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15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

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Contributed by 
John de Mansfield AbsolonResearcher 238443
People in story: 
John Absolon
Location of story: 
Ramree Island, Burma
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A2381483
Contributed on: 
03 March 2004

Ramree Island was captured by a sea-born attack in January 1945. There was a natural harbour suitable for unloading ships and an airstrip on the coast. Of the 4,000 Japanese on the island it is said that only three managed to escape to the mainland.

The engineers rapidly converted the airstrip into two 2,000yd all-weather runways with perimeter taxi ways and loading bays. Dakota transport aircraft were flying supplies, in effect, back to the forward areas. With the constant landing and taking off of supply aircraft and fighter bombers it was probably the busiest airfield in Burma. A look at a map of Burma will show the unique advantage of the airfield.

The 11th Indian LAA

Although the airfield at Kyaukpyu was operating at full stretch, it was considered that there was little or no possibility of low-level attack by Japanese fighter-bombers. My battery of the 11th Indian LAA was therefore withdrawn and concentrated in one position, training in preparation for a new role, which was said to be MRLS (Multi-Rocket Launching Systems) and code-named 'Land Mattress'.

MRLS was an adaptation of the Z gun used against aircraft. This system was mobile and was designed as a 'ground-to-ground' barrage system. At this stage it was considered that the war against Japan would continue for at least another year, so this was our current situation.

The unit started training and sifting out unsuitable personnel. This was not too difficult until we came to one Sepoy, a Telagu, very strong and willing but seemingly incapable of working on the guns, although he would help when needed without being asked and generally made himself useful, so he stayed with us. His major job was looking after our flock of ducks, which he was very good at. He was also quite happy to do menial tasks like digging holes and so he was handy to have with us.

Rugger match

As the unit was non-operational we played a lot of sport, the Indians mainly enjoyed soccer and hockey, which they always played in bare feet. This put the British forces at a very great disadvantage as they were restricted to playing in gym shoes, and, of course, the Sepoys could run rings round them.

Somebody decided that there were probably enough Europeans, if we included the Navy and the Air Force to get up two teams for a rugger match. This was received enthusiastically by all three services. The Air Force then threw out a challenge to the Navy and Army.

Great preparations were made and training sessions were held for the less experienced enthusiasts. Tremendous interest developed among the Indians, especially to see what the mad Sahibs did in England. There was always a good turnout of spectators at training sessions, and much speculation on scrums, tackling and lineouts. There was great enthusiasm amongst the Sepoys about the game.

A rough game

Well the great day dawned - at least it wasn't raining although 90 degrees in the shade was a bit warm. My team had decided that, as I had played before and could kick, I should be allocated the position of 'back', even though my favourite position was wing forward. Unfortunately, the opposing forwards were mainly soccer players, so I came in for a fairly rough old game.

Eight large forwards carrying the ball at their feet did not make a very exciting prospect. Fortunately, nobody had boots. I forget who won but I think I lost.

Recovery

Having dragged myself off the pitch and managed to down a cool beer or two, I then headed for my tent. Soaking my remains in a hot bath might do some good, I thought. My bearer started to prepare a bath and he was assisted by the 'Duck Boy'. Now this is where things get interesting: I was lying on my bed when over came the Duck Boy; he looked at me and asked permission to touch me. He started probing my legs and saying it hurts there and there, picking out all the bruised points. He offered to fix my legs and bruises - well it couldn't be any worse so I said okay.

He took off and came back a few minutes later with a bottle of oil and started work. Now this is the most amazing thing, although he had always been thought a little simple he really seemed to know what he was doing. After about 20 minutes or so he had eased the pain.

The finest masseur

At that point a doctor from the nearby hospital came in to see if I needed any patching up. He stood for a while watching my legs being massaged with more and more surprise on his face. He then said to me, "Where did you get him from?" To which I replied, "Well, he is sort of an odd-job man who usually looks after the ducks." Much to my surprise, the doctor said, "He is the finest masseur I have ever seen. Could I borrow him for the hospital as I could find plenty of work for him?"

The doctor continued to watch for a while, then said to me, "Have you been hiding him?" I replied that I hadn't known his capabilities as he had only just offered help, and that he had never to my knowledge done anything like that before. He certainly seemed to have done a good job on my bruises.

Here was a Sepoy who seemed fairly useless at anything but menial tasks. Yet he obviously had some skills of which nobody was aware. After a lot of questioning he said that he didn't like to say anything because he did things differently to the Doctor Sahib and might get into trouble. No, he didn’t do anything for the other Sepoys as they didn’t come from his area.

In the family

His family lived in a small coastal village in southern India and for many many years had been the healers for surrounding district. After a lot of questioning it appeared that his family - both male and female - were taught from an early age by their parents all sorts of medical and surgical skills. He didn’t go for any training - everything he knew was passed down through the family. Apparently they did practically everything, including setting broken limbs, dealing with all sorts of cuts and damage, and prescribing drugs, which they had been taught to make up. In fact, they were sort of general practitioners and surgeons for the area around their village.

When I asked him why he had not said anything about this he replied that as he was serving the Raj he did things the way they wanted. It then began to fall into place - as a healer there must have been some involuntary reaction against weapons. When I questioned him about this he didn’t really realise what had happened.

No compulsion

Why was he in the army? He told me that as he had finished most of his training and could be spared without too much disruption to the family and obviously at the right age he was chosen to serve the Raj. There was no compulsion for him to join the army except from within the family.

This Sepoy was obviously intelligent and far from simple. He continued to work in the hospital whenever he was needed. In the opinion of the staff (at the hospital) he really was the finest masseur they had ever seen. They thought that if he came to London he could earn a fortune. But nothing like that held any attraction for him; he was quite happy to help out and did so until such time as we returned to southern India after the war.

As far as I know he returned to his village to carry on the family work. Why then did so many of these people voluntarily come forward to serve the Raj? I sometimes wonder whether in some small village in southern India they tell the tale of some ancestor who worked for the Raj and they (the Raj) were amazed at his skills.

John Absolon

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - the duck boy

Posted on: 14 April 2005 by godavids

i need a picture of the duck boy, and a picture of Burma. the real name of the duck boy,
and not the last name if you want.

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