The Forgotten Prisoners
By John Willis

This is one of the most remarkable untold stories of the Second World war. At 11.02 am on an August morning in 1945 America dropped the world’s most powerful atomic bomb on the Japanese port city of Nagasaki. The most European city in Japan was flattened to the ground ‘as if it had been swept aside by a broom’. More than 70,000 Japanese were killed. At the time, hundreds of Allied prisoners of war were working close to the bomb’s detonation point, as forced labourers in the shipyards and foundries of Nagasaki.

These men, from the Dales of Yorkshire and the dusty outback of Australia, from the fields of Holland and the remote towns of Texas, had already endured an extraordinary lottery of life and death that had changed their lives forever. They had lived through nearly four years of malnutrition, disease, and brutality. Now their prison home was the target of America’s second atomic bomb.

In one of the greatest survival stories of the Second World War, we trace their astonishing experiences back to bloody battles in the Malayan jungle, before the dramatic fall of Fortress Singapore, the mighty symbol of the British Empire. This abject capitulation was followed by surrender in Java and elsewhere in the East, condemning the captives to years of cruel imprisonment by the Japanese.

Their lives grew evermore perilous when thousands of prisoners were shipped off to build the infamous Thai-Burma Railway, including the Bridge on the River Kwai. If that was not harsh enough, POWs were then transported to Japan in the overcrowded holds of what were called hell ships. These rusty buckets were regularly sunk by Allied submarines, and thousands of prisoners lived through unimaginable horror, adrift on the ocean for days. Some still had to endure the final supreme test, the world’s second atomic bomb.

The prisoners in Nagasaki were eyewitnesses to one of the most significant events in modern history but writing notes or diaries in a Japanese prison camp was dangerous. To avoid detection, one Allied prisoner buried his notes in the grave of a fellow POW to be reclaimed after the war, another wrote his diary in Irish. Now, using unpublished and rarely seen notes, interviews, and memoirs, this unique book weaves together a powerful chorus of voices to paint a vivid picture of defeat, endurance, and survival against astonishing odds.


About John Willis

John Willis, author of Nagasaki: The Forgotten Prisoners, is one of Britain’s best known television executives. He is a former Director of Programmes at Channel 4 and Director of Factual and Learning at the BBC. He was Vice-president of National Programs at WGBH Boston. In 2012 he was elected as Chair of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA).

He is currently Chair of Mentorn Media, producers of Question Time for BBC and he also chairs the Board of Governors at the Royal Central School for Speech and Drama.

He divides his time between London and Norfolk.

News & Reviews

Liz Green – 07/08/2022 – BBC Sounds

Audible Podcast Episode

Norfolk Magazine

The Times

History Hit podcast

First reviews on Amazon.

Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 30 August 2022

What I really enjoyed about John’s book is that it was very well researched, he has used many sources from Published books, unpublished notes, first account interviews, IWM interviews, BBC Peoples war, film archives, and his invaluable original sources from his First Tuesday Documentary ‘Return to Nagasaki’ (1984). It was his making of the documentary and the impact that the interviews of the POW survivors had on him that inspired him to write this book.
What really interests me is reading about people’s stories, and this book really hit the spot for me, with the amazing account of the experiences of the Japanese POWs, their hardships and starvation, the danger and cruelty that they had to constantly live with, and finally experiencing and surviving the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.
What he also does well is that he links everything chronological from the battles of Singapore, Malaya and Java to the building of the Burma-Siam Railway followed by the harrowing journeys made on the Hell Ships to Japan to then to their final destination Camp 2B Nagasaki.
The second half of the book is taken up with the prisoner’s time spent at Nagasaki, followed by a well-researched potted account of the dropping of ‘Fat Boy’ on Nagasaki, from the bomb’s creation all the way through to ‘Bock’s Car’ finally landing on Okinawa after completing its dangerous and fraught mission.
The last five chapters of the book were gripping, the prisoners being only a short distance from the epicenter meant that they relied on luck whether they survived or not, not only does John describe the terrible plight of the prisoners he also balances it well with the shared experience of the Japanese civilians. He concludes the book with what the prisoners had to face upon their return home, the nightmares and fitting back into society including family life. The final chapter, which moved me to tears, brings the reader to the present year of 2022 with a brief and very moving biog of the aging POWs still left alive and of those that have passed.
It is amazing and very well done how John in this book has managed to weave together the stories of POWs from Australia, USA, GB and Dutch who all came to share their life together at Nagasaki.
If you have never read a Japanese POW book before this would be great book to start with, likewise if you a well-read POW reader this book will interest you with its freshness and never before published sources.
Fact checking the book it’s a really accurate account and like I have said a brilliantly researched book. The only thing that I noticed is, that John says, ‘The Peace Park where the Ceremony is held sits directly beneath the point where Fat Man detonated back in 1945’, (page 337). After being there many times myself I couldn’t quite visualise this as the Peace Park is on higher ground than the Hypocenter Park.
I very much enjoyed the Zoom Meeting Book Review, and the article in the Britain at War Magazine which John did based on the book.


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Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 11 August 2022

The book covers the period from the Japanese invasion of Malaya, through to the fall of Fortress Singapore and of Java , finishing after the dropping of the Fat Man atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

The story of this appalling chapter of World War 2 is told through the eyes of the Allied Commonwealth and Dutch servicemen who became prisoners of the Japanese. Having survived the terrible hardships of slave labour building the Burma/ Thai railway and transportation to Japan in the holds of “Hellships”, together with being very close to death from starvation and brutality from their guards, these POWs were put to work in Nagasaki shipyards and in hugely dangerous coal mines.

The book by John Willis covers all these events in fascinating and amazingly well researched detail- bringing humanity to inhuman suffering. The camps housing the POWs in Nagasaki were very close to the epicentre of the devastating atomic explosion and it is quite extraordinary that there were any survivors. But there were, and the book describes in stunning detail the aftermath and effects of the atomic explosion on the local population and on the ability of the POWs who survived to eventually return to their home countries- and in most case to face further trauma as returning, often forgotten individuals.

A splendid book, covering the privations endured by men for whom survival became their only goal. An uplifting insight into the human spirit.