Australia Day Award – 2016:
Artist in Captivity exhibition
The Weary Dunlopand Jack Chalker, (Prisoners of War) POW's –
Artist in Captivity
exhibition, opened in April 2016. It brought together more than 100 works commemorating POW experiences on the Thailand-Burma Railway during World War II (WWII).
The Artist in Captivity exhibition included artwork from the
British bombardier Jack Chalker
and memorabilia from Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop. The paintings and drawings of POW camps by Jack Chalker are graphic in detail and content. They include images of torture, incarceration, malnutrition and executions as well as medical operations, work life, and camp layout.
Jack Chalker served as a bombardier with the Royal Field Artillery and was captured by the Japanese during the fall of Singapore in 1942. As a POW he was sent to work on the Thai-Burma railway. Here, he met Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop, a colonel in the Australian Army Medical Corps in 1944 and together they secretly recorded the atrocities endured by prisoners.
The events recorded in Jack Chalker's paintings resonate with deep meaning amongst many Australians. These works are important war records and were used in evidence at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. Over 100 Chalker artworks were displayed in Artist in Captivity as well as Sir Edward "Weary 'Dunlop's war diaries and other artefacts. The collection commemorates the courage of two men to record, at great personal risk, the cruelties of POW life as well as the bravery of fellow prisoners to endure such harsh conditions.
Mission Arts would like to thank the generous sponsor Ryman Healthcare for enabling the exhibition. Such sponsorship and the help by a dedicated team of Mission Arts volunteers resulted in an award: the Cassowary Coast Regional Council Australia Day Award for 2016 Cultural Event of the Year.
Mission Arts would like to acknowledge John Dunlop, son of Weary Dunlop and Adrian Chalker, son of Jack Chalker for endorsing the exhibition from its inception and providing invaluable contributions throughout the curatorial process.
The Colonel and the Bombardier
by Adrian Chalker
Seventy years to the day after my father Jack Chalker arrived in Singapore as a green, 24 year old bombardier, my wife Askale and I stood looking over Keppel Harbor where his boat had berthed. It was the 29th January 2012, and I was guiding an educational group through Malaysia. From Kuala Lumpur we had traveled to Taman Negara, then Malacca, and finally crossed the causeway to Singapore. In Singapore, Askale and I took the bus to visit the POW Museum and Chapel at Changi, where my father's captivity had begun. I was conscious that after the surrender the Japanese had herded the survivors of my father's regiment along the very road on which we drove. It was a sobering thought. Changi was our first insight into the captivity of an army that had just suffered the worst military defeat in British history. It was the end of my father's combat experience and the beginning of his battle for survival.
After the group had flown home, Askale and I took the train from Singapore to Bangkok to shoot additional footage for a film I was making on my father's POW years. My motivation for this project was to gain insight into his experiences as a POW and, by doing so, perhaps shed light on my own experience as his son. In the end, the film I made was cathartic for us both. When I presented it to him - for I made it for him alone - what the film said to my father was that I understood.
I grew up with one parent, my mother, and over the years had to endure a number of short, emotionally fraught and difficult visits with my father, none of which brought us any closer. Other than the childhood trauma of my parent's divorce, the only relationship that I had with my father was his absence. So, as my wife and I traveled through Malaya, my own issues were as much part of my quest as was the search for my father's missing years. Who was he? Who was I? These were two inseparable questions for which I hoped to find an answer. I did not know if a better understanding of his POW years would help me to come to terms with the subsequent relationship that we had had. I hoped very much that it would.
Post 1980, my father's paintings of his POW experience had made him moderately famous. Subsequently he featured in many documentaries and a number of his illustrations bacame the iconic images for the entire POW experience. His friendship with Weary Dunlop kept his role in the international spotlight. I once asked an Australian traveling on one of my Himalayan groups if he had ever heard of Edward Weary Dunlop. His reply was "....you ever heard of Jesus Christ?" So it was clear that Weary was a big fish, and my father's friendship with him was meaningful. My father's notoriety gave him one wonderful experience that he cherished his entire life. In the camps when things were bad, he remembers humming Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again" and "Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover", the music the boys had fought to during the Battle of Britain. In the 1980s Vera Lynn came to one of his exhibitions and one of the crowning moments of his life we to kiss the cheek of this icon and heroine to the troops.
