A RETIRED Sheffield doctor’s boyhood experience in China is featured in a new book telling the previously untold stories of children who were interned in Japanese prisoner of war camps during the Second World War.
After the Japanese entered the war in 1941, around 20,000 British civilians in the European colonies in Asia were rounded up and marched off to concentration camps where they were to remain for three long years. More than 3,000 of them were children, one of whom was Colin Palmer, now of Whirlow in Sheffield.
He was 13 when he and his engineer father and teacher mother were sent to Yangchow Camp C, a converted missionary college 100 miles inland from Shanghai.
The book is Stolen Childhoods by Nicola Tyler (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) but Colin Palmer feels the title of the book does not relate to his own experience. “In no way do I consider my childhood – or adolescence, for that matter – to have been ‘stolen’,” he says. “It may have been for one or two of the younger ones but for me it was an adventure.
“There were indeed downsides to the experience. I was always hungry but then when you’re 15 or 16 that’s par for the course. There was also growing out of clothes, particularly warm ones, and climatic effects and poor hygiene facilities.
“On balance, I probably came out with a vastly increased experience of differing peoples from all walks of life and of varied ethnic origins. It may not be appreciated how many British passport holders were of mixed race - Eurasians, Anglo-Indians, not to mention women of Russian descent who had married British-born men, Orthodox Jews, etc.”
“The change in lifestyle was phenomenal. We lived in a big house, a four-bedroomed Shell company house with four Chinese servants, and a garden and enjoyed a good education and lots of friends. We were not lacking in anything and then to change from that to a room 10ft square between three people. You couldn’t read at night in winter because there was no light. There was a bit of sport but not a lot.”
The book makes much of the fact that Colin and a couple of his peers were detailed to dig the grave of a boy but he makes light of it. “He was two years older than us. I don’t remember thinking it was an ordeal, I certainly lost no sleep about it.
“Like much else, I coped and I wasn’t conscious of any particular hardship.”
Unlike many who survived Japanese internment, he is not bitter towards his captors. “I have no particular resentment about what I went through, although I was sorry for my mother who was affected physically and her weight went down to six stone,” he says.
Schooling continued despite scarcity of equipment. “The teachers had a stock of paper but for rough work we used the backs of labels of tin cans and sheets of toilet paper,” he recalls. “We each had our own supply so it was up to each person what they did with it.”
The head of the boys’ school kept all the exam papers until after the war and then set them off to Oxford University for marking. Colin passed his School Cert summa cum laude (with great honours).
Senior boys had to do fatigues as well as studying and Colin chose to work in the camp hospital, where he saw an operation on a Japanese guard.
The future Dr Palmer actually assisted on an operation on his own father who was suffering a perianal abscess. “Because I had assisted with a previous operation I was able to help. It was performed by one of the two doctors in the camp and I became his protégé,” he says.
Dr Palmer could even be said to have benefited in later life from having been in camp – through the old boy network which helped him gain a place at the medical school at St Bart’s after the war.
The missionary doctor he worked with in camp, Ralph Bolton, was an old Barts man who was a contemporary of the dean responsible for admissions.
He was in the first post-war intake of medical students at St Bart’s from 1946 to 1952. He later chose to specialise in opthalmics and after qualifying at the eye hospital in Manchester he came to Sheffield in 1963 to take up a post of consultant at the Royal Infirmary, transferring to the Royal Hallamshire when it opened and continuing until he retired in 1990.
The young Colin Palmer’s path did cross with JG Ballard who used his experience of being interned in Shanghai to write the bestseller, Empire of the Sun, which was filmed by Steven Spielberg.
“He was at the same school as me two years below but we went to different camps. We were in the smaller one. We didn’t meet again until we were on the same repatriation ship, a converted troopship. We corresponded when the book came out and I have a first edition of the book with a signed letter from him.”
Dr Palmer has never returned to Shanghai. “I never got round to it and now I think I’ve missed the boat. We were given an ex gratia payment of £10,000 and that’s what some people chose to do with it but I was retired and had other things to do.”