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10 Of the best Prisoner Of War memoirs

Countless thousands Prisoners of War (POW) die in prison camps, and even those fortunate enough to merge from their ordeal are never the same again. Many find a slither of solace in telling their story years after they become free, and these stories fills a historical gap in our understanding, while also commemorating and memorialising heir struggle and sacrifice.

This is a list of some of the most unforgettable memoirs; a list of living documents about what these POWs went through. Their stories are a testament to the brutality of war, the tenacity of the human spirit, and the power of faith. Their moving accounts of their period of captivity are characterised by the sense of determination, hope and endurance which sustained all those who shared this experience.

1. Devil at My Heels: A Heroic Olympian’s Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in World War II
by Louis Zamperini and David Rensin

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The bestselling autobiography of the legendary Louis Zamperini, hero of the blockbuster Unbroken.

A modern classic by an American legend, Devil at My Heels is the riveting and deeply personal memoir by U.S. Olympian, World War II bombardier, and POW survivor Louis Zamperini. His inspiring story of courage, resilience, and faith has captivated readers and audiences of Unbroken, now a major motion picture directed by Angelina Jolie. In Devil at My Heels, his official autobiography (co-written with longtime collaborator David Rensin), Zamperini shares his own first-hand account of extraordinary journey—hailed as “one of the most incredible American lives of the past century” (People).

A youthful troublemaker, a world-class NCAA miler, a 1936 Olympian, a WWII bombardier: Louis Zamperini had a fuller life than most. But on May 27, 1943, it all changed in an instant when his B-24 crashed into the Pacific Ocean, leaving Louis and two other survivors drifting on a raft for forty-seven days and two thousand miles, waiting in vain to be rescued. And the worst was yet to come when they finally reached land, only to be captured by the Japanese. Louis spent the next two years as a prisoner of war—tortured and humiliated, routinely beaten, starved and forced into slave labor—while the Army Air Corps declared him dead and sent official condolences to his family. On his return home, memories of the war haunted him nearly destroyed his marriage until a spiritual rebirth transformed him and led him to dedicate the rest of his long and happy life to helping at-risk youth.

2. The Tattooist of Auschwitz
by Heather Morris

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The Tattooist of Auschwitz is based on the true story of Lale and Gita Sokolov, two Slovakian Jews who survived Auschwitz and eventually made their home in Australia. In that terrible place, Lale was given the job of tattooing the prisoners marked for survival – literally scratching numbers into his fellow victims’ arms in indelible ink to create what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust. Lale used the infinitesimal freedom of movement that this position awarded him to exchange jewels and money taken from murdered Jews for food to keep others alive. If he had been caught, he would have been killed; many owed him their survival.

There have been many books about the Holocaust – and there will be many more. What makes this one so memorable is Lale Sokolov’s incredible zest for life. He understood exactly what was in store for him and his fellow prisoners, and he was determined to survive – not just to survive but to leave the camp with his dignity and integrity intact, to live his life to the full. Terrible though this story is, it is also a story of hope and of courage. It is also – almost unbelievably – a love story. Waiting in line to be tattooed, terrified and shaking, was a young girl. For Lale – a dandy, a jack-the-lad, a bit of a chancer – it was love at first sight, and he determined not only to survive himself but to ensure that Gita did, too. His story – their story – will make you weep, but you will also find it uplifting. It shows the very best of humanity in the very worst of circumstances.

Like many survivors, Lale and Gita told few people their story after the war. They eventually made their way to Australia, where they raised a son and had a successful life. But when Gita died, Lale felt he could no longer carry the burden of their past alone. He chose to tell his story.

3. Prisoner of the Japanese: From Changi to Tokyo
by Tom Henling Wade

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On 15 February 1942, the Japanese captured Singapore and took 130,000 Allied prisoners of war. One of those prisoners was British Lieutenant Tom Wade. For the next three and a half years he was to suffer the indignity and hardships of captivity and the torture and brutality of his captors, first in Changi, then in Korea and finally in Tokyo.

This book is the story of those years in captivity. They were years of horror and despair, characterised by harsh treatment at the hands of sadistic guards who believed that a soldier who has surrendered has lost all humanity. At Tokyo Headquarters Camp in particular, Wade and his fellow POWs had to suffer the paranoid beatings and victimisation of Sergeant Matsuhiro Watanabe, who successfully avoided prosecution by the War Crimes Commission at the war’s end.

4. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption
by Laura Hillenbrand

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In her long-awaited new book, Laura Hillenbrand tells an unforgettable story of a man’s journey into extremity, Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit.

On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.

The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channelled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.

Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humour; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.

5. Surviving the Sword: Prisoners of the Japanese in the Far East, 1942-45
by Brian MacArthur

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During World War II, there were few fates that could befall a soldier so hellish as internment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. To this day, many survivors–most of whom are in their eighties–still cannot talk about their experiences without unearthing terrible memories. Surviving the Sword gives voice to these tens of thousands of Allied POWs and offers us a powerful reminder of the terror and depravations of war and the resilience of the human spirit.

