Trip Report 2015
My wife, Ning, and I visited Loikaw in place of Sally McLean, who sadly was unable to come this year. We were joined by local volunteers and by H4FA committee member Peter Mitchell for part of the trip. The following is an account of our meetings with some of the veterans and their widows in and around Loikaw.
Note: It isn’t always possible to determine the ages or verify the dates given by the veterans, who often give contradictory accounts themselves due to old age and/or poor record-keeping in colonial times. The veterans also tend to use ‘English’ and ‘British’ interchangeably. For historical accuracy, I have used British unless in direct quotes. The following report is based on the information we were given. Mark Fenn (H4FA supporter).
Mark Fenn (H4FA supporter)
On the first day, shortly after arriving, we visited the 86-year-old widow of Richard Thawk (1927-2003), who joined the British army at the age of 16 and served in the Royal Signals Company. They married in 1952 and he later became a Baptist pastor in Loikaw, being ordained in 1979. He died in a motorcycle accident in 2003, leaving her with six children and 16 grandchildren.
This lady lives with a daughter in the town, and seemed quite cheerful. For the past two years she has been seriously ill with a heart problem, we were told, but this has improved with medication.
Next we met a veteran Orderly, born in 1920 (which would make him 94 or 95 years old), he served as a cook for the British in the Nataw area for the last six months of the war. He remembers the name Peacock and says he fought under a Captain Montague – a name I have heard crop up repeatedly among the veterans in Loikaw and camp across the Thai border. Montague gave him a Sten gun and later a carbine, he said, and would give him 10 rupees whenever he wanted him to deliver a letter. (According to Wikipedia: “The term "orderly" was often used instead of "batman" in the colonial forces, especially in the British Indian Army. The orderly was frequently a civilian instead of a soldier.)
He remembered having to bury the bodies of his captain and two soldiers killed by the Japanese, and that two British officers who were sick and couldn’t escape were killed by the Japanese when they came into a local village. He also remembers an English soldier who was killed by a bomb. His body was carried to Mount Sisiko and buried there, but the bones were later dug up and taken to Rangoon. It was unclear whether these were three separate incidents or whether he was confusing them in his mind. He also remembers seeing black African soldiers serving in Burma. He had missing teeth and dirty, ragged clothes but was very cheerful. He thanked us for the grant money and said he was very happy and grateful to the English people. “They are very good people, not like the Burmese,” he said.
The next day, we met a widow of 95, who we had met last year. I remember that then she was in good humour, even combing her hair and posing for the camera, but her health appeared to have deteriorated a lot since. She is now bed-ridden and very frail, and her family said she cannot eat but subsists only on powdered milk formula. She couldn’t see me, even though I was sitting quite close to her bed. We suggested her daughter give her brandy mixed with raw egg, milk and honey, which it was said was “very good for the old”.
Next we met a veteran who we had also met last year. He is a great character who speaks fluent English, and although he is also bed-ridden his mind is still quite sharp. Official documents say he is 98 but his real age is 103, he told us. (Last year, I listed him as 95.) He said he was feeling “quite well”, and talked a little about his service in the Karen levies under officers including Colonel Peacock, Major Saw Butler, Captain Sell and Captain Montague.
Next we met a veteran of 93, who is a Buddhist-Hindu of Nepalese heritage. He was born in 1922 in Mytkina, Kachin state, where his Gurkha father was serving with the British army. He speaks English but his memory is failing and he said he cannot remember much about the war. The jovial, smiling veteran said he served in a Gurkha commando unit of the “4th Burma Regiment” – I believe he was referring to the 4th Battallion, The Burma Regiment. A professional soldier, he served in the British army from 1941-48 and then transferred to the Burmese army, retiring from service in 1970. After the Japanese invasion, he went to India and attended a military training course before returning to Burma after six months with Anglo-Indian and Australian officers. He remembers serving under General Black, Major Cook and Captain Anderson, and says Black would encourage his troops and tell them to be brave and not disheartened. He fought the Japanese at Mandalay and Kalaw, and he also remembers fighting the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang army at Kengtung in Shan state, where a comrade called Shiv Bahadu cut the heads off two Chinese soldiers with his sword! He was in Arakan at the end of the war. He attained the rank of sergeant with the British forces, and was later a warrant officer in the Tatmadaw (Burmese army).
Next we met a veteran of 88-year-old, who we had also met the previous year. He sang ‘God Save the King’ and gave us a very formal stiff salute when we arrived! He joined the Burma Engineers in 1945, when he was 18 years old, working as a driver for the British. He remembers officers Major Whitney, Captain Rich, Lt Barker and Lt-Col Stack (or Steck, or something similar). After independence, he spent six months in prison in Maymyo along with other Karen soldiers who had been rounded up by the Burmese. He later joined the Karen rebels in their fight for independence or greater autonomy from Rangoon. When I asked how he was, he grinned and punched both fists in the air. Although he suffers from headaches, he said he was in good health.
