My father, Donald Eyre, would have turned 100 last week. Sadly, he missed out on that by a little under 19 years. He has, however, been very much in my thoughts as the VJ commemorations have taken place this week, because the East was where he spent most of his wartime service.
He joined the RAF while at Oxford University, and found himself in the control tower at Scampton airfield for a while; his eyesight precluded flying duties. As he put it to me, he then made the cardinal error when in the services, and volunteered without knowing exactly what he was volunteering for, and found himself packed off to the Oriental School in London to be taught Japanese. We were very short of Japanese speakers.
The course was intensive and, to my mind, brutal. List of 50 words; learn those and we’ll test you on them tomorrow. Next day, a list of another 50 words; learn them and we’ll test you on both lists tomorrow. That continued for some weeks, by the end of which the list of words had reached 10,000, at which point the students were told that that was greater than the vocabulary of most tabloid newspapers, and they were therefore qualified as interpreters. At that point, he was packed off to India, where the 14th Army was fighting to prevent the Japanese getting into India.
He then had a rather idyllic year, socialising with friends, making new friends (including a very close relationship with a young Indian girl who sadly died very young – and had she not done so, might have been my mother), hiking in the foothills near Simla and generally having a rather “cushy” billet – the reason was that at that point, almost no Japanese had been captured, so there was no call for interrogators or interpreters. He did, however, improve his time by learning Japanese characters to go with the spoken language, so got a small amount of work reading Japanese scripts.
Things warmed up for him in 1944 and definitely into 1945. He started to get a lot of work interrogating. While I failed miserably to get from him much of the content of those interrogations, one story he had struck me forcibly; he was tasked with interrogating a fairly high ranking officer, of samurai background – and the officer didn’t understand him. This puzzled him, as lower ranks had had no problem undertanding him. Then a ploy came to him, and he selected a lowest ranking private to come into the interrogation with him; he then asked the private to repeat to the officer what he was saying (which, of course, was in Japanese). The officer’s response was amazement, and he asked the private how it was that he was able to understand English.
The reason was that, from the officer’s point of view, it was inconceivable that an Englishman could speak Japanese, and so he was not going to understand (and he never actually did). The private, who didn’t have the intellect to think up something like that, just responded to someone speaking words he understood. Later on, dad would take the opportunity to say a few words to Japanese tourists when we came across them, often when on holiday ourselves, and I could see the moment of incomprehension on them as this obvious Englishman addessed them in their native language, but in every case they realised that yes, they did understand him – and frequently the famously impassive Japanese face became all smiles. By then, of course, there had been an allied occupation force in Japan for some years, and plenty of English and American people who had learned Japanese.
The one incident which he did tell me of which impressed me most was towards the end of the war. By that time, the 14th Army (which my dad had huge admiration for, in particular Orde’s Chindits) had made great progress through south east Asia, and my father was regularly being flown in to captured airfields to interrogate the senior officers. On one such occasion, the plane landed and dropped him off, and then took off again for another location – and, standing on the tarmac, he realised that there were no non-Japanese faces among the people who came to meet him. As it turned out, the ground forces hadn’t quite got that far, and the airfield was still uncaptured.
However, it also proved that the Japanese were so disspirited by then that the commandant surrendered the airfield to my dad. A few hours later, some ground troops turned up, and were ribbed unmercifully about how a single Flight Lieutenant had captured an entire airfield and didn’t really need a couple of platoons of infantry. Though he was extremely glad to see them!