Maddie Bowler remembers being a civilian intern and VJ Day

Not all those who ended up interned in the Pacific were Allied troops. Maddie Bowler was just seven years old when she was captured by the Japanese and transferred to Weihsien Camp (a civilian internment camp) in China.

She would spend two and half years there, from March 1943 to September 1945. There were 2,000 people in the camp in total, of these around 500 were children.  

Maddie’s father ran away to sea when he was 14, spending most of his time (and falling in love with) the Far East. He met a young Russian girl, Maddie’s mother, who he married.

Maddie's father, who joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve.

Maddie was born in Shanghai, and her mother died when she was four years old. Maddie went to live with her mother’s best friend and her son Joe. Her father returned to sea in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (R.N.V.R), but his ship was soon torpedoed. All hands were feared lost at sea.

In fact Maddie’s father had survived, having been rescued, but Maddie wouldn’t find this out until after the war had ended.

This picture was taken just before Maddie was interned in 1942.

When the Second World War started it didn't change Maddie's life that much until one one day shortly after term had started.

Maddie was on her way to school with Joe and her Amah (a nursemaid) but there was a Japanese guard at the school gates. Her Amah, fearful of the unnatural quiet, sent Maddie and Joe home as fast as they could and went to speak to the guard herself, they would never find out why as they never saw her again.

When they arrived home, they were forced to pack up a small bag of personal belongings and to march all day to a railway station. Maddie packed a Shirley Temple doll that she got for her birthday, and one of the soldiers entertained her by pretending to believe that the doll was a real baby.

After two nights at the station they were allowed to board a train, travelling for what seemed like days, and then boarding lorries to travel to the internment camp. Each family was allocated a room in a row of brick huts, Maddie’s room had three beds, a table and chair, and a small stove.

A view of the road up to the Weihsien Camp in China.

“We all soon became clever little villains and masters in the art of theft, scrounging and tricking the Japanese. We were taught that a theft from a fellow prisoner was a sin and punishable but to steal from the Japanese was right and proper."

“Give them [the Japanese] their due, they did love children and would spend hours talking and playing with us and would quite often give us their rations. Of course there was always a public humility and trouble for them if they were caught.

“We soon picked up the language up… I’m sure if, after the war, any of them bothered to look up the words we taught them in a dictionary they wouldn’t have felt too kindly to us.”

Those in the camp soon fell into a daily routine. They would get up early for rollcall, be given the daily news (mainly of Japanese victories and imminent British surrender), and then endless bowing until they got it right and were dismissed. Then they would got to the communal bath house and toilet.

As they were in an internment camp they had a lot more freedom, and the camp included a school, church, hospital, dining halls, and dentist.

The war ended for Maddie on 17 August 1945, when an American plane flew over dropping leaflets saying that the war was over. Seven Americans parachuted down from the plane and opened the gate to the camp.

“We were so excited. Everyone just rushed out the gates and went mad. The Americans brought food in that we hadn’t seen or had for years. It was wonderful."

Planes drop food parcels above the camp after VJ Day.

“Over the next few days food parcels were dropped and we lived like kings, spam and peaches were my favourite.

"And then a few months later I discovered that my father was still alive. It was wonderful.”

Though Maddie's experiences were not as traumatic as some, she still suffered from nightmares. Creating a scrapbook, with photos of her experiences, helped her work through the trauma.

Related Stories