Very welcoming old widow and grateful of help from H4FA
Kind and thoughtful old widow of Karen veteran
After this we met two veterans’ widows aged 82, and 81, at the latter’s house nearby. They both thanked us for the support they have received. “They thought the English people had forgotten them. It’s been a long time”.
The following day, Peter Mitchell joined us and we visited some veterans living in the villages outside Loikaw, including some who lived in the quite remote Karenni hills. The first we met was a 90-year-old who is deaf and can no longer speak. His 85-year-old wife joked that life was quite hard and he was going to die soon, so could we please send some money for the funeral? Our distributor said she would give the family some money when that time comes. His wife also asked for medicine to help him walk again, and was told there was no such thing.
Next we met an 82-year-old, who was enormously pleased to see us and kept laughing and smiling the whole time we were there. He has forgotten the unit he served in, but said he was 14 or 15 years old when he joined the British forces as an orderly, running errands and so on. He was too young at the time even to act as a sentry, he said. A Buddhist, he said he was too young to see any fighting with the British, but after independence he served in the Burmese army for 18 years, fighting a communist rebellion and then the Chinese Kuomintang which was occupying parts of the country. During his time with the British, he remembers drill practice – “left, right, left, right” – and eating dahl (lentil curry) for breakfast with the evening meal consisting of meat and soup. The senior officers were British and the junior officers Indian, he remembered. The Karen and Kayah (Karenni) troops were obedient, but “the Burmese were very mischievous and had to be beaten by the officers” with a cane. He wasn’t beaten because he was a good boy, he said, adding the British “had very good manners and they treated the soldiers well and equally”. The British officers looked after the young soldiers, and didn’t discriminate between Buddhists and Christians. “English people are very good and kind-hearted,” he said.
After driving for some way into the hills, we visited, a veteran’s widow who had previously been thought dead. Her husband,died in 1986. Her family thought she was 76, but she appeared considerably older. She was blind and couldn’t remember her own name, but seemed quite excited after realising that Peter and I were foreigners by grasping our big, hairy forearms! The house was very basic. I have been visiting the elderly Karen and Kayah veterans for around five years, and this was probably the worst poverty I have seen among them. Conditions were worse than in the refugee camps on the Thai border.
Afterwards we visited a nearby village to meet two men whose fathers had served the British. It was explained to us that the Japanese had committed a lot of atrocities in this area and had burned down the village, although the church – we we also visited – remained. After driving a bit further we met two more veterans in a Kayan village, where we were treated to a lunch of chicken curry and cabbage salad at the home of one. (The Kayan are a sub-group of the Kayah or Karenni. They who are famous for the gold neck rings worn by their women, although Christian Kayan no longer practice this tradition). Here we met a 92-year-old and a 94-year-old, both of whom had fading memories. The 92 year old told us that a group of British soldiers had hidden in caves on a nearby mountain, which we could see from the back of the house while eating lunch. There were six of the British troops at first, and they were later joined by four others. The local levies would send them food and kill any Japanese who came looking for them.
The hills where Karen and Karenni troops hid 10 British soldiers from the Japanese, as seen from the veteran's house
On the way back to Loikaw we passed through some stunning countryside in the Karenni hills, and stopped at the house of an 88-year-old, who is also Kayan. (We were told that some people had changed the traditional Karen or Kayah prefix ‘Saw’ to the Burmese ‘U’ to avoid persecution.) He remembers an English officer telling villagers they had to fight against the Japanese, and the men putting sharpened bamboo stakes around the village to defend it. Like the two veterans we had met, he remembers hiding a group of 10 British soldiers in the mountains. And he remembers the Japanese burning their village – which was transcribed as Wah Baw Blaug – and that two of his friends died fighting them. At the end of the war his unit was sent to Rangoon with their commanding officer (whose name he could not remember), who was leaving by ship. They went to the harbour to say goodbye and he told them not to worry, he would be back soon. But he never came back. This veteran had never expected to see English people again, he said, but “by the grace of God” he was very happy to see us. The British are very good people, said, and he loves their soldiers very much. “The officers treated us equally, they never looked down on the soldiers or other ranks.”
We also met a veteran of 99, at at the same time. He remembers being given a rifle by the British and killing Japanese soldiers, and said he fought against both Japanese and Chinese invaders, including in Kengtung in Shan state. The Japanese killed the handsome ones first, he joked, so only the ugly ones like him were left! He also sang a few lines of a song, ‘Do You Remember Me?’ to the tune of the The Battle Hymn of the Republic (if my memory serves me).
This was quite an emotional meeting, and a letter was read out from the 88 year old in which he thanked H4FA and said he was very grateful for our help. Peter took a salute from both of the elderly veterans, who were obviously delighted by our presence – and the feeling was mutual. and the feeling was mutual.
At a nearby house we met an old man who is nearly 90 years old and served in the frontier police force. Although we weren’t able to spend much time with him as we had to get back to Loikaw, he was happy to see us and showed us his old police registration card.
His police card
Veteran as a young man