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review 2017-02-28 11:51
A touching reminder of the people behind the history books and a well-deserved memorial
Surviving the Death Railway: A POW's Memoir and Letters from Home - Barry Custance Baker,Hilary Custance Green

Thanks to Hilary Custance Green (who edited part of her family history and that of many others) and to Katie Eaton from Pen & Sword Books Limited  (www.pen-and-sword.co.uk) for sending me a paperback copy of this book that I freely choose to review.

As a reader, when it comes to stories about the war, I’ve always been more interested in the individuals (both in the front and back home) than in the way the battles were fought. I had heard, read, and mostly watched TV programmes and movies about Japanese war camps (I won’t forget Tenko in a hurry).  Probably lots of people have. This book provides the personal experience of a family whose lives were affected and transformed by the war. We get to know Barton (Barry) Custance Baker, born in Malaya, before the war; we later learn of his marriage to Phyllis and then we follow him all the way back to Malaya and read on as he becomes father and prisoner of war. We also read (thanks to the correspondence of the period, some that reached its destination and some that didn’t) about Phyllis’s life, the thoughts of those left back home and the way they tried to hang on to hope.

The book combines letters from Barry to Phyllis about his life in the East, most of the time not sure if any of them would make it to his wife, letters from Phyllis to Barry, trying to keep up his spirits with news about their son, Robin, and his family, and the diary Barry wrote, containing more details about his time abroad, although always trying to emphasise the positive and understate the difficulties. The combination of these narratives creates a complex and complementary testimony of the varied experiences of the war for those on both sides of the conflict, such as the difficulty of being away and separated from those you love for years, missing the early years of a son you hardly know and worrying that you might no longer know your partner when you go back (or when they come back), and contrasting the often mistaken ideas and thoughts about what the other party might be enduring.

Barry’s parents thought he would be bored as a PoW, never imagining he would be building a railway line, the Thailand-Burma railway, appropriately called Death Railway, as it cost so many lives (not only British). That he, as an officer, might be engaged in heavy labouring work, starved and ill did not enter their imagination.

Barry also had little concept of life back home and did not have news of his parents’ move to San Francisco to help with radio transmissions in Malayan or later, of the death of his younger brother, John. He imagines there might be some restrictions and even danger, but not how unsettling the lack of news was.

Barry’s efforts trying to ensure he kept track of his men and that he did all he could to keep them safe were echoed by those made by Phyllis, who tried her hardest to create a network of information to share any news between the relatives and friends of the men in her husband’s unit, sending encouraging letters, and even creating a dossier with as much data as possible about all the men, to facilitate the task of the War Office in identifying and reporting their fate.

The book is extraordinary too because it clearly shows the tireless efforts they all made to try and keep in touch at a time when communication with each other wasn’t only a click away, and when sometimes years might pass without any news of the other person (and in the best case scenario the news might be years old by the time they get it). Forget about 140 characters on Twitter. The rules of their communication kept changing and at some point they could only send 25 words to their loved one, and that included the date. And the best they could hope for was a prewritten card with only a few words added by hand.

If physically the experiences are very different (although not full of gross details, we get a clear sense of the trials and suffering the men had to endure), mentally, the toll of the lack of information, of the separation and the impotence is clear on both sides. And those letters of mothers, girlfriends, uncles, asking for information about their loved ones, sharing the good and bad news, but always trying to encourage the other person, no matter what their lot has been, are impossible to forget. Even the replies to Phyllis request for particulars about the men convey so much more than what is written. It is amazing how a few words to describe somebody can be so full of feeling and be so touching, and how much they say about unspoken emotions.


As readers, we can but share in the feelings, and are touched by the hopes, anxieties, and stress of the situation. We are given an extraordinary insight into the lives of people whom we might have known, and who could have been our neighbours, friends, or family. We read about their joy at the impending reunion and their wish to get to know each other (and the worry that they might no longer recognise or like the persons they have become). Barry and Phyllis become our ersatz family and we’re happy to learn they had more children and lived happy and fulfilling lives. I was particularly moved by a moment towards the end of Barry’s life when he’s ill in hospital and for a moment believes he’s back at the camp. When his daughter (Hilary) explains to him what has happened since and he realises he’s ill and dying but has lived a full life he says ‘I’ll settle for that’. I hope we all can say that when our time comes.

Hilary Custance Green, the editor of the book, and Barry and Phyllis’s daughter has found the way of letting the letters and the diary tell the story, with very little explanation or unnecessary interference, other than minimal clarifications or explanations when needed. The material is powerful enough in its own right. She has done a great job and the book is a great memorial not only to her parents but also to all the men and women who went through the experience. At the end of the book, there is a call to anybody who might have information about families of members of the Men of 27 Line Section to get in touch with the editor. Don’t forget to pass the message on if you know anybody connected to the men or with contacts who might have more information.

In summary, this is a fantastic book for those interested in World War II, both from the point of view of war action and of the home front, those interested in stories about PoW, tales of human bravery, valour, endurance and the heroism of extraordinary ‘ordinary’ people. Don’t miss this book and don’t forget to pass it on to anybody who might have known a member of the unit.

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review 2017-02-11 22:27
A crushing disappointment of a book
The Sino-Japanese War Of 1894-1895: Perceptions, Power, And Primacy - S.C.M. Paine

At the end of the late 19th century, a dramatic power shift took place in East Asia, as Japan replaced China as the dominant country in the region. While this shift was the result of a series of developments that took place over decades, a key turning point was the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, when Japan defeated China in a short, sharp conflict that reflected the changing balance of power in the area. By its end Japanese forces had driven the Chinese from Korea and established themselves as a force to be reckoned with, one that was treated almost as an equal by the Western imperial powers.