In this important book, Brian MacArthur draws on the diaries of American, British, Dutch, and Australian Fepows (Far Eastern prisoners of war), some of whose recollections are published here for the first time. These soldiers wrote and kept their diaries, in secret, because they were determined that to record for posterity how they were starved and beaten, marched almost to death, or transported on “hellships”; how their fellows were summarily executed by guards or felled by the thousands by tropical diseases; and how they were used as slave labor–most notoriously on the Burma-Thailand railway, as depicted in The Bridge on the River Kwai.

The diaries excerpted in this book make plain why the Fepows believed that their brutal treatment by Japanese and Korean guards was, literally, incomprehensible to those who did not live it. The prisoners whose stories appear here risked torture and execution to keep diaries and make sketches and drawings that they hid from the guards wherever they could, sometimes burying them in the graves of lost comrades. The survivors’ narratives reveal not just a litany of horrors, but are a moving testament to the nobler instincts of humanity as well, detailing how the POWs prevailed over horrible conditions, even finding or creating a precious few creature comforts and sustaining the rudiments of culture, learning, and play. Forced into solidarity by inhuman conditions, the soldiers showed incredible compassion for one another, improvising ingenious ways to care for the sick, boost morale by subtly mocking their jailers’ authority, or even turn meager rations into the occasional feast.

6. The Forgotten Highlander: My Incredible Story of Survival During the War in the Far East
by Alistair Urquhart

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Alistair Urquhart was a soldier in the Gordon Highlanders captured by the Japanese in Singapore. He not only survived working on the notorious Bridge on the River Kwai , but he was subsequently taken on one of the Japanese ‘hellships’ which was torpedoed. Nearly everyone else on board died and Urquhart spent 5 days alone on a raft in the South China Sea before being rescued by a whaling ship. He was taken to Japan and then forced to work in a mine near Nagasaki. Two months later a nuclear bomb dropped just ten miles away…

This is the extraordinary story of a young man, conscripted at nineteen and whose father was a Somme Veteran, who survived not just one, but three very close separate encounters with death – encounters which killed nearly all his comrades.

7. Evidence Not Seen: A Woman’s Miraculous Faith in the Jungles of World War II
by Darlene Deibler Rose

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This is the true story of a young American missionary woman’s courage and triumph of faith in the jungles of New Guinea and her four years in a notorious Japanese prison camp. Never to see her husband again, she was forced to sign a confession to a crime she did not commit and face the executioner’s sword, only to be miraculously spared.

8. The Railway Man
by Eric Lomax

The Railway Man

During the second world war Eric Lomax was forced to work on the notorious Burma-Siam Railway and was tortured by the Japanese for making a crude radio.

Left emotionally scarred and unable to form normal relationships Lomax suffered for years until, with the help of his wife Patti and the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, he came to terms with what had happened and, fifty years after the terrible events, was able to meet one of his tormentors.

The Railway Man is an incredible story of innocence betrayed, and of survival and courage in the face of horror.

9. You’ll Die in Singapore
by Charles C. McCormack

You'll Die in Singapore

Weakened by hunger, thirst and ill-treatment, author Charles McCormac, then a World War Two prisoner-of-war in Japanese-occupied Singapore, knew that if he did not escape he would die.

With sixteen others he broke out of Pasir Panjang camp and began an epic two-thousand-mile escape from the island of Singapore, through the jungles of Indonesia to Australia. With no compass and no map, and only the goodwill of villagers and their own wits to rely on, the British and Australian POWs? escape took a staggering five months and only two out of the original seventeen men survived.

You’ll Die in Singapore is Charles McCormac’s compelling true account of one of the most horrifying and amazing escapes in World War Two. It is a story of courage, endurance and compassion, and is a gripping read.

10. Unexpected Prisoner: Memoir of a Vietnam POW
by Robert Wideman, Cara Lopez Lee

Unexpected Prisoner: Memoir of a Vietnam POW

When Lieutenant Robert Wideman’s plane crashed on a bombing run in the Vietnam War, he feared falling into enemy hands. Although he endured the kind of pain that makes people question humanity, physical torture was not his biggest problem. During six years as a prisoner of war, he saw the truth behind Jean-Paul Sartre’s words: “Hell is other people.” Unexpected Prisoner explores a POW’s struggle with enemies and comrades, Vietnamese interrogators and American commanders, his lost dreams and ultimately himself.

12 comments

  1. Anyone reading this would think that the only ‘prisoners of war’ were those incarcerated in South East Asia or the Nazi concentration camps. A one-eyed perspective if ever there was one.
    What about the Irishmen held in ‘prisons’ for objecting to British military occupation of their country ( a situation that still isn’t fully resolved to this day)? And all of the servicemen who fought in WW2 across Europe and beyond, who ended up in a PoW camp? Have none of these memoirs/biographies ever seen the light of day?
    The focus on the Holocaust has always been disproportionate, as if that was the only circumstance of humanity atrocity.
    For example, the British Government’s ‘detention’ of Kikuyu Kenyans in the 1950’s never gets aired – partially on account of the British Government’s destruction of any evidence…..point made?

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