My father was a Prisoner of the Japanese on the Burma railway for more than three years. He rarely talked about it – he was not alone in that. He was not a hero – at least not in his own view. But I have found one or two books about the railway in which he is mentioned. He kept the earphone of the camps’ clandestine radio in his shoe. He and other officers liaised with Thai locals to smuggle food into the camps. If he had been discovered he would have been shot – or worse.
Dad wore a poppy on Remembrance Day but eschewed completely both the sentimental and the boastful faux-patriotism that is common today. He hated war and violence with a vengeance, he had seen too much. He would have rejected completely the characterisation of all soldiers as “heroes” which is also all too frequent in modern times. Some were, most were not.
Dad didn’t want to go to war in part, I think, because of his own childhood. He was born four days before the Battle of the Somme started. As he grew up he was surrounded by those scarred by the War to end all Wars. Some were silent men of courage. Some innocent victims who put their war experience behind them. In 1939/40 Dad volunteered and eventually joined up. It was not an act of courage, but one of duty.
As a child in the early 1950s some of my school friends played with toy guns , I did not as they were banned in our house. But my father was not a bleeding heart pacifist. He didn’t want to be a hero though he did have a buried grievance about being ignored when he got home in 1945. He was not alone in this either. When the largely fictitious “Bridge on River Kwai” film came out I went with Dad to see it. His reaction was interesting. He said it was nonsense, but he was pleased it had been made as in his view the subject had largely been ignored. He was right. The railway gradually became better documented and stories of courage began to emerge. Including his, but by then he had died.
It’s a cliché to say we do not know our potential for courage until it is tested for real. But it is also a very subjective thing – one man’s courage is another’s foolhardiness. The idea of silent heroes is an appealing one with its ring of modesty and lack of bombast. I remember Dad referring to one of his friends as “having had a good war, but he doesn’t talk about it. His Military Cross stays in its drawer”. Dad was not decorated but it seems he had a courageous and therefore “good war” as well. He was one of “…The strongest people [to] find the courage and caring to help others, even if they are going through their own storm.” as Roy T Bennet put it in “The Light in the Heart”.