The candlelight flickered as Grace Brown settled her infant son down for the night. Beside her on a filthy mattress a woman groaned, her face swollen grotesquely with the tropical disease, beriberi.
There were 34 of them in that long, dark, sweltering hut, all in various stages of starvation. Some had been tortured. A few were close to death. Outside, a Japanese guard barked an order.
Somewhere in the room, a child whimpered with fear. Gently, Grace extracted her son’s teddy bear from his arms, and felt within the lining. She pulled a sheaf of papers and a pencil from inside, and, looking around to make sure no one could see her, started to write.
‘I keep saying to myself that certainly never had I expected to make this my home — nor my prison ...’
One cold day in 1992, a few weeks after the death of his mother, Iain Brown started the long, arduous task of clearing out her lifelong possessions.
In her final years, Grace Brown had lived a simple life. A stern school secretary, who lived alone, she rarely smiled, and spent many hours volunteering for the Samaritans. Tucked in a drawer, Iain stumbled across a set of manila folders.
Leafing through the sheaves of yellowing papers inside, he realised he was looking at his mother’s secret diary. He gently packed them away without reading them. ‘
It wasn’t for me to pry,’ he says. ‘I put the papers back in the folders and forgot about them for the next 25 years.’
Earlier this year, his daughter Jackie finally read them. What she found was extraordinary: an astonishing account of the two and a half years Grace spent as a Japanese prisoner of war in the Philippines during World War II — the pages she had risked her life to write by candlelight all those years ago.
From surviving on one ‘maggoty cup of rice a day’ to sucking on stones because she was so hungry, Grace’s diary is a sometimes horrifying, occasionally funny and startlingly human account of life under one of the most brutal prison camp regimes of the 20th century. She makes wry observations about day to day life in camp — ‘if you have ever been starving you will know that sex is the last thing you worry about’, and bemoans being ‘one of the heavier ones’ when she weighed in at just over 7st. Perhaps most remarkable is that the diary, which has now been published ,along with some of Grace’s letters home, exists at all. For her notes survived only because Grace hid them from the guards inside the teddy bear belonging to her infant son — Iain. Today, Iain, 73, has no memory of his time in the Philippines.
Reading his mother’s diary after all these years he has learnt that as a baby he had his milk stolen by prison guards, and spent a week in the sweltering hold of a cargo ship with 150 other prisoners, sharing a single cup of water a day with his mother. That he survived is a miracle.
‘Mother never, ever talked about the war,’ he says. The discovery, 70 years on, of her account of what really happened to his family during those lost years, has set off a whirlwind of emotions. ‘It was like reading a letter from her,’ he says, his voice thick with emotion. ‘You recognise the phrases, the way she would speak, it was as though she were sitting there next to me, reading to me. ‘I was very upset.
I still get that way now.’
Life really began for 30-year-old Grace Brown when she arrived on the Filipino island of Cebu in 1938. She had left the Scottish town of Helensburgh several months earlier on the arm of her Glaswegian husband Caldwell, an employee of the Far Eastern Trading Company, and couldn’t wait to start married life.
Beautiful and outgoing, Grace laughed so much her nickname was ‘Giggles’. Colonial life was in full swing in Cebu and she settled in immediately, spending her days training ‘house girls’ and evenings drinking gin fizzes at the Club Filipino.
In a letter to her brother, written shortly after her arrival, she describes Caldwell as an ‘absolute gem of a husband to have. I think we are ideally suited to each other’. In 1941 Grace became pregnant and designed the perfect nursery for her unborn baby. There were nursery rhymes stencilled on the walls, and handmade furnishings shipped from America.
But on Christmas day, just weeks after the Japanese invaded the Philippines, the couple were ordered to evacuate from Cebu city to safety 60 miles away. Grace, heavily pregnant, was soon in trouble. A local doctor declared she needed a caesarean, and would have to return to the city for the birth. He added that the journey would likely kill her.
‘Little did he know what stout Scots blood could do,’ she scoffs in her diary. ‘I had no intention of dying.’ Instead, she swigged brandy for the pain. Iain was born after days of complications, as rumours swirled of an imminent invasion of the city. Grace remarked: ‘I knew it would be a boy. No girl would cause that much trouble in war time.’
After the Japanese landed on Cebu the family found themselves transferred to a prison, where they slept on wooden benches and constantly scrubbed at the floors, trying to get rid of the thousands of bugs. Every time Grace’s bags were examined by the Japanese guards, she would find her small stock of milk and baby food depleted.
But the horrors of the jail were nothing compared to the cargo ship the family were placed in for the long journey to their camp in Manila in December 1942. Packed in with 150 prisoners, there was hardly room even to stand upright. It was, she wrote, the first time she asked: ‘Can I bear this?’
At first, life in the camp — actually the campus of a university outside Manila [Santo Tomas
]— seemed relatively tolerable. Before combat troops took over, the prisoners were allowed to build their shacks. Grace bemoans drily that they had to be open at the front so the guards could inspect at any time — ‘therefore no sex’.
