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Britain’s forgotten World War Two army are glad to be finally remembered on VJ Day

BRITAIN’S Forgotten Army – the troops who carried on fighting in the Far East after World War Two ended in Europe – will be remembered on Saturday, led by Prince Charles, Camilla and PM Boris Johnson.

The horrific brutality of Japan’s Imperial forces who killed 71,000 Allied troops in the campaign still haunts survivors who will commemorate the 75th anniversary of VJ Day — Victory over Japan Day — at a ceremony at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

Among the dead were an astonishing 12,000 British and Commonwealth servicemen who died in horrendous conditions in prisoner of war camps, many of them in Burma. 

The war ended on August 15, 1945, when Japan announced they intended to surrender a week after the Allies dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet it would be two more terrifying weeks before Japan’s rulers signed the surrender document in Tokyo harbour.

Prince Philip — who was there aboard HMS Whelp — will feature in a montage to be shown at Saturday’s ceremony at the Arboretum and on screens in London’s Piccadilly Circus, the capital’s mainline stations, plus Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh Waverley and Glasgow Central.

Here, with the help of the Royal British Legion, we tell the stories of some of the heroes of the forgotten conflict, who remember VJ Day and their comrades who did not come home.

Starving PoW Fred Baumeister was facing death after two years in a Japanese hell camp when suddenly a parcel of food, toothpaste and a newspaper fell out of the sky, dropped by a British plane flying low over the camp south of Tokyo.

Inside the life-saving package, Dutchman Fred found a scribbled list of the names of sailors aboard British aircraft carrier HMS Indefatigable, who had put the parcel together.

One of them was 18-year-old Petty Officer Les Wills, who gave up his job as a farm labourer in Dorset and signed up to fight aged just 16.

Within a year he was in the thick of the action, being divebombed by Japanese kamikaze pilots prepared to commit suicide by crashing into Allied warships off Sumatra.

Les, now 93, from Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, remembers: “We were under constant attack. We’d see the kamikaze pilots on the radar from around 30 miles out. 

“They were such determined young men. From birth they’d been taught that dying in battle for the Emperor was the ultimate accolade. They were formidable, and destroying an aircraft carrier was their ultimate prize, so we had to keep our wits about us.”

HMS Indefatigable ended up 100 miles off Okinawa to assist the American Pacific fleet with the assault on the islands where 60,000 servicemen were killed.

Les and his crewmates were near Tokyo when the Japanese surrendered. 

He says: “After the surrender had been declared there were days when our fighting missions now became mercy missions.

“Our pilots started searching the landscape for unregistered refugee camps. We found one and the men in it were in dire straits.

“An order came through from our captain to package up whatever we could which our planes would drop as aid.

“We didn’t have much as we’d been a full crew at sea for 47 days and were on rations ourselves, but we packaged what we had. A list of our names was put into the package and off it went.”

After the peace treaty was signed on September 2, Les’s ship was sent to Australia, where he switched to HMS Victorious and returned to Portsmouth in August 1946.

He thought no more about the parcel that had been dropped into the PoW camp in 1945. But 65 years later, long after he had retired as Assistant Chief Fire Officer for Birmingham, dad-of-one Les was contacted from Holland by Irene Kusnadi Baumeister — PoW Fred’s daughter.

She is adamant that she wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the kindness of Les and his shipmates. 

Irene says: “Dad had been a PoW for two years by the time the Japanese surrendered. He was captured in the fall of Singapore, was forced to work on the death railway and had been moved through several camps. He had leg ulcers and was very sick.

“When he passed away I found a note with the names of Les and his crewmates in his old papers.

“I couldn’t believe it when I found out the pilots who dropped the package and the shipmates who had made it were still alive. Being able to meet them and say thank you in person was incredible.” 

Les, who has become friends with Irene, says: “It didn’t cross our minds how much hope half a tube of toothpaste might give someone.”

Veteran Alan McQuillan served with the RAF on D-Day in Normandy before being sent to fight the Japanese in the Pacific.

On his garage in Cirencester, Gloucs, he has a home-made memorial to fallen comrades of the Far East and every day he looks at it and remembers the faces of those who didn’t come back.

Alan, 97, says: “Because we served so far away, most people forgot we existed. I’m glad we are being remembered now, 75 years later.”

In August 1945 he was in India when told he was going to Japan following the surrender.

Retired farmer Alan recalls: “On VJ Day we all got extra beer in our rations and celebrated with chicken and chips at a restaurant in Calcutta.

