Author Topic: POW who kept his sense of humour  (Read 2398 times)

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Offline bossi

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POW who kept his sense of humour
« on: April 16, 2004, 14:55:00 »
Arthur Godman, who has died aged 87, wrote more than 50 textbooks on mathematics and science, and was the author of a remarkable memoir of his time as a Japanese prisoner of war, The Will to Survive (2002).

Taken prisoner after the fall of Singapore in 1942, Godman spent the next three and a half years on the Burma-Siam railway, living in camps along the River Kwai. Like other PoWs, he experienced disease and malnutrition and witnessed the painful deaths of many of his comrades. Yet somehow he retained his sense of humour and perspective, recalling, among the casual cruelties inflicted by the Japanese, small acts of kindness between guards and prisoners which enabled him to retain his faith in humanity.

Godman recognised that part of the explanation for the brutal behaviour of Japanese guards was that they themselves were treated barbarously by their superiors and had come to regard hunger and beatings as a normal part of life. He therefore attempted to achieve a relationship with his captors based on their common experience of adversity.

At Tonchan South camp, he established reasonably good relations with the head guard, or gunso, by teaching him bridge, a route to social advancement in Japan.

When Japanese headquarters decreed that the camp (guards as well as prisoners) should get no meat rations (in the form of live cattle), the gunso suggested that they should steal some of the beasts as they passed by on their way to other camps. Fattened up and then slaughtered with the connivance of the guards, the animals undoubtedly enabled many PoWs to survive their further experiences in Thailand.

Some months later, by now transferred to another camp, Godman succumbed to amoebic dysentery and, as he weighed only five stone and could not eat the hospital food, was unable to shake off the illness. One day, the gunso from his old camp, now promoted to sergeant-major, arrived on a tour of inspection. That evening he returned to Godman‘s bedside and gave him his own meal, taking Godman‘s away with him. He did this for two days, a small kindness which, Godman believed, had probably saved his life.

The son of a headmaster, Arthur Godman was born in Hereford on October 19 1916 and educated at the Coopers Company School, Bow, and at University College, London, where he graduated with a First in Chemistry, Mathematics and Physics.

While at university, he joined the OTC and, after war was declared, was posted to a territorial regiment, crossing over to France with the British Expeditionary Force in 1940. Placed in charge of a command post for one of the two regimental batteries, he succeeded in holding a position near Oudenarde in Belgium for four days - with guns which had been phased out during the First World War.

After joining the evacuation from Dunkirk, he was posted the following year to Nowshera on the North West Frontier, and then to Malaya where he was taken prisoner following the British surrender of Singapore. After some months in Changi, he was sent to Thailand to work on the Burma-Siam railway.

Throughout his three and a half year ordeal, Godman never lost his sense of the ridiculous. When the British surrendered Singapore, he recalled there was a rumour that Lt-General Percival had gone to meet the Japanese High Command to discuss the conditions under which British PoWs would be held. "After accommodation, food and pay had been settled, the Japanese said they were going to allow one comfort girl per 10 officers. ‘Good God,‘ was Percival‘s reply.

"The Japanese went into a huddle and came back and said that maybe they had been a bit stingy, so how about one comfort girl per six officers. Percival was stung to reply, ‘British officers do not need that kind of woman‘. Back went the Japanese into another huddle and deliberated on the upbringing of British officers and their method of schooling and came back with an offer.

"They said it would be rather difficult, but they might manage one small boy per 50 officers." An enraged Percival, Godman recorded, retorted: "British officers do not do anything like that either."

Later, while he was working on the railway, Godman recalled how, after the discovery of illicit radio sets, a Japanese officer had summoned the officers in his camp to give them a dressing-down: "You British think we Japanese bloody fools," the man shrieked. "You think we do not know what you do. You think we do not know that you are hiding radios. You think we know f*** nothing , but really we know f*** all." "We dared not laugh," Godman wrote, "as that would have been extremely foolish - and dangerous."

During his months in Changi, Godman had persuaded a friend to teach him Thai, thinking it might be useful if he managed to escape. Part of the reason for his survival was that his knowledge of the language qualified him to become a buyer of camp supplies from Thai traders who came up the River Kwai in barges, some of whom treated him to the occasional Thai delicacy after he had made his purchases.

Back in Changi towards the end of the war, Godman got toothache and went to see one of the two dentists in the jail to get a filling. Two days later, the dentist informed Godman that he had been a guinea pig in a dental experiment. Since the dentists had exhausted their supply of dental amalgam, they had decided to make their own. To that end, they had acquired the Perak Golf Trophy, a large ornamental silver cup, and melted it down.

The only question, had been "whether the coefficient of expansion of the silver was the same as that of a human tooth". Had it not been, Godman concluded, his tooth would have cracked and his pain would have turned to agony. Luckily the tooth gave him no more trouble.

After returning to Britain in 1945, Godman took a diploma in education, then returned to Malaya for an appointment with the colonial civil service. He progressed to become Assistant Director of Education and, after Malayan independence, took a similar posting in Hong Kong.

Returning to Britain in 1963, Godman took a part-time job as a science teacher at the Simon Langton Boys‘ Grammar School in Canterbury, and later became a lecturer in South East Asian studies at the University of Kent, where he became an Honorary Research Fellow at Eliot College.

While working in Malaya, he began writing science textbooks for the South East Asian and African market, and later expanded his career through his association with the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, for which he was a chief examiner in biological sciences .

His phenomenal output of textbooks included such titles as the Cambridge Illustrated Thesaurus of Computer Science; The Longman Dictionary of Scientific Usage (with E M F Payne); The Cambridge Illustrated Thesaurus of Science & Technology; The Longman Science Handbook and The Longman Chemistry Handbook.

Godman enjoyed the Kent countryside where he spent the latter years of his life. He remained a member of the local Rotary Club, and often acted as host to overseas students from Japan, Thailand and America.

Arthur Godman died on March 10 and is survived by his wife, Jean, whom he married in 1950, and by a daughter and two sons.
Junior officers and NCOs who neglect to guide the thinking of their men are shirking a command responsibility.
-Feb 1955 Cbt Forces Journal
Those who appreciate true valour should in their daily intercourse set gentleness first and aim to win the love and esteem of others. If you affect valour and act with violence, the world will in the end detest you and look upon you as wild beasts. Of this you should take heed.
-Emperor Meiji: Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors, 4 January 1883

Offline brin11

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Re: POW who kept his sense of humour
« Reply #1 on: April 20, 2004, 21:22:00 »
An amazing story, thanks for posting it bossi.

I‘m surprised and humbled by his generosity to countrymen of his captors through hosting students.  

It goes to show that the strength in humour can‘t be overlooked.
The enemy's gate is down.