But with the arrival of fighting forces, the camp became more brutal. The prisoners were starving, but would be savagely beaten if caught eating a weed. Grace and other inmates sucked on stones to keep the hunger pangs away.
And one day, Caldwell disappeared.
Grace writes simply that he was ‘taken away’ and that ‘I never knew whether he was alive or dead’.
Reading the diary 70 years later, Iain found this profoundly moving. ‘She just referred to it briefly and then got on with it.
‘It takes an enormous amount of strength to do that.’ Instead she writes about the mundane, repetitive horrors of life in camp.
Given just 700 calories a day of watery, maggoty rice, food became a constant obsession. ‘Everyone could think and talk and dream of nothing but FOOD. They spent their day copying out recipes and poring over cookbooks.’
Grace and Iain slept in a room with 34 others. She wrote about watching fellow campmates deteriorate rapidly through sickness and hunger. ‘They would be confined to bed, could not sit up, nothing but skin and bones and their faces and legs puffed up with beriberi.’
There was a morning roll call each day, and prisoners were forced to bow from the waist to the guards. Those who did not were beaten. It makes her determination to record her experience by writing on scraps of paper, and concealing them in her son’s teddy, bear even more remarkable.
The diary contains no dates or names, and there are gaps, probably because worsening conditions meant there were periods when she was unable to write. Also hidden in the bear was Grace’s wedding ring. It was her one treasure, a little luxury that reminded her of happier times.
Today, Iain wears the ring. Everyone could think and talk and dream of nothing but FOOD And then one day in February 1945 it was all over. An allied plane swooped low over the camp and a pilot dropped his goggles with a message attached reading: ‘Christmas is coming, roll out the barrel, we will be in tomorrow or the next day’.
The joy the following night when American tanks broke through walls at the front, was indescribable. ‘THAT IS A NIGHT I WILL NEVER FORGET,’ she writes. The camp mates went ‘wild with joy and excitement’. But while the camp had been liberated (‘the food has been wonderful — we just can’t believe it — milk and sugar again and coffee and BREAD’), Grace still had no idea where her husband was. She had not seen him in nearly two years.
After liberation, a rumour did the rounds that the Japanese had been taking white men out of hospitals and shooting them. When one morning, Grace’s name was read out on the camp loudspeaker calling her to the office, she was convinced it was because her husband was dead. Yet when she walked in, there he was — like a miracle — alive and waiting for her.
Caldwell had been held in a hospital, and although he rarely spoke about what happened, the family believe he was tortured. Grace writes that on two occasions the Japanese had taken him out of the hospital ‘for investigation’.
In 1944 he survived a horrific massacre in which every other patient except one was killed, by hiding in a cupboard. A newspaper report from the time reveals the Japanese had smashed their way into the hospital without warning, armed with rifles, pistols, machine-guns, sabres and spears, killing everyone in their path.
Caldwell was profoundly traumatised by what he had seen. ‘However,’ writes Grace with her trademark sturdiness, ‘he is alive and that is the main thing these days.
In Grace's diary she writes they were given just 700 calories a day of watery, maggoty rice, food became a constant obsession.
‘I feel now there is nothing more in life to be afraid of. We will come out alive.’ And they did.
The family were taken to America, where Grace took a job as a secretary. She typed up her diary and sent it to a New York publisher, who rejected it on the grounds she was not American. She never attempted to publish it again, instead hiding it away and refusing to talk about her experiences with even her closest family.
When the family finally returned to Scotland in 1946, penniless and traumatised, everything had changed. The carefree young couple who had embarked on their Far Eastern adventure eight years before, no longer existed.
Grace moved back in with her parents in Helensburgh, took a job as a hotel receptionist and sent Iain to a local school. Tragically, Caldwell was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and remained there until he died in 1979.
‘Mum and Dad lost everything we had. Absolutely everything,’ says Iain. ‘When they landed back in Britain they had no house, no money, nothing.
‘And mother also lost her husband. He lived until he was 71 but never fully emerged from hospital.’
Over the years, Iain, who had a successful career in finance, developed a fascination with the Philippines. In 2005 he visited Cebu and Manila, searching out places he and his parents had been.
Reading his mother’s diary now, he has been able to fill in the gaps, the missing pieces of his own story — and hers. ‘I feel closer to her now,’ he says. ‘I know her better, and I know more about her.’
Grace did not harbour anger at the Japanese, but ignored them and never bought Japanese products. In her later years she volunteered for the Samaritans. She loved being able to help others.
Weak and emaciated in the camp, under the constant threat of torture and death, it was something she had been unable to do. Her resilience had made her an excellent listener, and she was particularly skilled at talking people out of taking their own lives.
Grace’s granddaughter says that on the rare occasions when she did smile, it was radiant, and transformed her face.
‘She suffered a great deal but she realised life has to go on,’ says Iain. ‘We knew we were lucky, because we were still here.