- Contributed by
- London Borough of Newham Public
- People in story:
- Elinor Foxwell
- Location of story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 31 January 2006
I was born in Burma and was 16 in 1939. We heard about the war through adults and the wireless in the last year at school.
In 1940, I left school and went to university. On 8th I went to college and received a message that Pearl Harbour had been bombed and we were involved in the war. There was no education during war years. It left a big gap in people’s lives.
My father became an ARP warden and my mother joined the Red Cross. We had to put blackouts on the windows. One evening, we were alone in the house in the dark. When we opened the fridge for water, the fridge light showed light showed. We shouted to the soldiers that we were only drinking water.
On 23rd December 1941, at about 10 0’clock in the morning our music master came to our house to take our music lessons, but the air raid sirens sounded and soon we could see bombs falling. (Our home was in the suburbs of Rangoon city) Then we could see parachutes falling in the sky with Japanese soldiers who were shooting at the people below. Our Music master asked us to play the “Ave Maria” on our violins and piano, and then our Mother got us to pray the Rosary together which calmed us down. This was a terrible bombing because it was at the time of the Christmas shopping and so there were lots of civilian casualties. We knew war had come to our doors.
On Christmas Eve, we went to midnight mass and then early on Christmas morning mother took me with her by car to visit Granny who lived just outside Rangoon. The roads were packed with families pushing prams and carrying luggage on their heads. They were frightened and escaping from the city.
After the two severe bomb raids on the town, some of our relatives and friends left their homes and came to stay with us. Their children and little ones would scream with fright whenever the sirens sounded and the bombing began. At these times Mother would get us to pray after which we’d sing and have a concert.
On 19th Feb - Ash Wednesday, we went to mass at the parish church in the morning. Then that same day my Father said we had to leave Rangoon and put my mother and the five of us children on the train leaving Rangoon for Maymyo in the hills. He had to stay behind to carry on working. We left our dog Bingo with Daddy. Along the journey more and more people crowded on to the train with people even on the roof. Each time the train stopped at a Railway Station, very kind Burmese women came loaded with food and drink which they freely gave to the passengers.
Just before reaching Mandalay the train had to stop for many hours because the Japanese were bombing the city. We could see the fires over Mandalay. We arrived in Maymyo in time for the supper which had been prepared as lunch for our family at the home of our Uncle, Dad’s Brother who lived in Maymyo and there we stayed for some months. Later we learnt that our dog Bingo had run to church each morning looking for us.
We gathered around the radio each evening eagerly listening to the news, praying for those behind “enemy lines” Then, one evening, in came a car with Daddy at the wheel and Bingo by his side. You can imagine the great tail-wagging and the tight hugs! My father had had a Buddhist monk accompanying him in his car as he drove through the Burmese jungles between lower and upper Burma slipping through occupied territory to reach safety..
In April 27th 1942, Dad came to say we had to evacuate and leave Maymyo. There were long lines of civilians, mothers with babies most of whom did not reach the haven of India in the end but landed into internment camps. Dad was in charge of the two combined railway trains leaving Maymyo with mostly railway staff as passengers. Wagons were loaded with food: rice, sugar, ovaltine, condensed milk. It took a whole week to reach Myitkyina, in northern Burma for we stopped to fill the railway engines with water each time we came across a pool of water., while each evening the train called a halt and passengers left the carriages to collect brushwood to cook food. Mother used to get us together to have a singsong while Bingo would curl up close to us. We hadn’t baths for days so when we came across a lake, we got off the train to go for a swim, but the engine whistle sounded started blowing and we had to run all the way back — we children had held up the whole train!
It was 4th May 1942 when we arrived in Myitkyina. Dad was in charge of paying all the railway staff 3 months salary. In the meantime, Mother looked for place for us to stay. She visited nearby villages — but as we were not used to living in huts we found took possession of an abandoned house. Mother asked me to clean the rooms, as I was the eldest, but I found I was just moving dust from one corner to another! Mother and some gentlemen loaded a bullock cart with cases of condensed milk and other stores of food which I helped to stock up in a store room. Mother was stocking up for the war. The bullock carts stopped working at night. Two or three families joined us in our new home.
Early in the morning of the 4th May, Japanese soldiers were marching around the town Mother didn’t want us to appear attractive to the Japanese soldiers so she discouraged vanity by taking away all our mirrors. Mother made us stay upstairs. We had servants and mum told them to make plenty of coffee. The Japanese came to our house and drank coffee. We heard them but didn’t see them. My brothers brought food to us and we girls sat on bed to eat it. I heard footsteps coming upstairs. I grabbed a book and pretended to read. Suddenly I realised the book was upside down. I was praying as well. The soldier went downstairs quietly.
The Japanese used to come in and take what they wanted. There were clothes belonging to friends but Japanese took them. Mother was very religious. We had a statue of Our Lady with us. It was placed on the mantle-piece with candles. Rough men from the front line came in but never harmed us. One of the Japanese soldiers even left some candle by the statue. (Another kindness was when we had to go back to Rangoon, my brother caught malaria and we had no medicine a Japanese soldier came to our door and said I’m a doctor, and gave tablets to my mother.) We had a well in the garden and the Japanese soldiers came there to take a bath walking about in their birthday suits. Mum sent the servants to tell them that there were women and children present and that they could not do that. So they gave my mother rolls of clothe and a sewing machine to sew them some aprons.
