Thomas Humphrey was a Petty Officer in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. In 1942, Thomas' ship HMS Exeter was sunk and he became a prisoner of war in Japan.
Though Thomas Humphrey died at the age of 91 in 1998, he kept a diary during his three and a half years captive in Japan so we can still hear his story.
Sign up for our email newsletter to get our latest news in your inbox
In September 2015, a memorial is being unveiled in Nagasaki on the site of Thomas Humphrey’s camp to commemorate the 72 men who died there during the war. Volunteer Fred West from SSAFA in Cornwall has arranged to pay £1,700 costs for Thomas’ daughter Alicia to go to Japan and attend the ceremony. This is the story of Thomas and Alicia in their own words.
The sinking of HMS Exeter
In 1942, Petty Officer Thomas Humphrey was aboard the HMS Exeter. The war was not going well for the Allied forces and his ship was part of the short-lived ABDACOM (American-British-Dutch-Australian Command) naval forces campaign, which sent ships to the Java Sea to defend the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, from Japanese invasion.
On 1 March, the HMS Exeter was attacked by Japanese heavy cruisers. Initially damaged by gunfire, which caused the ship to lose all power, HMS Exeter was then torpedoed and the ship quickly sank at around 11am. There were 650 men on board and 55 men and officers died in the accident. Thomas and the other surviving crew members, spent more than four hours in open water before they were picked up and rescued by a Japanese destroyer. They then became Japanese prisoners of war (POW). Of these men, 153 died in captivity and three more later died as a result of their treatment.
From Thomas Humphrey’s diary, Sunday 1 March 1942
At 1110 hrs our Captain ordered that the ship was to be sunk and her crew were to abandon her…Two Japanese destroyers had stopped and were picking up any one who could reach them...I swam to the destroyer that was up wind…we were the last to get aboard her. She had started to get under way as I climbed aboard…we were searched for weapons and then told to go aft. I found that I had lost my wallet, bank book and photos of Kath and the children. I still had a small bottle of rum and a tin of cigarettes. On the after deck I found several of my mess-mates…We were made to sit down on the deck and just before dark were given a small tin of watery milk and two biscuits.
Initially, Thomas was taken to a former Dutch and Indonesian school at Makassar, capital of the Celebes off the east end of Borneo.
Tuesday 10 March 1942
Just as we were going to have dinner we had orders to disembark. It took them about an hour to count us…At last they seemed satisfied and we moved off..It must have been a degrading sight to see us in the condition that we were in, but whatever our troubles we all kept our heads up as we marched through the town. After an hour’s marching we arrived at the Dutch Infantry Barracks. We wer taken to the Accommodation Blocks and were put five persons to each room. After a while I had look around our future home. I found that the part of the Barracks that we were in was made up of eight dormitories…divided up into sixteen compartments. Outside of my dormitory was a change of clothes. I managed to get three pairs of shorts, two singlets, a pink pajama suit and a pair of socks. I now have a change of gear. At about 1800 hrs we were given three biscuits and were told that they had to last until dinner tomorrow.
The school had been turned into a temporary prisoner of war camp. Many of the forced labour camps – where more than a third of western prisoners held would later die of starvation, work, disease and punishment – were still being constructed at this time.
At this former school, Thomas managed to steal and smuggle away a child’s school exercise book. Over the next three and a half years, he kept a secret diary in which he described the sinking of his ship; as well as the brutality, banality, loneliness and camaraderie as a POW.
Thomas Humphrey arrives in Nagasaki
After six months, Thomas was moved to the Fukuoka no.2 camp on the island of Koyagi Shima, five miles out in Nagasaki bay. He spent the rest of the Second World War there.
9 October 1942
I think that I am sorry to leave here now and go to Japan. We have heard that we are going to work in their ship building yards. I hope not.
12 October 1942
Taken to the football field and taught Japanese orders for right and left turn, about turn, attention, stand at ease, on and off caps, to salute and bow Japanese fashion. Also they made us do P.T. as they want us to arrive in Japan fit.
