Chance to honour Second World War’s ‘Forgotten Army’

"You were forever searching your body for leeches in the wet season..."

“You gasp for air, which doesn’t come; you drag your legs upwards till they seem reduced to the strength of matchsticks, and all the time sweat is passing off you.”—Lieut. Sam Horner, 2nd Royal Norfolks.

“You cut your beard with a bayonet when you had the chance. You were out of food, out of accommodation. You were forever searching your body for leeches in the wet season and when you ever got into [a base] the medics had to cut off your boots…”

Such, in the words of Lieut. Sam Horner, and Cliff Sargent of the Burma Star Association, in 1993, was the war — the Burma War — for Allied soldiers who fought the Japanese from December 1941 through September 1945.

How sad then that it’s become known as the “Forgotten War,” its veterans the “Forgotten Army,” both having been overshadowed by the campaigns in Europe and the South Pacific.

But not forgotten in Duncan all these 70 years later.

This Friday, at 12:45, Aug. 14, members of the ever fewer Burma veterans, members of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 53 Duncan, and, hopefully, the public will gather at Charles Hoey Park to honour the sacrifices of the thousands of soldiers, many of them Canadian, who took part in this bitterly contested jungle war that followed the Japanese invasion of Burma (today’s Myanmar).

It was a war not just of opposing armies but of men against nature, in a country that experiences two monsoon seasons annually and is hot and humid from May through November; where malaria, dysentery, beri-beri and various skin diseases caused by fatigue were surer than an enemy bullet.

Initially, British forces were driven back to within the Indian border in what has been termed “the longest fighting withdrawal in the history of the British Army” at a cost of 30,000 casualties — two-thirds of its entire force. When, in early 1944, the Allies regained the upper hand after the battles of Imphal and Kohina, it was the turn of the Japanese to set military history: their greatest single military defeat of the Second World War with the loss of 55,000 men.

Life as a soldier in the jungle was even worse as a Japanese prisoner of war, as has been immortalized by the 1957 movie The Bridge on the River Kwai with its memorable whistling theme, Colonel Bogey’s March. An estimated 13,000 British soldiers, Canadians among them, and 2,000 civilians died in Japanese prison camps from being over-worked, from beatings and torture and lack of adequate food and medical supplies and services.

This isn’t the first such memorial service to be held in Duncan, of course. Burma vets have been staging them here since erecting the Arakan memorial, aka the Burma Cairn, at Stoltz Pool in Cowichan River Provincial Park in the mid-1990s. A half-size replica of the cairn at Kohima in Myanmar, the site of a savagely contested and decisive battle in 1944, it was situated there in honour of Duncan’s Maj. Charles Hoey, VC, MC who loved to fish these ripples as a boy. (The site was dedicated for this purpose by the provincial government as far back as 1946 in recognition of Hoey’s having won, posthumously, the Victoria Cross, the highest award for valour in the British Commonwealth.)

But the passing years have taken their toll and the few Burma veterans remaining now find it too difficult to make the pilgrimage to Stoltz Pool so they’ve made the Cenotaph in downtown’s Hoey Park their alternative shrine.

Because Duncan-born Charles Hoey (for whom the grassy strip between the train station at Trunk Road is named) has served as the focal point of these annual memorial services, and because so few really know much about the Burma campaign, it’s easy for us today to all but overlook the legions of Allied soldiers, and the Canadians among them, who served in that theatre of war.

It’s precisely for these mostly unsung men of several nations that the Burma Star Association has laboured so long to honour and to remember and it behooves us, as the benefactors of their sacrifices, to join them in Saturday’s memorial service.

Among those expected to participate in this Friday’s ceremony, “God willing,” is Chemainus resident and Burma vet Gordon Hughes. He’s one of the few left.

It’s time for others to take up the vigil. Again, this year’s Burma Star Memorial is this Friday at 12:45 at the Cenotaph.