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The Last Word/My Living Hell

by Ian Billingsley

Contributed by 
Ian Billingsley
People in story: 
Ian Billingsley/Anonymous
Location of story: 
Burma, Maymyo British Army Barracks, India
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
04 May 2005

As I began collecting the stories for the original title: WAR MEMORIES', I knew that I would undoubtedly attract a certain amount of heartbreaking stories from these ‘Old Soldiers’ on which I would have to - sooner or later - make a decision as to whether they should or should not be published. I was right. The stories began to arrive and sure enough, some of these young men had suffered appalling injuries, both physical and mental. They had lived through the most horrendous experiences at the hands of their 'fellow men'; experiences so callous, degrading and depraved, you just would not believe.

Then I found myself trying to strike the right balance between curiosity and attention to detail, in order to attract those of us who've never lived through these terrible times; whilst aiming to honour, respect and interest those of you who have. This proved to be such a difficult job that in the end, I just had to step back, take another look and start again. I then realised that there was only one possible way of achieving the result I was searching for: To let the stories do it for me. Then it became easy.

My aim, was to make aware to all, the individual sacrifices so freely given by a generation of youth not too long ago, sacrifices mentioned only in passing, to a curious relative of the ‘bouncing on the knee’ brigade, or openly with an old pal who was only too willing to reminisce. These heartbreaking, wonderful, curious, funny and sensual stories, had only before commanded the minimum of interest when really, they deserved our fullest attention.

“So, what were the women doing whilst the fighting raged?” I asked. Well, I have more than an idea now. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed the stories in this tribute to the ladies; and indeed the children of that time. I’m sure you will have had a couple of giggles and maybe the odd tear too along the way. I personally think it is a wonderfully interesting book, but there again I'm biassed aren’t I.
Now I look forward to beginning the third book, which is due for release early December 1999, (don’t forget to order your advance copy).
I find it highly unlikely, that anybody could possibly compile a series of books like these, without being drawn into the atmosphere of nostalgia that each story quietly generates. Likewise, it became absolutely impossible for me not to feel an emotional attachment to all these ladies, as the correspondence continued and my involvement in their past deepened. However, there is one lady I haven't had any contact with whatsoever. Yet, since reading her article in the Manchester Evening News, (who I would really like to thank) she has never been far from my thoughts, as I’m sure she won’t yours as you read on.
'My Living Hell' is a story that had to be placed where it is: The final story. It fetches home the ‘truths’ of war within a theatre of life that is so often ignored due to undeserved feelings of guilt, hatred and/or shame. I cannot for one instant, ever imagine having to live through such an ordeal, so much so, that I personally, find it far too difficult to find words for, so please excuse me. What I have learned though is; it wasn’t just the brave young men who'd suffered its anger. War has an anger that knows of no boundaries between the sexes nor does it show any respect or compassion for age.
I do not have the author's permission to publish this story, only her wishes as stated in her own words:

”This story must be told, so that others do not forget.”

I’m sure she won’t mind. I have tried to contact her but my letters and enquiries amounted to nothing. I will therefore honour and respect her privacy and wish her and her family a very warm and peaceful future.

Ian Billingsley.


