In 2011, Al Jazeera's Barnaby Phillips made a flilm called 'The Burma Boy'. It tells the true story of a Nigerian soldier, Isaac Fadoyebo, who fought for the British in Burma during the Second World War.
Isaac was part of a forgotten army of 100,000 African men. In a jungle ambush in 1944, he was injured and his officers were killed. He survived because of the kindness of strangers; a family of farmers hid him from the Japanese. Isaac never forgot his debt of gratitude to this family, and 67 years later Phillips travelled to Burma (now Myanmar) and managed to find them, and discovered that they treasured the memory of Isaac. After being so moved by his story, Phillips decided to write a book about it. 'Another Man's War: The Story of a Burma Boy In Britain's Forgotten African Army' is published by Oneworld Books in the UK, and is also available in electronic form. It can be ordered online.
Below are excerpts from Phillips' book.
The book begins with the hero, Isaac Fadoyeno, being recruited into the British Army.
Isaac Fadoyebo's journey to the Burmese jungle began by the gates of the palace of the Olowo, in December 1941. An olive-green army lorry groaned and slid up the sandy streets to the meeting place under the palace walls in the small hilltop town of Owo, in the British Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria. Market women, squatting on the ground beside their little piles of beans or soap or palm oil, or black coils of smoked fish, looked up. An excited crowd gathered and swelled around the vehicle. From a gramophone came the distant, tinny voice of Winston Churchill.
Everybody in Owo knew about the war. For two years now, they'd seen the posters all over town. Some depicted stern and merciless German soldiers shooting a group of defenceless Africans lined up against a wall. Others showed the same Germans, wearing big black boots, whipping the Africans who laboured for them. The Germans displayed no emotion, but the Africans were depicted as terrified. "Hitler has already said that ALL AFRICANS MUST BE SLAVES FOR GERMANS!" the posters screamed in red letters.
|British officers inspect Nigerian soldiers [Jill Hopwood]|
People had looked at these posters in morbid fascination. It was true that everyone now called it "Hitler's War". That the Nazis were "wicked people", and that Hitler was behaving like a wild beast, was beyond dispute. Well, almost. One woman in the market had been overheard saying that this Hitler must be a real man, if all of Europe was so afraid of him. The woman was shouted down. Not only at the market, but also at church, most people agreed that, if Britain fell to this man Hitler, they would come under "Ja'man" control, and that would be a bad thing.
Some even argued that what Hitler really wanted was Nigeria itself. They said, "He knows all about our gold, our precious stones, our cocoa and our groundnuts, and now he wants to take them." This seemed to fit with another rumour that a trader had heard in Lagos, that Their Majesties the King and Queen had fled there from London, and were now living in Government House. They went for short walks along the Marina after dark, apparently, taking some care not to be recognised.
The officer took up his position by the Olowo's palace, and began his speech. He was talking about what Hitler might do to Africans, but that wasn't all. He was urging the men who'd gathered round him to sign up and fight. Not just for Owo, but for Nigeria, the British Empire and King George. At that, someone in the crowd cheered, and Isaac's curiosity got the better of him. He was barely sixteen, but he was an imposing boy, already almost six feet tall, and he knew his own mind. He pushed his way through, closer to the lorry, so he could better hear what the recruiting officer was saying.
Isaac joined the British Army and travelled to Burma. On March 2nd, 1944, his unit was ambushed.
The commanding officer, Major Robert Murphy, looked at his watch. Half-past seven, time to load up the rafts. The mist over the river had burnt away, revealing the outline of the trees on the far side. He wondered if he should tell the men to make less noise. He didn't like this complacency. Looking down the sloping muddy bank, he saw Isaac sipping his tea and chatting to Company Sergeant Major Archibong Bassey Duke, a fellow Nigerian.
Bassey Duke was a giant of a man. He wore blue shorts and a white vest, and would have been easily visible from the far side of the river. It was the end of the dry season, so the opposite bank was only a hundred or so yards away. Behind it, the sun was rising over the steep hills, the dark jungle still in shadow.
|The cemetery at Taukkyan (outside Yangon, Myanmar) where hundreds of Africans are buried [Barnaby Phillips/Al Jazeera]|
Bassey Duke jerked and spun, and only then did Isaac hear the shots. He watched his friend fall to the ground, still clutching his red enamel mug. Tea spilled from it and trickled down the bank. There were flashes of light in the jungle on the opposite side of the river. Bullets buzzed past Isaac's head. Like angry wasps, he thought. He fell face down into the reeds. His heart thumped against the cold ground. They were in a terrible position, exposed on the steep, slippery bank. Machine guns had opened up now. How many? One, at least, probably two. He caught a glimpse of Major Murphy stumbling past, walking like a drunk. That was strange. From higher up on the bank, he could hear screaming. Then he saw that Major Murphy's head was covered in blood. The shooting stopped. Someone nearby was gasping in a quiet voice. "Take me, O God, take me, O God." It sounded like Private David Essien, but Isaac could not be sure. He tried to crawl towards the voice, but as soon as he moved the shooting resumed. More angry wasps spun through the air. The Japanese had Isaac in their sights, and bullets ripped through the reeds around him.
When the shooting stopped a second time, Isaac reached out with his left hand for Essien, who was no longer gasping. It was strange how still Essien was, how cold he felt, for Isaac could see no blood on his uniform. Isaac tried to crawl up the bank, but one of his legs did not seem to be working properly. He looked down and saw that his khaki trousers were soaked with blood. So was his shirt. His leg had started to ache, sending spasms right through his body. Tears rolled down his cheeks. Tears of fear or pain? He didn't know. He was sure of only one thing: he was going to die.
But Isaac survived his ordeal, and in August 1945, he returned home to Nigeria and his village of Emure-Ile, where everyone had already assumed he was dead.
It was his sister, Adedeji, who first heard the commotion. People seemed to be shouting, up by the track that ran past the Anglican church. She wondered why, and went outside. A young man with a bicycle was coming down the hill, walking in a strange way. He looked like Isaac, only taller and thinner. But it was unmistakable now. The crowd was saying his name, again and again: "Isaac, Isaac, Isaac."
There were drummers, and people were dancing, and a procession was forming round him, as they approached his family's house. He tried to push his way through the crowd, but it was no use. "So many people," he would love to say for the rest of his life, "you would have thought I had stolen a goat!" Some people were shouting that he had come back from heaven, but there were others who were frightened, who said that he was a ghost. The crowd stopped Isaac from going into the house. They chanted, "Ma wo'le, ma wo'le!" – "Do not enter, Do not enter!" Emure-Ile had mourned the loss of Isaac. Now the villagers needed to perform a ritual, to confirm that he was not a spirit, before he would be allowed to cross the doorway of the family home. They threw dust at him. If he were a ghost, he would disappear, but, if it were really Isaac, the dust would stick to him. And so they all bent down to fill their hands. He saw his grandmother, Aleke, bending down with them. Then the red dust of Emure-Ile was in Isaac's eyes, in his throat, on his sweating black skin. He was choking. But the dust stuck to him, and he did not disappear. He was not a ghost, just a young man who had cheated death and come home.
Isaac Fadoyebo passed away peacefully in November 2012, just short of his 87th birthday. I hope my book does justice to his memory and to the family in Myanmar that saved him.