From the Atom Bomb to the Arms Park: the amazing life of Les Spence

Les Spence in 1979 Credit: Photo courtesy of Greg Lewis

“…then we saw the result of the atomic bomb. It was simply astounding, nothing left standing for miles, everything flat and burned out.”

Les Spence - secret wartime diaries

The words are written by a Welsh soldier by the name of Les Spence.

The scene he’s describing is Nagasaki, just over a month after the city was destroyed by a plutonium bomb, ending World War 2.

The extract is taken from Les’ diaries, compiled over 1259 days as a Prisoner of War at the hands of the Japanese.

The diary – kept under pain of death – is itself a remarkable historical record.

But it’s just part of a remarkable story. A story which saw Les return to Japan under very different circumstances, and play his part in the reconciliation between two countries.

The story starts in 1942, with Les and the men of the 77th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Royal Artillery on their way to the Far East.

They’d been diverted from the deserts of North Africa following Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbour.

But, little more than a month after arriving on the Indonesian island of Java, Les and his fellow troops were captured by Japanese forces.

“The war is over as far as we are concerned”, he writes.

We’ve surrendered after being on this island for 6 weeks and without even seeing the enemy. So the war is over as far as we are concerned. Just prisoners of war.

Les Spence secret wartime diaries - March 9, 1942
Les Spence (left of picture) during the war Credit: Photo courtesy of Greg Lewis

For the next three and a half or so years, Les and his comrades are kept at a Prisoner of War camp.

His diaries record their experiences with illnesses like malaria and dysentery, the cruelty of the Japanese guards, and the football matches that help to distract the men from day-to-day life.

But despite the sports fixtures and theatre shows, Les is in no doubt about the reality of his situation.

“I must say that I feel that we are here for a long time”, he writes that June, “and am feeling today a little depressed.”

This new atomic bomb seems to have done the trick but it’s a devilish invention.”

Les Spence secret wartime diaries - 31 August, 1945

By the summer of 1945, though, Les senses the tide is turning. There are more air raids, and reports reach the men of American bombardments on the Japanese coast.

On August 17, the camp commandant makes a speech telling the inmates the war is over.

He records the moment in his diary:

This morning the commandant made a speech in which he said the war was over and that today the powers were signing a treaty… A lump came to my throat while Capt W was translating the commandant’s speech. To think we’d been three and a half years waiting for this day

Les Spence secret wartime diaries, August 17, 1945

By October, Les and his fellow survivors are on their way home.

In his last diary entry, written as the Queen Mary is leaving New York, he describes receiving 5 letters, including one from his girlfriend Babs:

“Pleased to see that Babs is still waiting.", he writes. "I hope that she will accept my proposal. Lovely day, beautiful sunshine.”

Babs accepted Les’ proposal. Back in Wales, he settled down to life running the family china and glassware company.

He also returned to his love of sport, eventually becoming President of the Welsh Rugby Union.

It was in that role, in 1973, that Les welcomed the Japanese rugby team as they made their debut in Cardiff.

After striking up a friendship with Japan team manager Shiggy Konno, two years later Les led Wales on their return trip to the Land of the Rising Sun.

A visit his son Jeremy described as a “cathartic experience.”

Les Spence and Shiggy Konno Credit: Photo courtesy of Greg Lewis

Since then, the two countries have formed a close bond, both on and off the rugby field.

Last year, Japan hosted the Rugby World Cup for the very first time.

Koji Tokumasu - who’d grown to love the game after watching Wales on their visit in 1975 -directed Japan's bid to host the tournament.

Les died in 1988, aged 81. But his story lives on as an inspiring example of reconciliation.

I think that's the lesson for us all, really. That no matter what we might have endured as a nation, a people or an individual, we can find a way to move on by forgiving and reconciling with our old enemy.

Greg Lewis - editor, 'From Java to Nagasaki - A Record of Life in Captivity.'