My mother, now a very old and very sick lady of 82, made me promise her at the age of six, that I would never speak of what happened to us at the hands of the Japanese Army. The war was over, my father had not yet been located by the Red Cross, and as we huddled together under a ‘scratchy’ Red Cross blanket, she told me that if we were ever to be able to all live happily as a family again, I must never speak of the terrible things I had seen happen to her. An oath, she said, was to the death and I had sworn an oath. She cannot bear to remember or speak of the war now, and the only way she can cope with it is by pretending it never happened.
Out of respect for her feelings, I have never spoken of those things either, but feel most strongly that they must be told. People, particularly young people, should know what really happened before history is conveniently rewritten to suit today’s one sided apologists.
My father worked for the British Government in Burma. He and my mother loved the country and considered settling there. My grandparents and an uncle were visiting us at that time. My very first memory, is of a bomb hitting our house directly, all of us all being buried in the shelter and then being rescued by Australian soldiers. All the local Europeans, were herded together, crammed into open-topped army lorries and driven for several days through terrifying heat to Mandalay aerodrome, where planes were waiting to take us across to India and then hopefully, home. There was no food, no water and we had nothing except for what we had on at the time of the raid.
As the planes, which were already loaded with people, began to take to the air and people piled into the ones still on the ground, the Japanese bombers arrived. Aircraft exploded in mid-air as well as on the ground. Then they began to strafe those of us still on the ground with machine guns. There was absolute carnage. No one knew how many were killed, no-one knew their identities, there were no graves for them, there were no memorials. I wonder if anyone mourned? How or why we survived I will never know.
My grandparents and uncle, decided to try to reach India overland. That was madness but there was so much madness, fear, and utter despair at that time. Not only was there danger of starvation, disease, insects, snakes, tigers, but there were the marauding bands of Dacoits, who would happily slit a throat for a few meagre possessions. And of course, the Japanese themselves who were hellbent on slaughter. We learned after the war, that the whole band of almost one hundred people, after several deaths from snake bites, starvation and thirst, were killed by Jap’ patrols. No graves, no memorials, no mourners.
Meantime, my family were with the main group of survivors, many of them with gunshot wounds from the attack at the airport. Any thing of any value, was forcibly taken with a great deal of beating and bayonet stabbing. Then we were force marched under armed guard across the country to a place called Myitkyina, for mile upon mile, day after day, in broiling heat.
When we arrived, there was nowhere for us, so we were told to go back to Mandalay. The guards, angry at having to march with us, became even more vicious. Anyone who became ill or too tired to continue, was simply left with well-aimed blows from the butts of rifles, and several kicks for good measure.
My brother who was just one year old, died from malnutrition and dysentery. He was buried under a tree in a small box with no memorial. I was not yet four.
There was nowhere for us we were told again on our arrival, and were sent on to another place - blessedly in the cooler hills - called Maymyo, where we spent the rest of the war in what had once been the British Army barracks.
One particular memory I have, is of everyone being delighted when we came to a river. We were all so hot and thirsty, we rushed to the water’s edge, where we had to shove aside decomposing bodies before we could reach the water. The stench was unforgettable.
My father was put to work on the roads. When he died ten long, suffering years later, a broken sick man who was severely depressed as a result of the ill-treatment he had suffered. The undertaker, a middle aged woman, wept at the sight of the bayonet scars on his body.
My mother and the other healthy young women, were marched several miles every morning in all weathers, to stand waist-deep in a river to wash stinking, blood soaked uniforms and bandages. During the monsoon season, several of them were washed away by the swollen torrent. Some were not saved. There were no graves, or memorials for them either.
I saw many atrocious sights. People were executed and their heads were impaled on bamboo poles. I saw people beaten to death or dying slowly of various tropical illnesses. We were riddled with lice, scabies, ringworm. We suffered from dysentery, malnutrition malaria and typhus fever. I regularly saw my mother and other women raped, then brutally beaten by the rapists. This was what my mother had not wanted me to speak of before my father.
I found the body of my mother’s close friend, hanging from the crossbar in the latrine. She and other pretty, young, and single women and girls from the age of puberty, were sent off to brothels where they had to ‘entertain’ officers. Georgina was returned to the camp because she had become pregnant. She had hanged herself because she couldn’t bear the shame. I watched as she was cut down, carried out and buried. No memorial, no headstone for Georgina either.
The other day, I received a telephone call from one of those groups that do random opinion surveys. The pleasant young lady asked me what my views were on the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“At last.” I thought, “Someone is going to listen. At last, I can tell someone the truth.”
I wept as I told her that I owe my life to the bomb, for it is a documented fact that the Japanese intended to kill us all, to exterminate us, to obliterate us as if we had never existed. There were no lists bearing the names of Japanese prisoners of war, it was only the sudden end brought about by the dropping of the bomb, which prevented this mass genocide. I told her some of what I am telling you.
She listened, then said apologetically,
“I’m sorry, but your view is not the one we are looking for. Maybe we’ll get in touch some other time.”
People don’t know, because they have not been told about the thousands of POW’s suffering disease and starvation as they were packed into boats and shipped to Japan as slave labour. The very sick callously tossed over the side. No service, no memorial, just shark fodder. They don’t know about the appalling conditions under which they were forced to work for companies such as Toyota, Mitsubishi, and Nissan.
They may have heard of the notorious Burma Railway, but have they heard about the unbelievably cruel conditions under which the men were forced to survive? Have they heard about the cages in which they were put as punishment for some ‘petty crime’ to literally cook to death in the hot sun? Do they know that 130.000 died out there and that 15.000 of those were British? Have they heard of the bestial forms of torture to which prisoners were subjected. The kind that would take a very sick mind to devise and an equally sick one to carry out? Believe me, the Japanese carried them out with the greatest relish.
In these enlightened days when counselling is available if you so much as stub your toe, can people appreciate the fifty years of tortured, corrosive memories, of racking nightmares, of black depression, of festering hatred, of ‘desolating’ loneliness because there is no-one who understands and can share your pain?
Apart from the family, no one knows of my past, for I cannot bear to speak of it. It is shut firmly in the past, except in my heart and my head. Then suddenly, with the advent of V.J.-Day plus 50, it was unlocked like Pandora’s Box, and the agony of the escaping demons is almost to much to bear.
My mother, at 82, still wakes at night weeping with her nightmares. Last week, she said very sadly:
“Somewhere out there my baby is buried. I would like just once, to find the spot and lay some flowers there for him and tell him that I have never forgotten him.”
I will never forget either. How could I? Why should I for God’s sake. Compared with other survivors, I am still young. For their sakes, I must not allow these things to be forgotten. Most of them have passed on. While I remain I must ensure that the truth is told.

I’d like my story to be told as a memorial to those who didn’t have one. To my grandparents, my brother, my uncle, to Georgina. To all those others, whose deaths were unrecorded, whose graves were unmarked, and as a thank you to those who fought and gave their lives for my freedom.

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