Remembering those that suffered as captives in Japan during WW2 in a commemoration service in Wisbech
- Credit: Archant
The suffering of soldiers held prisoner by the Japanese during the Second World War were recalled in a moving VJ Day service in Wisbech.
About 175 people, including veterans, their families and members of armed forces associations, packed St Peter’s church for the simple service of commemoration.
Organised by Fenland District Council, the event marked the 70th anniversary of the Allies’ victory over Japan, which finally brought the war to an end.
The congregation listened in silence as two members of former prisoners’ families recounted the hardships their loved ones had endured.
Richard Whitwell paid an emotional tribute to his grandfather, Pte G L Seekins, of The 2nd Battalion, Cambridgeshire Regiment.
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Taken prisoner after the fall of Singapore, he worked on the notorious Burma Railway.
Mr Whitwell said: “A lot of atrocities were carried out on the men, too bad to go into detail. They were always starving and only had rice to eat. Until the day he died he would never, ever, eat rice.
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“He hardly spoke of what happened out there - only one or two things, like going to sleep at night shoulder to shoulder with other men, and turning to speak in the morning only to find him dead alongside you.
“He said they all kept their emotions close to themselves. They would take the men who died - there were always a few - and bury them in shallow graves and say a prayer for them.”
Mr Whitwell pulled out the flag that had greeted his grandfather’s homecoming. “When they got home there was a Union Jack flag hanging from the window which we have to this day, with some cigarettes which were given to him by the American troops when he was liberated.
“He was a very quiet man, who loved his family, gardening and was a mechanic to all the family cars. I am very proud that he was my grandfather.”
Simon Bamber recounted similar hardships experienced by his father, Geoff, another veteran of the 2nd Cambridgeshires captured at Singapore.
His father, who had celebrated his 97th birthday three days earlier, stood proud and erect by his son’s side throughout his account.
Both addresses were followed by prolonged applause.
Earlier Father Paul West, parish priest of St Peter’s, introduced the service, saying: “It’s often said to me by veterans of the Far East campaign that they are more than a little forgotten. Well, in this parish church of St Peter and St Paul, Wisbech, we remember them well.”
He was wearing the medals of his grandfather, who had served with the Royal Australian Air Force in the Far East.
The service included the hymn “The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended”, which Mr Whitwell said the prisoners of war had often sung “to give them comfort and strength to carry on”.
It also featured the Kohima Epitaph: “When you go home, tell them of us and say ‘For your tomorrow we gave our today’.”
The event was hosted by Fenland District Council’s chairman, Councillor Carol Cox, who gave some of her own personal memories.
She said: “I was one of the lucky ones – the first of the peace babies born in 1946 to parents who had not seen each other for six years. My father was physically wounded but came home. Others were not so fortunate.”
She described her visit to the former Changi prisoner of war camp. “The chapel is still there, made from driftwood and anything they could salvage, the benches for worship rough hewn. But every day fresh flowers appear and hundreds of remembrance cards are pinned around with names of loved ones. It is a quiet spiritual place and people stand in silent reverence. They will never be forgotten.”
The service ended with prayers for peace and reconciliation and the laying of wreaths under the memorial donated to the church by the Singapore Club Wisbech. The memorial is dedicated to all the local men who were killed in action or died in captivity in the Far East.
Former Wisbech mayor Jonathan Farmer outlined the history of the campaign in the Far East saying: “It is appropriate that we mark this day here in Wisbech for three reasons.
“Firstly, to recognise local men who died in combat or captivity or suffered at the hands of the Japanese during the struggle in the Far East.
“Secondly, to remember the involvement of the Cambridgeshire Regiment and wider East Anglia in the fight against Japan.
“Finally to commemorate the conclusion of a struggle between good and outright evil.”