Al Jazeera Correspondent

The Burma Boy

Barnaby Phillips follows the life of one of the forgotten heroes of World War II.

In December 1941, the Japanese invasion of Burma (now Myanmar) opened what would be the longest land campaign fought by the British in the Second World War. It began with defeat and retreat for Britain, as Rangoon fell to the Japanese in March 1942. But the fighting went on, over a varied terrain of jungles, mountains, plains and wide rivers, until the Japanese forces surrendered in August 1945.

Some 100,000 African soldiers were taken from British colonies to fight in the jungles of Burma against the Japanese. They performed heroically in one of the most brutal theatres of war, yet their contribution has been largely ignored, both in Britain and their now independent home countries.

In the villages of Nigeria and Ghana, these veterans are known as ‘the Burma Boys’. They brought back terrifying tales from faraway lands. Few survived, even fewer are alive today.

Al Jazeera’s Barnaby Phillips travels to Nigeria, Burma and Japan to find a Nigerian veteran of the war and to talk to those who fought alongside him as well as against him. He even finds the family that saved the life of the wounded veteran in the jungles of Myanmar.

The Burma Boys and Me

By Barnaby Phillips

Barnaby Phillips travelled to Nigeria to meet Isaac Fadoyebo, one of the so-called ‘Burma Boys’ [Al Jazeera]

I am standing under a pagoda, deep in the jungles of Myanmar. The monsoon rains are relentless, and water comes cascading down through the trees. A troop of monkeys huddles for shelter above me. I am waiting for a family I have never met to arrive. This is the culmination of a journey that has taken me across three continents and eight decades, and into the horrors of an almost forgotten chapter of the Second World War.  It is a story about the collapse of the British Empire, but also about heroism and courage I could never have imagined. Now, I need to repay a debt of gratitude, still strong after 67 years.

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the story of the ‘Burma Boys’. These are the 100,000 or so African troops whom the British shipped to Asia in 1943-44, as part of a desperate effort to stop the all-conquering Japanese army.

My interest comes from spending much of my life in Africa (I grew up in Kenya and spent many years as a BBC correspondent in Southern and West Africa) and my love of history, which I studied at Oxford University. But it was fuelled further by a sense that the story of the Burma Boys is so neglected, almost forgotten, not only here in Britain, but also in many of the African countries from where they came – Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and so on.

For many years, I had been looking for an opportunity to tell their story. I read lots of articles and books, and spoke to experts. Several British officers, who commanded African troops, wrote memoirs of their experiences. These are interesting, but they tell the story from only one perspective. I was looking for an authentic African voice. Often, I worried that I had left things too late. Even the youngest veterans of the Second World War are now in their late 80s. Realistically, I thought, very few of the Burma Boys would still be alive in the villages of Nigeria or Ghana.

Forgotten heroes

In December 2009, I took a few days off from work to do some research in the library of London’s Imperial War Museum. There, to my delight, I came across a memoir written by a Nigerian soldier who was in Burma.  Sixty pages long and beautifully written, it told a dramatic tale. The author was called Isaac Fadoyebo.

In 1942, as the Second World War raged, the Japanese swept through Asia, and the British retreated in chaos. Singapore, Malaya, and then Burma fell, and the jewel of the Empire – India – was under threat. Britain, already stretched, desperately needed manpower. It turned to its African colonies for help and Isaac, looking for adventure, was one who volunteered to go.

His story was dramatic. He was attacked by the Japanese in the jungle, shot in the leg and stomach, and left for dead. He could not crawl, let alone walk. Fortunately, nearby Bengali-speaking villagers who supported the British, took pity on him, and brought him food and water. One family took the courageous decision to hide him in their hut, risking execution by the Japanese if their generosity had been discovered. After nine months in hiding, Isaac was rescued by British troops. He returned to Nigeria as a hero, but his exploits were soon forgotten. He became a civil servant, troubled by injuries for the rest of his life.

Finding Isaac’s memoir was the breakthrough I was looking for, and I knew straight away that I had to try and discover if he was still alive. The British academic who had edited the memoir had not heard from Isaac in more than 10 years. That was discouraging. Eventually, I managed to find a phone number in Lagos, and received information that Isaac was in fact alive and well. I called Lagos from my home in Athens with my heart in my mouth. The line was faint, but the voice that answered was strong. “Mr Phillips,” it boomed, “when are you coming?”

The ‘green hell’

I travelled to Nigeria in April of this year, to meet Isaac. Nigeria has a daunting reputation, but it is a country that is close to my heart. I lived in Lagos for three years as a young reporter, and although I often found it frustrating, it was always stimulating and exciting. Nigerians can be brash and loud, but I also found them to be generous and gracious, and full of good-humour, and I will always look back on my time there with deep affection.

Isaac and I became friends. I wanted to know what motivated him to fight for “King Georgie” and Empire. Did he and other Africans choose to do so? Often, in the “green hell” of the Burmese jungles, Africans discovered first-hand that the British were not infallible. The myth of racial supremacy was shattered and survivors were emboldened to think in new ways.

He told me how, in dense vegetation, and on steep mountainsides, combat was up-close, and prisoners were often executed. Monsoon rains lasted for months, drenching men and their equipment, making sleep impossible, and turning streams into frothing, brown torrents. Malaria and typhus decimated the ranks. African soldiers marched for days behind enemy lines, carrying heavy loads and relying on air-supplies for food and ammunition.

Senior British officers were often dismissive and condescending about the Africans who fought for them (although the heroic role of Indian, and especially Gurkha soldiers, has received plenty of publicity). Back in Britain, I sought out the handful of junior officers – the sergeants, lieutenants and captains – who are still alive, and who were in direct command of African troops in the jungle. I found a remarkable collection of men; one aged 102, and many in their 90s.

They were almost unanimous in their praise for the courage, skill and stamina of their men. Some of the more thoughtful wondered what motivated Africans to fight so bravely for a cause that must have meant little to them. One officer reflected: “We imposed greatly upon their generosity.” But some are still tortured by terrible regrets and guilt.

Isaac, though, was my most important source of information. He told me of the brutality of the Japanese, who killed his friends and left him to die in a remote jungle. So I also travelled to Japan, to meet veterans who fought Africans in Burma. This journey gave me a different perspective on the war, as I learnt about the appalling deprivations suffered by Japanese soldiers.

A letter of gratitude

Isaac spoke, above all, of his enduring debt of friendship to the family of poor Bengali rice farmers in Burma who kept him hidden and fed for months. He thinks of them every day, but has had no contact in 67 years.

I decided to go to Burma (today known as Myanmar), and look for them. This journey presented many obstacles, but I eventually arrived in a remote and inhospitable region, in the height of the monsoon season.  I was carrying a letter of gratitude from Isaac, and photographs, but I did not have precise information on how to find the village or if it was even still there.

Miraculously, I found the family who saved Isaac. We met in a remote jungle pagoda. I discovered that they still treasure Isaac’s memory. They were overcome to hear that he is still alive, just as I was overcome by their selflessness, and the depth of their humanity.

In 20 years in journalism, I am not sure that I have been involved in a project so satisfying and moving as the making of The Burma Boy. It taught me about friendship and bravery. It helped me uncover new and sometimes uncomfortable truths about my own country, Britain. And it ended in an extraordinary and emotional climax, one I could never have foreseen.

I am now trying to write a book on the story, with more context and background. I hope you enjoy the film, wherever in the world you might be watching, and would appreciate your views and comments.

Note: This episode of Al Jazeera Correspondent first aired in November 2011.