COFEPOWs Far East Tour
The planning to take thirty odd people on a tour of the Far East had taken about eighteen months, but finally the 10th April dawned and we were ready to fly to our first stop - Singapore. Having been before I was ready for the intense heat that seems to completely engulf unsuspecting visitors as they leave the air conditioned airport but the oven- like temperature came as a shock to many in our group.
The main purpose of our three day stay in Singapore was the Kranji War Memorial which contains the names of twenty four thousand service men who have no known grave. This memorial is in the centre of a large war cemetery and is beautifully maintained. Many of our members do not know what became of their fathers or brothers and their names would therefore be on this memorial, so many photographs were taken.
We had taken with us six white crosses, approx 14 inches high, inset with our enamelled COFEPOW logo. We planned to place a cross on the memorial at each of the six cemeteries that we were to visit during our tour. The first cross was placed at Kranji, together with small individual crosses that our members took with them. In blistering heat, we then visited the small Changi Chapel, (a replica of the one built by the prisoners of war during their imprisonment) and the Changi Museum. We were given a warm welcome and a full account of the fall of Singapore in 1942. We visited other places of interest during our stay. Ron and myself, set out and found Chancery Hill, which my father had written about in his diary at the time of his capture. At that time it was dense jungle, but now this high hill over looks Singapore and is in the midst of an upper class housing area.
On the 14th April we flew to northern Borneo. This gave us a base and two days later we flew to the war cemetery on the island of Labuan. Most of the British Servicemen buried here were imprisoned at a camp at Sandakan. 2,500 men died on what is now known as the "Sandakan Death March" with only six Australians surviving. It was most distressing to watch our close friend Tonie Harold in tears as he laid two small crosses on the grave of the father he never knew. Several of our members laid their crosses and poppies on the graves of loved ones and Tonie laid the second of our COFEPOW white crosses on the Labuan memorial.
The following day we were entertained by Orang Utangs in the wild, coming within hand shaking distance and performing beautifully in front of our cameras. Then it was onto the Sandakan Memorial Park, the site of the original camp, where another cross was laid on the large black marble memorial, beautifully engraved. We were met by the curator, Mrs Wong, who had ready for us the much needed cold drinks to prevent us dehydrating. The humidity and heat never let up.
Next on the menu was a few days "holiday" on the tropical island of Koh Samui, to unwind and relax. We spent some memorable days together elephant riding through tropical jungle (being very aware of the huge spiders hanging above our heads) and enjoying trips in glass bottom boats around the spectacular small islands and coral reef to a chorus of Oh's and Ah's as we glimpsed the beautiful array of coloured fish swimming around wonderful plant life and unbelievable coral. The white beaches and swimming in beautiful clear seas was a sheer delight.
On the 23rd April we then flew to Bangkok and travelled overland to Kanchanaburi, the site of the Bridge over the River Kwai. The next few days were spent visiting the site of old POW camps and walking a considerable length of the area where starved and often sick and dying men laid the Thai/Burma railway in 1942/43. We waited in anticipation for a train to take us over the only part of the track that is still in existence and held our breath as we inched our way over the Wampo Viaduct, still standing strong more than 50 years after the prisoners built it.
Sleepy eyed, (having crawled out of bed at 3.00 am) we held candles at the Dawn Service in Hellfire Pass on 25th April, the Australian and New Zealand ANZAC Day. The most moving moment came when the "Last Post" was being played and the only other sound to be heard was the early morning birds joining in with their dawn chorus. It was just magical. Leaving Hellfire Pass we went on to a place called Home Phu Toey, to visit the "Jack Chalker Galleries" - Jack painted and sketched dozens of pictures during his years as a POW and they are now on display at Home Phu Toey. While we were there, Tonie Harold presented Col. Terry Beaton with a large plaque he had made, bearing the COFEPOW logo which will be hung in the Jack Chalker Galleries. Later that same day, in scorching sun, we attended the Remembrance Service in the much larger Kanchanaburi cemetery as brother and sister, Sue Fletcher and Tony Burrell laid a red poppy wreath and the fourth of our white crosses. That same afternoon we headed for the much smaller, but very pretty Chungkai cemetery where Judy Craik laid the fifth COFEPOW cross. For Judy, it was a very personal and emotional moment as she knelt before her father's grave for the first time, such a short brief spell to be reunited, but an elderly, visiting Australian, put his arms around her and whispered words of comfort.
