Meet for Ja­panese, Bri­tish ‘Death Rail­way’ vet­er­ans


A Ja­panese engi­neer on the no­to­ri­ous World War II “Death Rail­way” and a Bri­tish soldier forced to build the line clasped each other’s hands tightly Mon­day as they met in rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

Mikio Ki­noshita, 94, and for­mer pris­oner of war (PoW) Harold Atcher­ley, 96, whose Ja­panese cap­tors made him work as a slave la­borer on the track be­tween Burma — mod­ern-day Myan­mar — and Thai­land, sat qui­etly on a sofa to­gether as they re­flected on their shared ex­pe­ri­ences.

The two did not cross paths in the 1940s and de­spite only be­ing able to con­verse through a trans­la­tor, the warm rap­port be­tween the el­derly men, both slowed by age but ra­zor-sharp in mind, was ev­i­dent at a re­cep­tion in the Army and Navy gen­tle­man’s club in Lon­don.

As the 70th an­niver­sary of the Ja­panese sur­ren­der end­ing World War II ap­proaches in Au­gust, the two men hoped their rare meet­ing would en­cour­age un­der­stand­ing be­tween those af­fected by the “Death Rail­way” — and foster re­mem­brance of the suf­fer­ing of those who worked and died build­ing the line.

“This evening marks the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion be­tween Mikio Ki­noshita and my­self. It is 73 years ago since he and I worked on the con­struc­tion of the Burma-Siam Rail­way,” said Atcher­ley, who was then a young army cap­tain.

Cit­ing his for­mer en­emy’s em­pa­thy, he said it was wrong to judge peo­ple for the group they hap­pened to be­long to rather than their char­ac­ter.

“We should, I think, re­mind our­selves that wars are not made by sol­diers but by gov­ern­ments,” he said.

Bru­tal­ity of Slave La­bor

More than 60,000 Al­lied PoWs worked as slave la­bor­ers on the Burma rail­way line in 1942-43 in bru­tal con­di­tions. Some 13,000 PoWs and 100,000 in­dige­nous work­ers died build­ing the line.

The 420-kilo­me­tre (260-mile) track link­ing the Thai and Myan­mar rail­way sys­tems was aimed at re­sup­ply­ing the Ja­panese army as it fought Bri­tish colo­nial forces and their al­lies.

Ki­noshita and Atcher­ley were among 10 peo­ple — five Bri­tish sur­vivors, five Ja­panese — in­ter­viewed for a doc­u­men­tary by film­mak­ers HLA en­ti­tled “Mov­ing Half the Moun­tain: Build­ing the Death Rail­way.”

On see­ing it, Ki­noshita said he wanted to meet the sur­viv­ing PoWs and Atcher­ley in­vited him to Lon­don.

“I feel such a strong bond to you all,” Ki­noshita said on meet­ing the Bri­tish sur­vivors present.

Con­scripted into ser­vice, he said he did not ex­pe­ri­ence vi­o­lence on his sec­tion of the line work­ing with Aus­tralian PoWs, but when he heard of the “cruel con­di­tions” else­where, he felt “deeply sad­dened.”

He said he per­son­ally thanked al­most ev­ery PoW who worked un­der him and “even now, I would like to see all of them again.”

‘En­e­mies can be­come friends’

Ki­noshita, hon­ored by Ja­pan’s em­peror for his post­war work in youth crime preven­tion, said he had at­tended many me­mo­rial ser­vices in Myan­mar for those who died — 26 times over 39 years.

“When I con­sider the war, re­gard­less of the win­ners or losers, it seems it is the peo­ple who were in­volved are the vic­tims. I heartily hope that such sor­row will not be re­peated ever again.”

Ki­noshita is mak­ing the most of his first trip to Europe, try­ing out fish and chips in a Lon­don pub and go­ing for a bus tour of the city.

“It’s a won­der­ful hu­man story,” Kei­ichi Hayashi, Ja­pan’s am­bas­sador to Bri­tain, told AFP.

“It’s such a long time ago but still we find that there are so many peo­ple who lived through the or­deal and want to see their en­emy and hold their hand.

“That should give us a les­son that this sort of tragedy should never hap­pen again.

“Their friend­ship sym­bol­izes the kind of re­la­tion­ship our two coun­tries have man­aged to cul­ti­vate over many years. Bit­ter en­e­mies can make good friends af­ter un­der­stand­ing each other.”


World War II vet­er­ans, Bri­tish for­mer Army Cap­tain Harold Atcher­ley, left, 96, and Ja­panese for­mer army engi­neer Mikio Ki­noshita, right, 94, at­tend a re­cep­tion in their honor in cen­tral Lon­don on Mon­day, June 22.

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