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"Lest we forget"

By a Whitianga resident who wishes to remain anonymous.


Walking around inspecting the Whitianga RSA’s collection of armed services’ memorabilia, I had a slight feeling of guilt going back 60 years to my boyhood.


The RSA’s collection was made up of relics of the past service of soldiers, sailors and airmen kept secure for future generations to see and appreciate. But when I had the chance to preserve important historical photographs for posterity after my father’s death, I casually gave them away or lost them.


Now I look back with regret at the stupid actions of my nine-year-old self, for I know that the photographs of the Japanese soldiers who forced Allied soldiers and civilians to work on the Burma railway would have been interesting for historians down the ages to see. But instead of being on display in a wartime museum somewhere, putting faces to the Japanese torturers, they have been lost forever.


My father was a young Captain in the Royal Artillery in World War II when he was taken prisoner after the fall of Singapore and was sent to a work camp constructing the near-impossible Burma Railway. The conditions were atrocious and the Japanese guards savage.


Some 13,000 prisoners of war died and tens of thousands of civilians - worked to death, beaten to death or starved to death. My father was one of the lucky ones to survive and after the camps were liberated by Allied forces, he was repatriated back to the UK to recuperate. But before he left, he managed to raid the offices of the Japanese HQ and took with him hundreds of photographs of Japanese officers, soldiers, guards and undoubtedly torturers. When he died in 1961, the autopsy referred to the years of privation in slave labour as a major contributing factor in his death.


It was after he died that my brothers and I found the photographs that he had secreted out of Burma. Some photos were in albums and others were loose, but all were protected by rice paper, which was normal at that time. On the back of them, or underneath, there was a caption in English, written in the most beautiful copperplate writing. I think it may have been by my father’s hand. After so many years, my recollection is a bit hazy as to whether there was any Japanese writing on these photographs.


Included were the names of many of these men, including some with rather sinister nicknames, which made me think they were the torturers. I can only recall one name, Silver Spider. Whether it was a name the man gave himself, I do not know.


But as a young, irresponsible boy I gave these photos to friends or swapped them like football cards that came in packets of chewing gum, or carelessly lost them. Over the years I have often thought back to those photographs and how they would have been interesting exhibits in war museums, or perhaps they might even have helped bring some war criminals to justice. But sadly, it was too late, they were gone.


My mother told me that my father never, ever spoke about his time working on the Burma Railway. Maybe it was the so-called British stiff upper lip or maybe, like so many others, he just wanted to put it all behind him and forget. That is why we have to remember and why Ode of Remembrance is so important.


“Lest we forget.”


Pictured: A photo from the ANZAC Day Service in Whitianga on Monday this week.

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