To date, most of what I know about the experience of Allied prisoners of the Japanese in the Far East comes from novels like The Narrow Road to the Deep North and A Town Like Alice, movies like The Bridge on the River Kwai, and what I’ve gleaned from assisting two World War II classes. The novels presented the experiences of enlisted men, while The Bridge on the River Kwai is more removed from historical reality. Colonel Cary Owtram’s memoir, 1,000 Days on the River Kwai: The Secret Diary of a British Camp Commandant, however, is a unique look at the particular challenges of a man who finds himself tasked with keeping order among the Allied prisoners and protecting them from the deprivations and cruelty of their captors.
At the time of his capture, Owtram was a lieutenant colonel. (He was later promoted to colonel and even received the Order of the British Empire, though for unrelated reasons.) Because he was often the highest ranked officer on the ground in many of the places he ended up as Japanese officers marched their prisoners to and fro across southeast Asia, Owtram was often designated camp commandant. The Japanese officers issued orders for their prisoners through him, while he did his utmost to secure supplies, negotiate punishments down to the minimum, and keep his men as healthy as humanly possible. Few men, I think, would have had the grit to manage this difficult role. He watched so many men suffer and die while he could do very little to improve camp conditions. Owtram doles out credit to dozens of officers and enlisted men for getting supplies and keeping up morale, but it’s clear that he did a lot to save lives and make life bearable for the British, Australian, American, and Dutch prisoners he was in charge of.
Owtram writes exactly like one would expect from a man who clearly belongs to the old school. Slang terms are written with single quotes. He is very humble, with the stiffest of upper lips, and glosses over the worst of what happened to him and his fellow prisoners. He is also paternalistic toward the enlisted men and casually racist about the Japanese and the Thai people alike. In the afterword written by his daughters, they remark that he had a virulent hatred for the Japanese after the war. Curiously, this intense hatred doesn’t really appear in the memoir; Owtram is more likely to toss around around terms like “little yellow men” and native to refer to Asian people.
1,000 Days on the River Kwai reads like sitting down with a grandparent and listening to what they’re willing to say about their experiences. Owtram hints at the appalling conditions he and his men lived through (with frequent references to tropical ulcers), but he is quick to move on to an amusing (sometimes actually funny but sometimes grim) anecdote or talk about the camps theatrical efforts. As such, it feels like a correction of sorts of the novels I’ve read and movies I’ve seen. Anyone who wants to use it as primary source material should pair it with other nonfiction that takes a broader view of the Allied POW experience during the war, of course. That said, I found this to be an fascinating look at an experience I’ve never seen discussed or portrayed before.