14639680 Private David Bennett Jones - Chindit
Burma Visit November 2003
It was Thursday 13th November 2003, and would have been my father's 75th birthday. He died in May 1995. My mother collected me and my luggage in her car and took me to Caersws station to meet the 10:38am train which would begin my journey, to Burma to visit the war grave of my father's brother; my uncle David who was killed there in WWII. I had been looking forward to this visit since finding out about a company called Remembrance Travel, renamed Poppy Travel, which organises pilgrimages to battlefields and war cemeteries all over the world. My mother insisted on waiting with me on the platform despite the train being late, and as we waved each other goodbye, little did we realise that we would never see each other again. I spent that night with my friend Sarah and her fiance James in Ealing, thus making making my journey to Heathrow more manageable the following morning. Sarah organised a taxi to take me to Heathrow the following morning, and everything went like clockwork.
We were due to fly at 11:50am but we needed to be at the Thai Airways desk at Terminal 3, three hours earlier. The group met up as planned, and following check-in, we did all the usual things travellers do while waiting for their flight to be called. We roamed round the shops, had coffe or something to eat and chatted between ourselves. I ended up in Harrods and decided to ring my mum to tell her "Guess where I am". There was no answer. It was not unusual. She rarely spent a day without making a trip somewhere or other. Our flight was called, and at 12:10pm we finally took off on our 12 hour flight. There were five of us pilgrims, each visiting the grave of a relative for the first time. Alf Baldwin and his sisters Jessie and Katie from Nottingham were visiting their brother's grave at Taukkyan War Cemetery, Stan Hobbs, who had been in Bomber Command, was visiting his brother's grave in Rangoon Cemetery, and me visiting my uncle David's grave in Taukkyan. We were accompanied by Eddie Heffermann, representing the National Council Royal British Legion, and his wife Helen, and met in Burma by Bob Perkins who was the Royal British Legion Standard Bearer - West Midlands.
Despite the comfort of the planes from Heathrow to Bangkok, then Bangkok to Yangon, I was glad to arrive. We were met at the airport by our coach which ferried us to our hotel, The Dusit Inya Lake. On arrival, I unpacked and decided not to waste any time sleeping but went for a walk around the hotel following the lakeside path. On returning to my room, I showered and finally succumbed to a couple of hours sleep. Yangon is 6½ hours ahead of GMT, and when I woke, I decided it would be about 9am in Wales so I would ring home and let everybody know we'd arrived safely. It was during this call to my husband that I discovered that my mother had died suddenly on the day of my departure from Heathrow.
Fortunately, the rest of Saturday 15th November; the day of arrival was free time, and there were no constraints put upon us as to what we should do. I spent some time in my room and eventually decided I must face my fellow travellers and break the news. Our itinerary had been carefully planned and was quite full, so during the following days, there was little time to dwell on what was going on at home although it was always at the back of my mind. At around $5.20 per minute, IDD telephone calls from the hotel were very expensive. After running up a bill of $473 that first Saturday, it was decided that I wouldn't ring again and would be contacted only if needed to make a decision.
On Sunday 16th November, we were ready early to make the first of two visits to our respective cemeteries. This visit was to be a private visit where we had time to establish the precise location of our relatives and spend some quiet time at the graveside. Having previously received a photograph of my uncle's grave, I found him very easily. The Royal British Legion had provided each pilgrim with a poppy posy and a small wooden cross with single poppy, to place on the grave. I saved what I had brought with me for the official ceremony later in the week.
It was an early start. We were at Taukkyan War Cemetery by 8am and already the sun was very hot. Taukkyan is the largest of the three war cemeteries in Burma with 6368 burials there. It is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission It was commenced in 1951 to receive graves from four battlefield cemeteries which were difficult to access and therefore maintain; Ayab, Mandalay, Keiktila and Sahmaw cemeteries. The latter of these was an original "Chindit" cemetery containing many of the casualties from the battle for Myitkyina. The individuality of these battlefield cemeteries has been carefully preserved but grouping together in this new cemetery, the graves from each. In the centre of the cemetery is the impressive Rangoon Memorial commemorating 26,380 men and women who fought and died during the campaign in Burma and Assam and who have no known grave - "Known Only Unto God". At the far end of the cemetery is a memorial to 1,049 officers and men of the army of undivided India whose last remains were accorded the last rite by their religion - committal to fire. We were given as much time as we needed to spend at the gravesides, and to wander round the beautifully-maintained grounds to stare in wonder at the last resting place of so many lost lives. Boarding our air-conditioned coach which was a welcome relief from the outdoor heat, we were offered welcome water bottles and individually-wrapped towelettes with which to freshen up. We then made our way to the smaller Rangoon War Cemetery also maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Here there are 1,391 graves. It was first used as a burial ground immediately following the re-capture of Rangoon in May 1945. Later, the army re-located graves there from several other burial sites in and around Rangoon, including those of the men who died in Rangoon jail as prisoners of war. At both cemeteries, there were officials on duty to welcome the pilgrims and attend to our needs. Nothing was too much trouble.