Later whilst still in Myitkyina a Japanese soldier said that the army wanted our house but mother said ‘if that if the Japanese army wants this house, they can give me another house!’ They gave us two houses side by side and also brought a lorry and moved our belongings. In the new house, we were under house arrest. The Japanese came every day to check we were all there. One day they said we could go to the railway yard to collect our belongings left there. We were all marched to the railway yard under escort, but looters had been there before us. Dad picked up soiled clothes which we had to wash and wear till the end of the war.
Italian and Irish priests had been interned when the war first started. The Japanese freed an Italian priest so we had mass in the little chapel in Myitkyina. I learned a few words of Japanese including the Japanese for God. English with us. The Japanese thought God was with us.
Then came the time when the British were fighting to liberate us. The British bombs sounded different. Once we heard British bombs dropping too close for us to have time to get to the trench so we got under the table while Dad lay in the corridor. There was always a Japanese soldier in our house and when he heard the bombs so close, he threw himself on top of my young brother to protect him. That shows there is humanity in everyone. After the bombs, we were all shaking. All the window panes had fallen out. There had been six bombs at the front of the house and six at the back but we all survived. All the medicine bottles in my mother’s bedroom had fallen off the ledges and onto the bed but one bottle of phenol fell on the floor and broke.. The Japanese had casualties and cremated the soldiers in a trench. People said there was a horrible smell but all we could smell was the phenol.
At the end July the Japanese were asking where people came from. We came from Rangoon so we were sent back there. We were given a proper carriage out of respect for Dad. Others were all crushed together in cattle wagons without shelter Nearing Mandalay a big bridge had been blown up so we had to go by raft across a huge river.
On the other side we had to clamber up a hill. There were 3rd class carriages lined up which we went into and although the seats were hard wooden ones there was the privacy of a bathroom. Father put a cane chair on the seats for Mum leaving space under the legs of the chair for the youngest to lie down. I remember feeling so embarrassed that when the woman near me went to the toilet I took her place to curl up and went fast asleep. She very kindly let me sleep on to awaken in confusion and full of apology.
We finally arrived in Rangoon on 2nd August 1942. We walked from the Railway Station to St Mary’s Cathedral not too far away. The priest in charge felt sorry for us and gave us a meal with the clergy in their refectory.
My Father walked through the city to our house near the Royal Lakes in the outskirts. A Burmese family was in occupation and he was turned away. Fortunately, there were many empty houses whose owners had left for India and among these was the house of a friend of the family. So we went in and stayed there for may months.
As Dad hadn’t taken the 3 months salary allocated for himself we needed an income. One day, a Japanese soldier who said he was a Methodist minister came to tell us that he knew a Captain who was a Christian and that this Captain would take care of us. He warned us not to start a shop as we would be suspected as spies. Then another civilian Christian Japanese sent us by the Methodist Minister said ‘I own a flour mill. If you can make paper bags to fill the flour, I will pay you’. So mother organised village girls to work at making bags. During this time we walked church for mass every morning.
So we come to near the end of 1943. and once again the Japanese army wanted to requistion houses and came to ask us to vacate. By now Rangoon was filled with more people and houses hard to come by. However when a friend of my sister working in the housing department heard our house was to be requisitioned, she
Approached her bosses and said “You can’t do that to my auntie’. To make a long story short ,she brought a Japanese Officer to take my Father along to our own house where he ordered the Burmese man who was occupying our own house, to get out immediately. My father intervened saying the man had a wife and family. So they were given a week to leave. We got our own house back on New Year’s Day 1944
When we returned to our own house, we discovered muslim refugees had set up a village of temporary huts in the neighbouring gardens. They were very kind to us and gave us food. My mother used to sew dresses for them while I taught the Muslim ladies English. I started a little kindergarten after that as a Burmese lady who knew me before, asked me to teach her son and soon little children started coming to our house. At Christmas 1944 we decided to have a Christmas party for the neighbouring children and made rags dolls to hang on the Christmas Tree while their parents provided the sweet treats. (When the war ended and St Francis School re-opened my little pupils went there. I also taught there for a short while before I became a nun).
1945 April 27th I was next to Dad in St. Francis Convent Chapel when we heard a big explosion Something told us this was the beginning of the Japanese retreat which it was. Soon looters broke into the Japanese camps to get food. We didn’t dare do that but I stood at our gate and begged passers-by for the odd tin for us to get by.
When the Japanese retreated, they left the Indian National Army in charge. However, an elderly gentleman Patriarch of the Muslims whom everyone called ‘Grandfather; came to our house with a big Union Jack. When the INA arrived, he quickly put the Union Jack on a chair and sat on it till the army had left. Then when the British planes came swooping down low overhead, he unfurled it waving it with great gusto.
A nice point I remember was that because it was very hot the British soldiers were not wearing their shirts but when they arrived near our garden they put their shirts back on…
At end of war Dad reinstated as a Railway Official. I worked as a secretary in the RAF Chaplaincy for a few months.
The wartime experiences re-awakened and built up my original desire to offer my life to serve The Lord as a religious nun. So it is that today I am a Franciscan Missionary of Mary.
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