Tortured by the Japanese in WW2, what happened when a former POW met his chief tormentor again 50 years later

Tortured by the Japanese in WW2, what happened when a former POW met his chief tormentor again 50 years later

Eric Lomax, who died on Monday aged 93, was starved, viciously beaten and tortured as a prisoner of the Japanese during WW2.  Fifty years later, he was to meet his chief tormentor again.

An account of his story published in the Reader’s Digest in 1994 generated such interest that, a year later, he published his own memoir called The Railway Man.

Eric Lomax was born in Edinburgh on 30 May 1919.  Just before the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939, aged 19, he joined the Royal Corps of Signals.  Commissioned in December 1940, he was posted to Malaya in 1941, but his unit was soon in full retreat to Singapore, where he was captured by the Japanese in February 1942.  With thousands of his fellow prisoners, he undertook a forced march to Changi Prison, and was then transported 1,200 miles to Kanchanaburi, Thailand, and forced to work on the notorious Burma-Siam Railway.

By day, the prisoners laboured in temperatures exceeding 38°C.  By night, they slept on wooden planks in dismal bamboo huts.  Nearly all the men were depleted from malnutrition and disease, and they were dying by the score.

To obtain war news, Lomax and a few other prisoners had secretly built a radio receiver from scrap materials they collected.  They concealed it in a coffee tin and huddled around it at night.  Lomax also drew a map of the area around the railway to aid in possible escape attempts, gaining information from truck drivers, new prisoners, and Japanese maps whenever he had access to camp offices.  He hid his map in the latrine.  The radio went undetected for a few months until one morning when the Japanese conducted a surprise search of the huts.  It was discovered under the bunk of another prisoner, whose immediate punishment was to swing a 270lb sledgehammer onto a block of wood for hours at a time.

A few weeks later, Lomax and 4 of his radio ‘co-conspirators’ were ordered to gather their belongings to move to another camp in Kanchanaburi.  Lomax ducked into the latrine and grabbed the map.  When they arrived at the new camp, the prisoners were thrown to the ground and their meagre possessions ransacked.  A guard found Lomax’s map and they were ordered to stand at attention all day in the scorching sun, without food or water.  Finally, that night, one of the prisoners was ordered to raise his arms above his head. A soldier swung the wooden handle of a pickaxe down across the man’s back, knocking him to the ground. Other guards joined in, beating and kicking the man until he appeared lifeless. Another prisoner was similarly beaten.  Lomax was next.  Within seconds he was slammed to the ground, and his mouth filled with blood.  He felt boot heels on the back of his head, crunching his face into the gravel.  He heard the crack of his own bones.  The beating went on until he lost consciousness.

When Lomax woke the next morning, his body was numb.  The other four men were sprawled nearby, groaning.  They lay under the fierce sun for two days before fellow POWs were sent to carry them to the camp hospital, where a Dutch doctor treated them as best he could.  Lomax was in the worst condition.  His nose, arms, right hip and several ribs were broken. Bruises covered his body. “You men suffered the most horrendous beatings I have ever witnessed,” the doctor said. “I counted 900 blows over six hours.”

Two weeks after the beatings, with his arms encased in splints and bandages, Lomax was driven to the Japanese military-police headquarters in Kanchanaburi.  There, he was locked in a 5ft cage that soon became full of red ants, mosquitoes and his own filth.

Eventually, he was brought before a shaven-headed NCO, “his face full of violence” and an “almost delicate” interpreter, Takashi Nagase, for interrogation.  In fluent English, Nagase accused Lomax of ‘anti-Japanese activities’ and stated that he would be ‘killed shortly’.  Lomax remembered it as, “a flat neutral piece of information … I had just been sentenced to death by a man my own age who seemed completely indifferent to my fate. I had no reason to doubt him.”

Nagase said to Lomax, “We know you were involved in building and operating the radio – your friends confessed to your part in it. Now tell us: Who else was involved?”  Lomax refused to tell them.  They wanted to know why Lomax had secret map of the area around the railway, and where he had got the information to draw it.  Unsurprisingly, his explanation that he was a railway enthusiast who had simply mapped it for pleasure on his own devices did not convince them.

The interrogation went on for hours, then days.  Nagase was always on hand as interpreter.  Eventually the military policemen began to slap Lomax, and then deliver repeated blows to his face as his silence continued.  When the policemen stalked out of the room momentarily, Nagase whispered to Lomax, “If you confess, they’ll stop beating you.”  But Lomax remained defiant.

On the 5th day of interrogation, Lomax was accused of being a spy – a crime punishable by death.  When Nagase told him he had to sign a confession, Lomax again refused.  Lomax was dragged out to the banks of the River Kwai and was laid on his back on a bench.  One of his broken arms was pulled behind his back, the other across his chest, and he was tied down. He was in agony.

“Are you ready to talk?” Nagase asked.  Lomax shook his head.

A towel was put over his mouth and nose. Then one of the guards picked up a long rubber hose, turned a faucet on full force, and directed the stream onto the towel. The water soaked through, blocking Lomax’s mouth and nose.  He gagged and frantically gasped for breath as water filled his throat.  His stomach began to swell.  He was drowning on dry land.  When the towel was finally removed and Lomax had recovered from his delirium, he still refused to confess and name his confederates.  The water torture began once more.  At times, Lomax ended up crying out for his mother, unaware that she had died soon after his capture.

The interrogation and torture finally stopped after more than a week.  The Japanese had brought Lomax as close to death as possible, yet he showed no signs of giving in.  Nagase informed Lomax that he was being transferred out of the camp.  Expressing empathy with the prisoner, Nagase said, “Keep your chin up.”

