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 both those who met him and a film now being made starring Colin Firth.
6:58PM BST 09 Oct 2012
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; but there were moments, too, when he was questioned about his schooling. At the last, when it became apparent he would not be executed, he was told, in a parody of English manners, to “keep your chin up”.
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 which 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 he read in The Daily Telegraph about the recently-formed Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, which he started to visit.
A fellow former-prisoner then gave him a cutting from the Japan Times about a ex-Japanese soldier who had been helping the Allies to find the graves of their dead and claimed that 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, Eric Sutherland Lomax was born on May 30 1919 at Joppa, outside Edinburgh, where he developed a burning interest in trains. 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 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 1200 miles north to Ban Pong, 50 miles west of Bangkok in Thailand.
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 100 miles north-west to Kanchanaburi.
It was there that prisoners were forced to work on the 418-mile 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, and maintained his sanity by reading the Bible and studying Hindu and Japanese. He also began to compile his map.
An unannounced search then uncovered the radio, concealed beneath the bunk of another man in Lomax’s hut who was immediately put on punishment duty. Shortly afterwards, Lomax and four other prisoners were told to gather their belongings and prepare for interrogation. Lomax, fearing execution, grabbed the map, 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 upon them.
Preparing for the ordeal that he knew lay ahead, Lomax carefully took off his glasses and watch, and thought of the Protestant martyrs. After a day forced to stand to attention in the sun, he 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 name fellow “conspirators” among the prison population. Lomax, however, replied that the map was simply an effort to make sense of his surroundings by recording a few observations. The Japanese were particularly confused by his claim to have been obsessed with railways since childhood. “You are railway mania?” he was asked.
Yet he refused to break and make a false confession. Instead he was sent to Bangkok and put on trial, charged with being a bad influence. Sentenced him to five years, Lomax 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-despatches he found that his mother had died believing he was dead. Then he married the fiancée who had waited for him since 1941 while signing on with the Army for another two years to teach young undergraduate officers about radios.
His old job at the Post Office then proved unsatisfying. He joined the Colonial Service in the Gold Coast (now Ghana), where he helped to build a huge dam across the Volta river and a harbour at Tema while also overseeing the construction of a 600-mile, 3ft 6in gauge railway. But independence was already in the air, and he spent his last year as an assistant government agent at Sekondi, enjoying the chance to run a district and lending the future President Kwame Nkrumah a pair of swimming trunks – the closest, he would later joke, that he ever got to a seat of power.
Lomax returned home to write occasional feature articles on railways for the Telegraph and work for the Scottish Gas Board before becoming a lecturer on personnel management at Strathclyde University.
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 600-mile journey to attend it every six weeks.
His meeting with Nagase was filmed for a television documentary, Prisoners of Time (1995), in which he was played for other scenes by John Hurt. It was broadcast on the 50th anniversary of V-J Day. The following year Lomax published The Railway Man, a powerful memoir placing his wartime experience in the context of his whole life. It won the JR Ackerley Prize and the NCR book award, and prompted other former Japanese prisoners to write from all around the world.
In 2007 Osamu Komai, the son of Mitsuo Komai, the second-in-command at Kanchanaburi camp who was hanged after the war largely on Lomax’s evidence, visited Lomax at his cottage in Berwick-upon-Tweed to apologise for his father’s actions. Their conversation, conducted through an interpreter, was filmed for a Japanese television documentary.
Afterwards Komai seemed relieved. “Apparently it was the equivalent of offering me his soul,” Lomax said.
Disgusted by his own wartime actions, Takashi 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.
Eric Lomax is survived by his wife and a daughter of his first marriage. A son and a daughter predeceased him.
Eric Lomax, born May 30 1919, died October 8 2012