On VJ Day TBB Remembers the West African Burma Boys’ Sacrifice for Empire in WWII

I have raised a V sign or two over the years for VE Day (Victory in Europe); the unconditional surrender of Germany – on May 8th, 1945. I’m aware of the Caribbean and African-American contributions to both World Wars. Much later I came to understand that after the atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima (August 6th) and Nagasaki (August 9th) and the death of 129,000 inhabitants, VJ Day – Victory in Japan – was agreed on August 15th, which then brought World War II to a complete end.

What I didn’t know until this year, was that VJ Day also meant an end to the horrifying experiences of 100,000 West African soldiers in, arguably, “the most brutal theatre” of the Second World War (WWII).  Between 1943-44 the British army recruited or drafted boys and men from Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Kenya to support the British Royal African Frontier Force in the unforgivingly hostile environment of Burma, which included the dense jungle terrain, unrelenting monsoon and Japanese sympathisers, against an almost unknowable enemy who fought to a code like that of the original Kamikaze pilots. Burma?

All I knew of ‘war’ and Burma (now Myanmar), was as one of the two settings for It Ain’t Half Hot Mum series (BBC, 1974-81) – the other being India. I remember Windsor Davies as Battery Sergeant Major Williams in uniform, but I never really understood that there had been a war on. Apparently, the series was set during the last months of WWII, starting just after VE Day in 1945. I never saw an African in that series. Ever. I thought the war with Japan had been fought mainly by Australian and American Allies. 

There is an acclaimed 2008 novel of similar title, Burma Boy by award-winning novelist, playwright and director Biyi Bandele, which tells the story of the ‘… fighting men of a forgotten war…’  A chance conversation with filmmaker Cass Pennant brought to our attention a film about this neglected piece of history and he made it possible for us to speak with two of the pivotal players in the making of The Burma Boy – a documentary commissioned by Al Jazeera, directed and produced by Pennant’s longtime friend and mentor Ian “Butch” Stuttard from the research and interviews of journalist Barnaby Phillips.

Isaac Fadoyebo and Barnaby Philipps

Despite the two being British, the exposure of the film in the UK has been pitiable…

Butch: This fact of Africans fighting for the British in the Far East has very rarely been delved into. Certain battalions were recruited mainly from Ghana and Nigeria – these guys straight out of a village, aged 17, onto a ship. 6 weeks later they were in India and then on to Burma… The reason the British were so keen to recruit these guys was that they were good with carrying heavy weights. But these guys were moving up and down hills, [where even sure-footed animals couldn’t walk]. The Japanese said they were astonished by the skill of these African men, in the worst conditions…

The film shares the amazing experience of Private Isaac Fadoyebo, originally of Emure-Ile and later of Lagos, Nigeria

Butch: My colleague, Barnaby Phillips, came across this manuscript – “A Stroke of Unbelievable Luck” which was about an 80-page story of this man’s adventures in Burma. He came to me and said, “This is a great story, what do you think?” I said we need to get this on film… Al Jazeera gave me the budget.

In fact, Fadoyebo submitted the only copy of his typed manuscript which was received with excitement by the BBC and was the basis for a dramatised BBC documentary titled, I remember Burma. (We couldn’t find much information on the programme) …

Butch: His tale is one of amazing adventures as a Nigerian who’d never set foot anywhere near Asia before, let alone Burma, then ended up recruited by the British to go and fight in the WWII against the Japanese. It was the policy of the British to recruit East Africans, principally from Kenya and West Africans, principally from Nigeria and Ghana. Fadoyebo found himself very quickly on his way to Burma, which is where he wound up being shot to bits by the Japanese. The Japanese caught them off-guard at a bend in the river Kaladan, most were killed, but he survived. What made it fascinating for us was that he was saved by a family of Burmese who lived in a small village in the middle of nowhere. They found him, took him into their home, fed him and administered medicine to him…

The Burmese saviour Shuyiman, along with his family and fellow villagers, took over from a fellow recruit who had been doing his best in the appalling conditions of the Kaladan Valley. Sergeant David Kargbo, recruited from Sierra Leone, was one of the other few survivors from the ambushed unit. Initially, the “… almost mortally wounded” Fadoyebo played dead as Japanese soldiers picked through the corpses of his British comrades. He then managed to drag himself through the undergrowth to marginal shelter, where days later, Kargbo found and cared for him until Shuyiman and the other villagers found them and began bringing them food. It was months before they felt it was safe enough to move them into Shuyiman’s home…

