03 Sep 20

When approached regarding whether to review From Shanghai to the Burma Railway, this reviewer’s interest was immediate, having a professional and personal interest in the Asia-Pacific. From Shanghai to the Burma Railway provides a snapshot of the personal experience of events that still resonate: life in Shanghai amidst the opening phase of the Sino-Japanese War, and in Singapore in the lead-up to the Japanese invasion, and for Richard Laird, as with so many others, the harrowing experience of being a Japanese Prisoner of War (PoW). The editor, Rory Laird, has compiled this book from the memoirs his father wrote in the 1980s and the letters sent between his parents, including those from his mother to his father whilst he was a PoW. Those are particularly poignant considering that Bobbie Couper Patrick, who would become Richard’s wife, had no way of knowing whether Richard was still alive, yet continued to write regularly to him.

Divided into five chapters with an introduction and three appendices, From Shanghai to the Burma Railway provides a compelling account of Richard Laird’s experiences in Shanghai, Singapore, and Burma, and in the immediate days following Japan’s surrender. The chapters cover ‘Shanghai 1937 to 1939’, ‘Singapore and Penang 1939 to 1941’, and three chapters covering Richard Laird’s period as a PoW, firstly in Changi, and subsequently on the Burma Railway, before returning to Changi and eventual freedom. The three appendices are official reports concerning the treatment of Allied PoWs, providing a narrative of ‘F’ Force in Thailand (a force of 7,000 British and Australian personnel, including Richard Laird, moved from Changi to Burma), an appeal for better treatment of PoWs submitted to the Japanese authorities, and an extract of a medical report on conditions in the Tanbaya Hospital, Burma, written by an officer in the Australian Army Medical Corps. Together with Rory Laird’s editorial notes, the appendices provide valuable historical context, complementing Richard Laird’s personal account. A set of maps, including one detailing Bobbie Couper Patrick’s escape from Singapore to Batavia and Australia, and a photographic plate covering 16 pages is also included. The selection of photographs is excellent and includes Shanghai in the late 1930s and a contemporary photograph taken by Rory Laird, plus pictures taken clandestinely by an Australian PoW showing conditions inside Changi and on the Burma Railway.

From Shanghai to the Burma Railway provides a highly readable, compelling and poignant account of Richard Laird’s life in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It does warrant mention that some terms and expressions that would not be used today have not been edited from the memoirs or extracts of the letters. Although not a naval book, From Shanghai to the Burma Railway warrants inclusion in The Naval Review: it provides timely and valuable insights into the uncertainty and challenges confronting the generation who lived through that period. Moreover, it provides an opportunity for reflection on the historical aspect, for example, the defence of Malaya and Singapore; the book provides a thought-provoking account of the consequences of strategic failure. Rory Laird has produced an excellent and fitting tribute to his parents and the wartime generation, From Shanghai to the Burma Railway is highly recommended.