Three Came Home

War stories that interest me have nothing to do with battle. Combat heroics are not something I’ve ever identified with despite being the images of war I grew up with, the images from TV and movies, books, and listening to my dad’s stories. With the exception of Anne Frank, who I first learned of when I was ten, it was not until I was an adult that I discovered the stories of war that I could relate to: the stories of civilians in war time. Typically (but not exclusively), these are the stories of women caught up in war: Natalie Coulter’s Forbidden Diary, John Hersey’s Hiroshima, Nella Last’s War, Ursula Bacon’s Shanghai Diary Fosco Maraini’s Meeting with Japan, Japan at War: An Oral HIstory. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances not of their choosing.

The internment stories cut the deepest–stories of an imprisonment worse than any criminal’s because, as Agnes Keith points out, unlike a prisoner you don’t know when or if you will be released. There is no known end date. There is no way to count down to the end of starvation and misery. And if you do survive, there is nothing to go back to. Nothing left of your home or life.

In 1939. Before Agnes Keith was interred with her 2-year-old son, George, she had written a book about here life in Borneo, Land Below the Wind. It had been translated in Japanese where it was a big hit. Thus, she was known to her Japanese captors as somewhat of a celebrity: the poetess, the artist. The camp commander provided her with some extra privileges in exchange for writing propaganda. Not that she had any real choice. In response, she resolved to write her own story, the true story of her captivity, and to this end kept a secret diary.

photo: Agnes Keith

Probably the most glaring point that comes across in Three Came Home is that there was no point. This is not some stirring tale of how overcoming adversity and great suffering leads deep philosophical or spiritual insights. Agnes Keith deflates any notion that she gained anything from her internment. She wants to be very clear that the only result is lost years, lost youth, and lost health–not just for herself but for everyone. She wants to describe the horror, not glorify it. There was nothing ennobling in her experience. Nor does she give into any dramatic suspense in the narrative. From the title you know that not only she, but her husband and child survive. Three came home. Her sole purpose is to document, as clearly and with as much detail as she can, what happens to people in wartime. When the war ends and the internees are rescued, many lash out at their captors, tormenting and eventually killing them. Agnes Keith sees this as further evidence that it doesn’t matter which side you’re on. The one with the gun torments; the one without the gun suffers. War brings out the worst in everyone. The victims are no more noble because they are victims. They become bitter, petty, and resentful.
Agnes Keith published her story in 1946, when the wounds were still fresh. As a result, her anger and bitterness are still raw. This is not a bad thing, but it makes an interesting contrast to Forbidden Diary which I prefer. The latter was not published until 1980 and is excerpts from the actual diary, rather than being a memoir.

Quotes and Notes

“The Japanese in this book are as war made them, not as God did, and the same is true of the rest of us. We are not pleasant people here, for the story of war is always the story of hate; it makes no difference with whom one fights. The hate destroys you spiritually as the fighting destroys you bodily.” – Why I Wrote This Book

“…I had been introduced to the enemy though my book, the Japanese translation of which had been widely read in Japan. Its subject, Borneo, was a country they were determined to take, because of its oil. I thanked God then that I had made no rash statements about the Japanese. If everyone who writes a book knew he would sometime be helpless in the hand of his characters, literature would grow tame.” – p. 30
“[Shihping Cho] took the long view of captivity, and where I was constantly being astounded by things that happened, Shihping had always expected and prepared for them” – p. 49

[At first we] lived at a high tragedy level because we expected release to come, the war to end, or ourselves to be dead, quite quickly…Later, we took desperate chances, but for the reason a gambler gambles–because it was the only pleasure we had in life.” – p. 53

“Something very hard and cold formed inside my chest, where I had used to feel a heart. This something said: I am alone, I in all this world, stand between my child and destruction. I only. There are certain things which have gone out of me now forever: softness, love dependency…I am no longer a woman. I am hard, I must fight, I am alone.” – p. 84

“Our death rate was never spectacular. Being women we hoarded our strength, eked out that one kilogram of energy, and lingered on. We could probably have lain on the flat of our backs and just continued to exist for some time. But we mothers could not spend much time on the flat of our backs.” – p. 104

“Throughout camp life, the way to get a thing was to disregard all rules, both British and Japanese, and go after it. This was antipathetic to the law of community living, but sympathetic to the primary law of survival of the fittest.” – p. 158

“Our attitude towards the waste products of living had changed. At first in prison camp we had shuddered over the latrines, held our noses, asked to have the excrement removed. Now we hoarded it, and rationed it, per capita, per garden. Dysentery and doctor’s orders did not stop us. Fertilization makes vegetation; and hunger outruns hygiene.” – p. 214

“…the warning not to be consumed by hate. Hate is a wasteful emotion; for my own sake, I didn’t wish to hate the Japanese, or the people about me….Hate is worth neither living nor dying for. We in prison were now the mistreated ones. Yet it would be only a matter of time, and the turn of the tide, before we would be the abusers, and our captors the abused, because we had in ourselves the same instincts for brutality. War evoked and exalted these instincts. It was war that we must hate, and not each other.” – p. 227

“Perhaps the person with the greatest emotional capacity for realizing life fully suffers the greatest when his life sinks to a monotone of misery.” – p. 239

“In all my life before I had existed as a free woman and didn’t know it. This is what freedom means to me. The right to live with, to touch and to love, my husband and my children. The right to look about me without fear of seeing people beaten. The capacity to work for ourselves and our children. The possession of a door, and a key with which to lock it. Moments of silence. A place in which to weep, with no one to see me doing so.” – p. 239

“Today [1946] we live in a world, not a state. Discoveries of science eliminate space and time. We have become a body of human beings, not nationals. The responsibility of the entire body is ours. No matter how good our own conditions now, we cannot ignore starving Europe, a demoralized and fighting Asia.” – p. 302

“I believe that:
While we have more than we need on this continent, and others die for the want of it, there can be no lasting peace.

When we work as hard in peacetime to make this world decent to live in, as in wartime we work to kill, the world will be decent, and the causes for which men fight will be gone. – Afterward

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