“We washed the lot down with Indian gin, which was lovely, and Indian whisky, which wasn’t so nice.”

He adds: “If the Japanese hadn’t surrendered, the loss of life would have been catastrophic.

“The battle of Okinawa claimed around 60,000 Allied lives — taking the mainland of Japan would have resulted in so much loss.

“I usually visit my local memorial on VJ Day. I won’t this year but I’ll look at the memorial on my garage and remember the men I served with out there who didn’t come home.”

Constance Thomas Halford was just 17 when she ran a mobile shop and canteen that travelled with the troops as they advanced through Burma.

She was living with her parents in India and joined the Women’s Auxiliary Service.

On Saturday Constance, now 97, will remember her best friend and workmate Barbara Wace, who had defied her parents to join up.

Barbara died when her Jeep ran over a bomb and her family, who had cut her off as punishment for joining up, did not go to her funeral.

Constance, from Putney, South West London, says: “We were inseparable. I was running a canteen in Rangoon when the Japanese had surrendered.

“We were told to look after the prisoners of war who were on their way until the plane that would take them back to England arrived.

“Barbara and I were told to choose two prisoners to look after and I had no idea at the time, but Peter, my husband-to-be, was just behind the men we chose to look after. The end of the war and Barbara’s death signalled the end of my service. 

“I was soon home and met my husband in London. We were married three months later and had 47 wonderful years together before he passed away in 1997. 

“As a PoW, Peter had worked on the death railway, between Thailand and Burma, which claimed more than 100,000 lives and inspired the film The Bridge On The River Kwai. 

“He always said that as a PoW you learned to find a use for everything and he threw nothing away. 

“He was a squirrel when we were married, always keeping everything in case it had a use, something he did while he was being held captive.” 

Paratrooper Fred Duffield was an 18-year-old medic in Germany on VE Day. But for him, the war was not yet over — and he was sent to Japan. 

Fred, now 94, from Leek, Staffs, says: “I was very nervous. I’d made it through Europe but had no idea if I’d survive a second front in Japan. We were instructed to raid the coast to make sure no Japanese fighters remained in pockets. 

“I’d been a medic in Germany and Europe but what we saw in the Far East was so different — there was malaria, scabies and skin diseases.

“I treated one lady who had itched her scabies so bad, all her skin had turned septic. And one family brought their baby in to see us who had lost his fingers to either a skin condition or they’d been chewed off by a rat.

“We arrived in Malaya shortly after the atomic bombs had been dropped and VJ Day was announced.

“We all heard Mountbatten had come to receive the official surrender of the Japanese.

“The end of the campaign out there was a huge relief, and naively I’d hoped the war would end there. But we had a lot more work to do. 

“I remember coming ashore in Port Swettenham. We waded through the water and, being a medic, I knew I needed to get my boots off and dry my feet to avoid nasty infections. 

“We’d been issued with long trousers and long-sleeved shirts to avoid mosquitos. But when I took my boots off, a jellyfish dropped from my trouser leg. My mate next to me got the shock of his life — he thought it was my testicle.

“We’d gone to the Far East as paratroopers to fight, but a lot of our work there was peacekeeping between the Dutch and the Indonesians.

“I was finally demobbed in 1947 after seeing service in Singapore and Palestine, two years after I’d seen VE Day and VJ Day. 

“I always felt the VJ Day veterans were treated differently. The war in Europe was on our doorstep, the one in Japan was so far away. The war in Europe affected our land, our homes — the air raids, the bombings — while the war in Japan only affected those who had loved ones there — brothers, husbands, fiancés, sons.

“When I left Europe for Burma I didn’t think I stood much chance of coming back, if I’m being honest. 

“I’m one of the lucky ones to have survived both campaigns and I’ll spend Saturday thinking about the men in Malaysia and Europe who didn’t survive to see peace.”

RAF technician Brian Foster was on the way to Malaya as part of an invasion fleet when he heard the explosion at Hiroshima.

Brian, now 94, from Swindon, says: “I had no idea what it was but then after Nagasaki it was obvious there was a new weapon at play that could change everything.

“For decades people didn’t know what VJ Day was. It wasn’t a celebration like VE Day was but over the years the recognition for what men and women did out there has grown.

“People used to shrug and think it had nothing to do with the war in Europe, but now people realise.

“Serving in that region was unlike anything else, so it means a lot that VJ Day has become recognised more with the passing of time.” 

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