The end of the war

The anniversary of VJ Day passed without excitement. A Union Jack was projected onto the Hanging Chapel in Langport, the odd flag and length of bunting was hung up. The day was similar to all the other days of this strange year.

Perhaps VJ Day in 1945 had a strangeness about it. The joy of VE Day was past. The threat to the country had disappeared. The post-war austerity had begun. There remained the unfinished war in the Far East.

A lady in High Ham was among the few I knew who had returned from the war against Japan. She had been a nurse and had met her husband while serving in a military hospital.

Few people seemed to talk about the war in the East. There were numerous tales from those who served in Europe, but the experience of fighting against the Japanese Empire seemed uniformly horrific and its memories unspoken.

It would be the end of the century, and work in Dublin, before I met someone who would reflect on surviving the Japanese conflict.

Dr Mayne was a man who would weigh each word carefully. A reflective and undemonstrative man, who was unafraid to sit in silence; a quizzical look from him was sufficient to convey the suggestion that he might not agree with something that had been said.

A Dubliner who had been born during the First World War, he would recount with passion and anger stories of the poverty he encountered in the city during his days as a young doctor. When the Second World War came, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps to serve as a medical officer in the British Army.

Dr Mayne was among the thousands of soldiers serving with the British Army who were captured by the Japanese Army at the fall of Singapore in 1942. Being a doctor, it fell to him to act as medical officer in the prisoner of war camp in which he was held. It was a doubly horrifying time, working without proper medication or equipment to try to preserve the lives of those for whom he was caring, while struggling for survival himself. When the prisoner of war camp was liberated by the Allies, he had weighed just five stones. Photographs of camp survivors cannot capture a fraction of a sense of what it was that they had experienced.

Dr Mayne did not regard himself as a hero. He would smile when recounting that he had been issued with a revolver, which he had fired only twice, pointing in the air and pulling the trigger to frighten away men who appeared to be about to steal his jeep. His war, as that of the many thousands who had been prisoners, had been one of endurance.

Perhaps it is natural that events at home and in countries just across the English Channel should have received greater attention, but the sense that the war in the Far East was fought by a “forgotten army” is a sense that still endures seventy-five years later. Today is a testimony to the forgetting.


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