By then I was familiar with the experiences of the POWs of the Japanese. I had read many books on the subject, biographies, histories, commentaries and diatribes. I had spent twenty years as a guide in the Far and Middle East, and had led many groups through Malaya and Thailand and Singapore. Part of my job was to lecture on the history, culture, politics and religion, so I knew a little of the region, its colonial ties and the appalling tragedy of both world wars. Over the preceding year's research I had ingested a great deal of additional information on the POW experience. But it was not until I boarded the train from Singapore to Bangkok that, quite suddenly, I had a 'eureka moment'. Out of the blue I came to fully understood something very basic about my father's POW experience, something that I had previously missed. As we bounced and rattled along the same railway line onto which my father and 60,000 prisoners had been herded like cattle in 1942, I suddenly realized that my father had been in the very worst place at the very worst time. It was striking to me that I had spent 50 years of life without knowing this. I could only wonder why.
In late 1939 my father was living in Buckinghamshire and was to have entered the Royal College of Art in London. Instead he joined 260 battery of the 118th Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery, Territorials. In May 1940, Churchill replaced Chamberlain as Prime Minister, the Nazis kicked the British out of France at Dunkirk, and Britain faced imminent invasion. Britain's survival was now dependent on a few middle class college boys who had learned to fly. Not since Nelson fought Napoleon at Trafalgar had England been in so dire a peril.
All through the phony war, blitzkrieg and the Battle of Britain, my father was hunting for Fifth Columnists in southern England. Like many young men, he longed to be a pilot, and like so many in 1940 he looked up at the white condensation trails left by the Spitfire and ME109 dogfights and listened to Churchill's stirring speeches. Everyone understood what was at stake.
In October 1941, Gunner Chalker, along with the 118th Field regiment was issued tropical kit and entrained for Liverpool. They considered the pith helmets they had been given as absurd. On the 27th October they sailed on the RMS Orcades for Canada. Half way across they were met by an American convoy which escorted them into Halifax, where they transferred to the USS West Point and sailed to India, arriving Bombay on 27th December where they disembarked. Recalled early they were rushed to Singapore, arriving on Thursday, 29th January 1942. The naval base was under heavy air raid, thick black smoke rising high into the air, so the USS West Point berthed at the civilian Keppel Harbor. My father's regiment was deployed to the north east of the island facing the mainland. As they fired their 25 pounder guns across the causeway at the advancing Japanese, they had no idea what was in store for them.
Singapore fell on 15th February 1942. A Japanese army of 60,000 had defeated a British and Commonwealth army of 160,000, and my father became a prisoner or war. He was 24 years old and would spend the next three and a half years in slave labor, starved, tortured, and brutalized by his captors.
The troops captured in Singapore were marched to Changi, where there were a number of military barracks and a large gaol. It was in Changi that my father was given a small set of water color paints which he carried with him for many months. After a stint in the Havelock Road work camp, my father joined 60,000 other troops being sent by train to Thailand to build the Death Railway. The journey took four days, and on the 19th October they disembarked in Ban Pong and began the long march up the Kwai Noi to Konyu river camp. They marched 160 kilometers in ten days through thick jungle, with little food, no medicine, often in the pouring rain and always in debilitating heat. The dying now began in earnest.
About 180,000 Asian laborers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war worked on the railway. Of these, around 90,000 Asians and 16,000 Allied prisoners of war died from starvation, disease, and torture. My father was in Konyu during the brutal 'Speedo Period' from February 1943 onward where the Japanese instigated 18 hour work days to complete the railway in record time. Thousands were worked to death. Pellagra, diphtheria, typhus, beriberi, dengue fever, dysentery and malaria patients filled every available hut and tent. The ulcer patients suffered terribly, and the smell of their rotting limbs permeated the camp. All feared the dreaded cholera, which would arrive in June during the monsoon. Conditions were appalling and the guards brutal. The Japanese considered the prisoners expendable. There was never much chance of survival, and all the prisoners knew this. In Konyu river camp, my father received two full days of severe beating and torture when some of his paintings were discovered by a Korean guard. It nearly killed him and he escaped death only by chance.
As Askale and I explored the banks of the Kwai Noi, shot film in Hellfire Pass and walked through the long deserted camp sites, as we researched what had taken place 70 years ago in this beautiful haven of nature, I found my emotions stretching and contracting. The past, although still imagined, was becoming more real. The sounds and the animals were the same. The jungle plants and odors unchanged. As I looked through the teak trees at the rugged mountainous horizon, all was exactly as it had been for my father and his comrades 70 years before. In this I felt a communion; a sense of opening up; a readiness to understand what this had been like for him.
