Heroes Return Blog – Stories from Second World War veterans’ trips


BIG salute for VJ Day anniversary by Big Lottery Fund

Jack Hough crept stealthily through the dense foliage of the Indo-Burma jungle knowing that every step took him closer to a lethal enemy hiding in the trees. Suffocating in the stifling heat and pitifully inexperienced in the deathly art of jungle warfare, Jack heard the Japanese catcalls of ‘come on Johnny!’ followed by a rain of bullets tearing through the undergrowth cutting down those around him.

Jack Hough joined the West Yorkshire Regiment in 1943 - credit Tom Martin

Jack Hough joined the West Yorkshire Regiment in 1943 – credit Tom Martin

A Lance Corporal, Jack was just 20 years old and a long way from home in the 14th British Army, ‘The Forgotten Army’.

As we approach the historic anniversary of VJ day (15th August 2012) 67 years after the Japanese surrender that finally brought an end to the Second World War, Leeds veteran Jack Hough is just one of over 51,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers to date awarded more than £25 million under the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme to make important commemorative trips across the world.

Now aged 87, he plans to travel to Burma, where he will visit Taukkyan War Cemetery in Rangoon to pay his final respects at the grave of his old friend Willis Wray.

Jack left school and joined up with the West Yorkshire Regiment in 1943. He underwent infantry training in Durham and Norfolk before being posted to Liverpool where he embarked upon the long voyage to Bombay aboard the converted troop ship SS Orontes.

He recalls, “Going through the North Atlantic was a bit rough. I remember making the terrible mistake of eating kippers. Though once we got into the Mediterranean it was much more peaceful. We went from Gibraltar into the Suez Canal. The ship was so large that there was barely room on either side of the canal. You could even see the draught from the propellers along the banks.”

Arriving in Bombay the troops then endured the 150 mile week-long train journey to Deolali transit camp, nicknamed ‘Doolally’: notorious for its unpleasant environment and its psychological effect, known as the ‘Doolally tap’, suffered by the soldiers who passed through it.                                                                                                  

He remembers: “On the journey the only water we had to drink was from the train engine.  When we arrived at the camp the heat was so oppressive, we’d never felt anything like it. It was an awful place.”

As the Japanese were preparing to advance into India, the West Yorkshires were once again on the move. Journeying through raging monsoons and bedding down in damp Bivouacs they crossed country to Dimapur then on to set up key defences in the jungle terrain of the Assam Border as part of the combined forces of the 14th British Army under the renowned Commander, General Slim.

Jack recalls: “The Japanese were very well trained for jungle fighting, but we really didn’t have any experience.  It was dreadful, knowing that the enemy were somewhere in the trees. You never knew when or where they would come from, they were perfect at hiding. They would call out to you. Then suddenly the ping of bullets would come whizzing past and you had to get out of it quick.”

Jack Hough will pay his final respects to his old friend Willis Wray - credit Tom Martin

Jack Hough will pay his final respects to his old friend Willis Wray -credit Tom Martin

Surviving the horrors of jungle warfare, Jack’s regiment joined with colonial forces as part of the Battles of Imphal and Kohima, a major allied offensive which would repel the Japanese advance on Delhi and prove a decisive turning point in the Far East war.

Jack remembers: “We were sent to reinforce a major road block on the Imphal Road. The Japanese had been battling around Garrison Hill at Kohima and were now coming down the road towards us. My friend Willis Wray was shot dead. He was right next to me, and I got hit at the same time. I found out later that the same bullet that killed him went into me. I was very lucky.”

Out of action for three months Jack learned that his mother had been sent a war telegram. He recalls: “It just said that her son was injured in action and more information would follow. But she heard nothing else as it took ages for any communications to get through. Though I finally managed to get a message to her as I knew she would be very worried.”

However, by the time Jack had recovered and rejoined his comrades in Meiktila, the allies had recaptured Rangoon, and reoccupied most of Burma as the Japanese army was forced to retreat having suffered 85,000 casualties, due to fierce allied resistance, sickness and disease after their supplies lines were cut off.

The troop moved to Penang and it was there that Jack learnt about the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the ensuing Japanese surrender. He recalls: “At the time we all said three cheers that the war was finally over and our duty had been completed. If those bombs hadn’t been dropped we would never have seen the end of war.

Finally arriving in Singapore Jack celebrated his 21st birthday with a homemade cake and ham sandwich which his mother had posted to him in a tin, and which he duly shared out amongst his pals. But while in Singapore Jack was stunned when he saw groups of allied PoW’s from the local Changi Jail, he said: “They were like skeletons. I didn’t get a chance to speak to them. I could see that they were not interested in talking, they just wanted to get home.”