It had no effect on Lomax, who was consumed with hatred for Nagase.  In Lomax’s mind, Nagase personified all the atrocities committed by the Japanese.  His was the voice that Lomax heard hour after hour, when the torture began and ended.  During the interrogations, Lomax memorised every feature of Nagase’s face: the dark eyes, the small nose, the broad forehead.  He wanted to remember him, and someday find him and make him pay.

Eric Lomax and Nagase Takashi during WW2

Lomax was tried in a court in Bangkok for his ‘crimes’ and sentenced him to 5 years’ hard labour.  He was sent to a disease-ridden prison in Singapore and twice feigned injury in order to be sent to hospital.  He stayed there until the war ended, when his suffering appeared to be over.

When Lomax finally returned home to Britain, he learned that his mother had died three years before, and his father had remarried. He was relieved to find, however, that his fiancée had waited for him.  They married three weeks after his arrival, and Lomax’s life seemed to settle into a comfortable routine.  He retired from the army in 1948, worked abroad for some years and later got a job teaching personnel management at Strathelyde University in Glasgow. He also became the father of two girls.

But his wartime past wouldn’t leave him.  The fractured bones in his right arm and wrist never set properly, making it painful for him to write.  He also had frequent nightmares in which he would see Nagase’s face and hear his voice.  He refused to talk about the war, reasoning that nobody would understand.  He would lose his temper over trivial matters, such as bureaucratic requests for personal information.  When his wife asked him what was wrong, Lomax remained tight-lipped and sullen. Finally the marriage ended.

In 1983, at the age of 64, Lomax married Patricia Wallace, a 46-year-old nurse.  Patti understood that her husband’s angry outbursts were related to his wartime experiences and assumed things would get better with time.  Unfortunately, matters grew worse and the flashbacks continued.  He even once refused to take a seat in a restaurant because a Japanese couple was eating nearby.  At his wife’s urging, Lomax contacted the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, and began treatments with a psychiatrist, talking about his experiences as a POW.  But, he remained darkly obsessed with his torturers, especially the interpreter.  He located and wrote other British survivors of Kanchanaburi, requesting information about the camp officials.  Nothing came of his efforts.  Then, in October 1989, a friend gave Lomax a newspaper clipping about the publication of Crosses and Tigers, a book by Takashi Nagase.

To Lomax’s amazement, the article explained how, “the author has flashbacks of the Japanese military police in Kanchanaburi torturing a POW accused of possessing a map.  One of their methods was to pour large amounts of water down his throat.”  The article spoke of Nagase’s remorse over Japanese atrocities and his public acts of atonement to the victims.

Lomax got a copy of Nagase’s book and found it very painful to read, especially the details of his interrogation and torture.  His wife suggested that he write to Nagase.  Lomax refused, but gave her grudging permission to send a letter on her own.

“I have just finished reading your book,” Patti wrote. “My husband is the man you describe being tortured so terribly”. She went on to say he had lived with many unanswered questions all these years and ended with a request: “if you are willing, perhaps you would correspond with my husband?”

Patti Lomax was moved to tears by Nagase’s reply. “I have suffered tremendous guilt all these years,” he wrote.  “I have often prayed I would meet your husband again and be able to seek forgiveness for what I assisted in.”

Convinced of Nagase’s sincerity, Patti suggested to her husband that he should write himself.  While Lomax was extremely reluctant to contact the very object of his hatred, Patti gently suggested, “Maybe it’s time to step out of the darkness.”

Eventually Lomax agreed that Nagase’s remorse must he genuine and replied with a note, “Perhaps a meeting would be good for us.  They agreed to meet at the World War 2 museum in Kanchanaburi on 26 March 1993 – almost 50 years after their first encounter.

Lomax travelled to the Far East with Patti.  On the day of the meeting, he nervously paced about the museum’s terrace.  Then he saw a slight Japanese man walking towards him. The face was much older, but still instantly recognisable.  The former interpreter identified Lomax just as quickly.  When Nagase reached Lomax, he bowed deeply. “I am so very sorry,” he said softly. “I would like…” His voice cracked, and he began to cry.  On instinct, Lomax put out his hand, and Nagase clasped it tightly.  They sat together in silence on a nearby bench. Finally Lomax spoke, “Do you remember what you told me when we last met?”

“No, I don’t,” Nagase replied.

“You said, ‘Keep your chin up.” Lomax paused, then smiled.

The tension began to vanish.  Over the next three days, the men talked about their lives since the war.  Their rapport grew easier with time.

The day before they were to part, the two men sat across from each other in silence. Then Lomax handed Nagase a letter he had written the night before. “I think you’d like to have this,” he said.

Nagase unfolded the page and read the words, “Although I can’t forget the ill treatment at Kanchanaburi, taking into account your change of heart, your apologies, the work you are doing, please accept my total forgiveness.”

Nagase looked up and grasped Lomax’s hand.  Both men had tears in their eyes.

“I’ve learned that hate is a useless battle,” Lomax said, “and it has to end sometime.”

The two men went on to become firm friends, and their remarkable story of reconciliation has been turned into a film, starring Colin Firth as Eric Lomax, with Nicole Kidman playing his wife.  Sadly, Mr Lomax will not now see the film’s release next year.

Eric Lomax and Nagase Takashi in 1998 at the River Kwai, Thailand


* Update January 2014 – the movie is out now in cinemas:

The Railway Man

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