13 October 1942
Well Kath (Thomas’ wife) 14 years ago today, we got spliced and this is the first time that I have not sent you a card or something. Never mind sweetheart, every day will be a Sunday bye and bye and I won’t forget.
19 October 1942
35 years old today. I this time last year I did not think that I would be a prisoner of war and that I should spend my birthday in a cargo hold of a Japanese liner with 214 other Englishmen. I had a small present given to me today by a friend – 2 rolls of good tobacco.. I would like to know how Kath and the children are. It is now 11 months since she posted the last letter I received and I wonder when I shall get the next.
Around 1,400 men were held at the prison camp and their main work was hard labour in the Kawanami shipyard. During the first winter the death rate was extremely high, averaging about one to two deaths per day. The principal causes of death were pneumonia, dysentery, beriberi and infections, due to a lack of medication.
Hardship and camaraderie at Fukuoka
Thomas continued his diary at Fukuoka. There are gaps within the story, when the diary was confiscated by the Japanese guards for months at a time. At another time, Thomas found the diary hidden away in the stores when he was working on galley duty and was able to steal it back it and continue his story.
2 January 1943
Today I got my diary back. I stole it and as it is a day off from work I shall try to fill in the gap. We started work in Nagasaki No2 Shipbuilding Yard on 31st October 1942. The Japanese have promised us presents if we work hard…On the whole the issue of food is small and they keep saying they will increase it. They are good at promising things. Smoking is only permitted at certain times...We are allowed a short church service on Sundays lasting 10 to 15 minutes.
29 December 1944
Diary had to be handed in but when I was working in the storeroom today I managed to find it and am again trying to fill in the blank months. Frank Willmore now permanently sick. Yeoman of Signals Phillips was killed in the Dockyard. Japanese started to pay us 15 Sen for working officers, 10 Sen for N.C.O’s and 5 Sen for other ranks…During March we got first issue of cakes and cigarettes. Was allowed to write home. Men are still being beaten up for trivial offences such as wearing caps inside rooms.
7 March 1945
Air raid warning during the night. Camp visited by General In Charge P.O.W. ½ tin of Red Cross meat per man, allowed to write home 40 words.
The day the atomic bomb dropped
On 9 August 1945, the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki – only a few miles from the Fukuoka camp. Thomas and any of his fellow prisoners or guards could easily have been killed and the carnage of the bomb was clearly visible to everyone there. ‘Dad wrote in his diary about how all the windows were blown out at the camp when the bomb was dropped,’ explained his daughter Alicia Conium.
Wednesday 9 August 1945
I was the Duty P.O.W in Camp Fukuoka No.2 on the island of Koyagi Shima in the approaches to the harbour of Nagasaki on the southern island of Japan.
0700 hrs Dockyard working parties were assembled and marched to dockyard. Sick men who remained in camp were detailed for work cleaning camp and gardening.
1000 hrs Air warning red. Everyone to shelters.
1030 hrs All clear.
1055 hrs Air raid warning red. At that time I was in an air raid shelter and as I was leaving the shelter I was facing towards Nagasaki. I saw a flash of intense brilliance which seemed to block out the sun. After which there was complete silence for ten to fifteen seconds. As the brilliance faded a ripple of warm air struck my face and upper part of my body. This increase in heat and velocity, accumulating in an ear-shattering roar of a very heavy explosion which shook the camp causing window frames and glass to fall. Still looking towards Nagasaki I saw a huge ball of orange and purple smoke which continued to change colour as it rose into the air. This was followed by three columns of heavy black smoke which formed a large cloud over Nagasaki. My impression was that the ammunition works at Nagasaki had received a direct hit and half the town had been destroyed. Damage to the camp – fifteen window frames complete, 134 panes of glass, two large pinewood doors and the end of the single storey building cracked and broken, and the ceiling of the sick bay was sagging and broken.
1700 hrs Dockyard parties returned to camp. From them we learned that half the town of Nagasaki was still burning, but nobody could tell us what had caused the explosion.
