Saturday February 20, 2010
The unsung heroes
By LOUISA LIM
Thousands of men and women put their lives on the line for this country during World War II, but none of their sacrifices have been given due recognition. To counter this, one organisation seeks to return the names, faces, and ultimately, the honour of these super troopers to our national consciousness.
Rosemary Fell is not the type to forget easily. Yet the 70-year-old retiree has no recollection of her father, Eric Reeve, the headmaster of Bandar Hilir English School in Malacca. He died as a Japanese prisoner-of-war when she was a toddler. Whatever memory she has of him — the sound of his voice, the colour of his eyes, the lullabies he sang — has been blown away like dust in the wind.
"Once my mother heard of the news of his death, she seemed to want to forget the horrors of what happened to him. It was as though he never existed,” the soft-spoken UK-born native says.
“His name was never mentioned, and I never liked to ask for fear of upsetting her.”
It wasn’t until 2005 that she learned she wasn’t alone. There were countless other children like her scattered around the world. Together, they formed the Malayan Volunteers Group (MVG) to pay homage to the Volunteer Forces who fought bravely in the wars of Malaya.
Fell — in partnership with Badan Warisan Malaysia — is in the midst of one of her missions. She is standing in front of dozens of guests, many in their 60s and 70s, reciting forgotten names, dates and events from a creased paper. A clunky projector beams MVG’s motto, “Andainya kita terlupa’’ (or “Lest we forget”), behind her.
“The volunteer movement originated during Britain’s major conflicts of the 19th and 20th centuries. It began with the Singapore Volunteer Rifle Corps in 1854, then Singapore Volunteer Artillery Corps and, soon after, the Malay States Volunteer Rifles. In the 1930s, as war clouds once more started gathering in Europe, there were people in Singapore and Malaya who realised that they should be partly responsible for their own defence,” Fell reads.
“Men from all walks of life — Malays, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians and Europeans — joined the Volunteer Forces. Unlike the Alliance Forces, these men weren’t in their 20s. Many were part of the Malayan elite in their mid-30s who received basic military training at night and at weekends. My father, as my mother said, would go off to ‘play soldier’ over the weekend.”
Records have shown that the figure stood at over 18,000 men and the number of causes covered all aspects of defence from ambulance units to artillery units. Despite these staggering numbers, the battalions did not stand a chance when the Japanese attacked the northern states unexpectedly in December 1941, and this eventually led to the fall of Singapore.
What ensued was the darkest chapter in our history, but it is now stashed away like a chest of secrets. Fell, however, is persistent and, through her tireless research, has gathered much information about the volunteer movement in Singapore and Malaya from several sources, particularly by one Captain T. M. Winsley.
The book is, unfortunately, one of the few surviving records available today. The rest has been irrevocably damaged or lost. As Badan Warisan’s council member, Datuk Ismail Adam puts it: “Not a word has been mentioned in our history books.”
Fell isn’t the only one with questions. Raising his hands, an elderly man in the crowd says: “My father-in-law happened to be one of the many Chinese who used their private planes to fly on MVG missions. I heard he flew to Sri Lanka and, after that, we didn’t hear from him again. I can’t seem to find any information on what happened to him and others.”
Although information about those who disappeared abroad is scarce, there seems to be a remarkable number of first-hand accounts of what happened to the volunteer movement in Malaya when the Japanese took over.
“The European volunteers who were captured in uniform were imprisoned as military personnel, while other volunteers who were part of the passive defence forces or in reserved occupation were imprisoned as civilians, along with women and children,” says Fell.
“Of the remaining volunteers, many of the Chinese who were captured in uniform were massacred. The Malay and Eurasian volunteers had been given the option to disband before Singapore fell and return to their families, and many chose to do so. Those who were loyal were captured and later imprisoned as military personnel. Some were murdered in the Bedok Hill Massacre.”
Sadly, the roles other races have played in the war have been overlooked in our country today, according to businessman Andrew Hwang.
“People say that the Chinese can’t fight, that they supported the communists,” says Hwang. “That is rubbish. Thousands and thousands of Chinese perished for Malaya. They fought very, very hard. Unfortunately, no one bothered to acknowledge the sacrifices they have made. Even Mustapha Hussain’s Malay Nationalism Before Umno, which recounted Malaya’s war against the Japanese, was very skewed towards one race.”
Having lost two of his maternal granduncles, Captain Cho Seow Lim and Company Quartermaster Sergeant (CQMS) Tan Kim Tee, to the war, Hwang is also an active member of MVG and has devoted much of his time and money to seeking out the truth.
He first knew about the existence of the group two years ago when he was Googling for information about his granduncles. MVG had, apparently, turned out to be one of the very few reliable sources he could turn to for enlightenment.
Hwang’s interest has made him unparalleled in terms of research-based knowledge. He spends hours poring through old records in the National Archives and is in the midst of writing a book about the fourth battalion “before all the sources die out”.
His mission? To raise as much awareness as he can about what actually went on.
“Both my granduncles belonged to Company B, a unit made up of Chinese soldiers from Malacca,” he says. “They were taken to Singapore — which was considered the last stronghold of Malaya — when the Japanese invaded. In February 1942, they were called up to Cluney Hill to fight against the Japanese Imperial Guards Division.
“Although the British Surrender was announced on Feb 15, 1942, Captain Cho’s unit failed to get the order to surrender because the British captain, who was in charge, failed to pass the message along when he disappeared. They fought on until they ran out of ammunition and their positions were overrun by the Japanese on Feb 16, 1942.