For more information about the Heroes Return programme, visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn or call the advice line on 0845 0000 121



WWII fighter pilot returns to Japan in tribute to best friend by Big Lottery Fund

Flight commander Keith Quilter hurtled along in his fighter bomber towards the Japanese aerodrome. Flying right beside him was his best friend Walter Stradwick and two other fighters.

At just 50 feet from the ground they closed in on Japanese aircraft. As they prepared to let loose a burst of gunfire, Keith saw Walter’s fighter at his side suddenly plunge into the ground and explode into a ball of flames.

Keith was aged 23 at the time. Today (Tuesday, 6 March) is his 90th birthday and he is also celebrating being awarded funding to make an emotional visit to Japan to visit the grave of his best friend and cabin mate from aircraft carrier HMS Formidable, killed on 18 July 1945 aged 22.

Keith, from Tenterden, Kent, recently learnt he will receive £3,700 from BIG’s Heroes Return programme to make a commemorative visit in May 2012. His is the 50th successful application for funding for a veteran to visit Japan.

Keith served as a pilot in the navy from 1942 to 1946 and rejoined in 1947, leaving in 1952. During the war he flew many death-defying missions in his F4U Corsair fighter bomber, at first in attacks on the German battleship Tirpitz, the sister ship of the Bismarck, in Norway in August 1944. 

Keith pictured during his wartime service

Keith pictured during his wartime service

HMS Formidable then joined the British Pacific Fleet. They attacked Japanese aerodromes in islands between Okinawa and Taiwan to prevent Kamikaze suicide missions against Allied ships and to prepare for a possible ground invasion of the Japanese mainland.

Keith said: “I want to go and pay my respects to my cabin mate Walter Stradwick. I found out where his grave is and I’m going to leave a wreath there. I’m also hoping to somehow trace his family. I’m going to take a photograph of his grave and would like them to be able to see it.

“He went into the ground and I saw a horrible great mass of flames alongside me. Then my wing man said his oil pressure was dropping and so the fourth pilot had to escort him back to the carrier. This meant I was on my own so I joined the tail end of my CO’s group to attack a different aerodrome.

“I got hit as I went into a 45 degree dive to strafe the aerodrome. I heard this huge bang. A 20mm shell hit the side. When I eventually got back to the carrier all the chaps on deck were pointing up at my aircraft. When I got out I saw a hole in the fuselage so big you could put your head inside.

“That mission was the one that caused me the most personal loss. When your close friend and cabin mate is shot down and you get back to the ship and walk back into an empty cabin room, that is….quite something.”

Keith survived two Kamikaze attacks on HMS Formidable. The first strike killed several men on the flight deck who didn’t hear the alarm because of the sound of the engines of aircraft taxiing towards one end. As a result of that attack, it was decided that someone would also wave a red flag to warn pilots of a Kamikaze approaching. This new procedure saved Keith’s life.

Keith said: “I was strapped into my aircraft with the engine running. Suddenly I saw someone frantically waving a red flag in front of me. I switched the engine off, unstrapped myself as quick as I could and me and three other pilots leapt out of our fighters and jumped down two of three decks before it hit the ship. The ship lurched as the kamikaze hit us. My aircraft was completely destroyed.”

Less than a week after Walter died, Keith was shot down attacking a Japanese destroyer inside a harbour at Owaze.

Keith recalled: “Twelve of us were flying towards a target on the mainland when we spotted a destroyer. I was told to attack it so me and three others peeled away from the main group. Because it was on the inside of the harbour wall we had to approach from the land which had high hills. We attacked by coming in really low over the water and released the bombs just before we passed over the ship so that they hit its side.

Keith is returning to Japan to visit the grave of his best friend and cabin mate Walter Stradwick (credit PA)

Keith is returning to Japan to visit the grave of his best friend and cabin mate Walter Stradwick

“One of our chaps got hit and had to ditch in the water. I wanted to come around again to see if he was okay in his dingy and saw a side creek with hills that would have hidden me from view of the town as I came around for a look. But there was a gun position there and I got hit. My engine suddenly stopped so I had no choice but to ditch.

“I had to open the hood quickly before the plane sank, got into my dingy and paddled away to the open sea. The other pilot was doing the same while Japanese were taking pot shots at him from the shore.

“Then I saw this sinister looking black submarine sail towards us. At first I feared it was a Japanese submarine but men got out and I recognised the US Navy uniform. They were on standby to save Allied pilots like myself. I couldn’t believe a US sub would come in that close.

“I was aboard for three weeks, by which time the atom bombs had been dropped. As we sailed into Saipan we heard on the radio that Japan had surrendered and the war was over.”

