Six years of unprecedented conflict and suffering was finally coming to a close. And the Welsh troops who had been fighting in the Far East and Pacific were to return to their beloved homeland once more.
I was lucky enough to speak with veterans who served in the Far East during the Second World War over zoom this week. The inspirational stories I heard from Eric Evans and Walford Hughes will stay with me forever, as will their support for fellow veterans readjusting to life after war. Mr Evans survived a crash landing after being hit with anti-aircraft fire, before recovering and returning to open a watch-repair business in Llanelli, close to his birthplace in the Neath valley.
Today it is difficult to imagine just how many people were devastated by the legacy of war that raged across this huge expanse of our planet, all the way from Hawaii to India.
Tragically, millions of civilians across Asia-Pacific were killed and injured. The first ever nuclear bomb used in war brought devastation to the people of Hiroshima. Its legacy would last for decades to come.
Between December 1941 and August 1945, British and Commonwealth forces and their allies engaged in ferocious fighting by land, air and sea, across jungles and remote islands.
By the end of the war, 30,000 British troops had been killed in the Far East, with three times as many injured. Over 130,000 allied troops had suffered brutal conditions as prisoners of war.
Those who became prisoners faced harrowing conditions. Some were sent to labour camps in the jungle. Others built roads and bridges. The (then-called) Burma-Thailand railway was nicknamed, ‘Death Railway’, after 15,000 prisoners of war and 80,000 local labourers died constructing its path.
The allied civilians living in the Far East were captured and interned in camps, where women, children and men were subjected to similarly brutal conditions.
For all those who survived – military and civilians – the wounds of war were etched firmly in their psyche for good.
After the joy of Victory in Europe (VE) day, we can only imagine the courage and fortitude of those who remained at war for another three long months. The Welsh troops serving in the Far East and Pacific faced conditions they’d never even heard of before. In extreme heat, in monsoons, alongside mosquitos and facing tropical disease, their battle was quite extraordinary.
Collaboration with allies was key to success. Indian, Myanmarese, Nepali and troops from across the African continent, led the effort in South East Asia with Australian, New Zealand, Pacific Islanders, US and Canadians in the South West and Central Pacific. Many other nations also contributed.
Around 90% of personnel of the main army in South East Asia – the 14th Army – hailed from modern day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The contribution of volunteers across the nations was staggering. The Indian Army, had grown to 2.5 million members by the end of the war, making it the largest volunteer army in history.
After the elation of VE day, some Welsh troops who survived the Far East felt like the ‘Forgotten Army’. They had served so far away, cut off from their loved ones and any contact with the world they had known. The focus at home had firmly been on Europe; they could be forgiven for thinking their efforts had been forgotten.
Tragically, many who died were left in those foreign fields, in unmarked graves.
On Victory in Japan (VJ) day, those in the Far East were still overseas, or on board a ship in the middle of the ocean like Stan Smith from Barry, weeks or months from home. Those who returned were changed forever by their experiences.
On Saturday, we will mark this important anniversary and pay tribute to all those affected by the war in the Far East and Pacific: Service personnel, their families and all civilians around the world.
We pay our tributes to all of those affected by war, in our own extraordinary time, under the shadow of coronavirus, no doubt impacting our usual plans for commemorations. But at a time when we have had to make sacrifices and suffered losses, we remember those 75 years ago who were there at the end of the most destructive conflict the world has ever seen. Those whose sacrifice and suffering allowed the next generation to work towards peace.
We thank you. We remember you. You will never be forgotten.
- Take Part in a 2 minute silence at 11am on the 15th August
- Celebrate in your own homes– for ideas go to VJ 75 Day
- Take to social using hashtags #VJDay75 #DiwrnodVJ75, to share your family stories and to say Thank You/Diolch