That such "a seminal event in world history" has not received its due from Western historians is not surprising given the language barriers confronting scholars seeking to write about the war. For this reason alone Sarah Paine's effort to provide English-language readers with a long-needed history of the war is a commendable one. Yet this very demand contributes to a sense of disappointment with this book. To write it, Paine relies heavily upon the often unreliable coverage of the war in contemporary newspapers, supplemented with published documentary collections and the related secondary literature on the subject. Nowhere in its pages is there any evidence of archival research on her part that would provide a basis for judging the veracity of sometimes contradictory reports she uses, leaving unaddressed the numerous questions raised in her book about the exact course of events and the motivations behind the decisions made in response to them. Nor does it help when she exaggerates the importance of the war by ascribing to it developments that arguably predated (such as Western perceptions of Chinese decline) or postdated (such as Western regard for Japan as a modern power) it.


The result is a work that is a serious disappointment. Had Paine undertaken the archival labors necessary to sort through the often confusing reportage of events it would have been a major contribution to our understanding of the war and its place in modern history. As it is, however, she has written a book that is useful as an introduction to the conflict but ultimately serves to demonstrate how much more work needs to be done to properly understand its place in the transformation of the fortunes of China and Japan in the late 19th century.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2015-01-01 18:16
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption - Laura Hillenbrand

Every once in awhile a book comes along that resonates with me deeply. This is just that kind of book. So inspiring and amazing is the biography of Louis Zamperini. Laura Hillenbrand aka Seabiscuit brings this Olympian, WWII veteran and POW survivor's story to life in such a way that it overwhelms one's mind to believe it's true.


Louis was born to Italian immigrants and grew up in Torrence, California. As a restless teenager he was often in trouble and made a name and reputation for himself. His older brother Pete gets him involved in running track and his life takes a turn for the good. Breaking and setting new records he heads to the 1936 Olympics in Germany and brings pride to his family. Although he doesnt come home with a medal he sets his sights to do so in 1940.


When he returns home and Pearl Harbor is bombed he enlists to serve his country. As part of the Army Air Corps he is part of a bombardier squad dropping bombs on targets.  On a mission and flying in a substandard plane his troop crashes in the Pacific Ocean where he and only two others of his group survive. The detailed account of this experience is nearly inconceivable but astonishingly he survives.


He is finally rescued by the Japanese and held in a POW camp where he treated horribly. The officer Watanabe has it in for him from the very beginning and takes pleasure in his cruelty. By this time the Zamperini family believes Louis is dead until they hear of a radio broadcast where he claims he alive and well. This of course was staged by the Japanese to make the world think they were not mistreating the POW's.


Once the war is over and Louis returns home all is well for awhile. He meets a woman, they marry and have a child but eventually his demons catch up to him. Coming to terms with the nightmare of his past you learn how he meets this final challenge in order to go on with his life and thus see how this man is truly remarkable.


This book left me beyond impressed with how much extensive and painstaking research Hillenbrand underwent to share the story of this extraordinary man to the world.


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review 2014-11-01 15:52
Judy: A Dog In A Million
Judy: The Unforgettable Story of the Dog Who Went to War and Became a True Hero - Damien Lewis

It's not very often that a book makes me cry, but this one did. It's the true story of Judy, a smart, spunky dog who, from the time she was a puppy, seemed to get herself into--and out of--more incredible and dangerous situations than most canines or humans ever face in their lifetimes. She and her human companions suffer massively as POWs during World War II, and the bonds they form as they risk life and limb to comfort, save, and be there for one another are a true testament as to why dogs really are a man's best friend.


Right from the start, there are no dull moments in Judy's life. She was destined to be a hero and to save lives. Her story is sometimes humorous, often frightening, and always amazing. This truly is a story that deserves to be told.


Here's a link to a brief Youtube video of the author's comments on what survivors have to say about Judy: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=hDWb2WcWgS8 


Disclaimer: Copy received in exchange for an unbiased review. All opinions my own.

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review 2014-11-01 01:18
Code Name Verity
Code Name Verity - Elizabeth Wein

The central conflict of the story revolves around the capture of Julie, a British spy, after the plane she was being transported to carry out a secret mission crash landed in German-occupied France during WWII. Julie begins her written confession with the revelation that she is a coward. She realizes that the confession is just buying her more days to live, and will be executed for her crime. Julie narrates her intricate story in third and first person point of view, and concentrates on her friendship with Mattie, the female pilot that flew her into France. Julie barters supplying information to her captors in exchange for her clothes and to avoid more torture from the Gestapo. However, as the narration progresses we learn that Julie is a strong-willed and clever young woman. Because Julie is a spy she is also an unreliable narrator; it’s almost difficult to believe that she is in fact collaborating with the Gestapo. In fact, Julie’s written confession is an encrypted message, but the reader remains unaware of her subtle clues until Mattie takes over as narrator. Mattie confirms that Julie has been working from the inside, trying to buy more time to find weaknesses within the German stronghold. The resolution is heart-breaking, but true to the events of the time period. Throughout this historical fiction novel, Wein provides well researched facts of the atrocities executed by the Nazi regime during WWII. Code Name Verity is a story of two brave friends that were united and separated by the war.


Wein, Elizabeth. (2012). Code name Verity. NY: Egmont.

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