COFEPOW – It all began with a diary

Out of the death camps, my fathers book of love.

Starved and racked with disease, soldier Bill Smith recorded his ordeal at the hands of the Japanese in a secret diary.

The young lance-corporal knew that if the makeshift book was discovered, he faced execution.

But he wanted his account of the daily battle for survival as a memento for his wife Ida. It was the thought of her steadfast love at home that helped him endure the brutality of life as a prisoner of war in Thailand and Burma.

But he was never to see his wife and family again. His last diary entry, dated December 8 1943, said ‘At the present time having a bad spell with malaria.’

Nine days later at 28, the soldier from the Royal Norfolk Regiment was dead. He was buried in Burma.

Yesterday, his daughter Carol Cooper held the book – covered with hessian from his kit bag – close to her heart. Fifty one years after the end of the war, her father’s words are at last with his family.

‘The diary is a very personal and treasured piece of my father that I never had a chance to know.’ she said.

The family had no idea of its existence until 1944. Then Mrs Cooper, 56, read about it in a local newspaper after a collector bought it for £248.00 to be displayed in the Royal Norfolk regimental museum in Norwich.

But when she contacted the new owner, he refused to sell it to her, insisting it was a historical document that should remain on public view. But this year he finally had a change of heart, selling it to her for £300.00, which he donated to charity.

Mrs Cooper’s mother had to wait until the end of the war to discover her husband’s fate. None of his belongings were ever returned to her.

She died four years ago (1992), never knowing about the 104-page diary inscribed: ‘To me darling wife Ida, whose love has helped me to endure these troublesome times through which i am passing.

Lance Corporal Smith’s diary began after he left Great Yarmouth to join the Royal Norfolks  in 1941. He was captured in Singapore in 1942 and was in Changi prison there before joining POWs building the Death Railway through Thailand to Burma.

In June 1943 he wrote. ‘It has rained every day since I have been here. It’s hellish, mud everywhere.’

June 24, 1943: ‘Usual sort of day. Food is the same, only about half a cup of rice. It is a proper starvation diet. Out of 900 men in this camp, only 150 are classed as fit. I am hanging on and trying to take things easy.’

June 25 1943: ‘I have one pair of honey socks and they are filthy and my towel you would never clean your floor with, Ida, but I have my spirits up and a smile so don’t worry, I will be home some bright day.’

August 20 1943: ‘There have been 167 deaths this month so far and the record was 28 died in one night when cholera was at its height. It’s simply a case of plain murder.’

August 21 1943: ’What a night. We lost two more men last night and I helped to carry one of them away this morning. It is horrible. The poor chaps are simply stripped and dumped eight to a grave.’

September 6 1943: ‘It seems that it will never end. We must keep smiling and eating their rice. One must eat the rice if you want to go home. I pray to God it won’t be long now.’

Yesterday Mrs Cooper, of Gorleston, Norfolk, said: ‘I cried my eyes out when I saw the diary. It was very emotional reading my father’s declaration of love for my mother and the family. When I heard about the diary I just wanted it returned to my family so we could remember him.’

(This article was written in The Daily Mail in 1996) Carol Cooper went on to establish COFEPOW – The Children (& Families) of the Far East Prisoners of War. This group is thriving today and is centred at Alrewas, the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.


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