‘He saw a lot of comrades killed’: Stevenage relatives of two Burma veterans speak out as communities mark 70th anniversary of VJ Day
- Credit: Archant
Relatives of two Burma veterans have spoken about the importance of honouring those who served – many never to return – as the 70th anniversary of Victory over Japan day is marked today.
Pauline Coelho and Andrew Curtis have been talking about members of their family who fought in South-east Asia during the Second World War, ahead of special services across the area.
Despite victory being declared in Europe on May 8, 1945, VJ Day – as it is known – on August 15 marks the day Japan surrendered to the Allies, effectively ending the conflict after almost six years of fighting.
Pauline’s dad Michael Bray joined the British Army at the age of 18 and was sent off to India, before marching across the border into Burma.
Having survived the war, he spent time working as a military policeman in Singapore – where so many died as prisoners of war – before returning to the UK where he met his future wife Kathleen.
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They married in 1954 and moved to Vinters Avenue in Stevenage after the birth of their first son, Colin, a year later.
Pauline was born in 1957, with the family moving to Meadow Way before her sister Shirley completed the family in 1961.
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After Kathleen’s death in 2009 at the age of 78, Michael moved to Four Acres and stayed there until the onset of dementia.
He passed away in May this year at the age of 89 – having served as the treasurer of the North Herts branch of the Burma Star Association for many years – and would have celebrated his 90th birthday last Tuesday, August 4.
“He was very fortunate that he wasn’t a prison of war,” said Pauline, who lives in Stevenage’s Jessop Road and works nearby as a domestic nurse at Martins House – where her dad was cared for before his death.
“He saw a lot of his comrades killed, including his best friend.
“I think we need our eyes opened up a bit – it was only when my mum passed away I found out more about what happened to my dad. He talked about some things, but there was just too much horror to say more.
“I had to let him tell me his story, I couldn’t press him. But he had dementia towards the end and I think that made him relive some of the horrors.
“We were stunned when he did tell us some of the things he went through and saw. He considered himself very lucky to come back, but we know he did see some terrible things.
“We were all so proud of him and I’m just so sad that he is not here to see people pay their respects.
“It’s going to be sad but it will be great to remember.
“We need to remember what people like my father and thousands if not millions more like him did for our future as without them we wouldn’t be here now.”
Andrew Curtis’ grandfather, Walter Stanley Newberry, was part of the 135th (Hertfordshire Yeomanary) Field Regiment – largely made up of those living in this area – and was one of many captured as a prisoner of war.
He spent just under four years in captivity before being liberated in 1945, and went on to live in Stevenage for the remainder of his life.
Andrew – of Tacitus Close in the town – possesses a roll of honour of those from Herts units who lost their lives in South Africa and both world wars, which names the many soldiers captured in the Burma campaign who did not return.
Of the 219 men from the regiment who died between 1942 and 1945, more than 150 were prisoners of war.
“You can’t walk too far in Stevenage in any direction without meeting someone who has relatives who fought,” said Andrew, whose grandfather lived until 1987 – when he died at the age of 72.
“I’ve had people telling me their uncle Joe was there and this, that and the other but in general there is a huge level of ignorance here.
“I can’t blame anyone for that – there was a big cover up and prisoners of war had to sign the Official Secrets Act.
“There’s a big misconception that most from this area fought in Europe when many here got shipped out to Singapore.
“These are the men who came from this area to fight and not all of them came home. If you look at the roll of honour it reads ‘died while PoW, died while PoW, died while PoW’ – and that says it all.”
Services are being held in Stevenage town centre and at Hitchin’s war memorial at 11am today to remember those who lost their lives, while ‘A Day of Nostalgia’ is planned in Letchworth town centre from 1pm until 5pm.
There is also an 11am service today in Shefford High Street and a 9.30am Sunday service at St Peter’s Church in Arlesey, which follows on from two Stotfold services held yesterday evening.
The Stevenage branch of the Royal British Legion – in conjunction with Stevenage Borough Council – is also hosting a rededication ceremony of a new plaque on the Bowling Green in the Old Town on September 2, marking the date Japan signed unconditional surrender.