A Free Frenchman under the Japanese
The War Diary of Paul Esmérian, Manila, Philippines, 1941-1945
“It’s less painful perhaps to go to prison flanked by two policemen in a police van than to turn oneself in alone, in a hired vehicle going at a gentle trot, on a lovely sunny afternoon. A small piece of paper, covered with a tiny red Japanese stamp, bearing characters I don’t even understand, will make of me a prisoner, as surely as would have done men in helmets and jackboots.”
Paul Esmérian’s diary begins with his arrival in the Philippines from French Indochina in the summer of 1941 and sets the scene with an absorbing portrait of pre-war Manila. Just months later, in December, came the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, quickly followed by the invasion of the Philippines.
Esmérian is an eloquent witness to the fall of Manila and its subsequent occupation. As early as January 1942, the Japanese set up an internment camp for allied civilians – men, women and children – on the site of the University of Santo Tomás in northern Manila. It came to hold nearly four thousand internees – mostly American, but also British,
Empire and allied European. Because France was no longer officially at war with Japan’s Axis partner Germany, French residents of Manila were not immediately interned, and for a year and a half Esmérian was able to live outside the Camp.
He has left an engrossing account of life in the harsh setting of occupied Manila during this period. Eventually, however, in June 1943, as a Gaullist he was forced into Santo Tomás. Over the next eighteen months he continued to keep a diary which forms a precious record of life in the Camp. He charts the changes in conditions as the
Japanese grip tightened, culminating in the internees’ dramatic liberation in February 1945 by a flying column of the US 1st Cavalry Division.
Published in France in 1980, Paul Esmérian’s gripping diary can now be enjoyed by a wider audience in this fine translation by Robert Colquhoun, himself an internee in the same camp.
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Robert Colquhoun will be talking about his book at Blackheath Halls, London SE3 9RQ, Monday 19 October 2015, 8pm (blackheathhalls.com).
Some readers' comments:
“I have just finished reading Rob Colquhoun’s translation of Paul Esmerian’s diary. It is a wonderful read, full of delightful observations of prewar Manila as well as details of life in camp. I found it especially interesting from a viewpoint of one who was neither Filipino nor American. Esmerian had a refreshing perspective. I urge you to get the book. I think you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.” (Lou Gopal, founder of Manila Nostalgia website)
“Excellent translation… Congratulations.” (Nicholas Balfour, ex-Santo Tomas internee)
“You’ve done a great job, particularly with the editing… I think it’s wonderful.” (Margaret
Ball, née Main, daughter and granddaughter of internees)
“I just wanted to tell you how much I am enjoying reading your translation of Paul Esmerian’s diary. You really have achieved a most interesting account, backed up by your research, and I am learning so much from it… A truly fascinating new book.” (Merilyn Brason, née Rynd, daughter of internees)
“A terrific read… The atmosphere, the detail and the opinions are so good. And your editing is thorough and succinct.” (Mary Wilkinson, widow of ex-internee and Santo Tomás historian, Rupert Wilkinson)
“Very informative and well edited.” (Scott MacWilliam, Australian National University, ex-internee)
“I have just finished reading the diary of the Free Frenchman, and wanted to say how much I enjoyed what was a rather poignant love story, as well as an excellent account of occupied Manila. It was so well translated that one did not appreciate that the diary had been written in another language.” (Richard Bourne, London)
"I just wanted to let you know how very much I enjoyed reading your translation of Paul Esmérian's war diaries… He was evidently a man possessed of many admirable qualities including great stamina and conscientiousness. The real-life narrative between him and Anne was, for me, one of the most memorable and poignant features of the book." (Christopher Bagnold, Cumbria, England)
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