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BOOK REVIEW | 'Valley of the Shadow': A World War II Memoir by Colonel Nicoll F Galbraith

Colonel Galbraith's posthumously published narrative offers a rare and revealing insight into life in the senior Allied officer POW camps during World War II.



"Valley of the Shadow" by Colonel Nicoll F Galbraith (2018, Xlibris)

World War II memoirs and diaries are like vintage car barn finds. Miraculously, more come to light every year. Very occasionally, in being transcribed by officers or men in a rare position to comment on pivotal events or personalities, they have the capability of significantly adding to the historical record. Such was the promise of the memoir written by Colonel Nicoll F "Nick" Galbraith, a beautifully produced publication posthumously published by his youngest son, Whitney H Galbraith, in 2018. 

Nicoll Galbraith was an American officer who was captured in the Philippines and spent the war in a series of Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. First in Taiwan and then Japan, followed by Manchuria

As the Japanese had adopted a policy of segregating the senior allied leadership into officer camps, Galbraith was incarcerated with some of the most important historical figures of the Asia-Pacific War. Men such as US Commanding General Jonathan M Wainwright, General Arthur Percival, the British officer who had surrendered Singapore, and General Cecil Callaghan, commander of the Australian contingent. What would he have to say of them?

World War II
General Cecil Callaghan, commander of the Australian contingent.
US Commanding General Jonathan M Wainwright.
General Arthur Percival, the British officer who had surrendered Singapore.

Names not Named

The approach settled upon by Galbraith in telling the story of the officer camps was third person narrative. The memoir, written in the 1950s, depicts the lives and experiences of five fictional characters whose personalities and behaviors represent the full POW officer contingent. 

At times this can be infuriating. The commanding generals of the American and British forces were turned out during a visit by General Rikichi Ando, the Japanese commander of the Army of Taiwan. "We are honored with your presence here today" declared the American. "We thank you for the pig you have brought us" mirrored his British counterpart. Were they Wainwright and Percival? 

"A former governor of a British colony was bending over and, with a stick and a piece of cardboard, scooping up" goat "droppings." Who was that? Which colony? 

And then there was Joe, one of the more senior officers. He had refused to take part in a scheme to improve conditions during a voyage on a "hell ship." 

"Your rank and seniority are things that you'd cram down our throats only too fast back home" delivered one of Galbraith's five principal characters. "It's easy to exercise leadership when the going is easy. But it takes a real soldier to assume command when he has to take personal risk!" 

Rikichi Ando in 1940.

The Reason for Anonymity

Exchanges like this, however, best outline why Galbraith chose the approach that he did. Third-person narrative enabled him to disgorge without fear of controversy, strained relationships or hurt feelings. 

These frustrations are somewhat compensated for in Valley of the Shadow's extraordinary appendices. Nicoll Galbraith was tasked with traveling to outlying US units after the American surrender, to ensure that all complied. 

The appendices contain reproductions of several highly significant documents from both US and Japanese commanders that authorized him to carry out these duties. They also include a personal dedication by Wainwright himself in his 1946 biography by legendary journalist, Robert Considine. High-quality photos of Galbraith's extensive collection of POW artifacts are also included, provided by the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, to which they were donated. 

The National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas.

The Gang of Five 

The five principal characters of the narrative are suitably diverse. First, there is Blake, a crazy-brave bull of a man who adopts an "every man for himself" mindset under incarceration. 

Next is Sykes, a military man who has never come across an order he felt the need to question. Sykes would ingratiate himself with the Japanese, taking great delight in being the first to announce acquired snippets of news. "Unlike many who would ruthlessly sacrifice their colleague for their own gain," Galbraith writes, "Sykes sought preferment in a manner that affected him alone." In doing so, however, he "manifested a subservience to each Japanese person with whom he came into contact, to a point where it raised the resentment of his colleagues."

Ashley was brave but suffered from mental demons. He felt sure that both his Japanese jailers and fellow POWs had singled him out. 

Surely Cameron is the vehicle through which Galbraith primarily narrates his own experience. Cameron struggles to remain calm amidst the demands of incarceration. This is exacerbated by the disgust that he feels at the selfishness and moral decline being exhibited around him. He vows to return home with a conscience that is "clear." 

In this endeavor, Cameron is assisted (most likely saved) by Paul, a saintly character and the most senior of the five. "So long as you can give of yourself to help someone else, you will save yourself from destruction," Paul cautions Cameron, in summation of his moral code. Much of the dialogue revolves around discussions and interactions between Cameron and Paul. 

Movie Scene Moments 

These characters conform with what a screenwriter would invent, at times giving the narrative a sense of unreality. Therefore, after progressing one-third of the way through the book, I found myself speculating on the ultimate fate of the five. 

