Three Came Home

Agnes Keith


Three Came Home

Agnes Keith


When the Japanese took Borneo in 1942, Agnes Keith was captured and imprisoned with her two-year-old son. Fed on minimal rations, forced to work through recurrent bouts of malaria and fighting with rats for scraps of food, Keith’s spirit never completely dies. Keeping notes on scraps of paper which she hides in her son’s home-made toys or buries in tins, she records a mother’s pain at watching her child go hungry and her poignant pride in his development within these strange confines.

She also describes her captors in all their complexity. Colonel Suga, the camp commander, is an intelligent, highly educated man; at times her adversary, at others a strange ally in a distorted world.

‘No one who reads her unforgettable account ... can fail to share her emotions with something very like the intensity of personal experience.’ - Times Literary Supplement
‘... at once desolating and uplifting ... ’ - British Book News 
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Three Came Home: A Mother’s Ordeal in a Japanese Prison Camp
ISBN: 978-0907871-28-6
Format: 304pp demi pb
Price: £13.99
Place: Malaysia

Author Biography

Agnes Newton Keith was born in 1914. She attended the University of California at Berkeley. As a young and promising journalist in San Francisco in November 1934 she was savagely mugged by a drug addict with a two-foot iron pipe on the doorstep of theSan Francisco Examiner. During her long recovery from the resultant skull fractures, loss of memory and eyesight damage, she travelled and on her return to California, somewhat restored, she met Canadian-born Harry Keith, Director of Forestry and Agriculture in British North Borneo, whom she married and settled down to live with in Sandakan in North Borneo in 1934. In 1940 she gave birth to a son, George. Two years later the Keith family were imprisoned in Japan.

Miraculously, she seems to have made a full recovery from her head injuries and to have regained all of her writing talents, which she lavished on three books about her life in Borneo before, during and after the Second World War. Sandwiching Three Came Home is the first volume, Land Below the Wind (1939), which is a classic colonial idyll, written by someone outside the British system which so limited outreach to other races. It made her a name before the war even among the Japanese. White Man Returns(1951) continues with the return of the family to Sandakan.

In 1952 Harry Keith retired from the colonial civil service and they left Malaysia. They lived in Libya and the Philippines, among other places, and Keith continued to write. Her later books include Bare Feet in the PalaceChildren of Allah and Beloved Exiles.

Their son George went on to be an US marine. The couple died within months of each other in Vancouver in 1982. 

Extracts from Foreword

One day after we were imprisoned on Berhala Island, North Borneo, a little short man, very clean and neat, and very military, arrived on the broken-down wharf. This, we were told, was Major Suga, the Japanese Commander of all Prisoners of War and all Internees in all Borneo.

We were mustered at midday in the sun and stood for two hours waiting, while women had hysterics and fainted, children wept, and men looked very weary. Then Suga came to the prison compound and spoke: ‘Try to be happy and content, keep up your morale, and be healthy. I am sorry for you. You must learn to live under discipline. You may be moved to Kuching, Sarawak, where my headquarters are. The prisoners there are happy. It will be a long war, so make up your minds to do as you are told. Don’t complain, be good, obey, keep up your morale, keep well, and be happy.’

After this speech the representatives of the two camps asked for interviews with him. They complained of the conditions we were living in. Major Suga said, ‘Is zat so? Well, you are well treated now!’ They said we could not endure the life. He said, ‘Is zat so? Well, you will learn!’

He commanded me to a private interview at the guardhouse. Being guilty of many misdemeanours, I feared it might be for punishment. I took George with me as a maternal touch, and because George wanted to go. I expected sternness, if not violence. Instead, Suga treated me with courtesy, one of the few Japanese officers who ever did.

While he talked I studied him with interest. He had the brief stature which we consider Japanese, and was built without angles, but not fat His head was round and his face elliptical in contrast to the rectangular block of the average Anglo-Saxon head. His forehead was unlined and low, and he had well-defined, rather thick lips. His hair was stiff and black and shaven close, his moustache military, and his beard incipient only. When he spoke of abstract subjects his brown eyes were pleasant and straight, but when he talked of the war they glittered and became cold. By watching his eyes I could tell what subjects to avoid.

He told me that he had read my book, Land Below the Wind, in the Japanese translation, and that he liked it, and asked me if I had the Western edition. I told him that his soldiers had stolen it from my house, and he said, ‘Is zat so? Then I take it from my soldiers.’

He told me that he was a graduate of the University of Washington in the United States, and asked me why Americans were prejudiced against the Japanese. I told him it was because cheap Japanese labour threatened ours, and that it was an economic prejudice. He replied that this was only a small part of it; he said, ‘They exclude us because of labour, but they despise us because we are Japanese. You know that this is so.’

