Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. It’s the true story of an American POW under the hands of Japanese military when his plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean. You might want to check that out. It’s about time that books like these are surfacing, with previous POW’s voicing out their horrible ordeals (just wonder why now.) Anyway, Unbroken is being made into a movie and will be released at the end of the year. I think it will be better received in NA, as its director is Angelina Jolie… you’ve heard of her, haven’t you? 😉

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      1. Oh, now I’m laughing. Yes, I have heard of the good Ms. Jolie. And thanks for all that other information and the links. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t heard of the Rape of Nanking. I’ve a huge hole in my education, which I’m intending to fill, at least a little.

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  6. Hmmm … “What if the tormentor had no remorse, could reconciliation be possible?” I think that’s a really difficult one to answer. I think you could forgive the tormenter, whether or not they had remorse, because forgiveness is very much a choice of the forgiver. You can choose to forgive someone whether or not they want or ask to be forgiven.

    But reconciliation is a more interesting question. One meaning simply refers to “restoring friendly relations”. If that’s “all” it means then yes, I’d say it’s possible (though very hard) if the tormenter had no remorse. The meaning of “reconciliation” though that I usually think of is one that involves some sort of shared agreement about whatever it is that you are reconciling – some sort of coming to an agreed position. It’s hard to imagine this sort of reconciliation being possible if the tormenter had no remorse?

    This is making me think of “truth and reconciliation” commissions. To what degree is remorse expected or looked for in those? Are they mainly about getting to the truth so you can move ahead (i.e. “restore friendly relations”) or about something more, including remorse, acceptance of wrongdoing. (Actually, I think these commissions vary so my question is more theoretical – what do we think they SHOULD be about?)

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    1. WG,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate your insight in stating: “I think you could forgive the tormenter, whether or not they had remorse, because forgiveness is very much a choice of the forgiver. You can choose to forgive someone whether or not they want or ask to be forgiven.” Well said indeed.

      ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ seems to be a very ‘western’ concept, correct me if I’m wrong. I haven’t heard of such a task in an Asian country. I’m afraid cultural elements play a large role in terms of matters relating to admitting faults, or finding ‘truths’ for that matter. Saving face, national dignity and pride, loyalty to national leaders (right or wrong), are some major considerations. Also, from a political point of view, western countries are more ready to separate a particular government/regime/administration, from the whole nation and national identity, for they are elected democratically (yes, even Hitler’s Nazi regime), but for imperial Japan during the war, the emperor is the agent of heaven. Hard to admit wrong when you’re dealing with heavenly matters…

      Anyway, I’m sure there are many more complex factors interplay when it comes to international politics, balance of power and national interests being crucial goals. But your point about personal forgiveness is word of wisdom.

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      1. Thanks Arti … yes, I was thinking of Japan in particular when I was thinking about remorse and reconciliation. As you say, the west does seem to handle these issues very differently.

        And then here in Australia we talk about reconciliation between the white settlers and the original indigenous inhabitants – and how important saying “sorry” has been to that process. Reconciliation processes had started way before there was an official apology but for many the apology gave a credence to the reconciliation process that wasn’t there before. Of course then there’s the question of what does such an “apology” mean? Does it include remorse or not? All so very complicated – and political!

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        1. Yes, and many more cases, right here in Canada too, we have the T & R Commission dealing with aboriginal maltreatments.

          Today, WordPress reminds me this very day 7 years ago I started Ripple Effects. Exchanging views and sharing heart-felt thoughts with blog friends like you have been one of the major rewards. Again, thanks for being a part of Ripples all these years. 😉

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