Film-maker Don Clark tells Richard McComb about the voices emerging decades after the end of the ‘forgotten war’ in Burma.
Sixty-five years have passed but some of the men still carry parasites picked up in the jungle while others suffer recurring attacks of malaria.
During the three-and-a-half year war in Burma, following Japan’s invasion in January 1942, British troops slogged their guts out amid monsoon conditions, virulent disease and harsh terrain.
If they overcame these hazards, they had to contend with the unremitting will of the Japanese combat troops, who swore to fight to the death.
Despite the dreadful trials, traumas and conditions they endured, the eventual Japanese surrender saw British veterans become part of a forgotten army who had fought in a forgotten war.
Their endeavours, including the extraordinary actions of the Chindits Special Force, went unremarked. The brave men returned to civvies’ street, stoically carried on with life, telling no one, neither wives nor children, about the appalling sights they had witnessed.
Now a West Midlands film-maker is helping to shed new light on what remains for many an unknown war.
Don Clark has made a documentary, For Your Tomorrow, based on first-person testimonies of the men who waged war in a tropical hell.
Clark, an avid oral historian and founder of Wolverhampton-based Word of Mouth Films, hopes his film will raise awareness of the conflict and enable today’s generation to get an insight into the sacrifices made by their grandparents’ generation.
Clark, who set up Word of Mouth following a career in financial services, interviewed 24 men connected with the Burma Star Association in Wolverhampton. He started filming the accounts of these ageing former combatants in 2005; nine veterans have died since the project began.
Clark said: “We have a window of opportunity to talk to these people before it closes. It was an honour to talk to these men, many of whom have now gone.”
Wolverhampton Wanderers life president Sir Jack Hayward, who flew glider missions over Burma, recalls in the film how he lost half of his squadron in the perilous monsoon conditions.
George Cotton talks about trying in vain to save the life of a friend who had been shot in the chest. A soldier who suffered a head wound in a mortar attack recounts how he made himself stay awake as he was carried for eight hours to a field hospital.
“He was certain that if he had gone to sleep he wouldn’t have woken up,” said Clark.
Word of Mouth was originally set up by Clark to record personal life stories in a digital format, and updated version of a family album. Typically, he was commissioned to make biographies of a client’s grandmother or grandfather, sitting down with the subject and encouraging them to talk on film about their experiences.
The subjects would often be war veterans and would come out with stories their loved ones had never heard.
Clark, who is 53, was partly inspired to explore the possibilities of recording oral histories by his own experience of losing his parents. Following their deaths, he realised he knew so little about their past.
He said: “I have got a shoebox containing tiny black and white photos with nothing written on them. Sometimes there will be a date scribbled, nothing else.
“I have a wedding photo of my parents and I don’t know anyone on it. The truth is that we don’t value people until they are gone.”
Clark initially interviewed the Burma Star veterans with a view to creating an archive. “People at the time and now didn’t know much about the war in Burma. I had a lot of sympathy with their cause,” he said.
However, the more the film-maker spoke to the old soldiers, the more he realised there was a bigger story to tell.
Clark ended up with 80 hours of footage which was edited to 68-minutes to make For Your Tomorrow. The film also includes interviews with the grandchildren of Burma veterans, who have been taken on a personal journey to get their perspective on their relatives’ uncovered experiences.
Inevitably, the memories of Burma, of the killing and the jungle terror, were still too raw for some local veterans, who declined to be interviewed on film.
Clark said: “For some of them, I was the first person they had spoken to about it in 65 years. They had come back to post-war Britain. They didn’t get back until 1946 or ’47. When they came back, there was no heroes’ return because Britain was suffering war privations.
"They were told not to tell their families about their experiences.
“A lot of the fellows put their heads down, started work, many returning to the same jobs, and one day followed another and here we are 65 years later and they still haven’t told anyone. A lot of them felt it was time to tell people what had happened. They are in the autumn of their life.”
Clark added: “I hope the film is not an ordeal to watch. It is uplifting and thought-provoking. It tells the experiences of ordinary men. This is not the story of military tactics. It is about what the men went through and how we value what they did for us.
“They fought so that we could have the freedom to do what we like. How do we value and treasure that?”
* The DVD of For Your Tomorrow is being sold until midnight Sunday (November 13) at a pre-release discount price of £9.99 with £1 being donated to The Poppy Appeal. Quote “Poppy” when ordering.
For more information, go to www.foryourtomorrow.com