Paul (like any saint) could only die in an act of self-sacrifice, I surmised. Nothing was more certain than that. Sykes would die as well, while discovering to his horror that his acts of ingratiation with the Japanese enemy were not capable of saving him. Blake would redeem his years of selfishness through a singular act of thoughtless physicality. Ashley would return home but regress into post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism. Cameron, as Galbraith's alter ego, had to survive. (Spoiler alert: I wasn't quite right but not far off.) 

The liberation of the prisoners occurred at the hands of the Russian army and a handful of American paratroopers — a true chronicle of which a Hollywood screenwriter would be proud. "Why the hell do these damn movie scenes have to happen?" Galbraith thereby craftily adds, when recounting an incident during those tension-filled hours. This inclusion jolts the reader into remembering that the liberation of the camp actually happened as described.

From Worse to Bad

Interestingly, the circumstances of the officer internees improved as the war ground on, rather than worsened, as was routinely the case. At the initial camps in Taiwan, the Taiwanese guards were both unpredictable and brutal. Upon being shipped to Japan, however, (on the later-to-be-sunk Oryoku Maru), the slapping suddenly ceased. 

Oryoku Maru was commissioned as a POW transport ship during World War II.

One day, a member of the Kempeitai military police wandered past while a Taiwanese guard was disciplining a prisoner. He promptly turned about and departed down a stairwell. Within half an hour, the Taiwanese guards were removed, never to be seen by the POWs again. 

Until relocated to Manchuria, the officer POWs, located as they were in the hotels and inns of the hot spring resort of Beppu, were likely the most fortuitous POWs of the war. Even in Manchuria, conditions were comparatively favorable. The region had food self-sufficiency and was a relatively inactive theater of the war. 

All for Me, None for You

A dominant theme throughout the book is the selfishness of the POWs. "How could some of those former prisoners ever expect to hold up their heads when they went back after the way they had conducted themselves over here?" Cameron rhetorically asks. "No doubt if they could stoop as low as they had," he concludes, "they were likely without shame and had consciences of stone."

The unwillingness of Western POWs to work together toward their own survival is apparent in innumerable diaries and accounts. Galbraith's narrative is unique in that it seeks to explain this penchant when the prisoners are exclusively officers. 

It is best articulated through Paul: "It seems that one of the weaknesses of military service is that officers develop a high degree of ego," he states. "They too often think that only they can be right. It would be a loss of prestige to them if someone else should prove them in error." Similar statements litter the narrative again and again.

The Epilogue

The book concludes with an epilogue by Galbraith. He recounts how after liberation in August 1945, he had displayed a "dime store" American flag that had been given to him by the Japanese to fly from his car, when carrying out his post-surrender mission. Galbraith had preserved the flag during his incarceration at considerable risk. 

He had expected and hoped that despite being a toy, the sight of the flag might cause the same "swelling" in "breasts" that had occurred within his. In the case of so many, however, the officers simply examined the flag before announcing that it had only 42 stars. "Sort of an attitude of brilliant achievement on their part to have discovered that it was not perfect in make," Galbraith sarcastically concludes.

A Memoir that Delivers

As a posthumous and privately published publication, there were considerable challenges for Whitney Galbraith to deal with. The 2018 edition of the book, which JAPAN Forward received, was lacking in section line breaks and contained a typo too many, although Whitney Galbraith has assured that these issues were dealt with in the 2020 edition. 

Moreover, the narrative style of the book is easy to read but the dialogue spoken by the five principal characters is uniform in tone. It is hard to accept that Blake's discourse, for example, would not be more earthy than that accredited to him. Should an editor be called in or should the narrative remain true to Nicoll Galbraith's original? 

Valley of the Shadow, however, does not disappoint. Colonel Nicoll F Galbraith may not have named names but has most surely provided an honest, revealing, and sobering account of the dynamics at play in the POW camps inhabited by the senior officers of the Allied powers. And who knows, maybe amongst his extensive collection of documents and artifacts, a tell-all version is still waiting to be found. 

A final word is due to Whitney Galbraith. Vintage car barn finds rust away unless someone restores them. Manuscripts are of no public value unless published. Those with an interest in World War II owe a considerable debt of gratitude to Whitney Galbraith. And to all other dutiful sons and daughters of veterans who have taken on the time, expense and other demands of publishing posthumous memoirs. 

About the Book

Title: Valley of the Shadow

Subtitle: An Account of American POWs of the Japanese

Author: Written by Colonel Nicoll F Galbraith and posthumously published by Whitney H Galbraith

Publisher: Xlibris

ISBN: 9781984535924 (softcover), 9781984535917 (hardcover), and 9781984535931 (e-book)

For more information, see the book's official website or the publisher's website.


Reviewed by: Paul de Vries

Find other reviews and articles by the author on Asia Pacific history on JAPAN Forward.

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