adventure Biography Memoir Books Cultural Historical Nonfiction War

“Prisoner of the Japanese: From Changi to Tokyo”: Tom Henling Wade’s moving memoir of survival and courage in the face of horror

Over the past six months I’ve noticed that my reading style has changed – the books I read now are totally different from the ones I usually read. Six months ago I was reading my usual dystopian future, romance, adventure novels. Now, I find myself drawn to stories like Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons, The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult and Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Right now, I’m fixated by Prisoner of War (POW) memoirs.

People have been asking me lately why I’ve suddenly been drawn to POW stories. They are heart breaking, devastating stories that seem to prove that there is no rule book for what might be unacceptable to do to another human being.

But not only are these stories a testament to the brutality of war, they are also a beacon of hope. They remind us of the tenacity of the human spirit, our drive to go forward, to continue and carry on when all seems lost. They are stories of determination, hope and endurance that show us that if someone else can carry on through the worst circumstances then we can, too. They are inspirations.

One of these memoirs is the story of Tom Henling Wade, who was a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II, with his book titled Prisoner of the Japanese: From Changi to Tokyo.

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.


Born in China and partly raised there, Wade is the product of a family that has lived in eastern Asia for three generations. At the outbreak of war, he was a journalist with the Shanghai Times. His moving account of his period of captivity is augmented by a number of perspectives shared by all too few of the Allied servicemen captured at Singapore. He is highly critical of the British distrust of Chinese and Malays who could have been relied on to play a more important role in the defence of the Malay Peninsula.

Wade’s moving account of his period of captivity is characterised by the sense of determination, hope and courage which sustained all those who shared his experience.

His memoir moved me beyond words, and what I found in his story were the three main things that make POW stories so powerful. It is a testament to the brutality of war; the tenacity of the human spirit; and the power of faith.

The brutality of war goes back to this idea that there seems to be no rule book for what is unacceptable to do to another human being. Nothing shows that more than war time, and Wade’s memoir shows us exactly that with his account of what he went through with Watanabe and the general feeling he got in the Omori prison camp.

In his memoir Prisoner of the Japanese: From Changi to Tokyo, Wade wrote:

“It did not look terrible, it didn’t look anything! It was the cruel men, the circumstances and the suffering that made that camp a hell. Now that it was empty and the bullies and prisoners gone it had no horror, no evidence of its noisome past. That’s how Omori would look to a stranger – and any prison or concentration camp. There was no measure of the pain and anguish that had once saturated the close line of huts; that measure can only be learnt from the scattered ex-inmates whose minds and bodies still bear the scars of years of torture and neglect. And why should anyone bother to find out? Certainly the guilty will not want review of the case. No, since there is no public measure of his shame, man will always cause suffering to man.”
– Tom Henling Wade, Prisoner of the Japanese: From Changi to Tokyo

Few would know this better than he.

The tenancy of the human spirit refers to these survivors being strong mentally with a drive, will and determination to go on, make the best of a bad situation and make it home alive. It is the hope and endurance that makes us believe that human beings are indestructible, that we cannot be broken.

Wade writes:

“I wonder if the reader can understand the strength of our determination to survive? With me, the will itself was absolutely ruthless though none of my actions had yet been. If only one prisoner were going to get out of Japan alive I was determined that it would be me.”
– Tom Henling Wade, Prisoner of the Japanese: From Changi to Tokyo

The power of faith refers to prisoners being able to believe in something, anything, during their ordeal. For some it may be religion, the power to believe in a God when they have been landed in the worst possible position. For others it’s belief that they will get home.

For Wade, it was his belief in humanity. That there are good people out there and even after everything he went through, he still believed in humanity and in “mankind”. He wrote:

“All men and women are capable of bravery. The pity is that nationalism divides us. Perhaps a true internationalism and cosmopolitanism will one day supersede our bickering and jealous nationalism. Perhaps it will not be too long before all of us on this small planet realise that we are one, and that our true nationality is Mankind.”
– Tom Henling Wade, Prisoner of the Japanese: From Changi to Tokyo 

When we look at these people, these prisoners like Wade, we consider them heroes. The truth is heroes are not people who save others from death; they do not wear capes and fly across the city. Heroes are the people who survive. People who are in the worst situations and get dealt the awful cards, but make the best of it and make the best of the situation they are in.

They are people who get up and carry on believing that one day things will be good again; people who continuously have hope and determination to believe that we can go on, no matter what our circumstances are and despite our losses. They survive. And by doing that, they inspire us and show us that we can, too.

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