When I was young, Second World War Veterans were everywhere. Every second chap over a certain age, and some of the women, too, had military pasts. At social gatherings, no one became excited to meet a fellow veteran. One became excited when one met a fellow veteran from the same unit, who served in the same theatre. There were so many Second War veterans then: so few remain.
And now, they are leaving us.
Holders of the Burma Star served in Burma (Myanmar), Bengal, Assam or off the coasts of Sumatra, Sunda and Malacca or in the Bay of Bengal between December 11, 1941 and September 2nd, 1945. Burma is the land of the infamous Irrawaddy River, and this is the campaign of “Bridge on the River Kwai” fame: the campaign of the Burma Road.
The Burma Road linked Myanmar to China and was used by the British to supply Chinese loyalists under Chiang Kai-Shek. The road was lost to the British when the Japanese over-ran Burma in 1942. After Pearl Harbour, the U.S. became our partner in battling the Axis. They absolutely insisted that the British should find a way to re-open the Burma supply route to China as part of the Commonwealth contribution to the fight with Japan. The Americans were no doubt thinking that the Commonwealth had more jungly wallahs and owned the expertise about Burma, but as it happened it was an American officer, the famous “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, who recaptured northern Burma and built a new road there, the Ledo Road.
The Burma campaign is poorly documented in Canadian institutions, largely because young historians fail to see much of a direct Canadian connection. Of course many British immigrants to Canada after the War were Burma veterans and later became Canadian citizens. However, we also supplied Canadian-born doctors, pilots and radio operators. The pilots and radio operators were taken on strength by the R.A.F. and so disappeared from our radar (that’s a joke, son). Canadians with Japanese language skills served in the famous “Force 136” with British Intelligence. (Many of these brave men were Japanese-Canadians, which is a story for another day.) Astonishingly, the Veterans Guard of Canada were involved in the Burma Campaign, bringing in mules to supply local operations.
Because there is no Canadian unit tactical involvement, the contribution of our Burma Star veterans is often overlooked. Even the dealers in militaria sometimes obviscate the Canadian aspects by describing the Star as having been awarded to the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, which fails to explain the medals turning up across small-town Canada in the way that they do.
Unfortunately, the Burma Star is one of many decorations which are not inscribed with the name of the recipient. It is heart-breaking to see so many Burma Stars now on the militaria market, with the connection to the original brave owners and their colourful stories now completely lost. If we really care about the contribution given to us by our fighting forces, we should insist that no future decorations be awarded unengraved. It is a matter of national pride, as well as history.
The Burma Star may be recognized from a distance by the distictive ribbon. The center stripe is red, and stands for all the forces of the Commonwealth who were involved in the campaign. On either side are orange stripes, which represent the hot, jungle sun.
I am not among those who believe that sending high school students to interview veterans is a way of capturing our past. Or even university students, for that matter. Although this may be useful from in a social sense because it encourages respect and awareness from another generation, these interviews simply do not capture the special stories and the details which would otherwise be forgotten. I cite my years of transcribing oral histories as evidence of my authority in this regard. The kids simply don’t know the right questions to ask or when to shut up. They certainly don’t recognize when a veteran has something to tell which is not documented elsewhere. They interrupt at the darndest times.
Our veterans should be interviewed by adults with a background and a passion for the conflict or theatre concerned. Our veterans should preferably be interviewed when they are still hearty. If the job were properly done we should have no need to torment the few survivors in their twilight years.
The Kingston Branch of the Burma Star Association withdrew from the order of battle on July 2nd, 2010. Other Second War cohorts of heroes are slipping away. And we never said good-bye.
Medal illustration from Veterans Affairs Canada.