Thursday 10 August 1945
Nagasaki still burning. Supplied forty kilos of rice to camp No.14 at Nagasaki which was badly damaged by yesterday’s explosion…Air raid warning red; stayed in shelters three hours. Heard from one of the guards that the bomb yesterday was a new kind of bomb.
Sunday 13 August 1945
I wonder what has happened. Had a long talk with one of the guards today. He told me that the war was over, and the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki was an atomic bomb.
Friday 18 August 1945
Received official notice from Japanese Camp Commander that hostilities had ceased today. I wonder how long it will be before we start the long journey home. Everyone very excited and cannot sleep.
Sunday 19 August 1945
Held a Thanksgiving Service today and at the end of service sang the National Anthem. First time for three years.
Freedom at last
Saturday 26 August
Three twin-engine bombers flew over at 1400 hrs. We had spelled out the word ‘NEWS’ with clothing on the potato patch and the Leader of the Squadron dropped a small medical kit, in it was the following message:
“Courtesy of 345 Bomb Group, 500th Bomb Squadron, ‘Air Apaches’. WAR IS OVER. JAPANESE SURRENDERED UNCONDITIONALLY TO ALLIES AFTER ATOMIC BOMB DROPPED ON NAGASAKI AND AFTER RUSSIA ENTERED WAR AGAINST JAPANESE. McARTHUR WILL ARRIVE TOKYO IN A FEW DAYS TO ACCEPT HIROHITO’S SURRENDER. AMERICAN TROOPS SOON BE HERE TO FREE YOU.”
Thursday 14 September 1945
Left Japan for Okinawa. Have started homeward at last! I am no longer a guest of the Emperor of Japan, but free at last.
Life after the war
Within a month of the bomb being dropped, the war was over and Thomas was returned to Britain via Canada on an US ship in November 1945.
While at Fukuoka, Thomas was beaten several times, but he was also shown kindness by one of the Japanese guards there called Yamamoto. It was something Thomas would remember for the rest of his life. At the end of the war, the kindly guard gave Thomas one of his two military medals that he had been awarded for his services fighting the Chinese. Thomas kept the precious gift that Yamamoto had given him when he returned to England and had the medal turned into a necklace for his wife Kath.
‘Dad never spoke much about his war years,’ said Alicia. ‘But he did wonder what had happened to the guard who had given him the medal.’ She commented on the legacy of the atom bomb. ‘Later in life, in 1977, dad had to have a tumour removed that was the size of a football. He made a full recovery afterwards, but we never knew if the tumour was due to radiation.’
In 1995, a writer called Guy Stanley started work on a novel about a Japanese POW camp. He saw an extract of Thomas’ diary at the Imperial War Museum and contacted him about his experiences. Guy’s novel Nagasaki Six, a modern thriller, was published two years later in 1997 and included extracts from Thomas’ diary. Guy lived in Japan and was married to a Japanese woman and during his research for Nagasaki Six, he traced Yamamoto’s family for Thomas and visited them. He discovered that while Yamamoto had died, he was survived by a wife and family. Alicia said: ‘It was so overwhelming for his wife to know that someone had thought kindly of her husband during these terrible times.’
Guy persuaded Thomas to return Yamamoto’s medal to his family, which he did shortly before his death. Thomas died in 1998 without ever returning to Japan.
Alicia's trip to the memorial
There is now a junior high school on the site of the former POW camp and after much discussion, Nagasaki City Council agreed for a memorial to erected in the school grounds to commemorate the 72 prisoners who died in the camp during the war. The memorial will be unveiled on 13 September 2015 – the same date that the camp was liberated 70 years previously. Alicia was invited to attend the unveiling of the memorial and that's when SSAFA volunteer Fred West said he would help her to secure funding for the trip.
Alicia says, 'I’d have been grateful for £50 toward my trip and was overwhelmed to be given £1,700 to cover all costs. It will be a very emotional day to attend the unveiling and be able to remember dad and his co-patriots. I am so grateful to SSAFA and the Royal Navy Benevolent Fund for making it possible. I’m sure dad would have been very proud.'
Pictured above is Alicia and her father Thomas on her wedding day