As well as visiting Walter’s grave at Yokohama War Cemetery, Keith also wanted to visit the memorial dedicated to Robert Hampton Gray, a Corsair fighter pilot also on board HMS Formidable. “Hammy” Gray was one of the last Canadians to die in the war and was awarded a Victoria Cross for an attack on a destroyer in Onagawa Bay. Despite coming under heavy fire and his plane ablaze, he remained on course to bomb and sink the ship before crashing into the water. The memorial is the only one dedicated to a foreign soldier on Japanese soil.

Keith said: “We were all such young and cocky fighter pilots. But by the time VJ day came I think half the squadron had been lost. Walter was a lovely guy and Hammy was also full of fun in the mess.”

The Heroes Return 2 programme is still open for applications. For more information, please visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn or call the advice line on 0845 0000 121



Return to Okinawa by Les Wills by Big Lottery Fund
February 18, 2010, 4:49 pm
Filed under: Japan, Navy | Tags: ,

“In January 2010, aided by a grant from Heroes Return 2 my daughter Elaine (who acted as my carer) & I visited Okinawa for the main purpose of seeing the Peace Memorial Park in the Mabuni area of Itoman City which is situated in the south of the island & near where the final battle of Okinawa took place. The park enjoys a spectacular view of the rugged & beautiful coastline on it’s south-east border.

The former Ryukyu Government initiated the creation of the park on the site & following Okinawa’s reversion to Japan in 1972 full scale construction of a public park was started. The park covers some 120 acres & has many facets of the war on Okinawa e.g….a computerised information centre, National War Dead Mausoleum, Prayer Area, Peace Memorial Museum, Peace Prayer Memorial Hall, Peace Ceremony Zone, Flame of Peace, Memorial path & The Cornerstone of Peace, unveiled in 1995, the names of over 240,000 war dead regardless of nationality or military/civilian affiliation are inscribed there-on.

As the main part of the Cornerstone of Peace, the monument walls spread out in concentric arcs from the Flame of Peace at the centre of the Peace Plaza. The 117 monument walls are shaped like folding screens, 69 walls have five folds, 48 have three folds for a total of 1212 faces with space for 250,000 names.

The names are grouped under either Japan or Foreign Countries. Our monument wall is in Row D (in the same row as 14,000 from the USA) and contains the names of 82 men who were killed serving with the British Pacific Fleet. The heading on the wall reads ” THE UNITED KINGDOM of GREAT BRITAIN and NORTHERN IRELAND” Those named are in alphabetical order with full given names added and read across the wall. The walls are about seven feet square, white lettering carved into what appears to be a very highly polished black marble.

The park is a key tourist site so not only acts as a place of remembrance but also has large grassy areas, away & apart although not physically separated where families can picnic, play ball games & enjoy various other recreational activities By the size of the car park & other facilities it looks as though it is frequently used. Considering land is at a premium the size of the entire Peace Park is astonishing.

When we visited it was a warm day, (20 degrees – shirt sleeve order), there were a few visitors (it was a week-day) which seemed to be mostly groups of school children & students. It is tended by a small group of women gardeners who do an excellent job for everything is as neat & tidy as possible.

I suppose I can best describe it as if you walked through Hyde Park & then followed into an adjoining Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.

The Peace Memorial Museum  is new, huge & carries an immense amount of information of the Battle of Okinawa on picture, video, film, artefacts, art displays & written testimony from survivors. As well as the displays there is facilities for research & educational activities.

On the 23rd June (Okinawa Memorial Day) each year. veterans, bereaved families & other individuals come to participate in a memorial service held in the Peace Ceremony Zone. I am not sure if any veteran’s organisation from the BPF has ever been invited to attend this ceremony. Other than their names there is nothing visible to indicate where or how the men served or met their death. This incidentally is common for all those recorded throughout the Peace Park.

My thoughts as I stood beside the names were that although nearly 65 years ago it could have been the day before or even that morning when just hours after the invasion started we were hit by the kamikaze plane. The images of that morning, perhaps a bit frayed around the edges are I’m sure still with us all.

To get to Okinawa we flew to Hong Kong & then across to Naha City airfield on the twice weekly service. Naha is the capital of the island with over a million population. We stayed at a hotel in the city & for our visit we chose to travel by the local bus transport. The buses run every 20 minutes from Naha to Itoman City but the bus from there to the park only runs on an hourly basis. The whole journey takes about 2 hours. However it does stop right outside the park. It’s  the same coming back only in reverse order. On their buses you receive your ticket on entering & pay on leaving having to tender the exact fare.

The visitor numbers to the island in 2008 were over 5 million from Japan but only 188,000 from elsewhere in the world. Like many other places on entering the country you are finger-printed & photographed.

The climate is sub-tropical & is much the same as in Hawaii.”




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