I did know it. I could only answer that I myself had no racial prejudices, that before the war I had believed that I had real friends amongst the Japanese, that they had rejected me after the war, rather than I them.

I said that in wartime we were all trained by national propaganda to hate the enemy, as otherwise we were unwilling to kill and be killed. He and I were now being trained thus to hate each other, but perhaps after the war we might meet as human beings again.

He then said to me, ‘You are writing a book about your life here?’ I said, ‘How can I? You have taken my pencils and paper away.’ ‘Ah, so. I will give back to you. You shall write a book for me, and I shall censor it.’ ‘I work too hard here in camp to write. I don’t have time or energy to write.’ ‘But that is the best time to write, when you are busy. When many good and bad things happen to you, then you have good and bad thoughts. Then is the time to write. Yes, I think you intend to write a book here. Some day you shall write one for me.’

In time we were moved to Kuching, and there I saw Suga, who was Colonel Suga now, frequently. At every meeting he brought up the subject of my writing for him, and nagged me constantly to do so.

I told him this was impossible because of the heavy work we had to do and because I had no materials. He said he would make it possible – he would lessen my work, he would give me writing materials; that I would write for him, and he would censor the product.

Always he stressed the fact that he would censor. Always he ques- tioned me if I was writing myself.

One afternoon he called me to his office and produced an American copy of my book with my name in it, taken from my house by Mr Maeda, and taken from Mr Maeda by Suga. He opened it at the foreword about the lion and the lamb, and asked me to explain the meaning of this. I did so. He then requested me to ‘give’ the book to him by writing his name in it, and drawing a picture on the flyleaf. He pulled Harry’s fountain pen out of his pocket, and handed it to me to draw with.

After the purpose of art had been served, the orderly produced pineapple, biscuits, and very sweet coffee for us. Then Suga broke the news.

‘You are going to write “The Life and Thoughts of an Internee” for me in your spare time. That is my wish. Do not argue,’ he said.

I replied that I had no spare time, no materials, no thoughts, etc., etc. For a few minutes the tone of the conversation remained friendly, then he became Colonel Suga, Commandant of Prisoners of War and Internees in Borneo.

‘It is my command that you do this,’ he said. ‘I order it. I give you all materials. If need be, I release you from other camp work. Do not talk further about this. It is my order.’

I said, ‘If you order me to write, I must write. But you cannot order me what to say.’

‘All right! All right! All right! All right!’

Then he gave me pen, ink, pencil, and paper, and ordered the office to release a confiscated typewriter to my use, and told me to go.

I did not sleep easily that night. I did not know what use he might intend to make of what I wrote, and I feared that my words might be turned against me by one side or the other. I knew that I was needed for community camp work, as we never had enough able-bodied people for the jobs, but I knew also that I could not do the work and produce written material for Suga at the same time. But experience had taught me that the choice was not mine to make.

The next day an order came to our camp master that I was to be released from community camp work by Suga’s order. The Japanese office was to pay three dollars a month into our community fund as my salary. I was to continue doing part-time work in camp as a substitute for women who became ill.

So I wrote for Colonel Suga. I titled it ‘Captivity’, and I told the truth, but not all the truth. There was much which for my own sake and that of others in camp I could not say, and there were also things that I did not dare to say to Suga; he could be very much the Oriental Potentate at times.

But he stood more than I believed he would. I complained persistently of wrongs and mistreatments, I constantly asked for better food and less work. I said that I believed trouble between our races was based on misunderstanding, and that I hoped for tolerance and sympathy in time to come, between our peoples. I said that I believed Suga did what he could do for our women’s camp. And that, as he was kind-hearted to women and children, please could we have some more food?

This story was submitted to Suga at given intervals.

But there was another story also that I wrote in captivity.

This story I wrote in the smallest possible handwriting, on the backs of labels, on old Chinese papers that our tobacco came in, on the margins of old newspapers given us by the Japanese . . . and when I could get it, on Colonel Suga’s paper. I stuffed George’s toys with these notes, I sewed a layer of them in his sleeping-mat, I stuffed his pillows, and I put them in tins which I buried under the barrack.

The Japanese searched my things frequently, turning inside out my suitcase, reading my papers upside down, when they did not read English. In time I lost everything with writing on it: documents, passport, wedding lines, bank receipts – everything except my notes.

From these notes I have reconstructed the true story of my captivity. This is not the story I wrote at Suga’s command, it is my story.