The forgotten front

When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow, we gave our today.

Eighty-two-year-old Bob Farquharson chokes back tears before he can finish reciting that epitaph carved on a cenotaph in the city of Kohima, India. Along with 8,000 Canadians mostly in the air force, Farquharson fought in the Burma campaign of the Second World War. He was a pilot in a transport squadron dropping supplies for troops on the ground. He had a good war. “I never shot at anyone, and when they shot at me, they missed,” he says. But 500 comrades met a different fate. Some are buried in neat cemeteries in places like Rangoon, the capital of Burma, and others were never found — their planes downed in jungles or over the Bay of Bengal.

Farquharson’s tears well up from a mix of emotions. Like all vets, he’ll always feel sad when he remembers the grins, the chutzpah, the promise of the young men, his friends, who headed out for yet another long mission but never made it back to base. As an old man, he best understands what was lost. But while time has softened the edges of his sadness, it has hardened the core of anger he feels that stories like his and, more importantl the stories of those who never came home have been forgotten — even in this the Year of the Veteran.

The Burma campaign: mention it and, except for those who fought in it or were directly affected by it, you’ll get quizzical stares, even though the campaign was the longest campaign of the war and inflicted the most damage to the Japanese army. The campaign, which was purely offensive, was led by General Bill Slim, heralded as the most successful general of the entire war, and its goal was to stop the Japanese from “closing the ring,” as Winston Churchill described it. The same day as they struck Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese launched an invasion of Burma with the intent of moving next to India. If they had succeeded, it is possible they could have moved up through the Middle East to Turkey and joined forces with Hitler in Europe. Burma — situated between China and India – was where they had to be stopped.

Canadians acquitted themselves well in every aspect of the Burma campaign, and it is their stories that Farquharson recounts in well-researched detail in his book For Your Tomorrow: Canadians and the Burma Campaign 1941-1945. Farquharson, a retired professor of German literature who taught at the University of Toronto, wrote the book because no one else had. “I kept waiting for someone to tell the story and, finally, I realized that I’d have to do it myself.” For four years, Farquharson toiled in his small carrel at the university library and wrote his account of the Canadians who manned the fighter planes, bombers and transport planes that made run after run to stop the enemy from advancing and to hinder the Japanese supply lines.

Next page: So how did the stories from this campaign get lost?

Some of the answer lies in the fact that the troops in Southeast Asia were perceived as fighting to protect the British Empire, a cause for which there was little support in Canada. And because many of the Canadians involved were members of the Royal Canadian Air Force serving with the British Royal Air Force (RAF) with only two all-RCAF transport squadrons, their war experiences were never flagged as Canadian stories. And a big part of the answer lies in the remoteness of the region. Mail was undependable, home leaves were non-existent and no big-name entertainers ever visited. Farquharson tells the story of Admiral Louis Mountbatten addressing the troops after he took over as Supreme Commander in Southeast Asia. “I hear you call this the Forgotten Front. I hear you call yourselves the Forgotten Army. Well, let me tell you, this is not the Forgotten Front, and you are not the Forgotten Army. In fact, no one has even heard of you.”

For those who proudly wear the Burma Star that signifies a veteran of the campaign, time is running out to have their service recognized. Bill Watson, Murray Duncan and Larry Wynn were all members of the RCAF who served in Burma as part of the RAF. They belong to the Burma Bombers Association and, along with other members of their squadrons, they held their final reunion this past August in Trenton, Ont. They rededicated their cairn to the memory of those who didn’t return and held a moment of silence. They reminisced about the Liberator plane they flew and its capability to cover long distances. (“The Japs couldn’t understand how we were getting to where we were going,” Wynn says). They remembered the daring bombing runs that had them navigating by the stars back to base on a tiny atoll in the Indian Ocean low on fuel after as many as 10 to 15 hours in the sky. Crews who lost their way were lost forever. (“Most of us came back unscathed or we didn’t come back at all,” Watson says). But the three who helped to organize the reunion won’t be planning another. Now in their 80s, they feel they’ve done what they can and fewer vets are able to attend. Duncan, who was a navigator with 356 Squadron, is the last of his crew alive.

They planned to hold their last reunion to coordinate with the 60th anniversary of VJ-Day in August. Ironically, only after they had made their plans did they receive invitations to celebrations in Ottawa marking the end of the war in the Burma and Pacific theatres (the end of the war in Europe was commemorated in huge celebrations in May). But those invitations came too late; they had already booked event space and couldn’t change the times although several members did change their plans to attend both events.

For Farquharson, who belongs to 435/436 and Burma Squadrons Assoc., the issue of recognition this year came to a head when he saw the brochure issued by Veterans Affairs declaring 2005 the Year of the Veteran. The brochure highlights the August ceremonies for VJ-Day to focus on the Hong Kong prisoners of war and “the other Pacific campaign veterans.” Having the Burma vets lumped in as “other veterans” of the Pacific campaign that was thousands of kilometres from where they were stationed in Southeast Asia was bad enough. But to add insult to injury, almost no Canadians even served in the Pacific Campaign with General Douglas MacArthur. “That brochure made my blood boil,” Farquharson says.

Farquharson suspects that the Burma vets were missed by the Ministry of Veteran Affairs and were only contacted at the last minute after pressure was put on. “We had to go political,” he says. He and others contacted their members of parliament and the defence critics for both the Conservative and New Democratic Parties to share their grievance.

Janice Summerby, a spokesperson for Veterans Affairs (VA), says the ministry is now referring to the various war theatres as “the Far East campaign” and the ministry is aware that the vets have felt they have not been given due recognition. “We want to help them to get that recognition. We’re on their side,” she says. Reached in August a couple of weeks before the VJ-Day celebrations, she said that at least 115 vets would be attending the Ottawa events. As well, she e-mailed to say that Veterans Affairs had donated $10,000 to the Burma Bomber reunion and that Burma vets would be featured on the VA website.

Farquharson and his fellow vets are heartened by small victories. In researching his book, Farquharson corresponded with many of the descendants of Burma vets, many of whom were unaware of their father’s or grandfather’s or uncle’s contribution. Bob Pinch, a school teacher whose father served in Burma, read the book and discovered that his father, Bruce, and an RAF captain had single-handedly taken an airstrip and seaport at the town of Akyab. In a thank-you letter to Farquharson, Pinch writes: “Your accounts of individual acts of bravery throughout the book are deeply moving. You give life to men like Major Muir, Jim Whalen and my father, Bruce Pinch.”