A life blighted by horror

By Donna Fleming

Kevin Menzies is heading to Japan to pay tribute to his late father, who spent most of the war there as a prisoner of war.
Photo / Getty Images
Kevin Menzies is heading to Japan to pay tribute to his late father, who spent most of the war there as a prisoner of war. Photo / Getty Images

Father never recovered from his years of brutality in a Japanese POW camp

When Kevin Menzies hears the haunting notes of the Last Post ring out this Anzac Day it will be an especially poignant moment. The IT worker normally attends services near his home in Balmoral, Auckland, but this Anzac Day he will be in Japan, paying tribute to his late father Mick, who spent most of World War II interned in a prisoner-of-war camp there.

Menzies, 60, is making the pilgrimage to Japan because he feels it is important to understand as much as he can about the traumatic experiences his father endured as a POW.

"My father didn't talk very much about what happened to him - he would usually gloss over it then change the subject when you tried to talk to him about it," says Menzies, who has carried out extensive research into the camp where his father was held and the experiences of other prisoners there.

"But it really had a huge effect on him for the rest of his life. His nerves were shot and he suffered from depression over the years."

Mick "Snowy" Menzies was stationed in the island nation of Kiribati as a coast-watcher, or radio operator, whose duty it was to look out for enemy ships.

He was one of a group of coast-watchers captured by the Japanese on December 11, 1941, just four days after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. A year later 17 other Kiwi coast-watchers who were also seized by the Japanese were beheaded.

Menzies snr's group were sent to Japan and held until the end of the war in Zentsuji camp, on Shikoku island. "It was regarded as a show camp and was not as bad as some of the other camps, but it was still pretty terrible," says Menzies. "They were still brutalised for four years and my father suffered a lot of misery in that camp."

Prisoners were forced to work, lugging heavy goods at docks and rail yards. They were starved and regularly beaten. One incident that was to forever haunt Mick Menzies came when he and an American prisoner were given the stomach-churning task of emptying out the latrines by spooning the contents into buckets, which were then carried to a garden. There, the effluent would be watered down and poured over the plants to fertilise them.

Once, Menzies' pal was in a hurry to get back for a shower and poured the raw sewage on to the garden without diluting it.

"A few weeks later they were on the same duty and when they got to the garden all these Japanese officers were standing around waiting for them. The plants had all ... died. They got a good beating.

"They were made to kneel down and the buckets were poured over them. They weren't allowed to wash, and Dad broke out in boils and sores. After a couple of weeks a guy who worked in the cookhouse managed to smuggle out a couple of buckets of warm water so they could wash."

Menzies was released when the war ended after the atom bombs were dropped on Japan. He saw the explosion at Hiroshima, around 70km away, after which sooty black rain fell on the camp. He returned to Auckland, where he had a family and worked as a wharfie, but life was never the same. Kevin believes he may have felt guilty because he survived when so many others didn't, and he went through bouts of severe depression.

"He would have to go off and stay at Hanmer Springs, which was then a veterans' hospital. It was hard on the family because there would be no income for a few months while he was away but he needed to do it."

Menzies says his dad harboured a lot of resentment towards the Japanese and when Japanese ships were in port he would yell abuse at the sailors.

"Then one day he was playing chess and he heard a voice behind him asking if he could have a game. Dad turned around and it was a young Japanese sailor. That instant changed things. Dad realised this young guy had nothing to do with the war and what happened to him. He wasn't even born when the war started. Dad was able to start to get a bit better after that."

Mick Menzies died of cancer in 1999, aged 79. Two weeks before he died, Kevin saw him sitting in a chair in his garage, deep in thought and staring upwards, apparently into space. But the day after his dad's death, he went into the garage and realised that his father had been gazing up at a photograph of his fellow POWs.

"He said to me once, 'I lie awake at night and I can see all their faces.' It never left him."

Menzies, who went to Kiribati 10 years ago, is hoping his trip to Japan will help him to understand a little more what his father went through.

One event he won't miss while he's there is the Anzac Day service at the British Commonwealth War Graves in Yokohama. He thinks it is vital that services continue to be held to honour men like his father who served their country.

The Auckland Museum has the official Book of Remembrance open again this year for the public to post messages during the ANZAC period.

The public can also download the Dawn Service programme here.

- Herald on Sunday

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