It was in Konyu river camp during the early Speedo period that my father first heard of Col. Edward Dunlop, the Australian medical officer of the adjacent Hintok camp, whose inmates had dug out the notorious Hellfire Pass cutting, a legend of brutality even amongst the prisoners. In March 1943 after months of slave labor and beatings, Gunner Chalker's body finally gave out. He was sent by road to Tarsau staging camp, a skeleton, unable to walk, where he ate the first food that was not rice sludge in many months. It brought tears to his eyes. Confirmed as seriously ill, he was sent to Chungkai hospital camp for heavy sick, where he remained until June, when the cholera hit, and was then transferred along with a number of prisoners to the huge Nakom Pathom hospital camp further down river. Accompanying them was Col. Edward 'Weary' Dunlop, who took charge of the medical team on arrival. The great fear was that they would be sent back up jungle to Konyu or Hintok, where they knew survival was unlikely. As my father slowly recovered the ability to walk, he became involved in the design and production of the theatre performances, so critical to moral and so well remembered by the survivors. Under Dunlop's inspired medical leadership, my father was set to work in the rehabilitation unit using massage and physiotherapy to rebuild muscles destroyed by tropical ulcers. Dunlop noted his artistic ability and commissioned my father to keep a visual record of the conditions, illnesses, surgical treatments, and the brutality of the camps. It was a death sentence if caught by the guards, but it was worth it, and my father was not alone taking such risks. Out of this association the colonel and the bombardier became life-long friends.
As the summer of 1945 approached, the Japanese high command issued orders to exterminate all Allied POWs as the Japanese army withdrew. The Atom bomb saved my father's life, along with over 40,000 other survivors. It was a close run thing. On the 15th August, 1945 the Japanese surrendered. After the surrender, my father was seconded to the ANZACS to assist with the war trials in Bangkok and he worked with Weary Dunlop to outline the history and conditions of the camps for the incoming allied authorities. He stayed in Thailand, painting from the notes and sketches that he had made in the camps until 6th November, when he boarded the SS Duchess of Richmond in Rangoon and sailed back to England via South Africa. He was not the same man that had left England four years before. Like so many returning POWs, he was terrified - unsure whether he could ever function again as a normal human being after what he had seen and experienced.
Askale and I returned home to Seattle in more comfort. I was pensive and thoughtful after what I had found out about my father's POW experiences. I edited the film, researched archival material and read many statements written by other prisoners and their families, mostly on the difficulties faced by torture victims during rehabilitation. As I did so, I began to understand that my father was a just a man, like me, with his own weaknesses and strengths, and that the relationship between a son and his father was fraught at the best of times, but when torture, brutalization and the knowledge that you were going to be killed was added to the mix, then understanding and compassion was the only option. I could never know what it is to be forced to shut down, to be reduced to survival mode, where the sensibilities and finesses of normal life and normal relationships have neither traction nor benefit.
I began to realize that through making this film I had undergone a transformation of sorts, a realization that the wounds inflicted on my father by the Japanese, were my wounds, too. They were passed to me by my father, not through choice, but through an inability to go back, an inability to return to the man he was before the war. One does not come back from such experiences. The only option is to learn to live with them. Many could not, but my father managed it, and in many senses thrived. He built a life for himself that had many successes, although all were flavored by the jungle-sweat and fear of his time as a POW.
As I made my film, the instinctual understanding I had glimpsed at Hellfire Pass now returned, the sense of something enormous that my father had overcome, but which had scarred him deeply. I realized that his absence from my life was not due to my inadequacy as a child, it was due to the burden that he carried, every day, with every thought and every action. I felt a great weight lifting from me, a weight I had carried since childhood. Far from being an insurmountable barrier between us, it now appeared the burden he carried was not just his, but something that we shared. It was the answer I was looking for.
Along with the film I had made, I offered my father understanding and forgiveness, which he accepted and cherished. We shared many good years before his passing. Once I understood and forgave, he became the father I always wanted and, I believe, the father he always wanted to be. I became a true son to him. Our relationship was very close in his final years. I miss him and if he is out there somewhere, perhaps looking down at me now, he knows this, and I love him still.
Listen to the ABC interview here.