“The Forgotten Army” of World War II – 75 years on

Saturday 15th August 2020 is the 75th anniversary of Imperial Japan’s surrender, which brought the Second World War’s six years of fighting to an end.

Yesterday was marked by a series of events to honour those who fought and those who lost their lives in the Far East.

I have always been aware of the significance of V-E Day, but had ignorantly never paid attention to the equal importance of V-J Day. After hearing the incredible stories on the news yesterday morning, I decided to broaden my knowledge.

Allied military personnel celebrate VJ Day in Paris – 1945 : Credit

Although the allies’ fight against Nazi rule in Germany came to an end with their surrender on V-E (Victory in Europe) Day in May 1945, Japan’s militarist government – a key German ally – stood firm and thousands remained fighting in the South-East Asian theatre.

August 15 marks the day of Japanese surrender, thus ending the war once and for all. Surrender documents were not formally signed until September 2 – hence why the US observe V-J Day on this date instead.

In Japan, the day is also commemorated on the 15th August and continues to be known as “memorial day for the end of the war”.

An insanely brutal, yet overlooked theatre.

It is estimated that casualties sustained in the Pacific War (in countries such as Burma, India, Thailand and Singapore) totalled 36 million – 50% of the war’s total casualties.

According to the BBC, 50,000 servicemen were held as Japanese prisoners of war. A quarter of whom died as a result of the dire conditions and brutal treatment.

Many were incredibly malnourished, leading to loss of vision and nerve pain.

Diseases such as malaria and dysentery were also rife, and the prisoners were subject to slave labour, random beating and torture – despite many having surrendered.

There are reports of prisoners being used as subjects for horrific medical experiments, under the impression they were being taken to be treated for their existing injuries.

Flight Army Sargeant Bill Tate spent two years in captivity after his plane crashed in Burma. His son William converted his experiences into a memoir shortly after his death in 2007.

The book – Surviving the Japanese Onslaught – reveals harrowing details of his torture by the guards.

On one occasion, Flt Sgt Tate spoke of being starved for 24 hours, before being restrained and force-fed rice. He was then held down on the cell floor while a guard jumped on his stomach.

He weighed just six stone when he was found alive in Burma in May 1945.

Flt Sgt Tate was so traumatised from his experiences that he waited 50 years before telling his story to his son. Even then, he could only speak about it for 30 minutes at a time.

The Pacific Theatre of World War II was described by one historian as “hands down the war’s most hated theater in which to fight.”

The Burma Campaign was one of the longest in history : Credit

The Pacific War also sparked racism and tensions across America after they joined the war in 1941. Despite being US citizens, 120,000 Japanese-Americans were forced into brutal internment camps, locked up purely for their heritage.

Despite the existence of these horrific racial differences, the campaigns fought in the Asia-Pacific during WWII also managed to see the creation of one of the most diverse armies in history.

The Fourteenth Army played a vital role during the Burma campaign.

The army consisted of over 600,000 troops. More than 85% were from pre-partition India, as well as Ghurkas from Nepal and soldiers from 12 African nations.

More than 40 languages were spoken among the troops and every one of the world’s major religions were represented.

In commemorating V-J Day, we are also honouring the coming together of many communities in the fight for peace. Their actions and sense of camaraderie has helped lead to the increased sense of multiculturalism that we have today.

The Forgotten War

Soldiers who fought fascism in the Far East have often been overlooked as a result of more focus being afforded to action in Europe.

As a result of a “Hitler First” strategy, the fighting and affect being had on civilians and soldiers in the Far East has always been referred to as the ‘Forgotten War’ and the soldiers known as the ‘Forgotten Army’.

It is for this reason why it is even more important to speak of V-J Day, so that the sacrifices of these men and women do not go unnoticed and the stories unheard.

Image of Captain Sir Tom Moore courtesy of Flickr

NHS fundraising hero, Captain Sir Tom Moore, was stationed in Burma during the war.

He told the National Army Museum this week: “Victory over Japan is as important a part of our history as Victory in Europe and I hope that it is never really forgotten”.

The Kissing Sailor

Once you are made aware of the atrocities faced by all in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, it is made even clearer how wonderful it must have felt for the 15th August to finally arrive.

V-J Day in Times Square

A remarkable event from celebrations is the story behind this photograph, taken in New York City.

Amid the celebrations, Alfred Eisenstaedt captured the moment a sailor passionately kissed a woman in a nurses uniform in Times Square.

The photograph went on to be featured in ‘Life’ magazine, and has since become one of the most famous images of the 20th century.

The woman – whose name is Greta Freidman – later revealed that the couple were in fact complete strangers, and the kiss came as quite a surprise to her!

Over the years, many people have claimed to be the sailor. However, facial recognition technology was able to confirm his identity to be US navy sailor George Mendonsa.

He told CBS News in 2012 that the impromptu moment came as a result of a perfect combination of excitement, relief, and a celebratory drink or two!

“It was the moment,” he said. “You come back from the Pacific and finally, the war ends. The excitement of the war being over, plus I had a few drinks. So when I saw the nurse, I grabbed her and I kissed her.”

Perhaps the most shocking part of the story is that Mendonsa was actually on a date with another woman at the time – who can actually be seen in the background of the photograph!

His actual date, Rita Petrie, has since said that she did not object to him kissing another woman upon hearing news that the war was over – in fact, she was so unfazed by it that she later became his wife of 70 years!

Civilians and service personnel in London celebrating V-J Day on August 15, 1945 : Credit

August 15th 1945 is said to have been a day full of joy and relief, that so many years of fighting had come to an end – yet also a day of such great sadness at the devastation left behind.

I think it is so important to continue to honour this day for generations to come.

We should continue to do as they did, striking a balance between celebration for what had been gained, but also honouring and remembering what has been lost and so greatly missed.

We should also use the devastation of war across the globe to teach us that lessons in respect, empathy and kindness are paramount.

As part of yesterday’s events marking 75 years since the war ended, The Duke of Cambridge led a moving programme featuring music and stories from the often forgotten Pacific War.

We must not forget our responsibility to learn the lessons of the past, and ensure that the horrors of the Second World War are never repeated.

We owe that to our veterans, to their families, and to the generations who will come after us.

HRH Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge

Facts and information from BBC News, Metro, The Guardian, allthatsinteresting.com and The Royal British Legion.

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