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Robert Barron column: “Forgotten War” should be remembered

It’s the least we can do for the many who gave their lives for us
Robert’s column

I was pleasantly surprised by the feedback we received at the newspaper about the annual Burma Star memorial that was held at the Duncan Cenotaph on Aug. 15.

I attended the ceremony to commemorate the 8,000 Canadians and other Allied forces who fought in Burma, which is now Myanmar, in what is termed the “Forgotten War”, as it was overshadowed by the other raging conflicts in Europe and South Pacific during the Second World War.

In 1941, British forces in Burma, which included many Canadians, were overwhelmed by the Japanese and driven back to the Indian border.

That long battle saw about 30,000 casualties, approximately two-thirds of the British forces in the region.

But by 1944, the tides of war were changing and, after a number of battles that year, the Japanese took 55,000 casualties.

The total surrender of the Japanese came on Sept. 2, 1945, but the conflict in Burma left a legacy both of suffering and heroism.

The Japanese prisoner-of-war camps were legendary for their cruelty and deprivations and thousands of prisoners, including many Canadians, were kept in appalling conditions where they were overworked, regularly beaten and tortured and lacked sufficient food.

Then there are stories about astounding bravery by some who fought in the campaign, including the Cowichan Valley’s very own Major Charles Hoey, after whom Duncan’s Charles Hoey Park is named.

Hoey is the only soldier from the Valley to receive the Victoria Cross, the British Empire’s highest award for bravery under fire, for his heroic actions in the Burma campaign.

Hoey’s company formed a part of a force that was ordered to capture a position in Burma from the Japanese at all costs in February, 1944.

After a night march through enemy-held territory, the force was met at the foot of the position with heavy machine-gun fire.

Hoey personally led his company under continued heavy fire right up to the objective.

Although wounded at least twice in the leg and head, he seized a Bren gun from one of his men and, firing from the hip, led his company on to the objective.

In spite of his wounds, the company had difficulty keeping up with him, and Hoey reached the enemy post first, where he killed all the occupants before being mortally wounded himself.

Hoey’s heroism is the stuff legends are made of.

The numbers attending the annual Burma Star memorial, organized by the Cowichan Valley’s Royal Canadian Legion Branch 53 and its tireless president Betty James, have notably decreased in recent years as the veterans grow older, but the impacts of the Burma campaign still reverberate through many in the community.

One lady sent me an email after reading about the ceremony in the newspaper telling me that she was a baby when her father was sent to India with the British Army during the war and ended up fighting the Japanese in Burma.

She told me her dad had earned three medals during the campaign but she didn’t know what they were for and her father died when she was still young so she never knew the story of his time in the war.

The lady said she had nothing to tell her children or grandchildren about her father and the war, but our story about the ceremony “gave my dad an ID and story that I am proud of.”

“I only have one old photo of my dad taken in Burma in 1945 and now I have a background story,” she said.

Another lady, whose father was awarded the Burma Star Medal, said she was thrilled to learn in the newspaper story that Charles Hoey Park, where the Duncan Cenotaph is located, was named after one of the Canadian soldiers who fought so bravely in her mother’s homeland of Burma (Myanmar).

The Second World War and the Burma campaign was a long time ago but, while the people involved in the conflict are dwindling, it’s up to the rest of us to keep their memories alive.

It’s the least we can do for the many who gave their lives for us.

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Robert Barron

About the Author: Robert Barron

Since 2016, I've had had the pleasure of working with our dedicated staff and community in the Cowichan Valley.
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