On 12 September 1945, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander of the SE Asia Command, accepted the unconditional surrender of all occupying Japanese forces in SE Asia from Gen. Itagaki, on behalf of the Supreme Commander Field Marshall Terauchi, who had suffered a stroke. Although the war had officially ended on 2 September, when the Japanese surrendered to Gen MacArthur on board the battleship Missouri, for those still interned in the noxious POW camps in Singapore the end only came on September 12th.
This past weekend I had the privilege to be a guest of the Old Etonian (OE) association as it commemorated its POWs in the moving ceremonies orchestrated by the The Changi Museum. Our party of 30 odd comprised Singapore residents and several people who had flown in especially to mark the occasion, to visit the place where their relatives had been incarcerated and from whence some had never returned.
They all said that the survivors never spoke of their experiences. If you have read either of the two recent and remarkable books, The Railway Man and The Narrow Road to the Deep North. you will understand why. A year ago I visited the war graves cemetery in Kanchanaburi and The River Kwai museum which bear witness to the brutality of the occupying Japanese forces.
Our first stop is the former dysentery wing of the Changi prison hospital, where POW Bombardier Stanley Warren painted a series of murals in a series of store rooms that were being used as a chapel. A deeply religious man, and graduate of Hornsey College of Art, Stanley set about creating dramatic religious scenes using materials scavenged by his fellow prisoners – camouflage paint for brown, billiard ball cue chalk for blue, stolen oil paint for white and red. He was so weak with dysentery himself that he could only work for 15 minutes at a time.
Extraordinary the Japanese allowed him not only to create these works of art, but also to finish them as his call-up to the Burmese railway was averted and his life probably saved. These astonishing murals were only re-discovered in the 1950s as they had been distempered over, and are now open only to ‘VVIPs’ as we told! Stanley Warren was persuaded, with great difficulty, to restore them and he made three visits to Singapore.
From there to the Museum itself where we share a plaque unveiling ceremony with two other veteran groups, The Malaysian Volunteers Group and the Central Sikh Gudwara Board. We are piped into the museum by a lady piper, resplendent in kilt, and assemble for the speeches. It is a fitting tribute to be reminded that 50% of the Allied forces in SE Asia were Indian, that there were 67,000 troops in Singapore alone and they suffered heavy casualties.
The OE section of the programme, introduced by our organiser by Michael Mackenzie, consists of prose and poems by POWs read by relatives of those who had been incarcerated. It is a moving tribute, culminating in the unveiling of the plaque by British Defence Advisor, Cmdr Andy Lamb.
After all this solemnity we repair to Andy’s residence where his wife Elspeth has produced quite a spread and Michael some delicious white burgundy! Never one to look a a gift horse in the mouth, I am soon trying to do some good networking for my charity United World Schools, despite feeling decidedly off colour with some kind of bug which I seem to be unable to shake off. Could only manage one glass of wine so there must be a problem!
I am aided and abetted in this by my host, John Benson, who delights in introducing me as his ‘intelligent friend’; we have a lot of fun when people ask us how long ‘we’ have lived in Singapore. ‘Oh two and half years, but we’re not married you know’…Vicky: I’m not his mistress either! …small pause… John: my wife’s looking after the children (it is election day and a public holiday); Vicky: my husband’s away…
The Kranji War Cemetery is set on one of Singapore’s few hills. Lutyens designed the monumental stone of remembrance, and the graves of the fallen lie in serried ranks. I am always moved by the ‘unknown soldier’ headstones. We arrive horrendously early and we are turned away from the VIP car-park. Unsurprising really as it is soon filled with the limos of all the Ambassadors and other dignitaries’ flags desultorily flapping in the haze-laden air. It is a hot afternoon, despite the lack of direct sunshine; I am glad I have brought a hat and some water.
The wreath laying ceremony is dignified and well attended, but there is an annoying man who is in the way whenever you want to take a photo. John tries in vain to get him to move; he is more successful with the inevitable mobile phone terrorist who gabbles away loudly as we are about to repeat ‘We will remember them’.
We had picked up on a small diplomatic ‘incident’ with regard to the order of wreath laying, with the Japanese getting pole position, followed by the Chinese and the Indians. The Brits and the Americans lag behind. The Monty Python sketch springs to mind. The speeches take great pains to praise the pacifism of post-war Japan; this peaceful ceremony here in Singapore is setting an example to our neighbours ‘in the North’ – we are not quite sure whether this is a reference to Japan and China or the two Koreas…What we do understand is the the realpolitik of trade takes precedence even in memorial services.
We kick off with a multi-faith inaugural prayer, reflecting the make-up of the audience, but the string quartet strains a bit, and the last post is slightly out of synch and wobbles on the final note, which is shame. For me the Last Post is imbued with an extra sadness – the memory of it echoing round Golders Green crematorium just before Louise’s coffin disappeared. Always a poignant moment.
When all is done, the OE crowd assembles beside one of the flanking walls of the memorial for Robert Portal, the great-nephew of Capt Eric Dance to lay his own wreath in private tribute to his great uncle. Eric Dance, founder of the Oxford Playhouse and engineer by training, was captured and sent to New Britain, where he was forced to build a runway. Upon its completion he was summarily beheaded. It brought home to us all the brutality of this war and why we are here. Sam Inglefield, as the senior OE present, laid a wreath on behalf of the OEA.
As a chronicler of the Second World War, but in Egypt and Germany (read my book Love and War in the WRNS), I have found this an illuminating and rewarding couple of days. A big thank you to the OEs, John and Michael for allowing me to masquerade as Mrs Benson.
They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning
We will remember them.