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29 October 2014

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Carol Cooper on a visit to Thailand
Carol Cooper visits Thailand in 1997

Secret diary inspires a legacy to the past

A national memorial museum dedicated to Far East Prisoners of War, opened on Monday 15 August, 2005 to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Victory in Japan Day. It's been built thanks to the work of Norfolk's Carol Cooper.

Sixty years after victory in Japan, thousands of veterans and their families gathered at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire on Monday 15 August, 2005 – for the opening of a new war museum.

The memorial museum, dedicated to Far East Prisoners of War (FEPOW), has been built by the Children of Far East Prisoners of War (COFEPOW), founded by Carol Cooper.

Forgiven but not forgotten

It was a nightmare Stan Topham never wanted to re-live. But lately the Far East veteran has had trouble sleeping – memories buried deep within his psyche have been revoked.

As a 21-year-old private with the Royal Norfolk Regiment, Stan left Liverpool docks bound, he thought, for the Middle East. He ended up in Singapore.

Stan Topham as a solider in WW2
Stan Topham as a solider in WW2

Just two weeks later the city was surrendered to the Japanese and he was captured, along with thousands of other Royal Norfolk Regiment soldiers. He hadn't fired a shot in anger.

Stan Topham was taken to Thailand where he worked on the infamous Railway Of Death.

A man died for every sleeper laid. But Stan survived two years of hell and in the Spring of 1944 he was shipped to Japan where he saw out the war. Sixty years later he decided to go back to see the site of his old prison camp in Japan, accompanied by his son Ian.

"When Ian first suggested it, I found it hard to sleep. Several nights I would wake up and think about it. Not a pleasant prospect," he said.

Journey to Japan

After a 6000-mile flight to the other side of the world and a 200mph bullet train from Tokyo, Stan arrived in the mountain village of Tenyru where the Mitsushima camp was sited.

Allied soldiers, 48 of them, died from malnutrition or disease. Imperial Army guards were particularly brutal and eight of them were executed by the War Crimes Commission at the end of the war.

"They would go for you with no real reason. They would have to take their vengeance out on us for no bad deed having been done. We were treated like animals," said Stan.

Stan Topham reflects upon his time during WW2
Stan Topham remembers the past

Stan is only the second veteran ever to have returned to Japan. As he arrived he was welcomed with banners and tears. The mayor and local dignitaries honoured him with banquets and speeches.

Nothing remains of the camp where he spent 16 months, but one landmark does remain. The dam up-river where prisoners were forced to cart concrete bags up the mountainside.

The trip has been an emotional one for Stan.

"It's overwhelming. I wasn't expecting any reception. I never dreamed it would be like this," he said.

"When I was here so many years ago I didn't think I would ever want to come back, but I'm very, very happy that I've been able to. We must all live together. Best we can do is be friendly with each other," he added.

Stan's visit to Japan was documented by BBC Look East as part of a special programme looking back on the region's contribution to the war campaign.

video Watch: Stan Topham's return to Japan >
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The programme also featured the remarkable story of a secret diary, belonging to the father of Carol Cooper.

The diary

The diary of her father's experience in the Far East, uncovered nine years ago, led Carol to founding COFEPOW and in turn to the new museum at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

Pages from Carol Cooper's father's war diary
Opening page of the secret diary

The museum, which is dedicated to all the Far East prisoners of war, marks the end of an incredible journey for Carol that began when she spotted a story in her local paper about a soldier's diary that had been sold at auction.

As she read the article, she realised the diary had belonged to her father - who had died as a prisoner of war in Burma.

With the help of the BBC in Norwich, the diary came back to Carol and she was offered the chance to undertake a journey of discovery to the Far East and walk in her father's footsteps.

You can hear this remarkable story in The Diary, a documentary by BBC Radio Norfolk.

Visitors to the museum in Staffordshire will see many more Norfolk veteran stories, complemented by film exhibits from award-winning documentary producer Dick Meadows.

The National Memorial Arboretum at Croxall Road, Alrewas, Staffordshire is open daily from 10am - 5pm. Admission is free.

last updated: 16/08/05
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