We did of course enjoy visiting other places of interest during our stay here and several "long tail" boats took our party down the River Kwai and under the bridge, which was a wonderful experience.
On the 27th April when the majority of our group went home to the UK, five of us then flew to Burma, now known as Myanmar. We stayed two days in Yangon , formerly known as Rangoon, which just had to be seen to be believed - the noise, colours, smells, the heat, the dust, the clamouring and clattering, the hustle and bustle and antiquated old vehicle's honking their clapped out old horns, all made up the centre of Yangon. A place I will never forget.
On the third day we spent eight hours travelling south, over very poor, almost non existent roads to reach Moulmein where we were to stay for two nights. On the way we passed the very large Taukkyan War Cemetery which bears the names and graves of twenty seven thousand servicemen of different nationalities, many British.
In spite of the very rough and bumpy journey, it was an incredible experience, as the Burmese people and their way of life is quite primitive - they almost live in a time warp. They are happy, friendly people, in no way distressed, but most have no modern facilities and their lives are very simple and basic. They are poor by our standards, but not by their own. A common sight was to see an old pre-war truck bearing dozens of people, crammed inside, sitting on the roof, hanging of the sides, clinging to the back, together with their wares. We just could not imagine how the engines coped with the weight, so few of these people have mechanical transport, hence they all cram onto anything that moves. Old bikes were in abundance with a wife or child sitting on a side seat and granny clinging on behind. I took a photograph of a man riding an old push bike with six large oil drums tied on to it.
We had to stop many times at check points, our passports inspected, but at no time did we feel threatened or intimidated. Everyone was extremely friendly, polite and very attentive to our needs and treated us a bit like celebrities. But everywhere we went, it was the attractive little children that caught our attention. Big black eyes stared solemnly at first , then beautiful smiles - revealing gleaming white teeth - would light up their small brown faces.
After travelling for a further 1½ hours on the fourth day, we finally reached the Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery where my father is buried. I stopped at the local market and purchased armfuls of fresh flowers for his and other graves. They most probably did not last very long considering the extreme heat, but I have never once been able to buy my father anything until I bought those flowers Few people ever reach this particular cemetery, so it meant a great deal to me to lay flowers on his grave. Only the children of FEPOWs buried in the Far East, can understand and feel the pain brought about by knowing that the fathers they never knew, died terrible agonising deaths, all alone, thousands of miles from their families.
But that day held another unhappy significance for me which I had forgotten about in the hectic days preparing for the trip, but now it suddenly hit me as we approached the cemetery I had planned the whole of the trip to coincide with the Dawn Service and Remembrance Service in Kanchanaburi - now as we approached the cemetery at Thanbyuzayat, I had to remind myself of the date so that I would remember it in future - it was 30th April - and it was then that I realised it was the 16th anniversary of my sister's death and I suddenly knew without a doubt that she was there - somewhere, so was my Mum. So I knelt and prayed for my father and mother and my sister.
I laid the sixth and final white COFEPOW cross on the Memorial in a temperature well into the 40°s, my face and body were both running with sweat and I remembered thinking that all these young men buried here had worked in this burning, intense heat for hours and hours every day, for weeks and months, starving and ill and nobody cared. It was really very, very sad. In the previous cemeteries we had visited, water sprinklers kept the grass green and lush, but here there is no water on tap. Water is obtained from local wells and the last rain had been in October, so understandably the grass in Thanbyuzayat was reduced to yellow straw and I knelt on parched rock hard soil.
On the fifth day we returned to Rangoon and later we visited many temples, pagodas, the markets, China Town, and the unbelievable docks and water front where the place was teeming with life. Old tugs were being manually unloaded with scores of local men, their skins black and wizened, bent double as they humped heavy sacks from boats to lorries on the quay side and all around there were dozens of small fishing craft and local ferries carrying noisy, colourful people about their business.
The overall cost made a huge hole in our bank balance, but it is now back to saving the pennies again as I would dearly love to go back to Burma - not only to visit the cemetery again, but to experience more of Burma, its people and its culture. I sincerely hope that tourism never reaches this lovely country and it remains as unspoilt as we found it.
Listening to what everyone said, I think they all enjoyed the whole experience. We certainly received value for money, but after it was over and we were back home, I overhead Judy Craik telling someone all about it and I thought she summed it up beautifully when she said "I have never cried so much, but then I have never laughed so much either".
As for me? I will go back to Burma one day - once was not enough.
By Carol Cooper