Part of the Japanese ferocity towards captured Chinese soldiers was due to this incident as well as the guerrilla warfare tactics of Dalforce (also known as the Singapore Overseas Chinese Anti-Japanese Volunteer Army) who inflicted great losses on the Japanese through ambushes and sniping in Singapore and Malaya even after the British had surrendered.
Captain Cho was killed by mortar fire. The surviving men were brought to a POW camp in Farrer Park. CQMS Tan tried to escape but he died doing so.”
Cho’s body was never found, states Hwang. He left behind a daughter and wife.
“Until today, his grandson — now a retiree — has no idea what a hero his grandfather was,” he says.
That’s where the war memorials come in. Hwang says there are dozens dotted around the country — obscure villages included — but many sit around unattended, crumbling, forgotten — like relics from a prehistoric age.
There’s one in the middle of a field in Kota Baru, Kelantan, for instance, but hundreds of people brush past it every day without knowing why it’s there.
This complete disregard for history has driven Hwang to traverse the country in search of forgotten war memorials. He has discovered about 30 so far in places like Kuala Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Johor.
“If you happen to visit some Chinese village and stumble upon a strange thing on the road, feel free to ask the villagers what it is,” he says.
“I did that a couple of times and I got responses like: ‘Oh, this one, ah, is to remember the 1,500 Chinese that were killed in one day’.
“The Chinese community had erected these to pay tribute to their glorious dead but their descendants are uninterested. It’s just too bad, since the Japanese and Australian memorials in Malaya are very well tended to by their respective governments.
Finding loved ones
Every morning, a sliver of sunlight filters in from the stained-glass windows of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, KL. On it are the words: “To the glory of God this window has been presented by the ladies of the congregation in memory of those who gave their lives in the world wars. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”
This war memorial, together with the four bronze and brass plaques that hang alongside the pews, makes up one of the loveliest and most evocative remembrance sites in Malaysia. Save for the glass windows, however, the memorials were looted some time in 1942 for their metal.
“At least Singapore has the Kranji War Memorial. At least they have a museum detailing the fight of all races for Malaya,” Hwang says.
“What do we have here? Many memorials in our country have disappeared, thanks to metal thieves. And those that remain (like my granduncle’s memorial outside Stadthuys in Malacca) are being threatened by the public’s blatant ignorance. People hang disrespectfully around the memorial eating ice cream . . . I have to drive them away with a broomstick sometimes.”
He was understandably ticked off. The memorials did, after all, provide some form of consolation to grieving family members. In several cases, it is the only consolation.
This is true with Ivan Ho, a friend of Hwang’s who had lost his father Ho Pan Thong of the Second Battalion to the war. Not only was his father’s death shrouded in mystery, Ho’s mother had destroyed all his father’s belongings for fear of the Japanese. As such, the only remnant of his father’s existence could be found etched onto a brass tablet in the Sultan Abdul Samad court building. Unfortunately, that too has vanished without a trace.
Fell is luckier. Through regular correspondence between her mother and a comrade of her dad’s, Father Gerard Bourke, Fell learnt that Reeve had been transported to a POW camp in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, by train. He was later sent downriver to Chungkai, where he died in 1943 of a variety of causes including amputation, dysentery and other diseases.
“Many years later, my mother saw an ad in her local newspaper offering subsidised pilgrimages for war widows to travel to Thailand with the Royal British Legion to visit their husband’s graves on the River Kwai,” says Fell.
“Our visit to Chungkai Cemetery in 1985 made a profound impression on me, and I wondered whether there were any memorials to the volunteers anywhere. This was the catalyst for my quest to gain recognition for the volunteers, and create some kind of memorial to them.”
There were, of course, many other heroes aside from those who fought in the war. Thousands of women, for instance, were suddenly widowed after the war. These women, like Fell’s mother Kathleen, had to use whatever means they had to single-handedly protect and raise a family.
After her husband’s capture, Kathleen made a vow to keep her daughter safe from harm."We boarded Tanjong Pinang bound for England,” reminisced Fell. “Missiles fell all around us as the Japanese bombed the harbour.“Our ship was hit but an American Destroyer saved us several hours later. I think the incident affected me quite a bit. I used to be afraid of the dark and loud noises when I was young.”
Fortunately, Kathleen lived up to her vow. She and her daughter got safely back to England, where Rosemary was left in the care of her grandparents.“My mother returned to Malaya to pick up the pieces. She worked as a nurse at a clinic in Kuala Kangsar,” Fell says.
“That time, Malaya was recovering from the effects of the Japanese and the country was in shambles. One of her duties was to go to various villages to give out medication to the old and sick. One time, she came across a communist ambush on her way there but they left her alone. The incident had shaken her, but I don’t think she was ever discouraged.”
As Malaya regained strength in the 1950s, Kathleen went to work in the istana for the Raja Perempuan Perak, who was already an elderly lady by then. The two quickly became good friends.
(“I remember having lunch with the queen during my school holidays,” beams Fell.)
Kathleen finally returned to the UK shortly after her retirement.
Captain Cho’s wife, Tan Siok Tee, meanwhile, had to sell her car and jewellery since she did not receive any pension from the government. She suffered from ill health throughout her life, but had managed to bring up their daughter with the help of several kind souls like her younger brother as well as a friend of her husband’s, Captain Ali.
Unlike the volunteers, these people will never have a memorial they can call their own. They will never make it into the history books, and memories of their selflessness and will to live will dim with each passing generation.
As the late actor Christopher Reeve once said, “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”
These people are then — in every sense of the word — heroes, even in the eyes of Superman.