The rest of the day was free until it was time to take us to see the famous 326 ft high golden Shwedagon Pagoda on Sanguttara Hill in Dagon Township, Yangon Division. The height of the hill is 190 ft above sea level and the land belonging to the Pagoda - 114 acres. At the very top of the Pagoda is the Diamond Orb which is 22 ins high with a diameter of 10½ ins. It has 4,351 diamonds totalling 1,800 carats with the Apex Diamond itself weighing 76 carats. Footwear, including socks/tights is not allowed anywhere in the complex, and there are 'pigeon-holes' provided for visitors to leave their shoes. A lift took us up to the 14-acre terrace where we were able to wander the complex freely. We stayed until we were able to take photographs of the sunset and watch as 9,999 candles were lit around the Pagoda - 9 being a lucky number for the Burmese. Our knowledgeabel guide Chet Shu made sure we were well informed on everything that was going on around us.
On Monday 17th November, we were given a tour of old colonnial Rangoon. We saw the Strand Hotel in the centre of the city and visited Scotts Market which was a hive of activity, filled with tourists looking for bargains and the odd souvenir to take home. I bought a traditional wrap-over skirt and matching blouse for just $12. Following our trip to the market, we arrived back at our hotel for some free time, only to be invited back to The Strand Hotel for high tea, and very civilised it was too!
Tuesday 18th November was day five, and the day we met up with another group of pilgrims who had spent some time up in Arakan. The day was free until we had to depart for evensong at the Anglican Cathedral of Holy Trinity where was held a service of remembrance attended by the British Ambassador to Myanmar, Ms Vicky Bowman. I wore my new outfit, and as the Royal British Legion's standard bearer was in attendance, I was also able to wear my uncle's war medals. It was a very moving service which I felt humble to be a part of. Following the service, we were invited to attend a reception at the residence of the Ambassador where we were able to take more photos for our albums and meet Ambassador to other countries. I was fortunate enough to speak to Ms Bowman, who was kind enough to offer me her condolences which I appreciated. She told me that despite the many demands on her time, she always tries to meet with pilgrims from the tours arranged by Colonel Piers Storey-Pugh of Remembrance Travel. Having met him on his return from Arakan, I can see why. All too soon, it was time to depart but we were allowed to keep our invitations as a souvenir.
Wednesday 19th November was day six and our final day in Yangon. We had another early start for the official services of remembrance at both Taukkyan and Rangoon cemeteries to try and beat the worst of the heat. Once again, both services were attended by the Ambassador who also laid a wreath. We sang "Oh God Our Help in Ages Past", followed by The Last Post and a minute's silence and Reveille. We were able to visit our loved ones' graves one last time before it was time to depart. My uncle has only two surviving siblings; his sisters Gwyneth and Betty. Gwyneth asked if I would take with me the wreath our family usually lays on the village cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, and Betty had a wooden cross made especially to lay on the grave. I printed a picture of my uncle David to place in the middle of the wreath, and our national flag Y Ddraig Coch. His was a most decorated grave when we left.
We had some free time for the rest of the day until it was time to leave our hotel and make for Yangon airport and the start of our journey home and a long flight ahead of us after the intial short 'hop' to Bangkok. We landed in Heathrow at approximately 7am on Thursday 20th November local time, which seemed a bit strange after such a long flight. My niece Emma had insisted, despite my protestations, on meeting me at Heathrow, and she and her fiance David were there as promised to drive me the four hours journey home and the sadness that was reality.
I would recommend my pilgrimage to anyone teetering on the brink of making such a journey. It was fitting, closure of the circle of research of the part my uncle played in WWII, to have a representative of the family stand at his grave and pay our respect. It was a very emotional visit although I never knew him. For Alf, Katie and Jessie, and for Stan, it must have been even more so as they had known their brothers. Despite the differences in our ages, I thought we all got on famously. Just lately, I received a copy of "The Rangoon Rag" edited by Eddie Hefferman, which is a reminder of our visit and some of the sights we saw.