Guns of February: Ordinary Japanese Soldiers’ Views of the Malayan Campaign & the Fall of Singapore 1941-42 is drawn primarily from the written memoirs of six different Japanese who participated one way or another in the Malayan campaign and the conquest of Singapore, and from interviews Henry Frei conducted with these men in their old age. One was a junior officer in the military police. Another was a battle-tested young infantry sergeant in the 18th Division. The third was a young infantryman in the prestigious Imperial Guards Division, the fourth a junior officer in the experienced and powerful 5th Division. Another was a reluctant private soldier in that same fonnation, while the final subject was a civilian businessman working in the rubber trade in Singapore and Malaya before the war, who was interned when hostilities began.
Their personalities, experiences, and outlooks were as varied as their situations. The young 5th Division private bitterly opposed the war and the cult of empire that gripped his country and forced him into its aggression. Complaining that “there is nothing more useless than the Japanese army”, he felt absolutely powerless in the grip of a system he despised. The young guardsman on the other hand remembered joining the army as “the most exciting thing [he] had ever done”, and even the brutality of basic training could not drive the patriotism out of him. The sergeant took the experience in stride and relished the opportunity army life gave to sow his wild oats all over Japan and China, treating the coming war almost as adventure. The military police officer took a far more serious approach, wearing his patriotism on his sleeve like a badge. And the businessman, like many good Japanese “salary men”, worked so hard to protect his fimr’s interests that he sacrificed his own.
Through the written and oral memories of these six men, Henry Frei helps us understand how the Japanese on the ground saw and understood the historic upheaval that drove them on to victory in Singapore. The picture that emerges is of an army more rounded, and more human, than appears in depictions by those who fought against it. The mood in Japan as the war spread, the harshness of life in the Imperial Army, the dirty business of war in China, the increasingly unreal quality of life in Singapore as war loomed ever closer, the intensity of preparations for combat in Malaya — these experiences all spring vividly to life in this most intimate glance at “the other side of the hill”.
This book finally makes it possible for the English language reader to understand the character and personality, the inhumanity but also the humanity, of the army that inflicted on the British Empire its most humiliating military disaster.
– Brian Farrell (National University of Singapore)
… a great Western historian who really and deeply understood Japan and the Japanese – Hara Fujio (Nanzan University) on the late Henry Frei