Butch: The great bonus for us was that we were able to find the family who looked after and saved him. It was moving to meet these people who had been separated from the person they had rescued and cherished for all those months of the war and to see the way they responded to the news that he was still alive and had survived. It was staggering to them that we had met him. He had written a letter to them, which we took there because he was too ill to travel. The idea would have been to take Fadoyebo back to see them again. We couldn’t do that, but we had the letter. They wept at our news of him, some of them were kids when he was with them but they never forgot him and they were terribly anxious to hear how he was.

Fadoyebo and Kargbo had great instincts for survival and despite having had to use different names to the Burmese villagers, Fadoyebo confessed all with this thanks in his letter to them…

Butch: When we met Fadoyebo, he was in Nigeria, living in Lagos; very infirm because his leg had been shot in the war. He walked with a bad limp and had scars down his leg. He’d also been shot in the stomach. Sadly, he’s since died (December 5, 1925 – November 9, 2012). But it was quite a moving human story and a lovely thing to end his story, to see the way they responded to the news that he was still alive and had survived.

It’s interesting that a man like Stuttard whom Cass Pennant admires, winner of BAFTAs, Emmy nominated and more, who not only made the documentary, Shoot The Messenger about the dangers and risks faced by international journalists, but at his advanced age was in Egypt at the time of the so-called Arab Spring. This made us curious about Phillips the journalist whose “…passion drove the project forward…” 

He is, of course, in agreement with Stuttard, but he did have another pensive thought when I asked how long filming took. The film is only 45 minutes long and I wanted more…

Phillips: We filmed in Nigeria for 10 days with Isaac, in Britain for 5 days, and then we filmed in Japan for 3 days, and in Burma we were there for about 6 days. So about 3 weeks filming. It was the first time I had ever made a film that long – I’d only made half hour pieces before. There’s nothing on the cutting room floor that you haven’t seen. Looking back at the film, I see one flaw in it – and this is to do with money and time – if we could have gone up to Northern Nigeria and got another couple of Nigerian veterans who were still alive, although not in great health, and cut out another minute or two of British officers. I thought there was a bit too much of the officers in the first half of the film.

After filming wrapped on The Burma Boy documentary in 2011, Phillips decided to take 6 months off work and write the book – Another Man’s War. The hardback was released in 2014 and the paperback, this year…

Phillips: I was born in North London. We moved to East Africa when I was 5 years old which ended up being a big part of my life. When I joined the BBC in 1991, I went into the African News Service of the World Service and, covered Africa for 15 years. I started out in Mozambique for a year and a half – that’s East and South – then I was in Angola, which is South and West. They’re both former Portuguese colonies, so I learned Portuguese. Both very interesting countries, both coming out of devastating civil wars. Then I moved to Nigeria in 1998 as a BBC correspondent. I spent 3 years there, then moved to Johannesburg, South Africa for 5 years with the BBC. So I haven’t lived in Nigeria since 2001, but I’ve gone back a lot both with the BBC and for Al Jazeera and obviously about my book as well. Nigeria is an extraordinary country, I hope in this book, my affection for Nigeria comes through.

It does. I’m not a massive non-fiction fan, but Another Man’s War was heart-breaking, horrifying, and fascinating. This is Isaac’s story, but you managed to tell a pretty comprehensive tale of the West African experience, of Burma, of Japan and the state of the British empire. Then because Isaac was still alive there was this wonderful contrast of how he had survived, how Nigeria had survived, which was all very different to Burma and, to a certain extent, India. It is a horrific book, but its only horrific because I was there. Reading it the way you framed it, the context you were searching for to tell their story – it’s very powerful… 

Phillips: Thank you. As you can probably tell, I’m not a military historian. I’m not interested in war in terms of weapons. When I was an undergraduate, studying Modern History in Oxford, I did some African history and my tutor had been a colonial administrator in Northern Nigeria. He was talking about soldiers who had come back from Burma, and I didn’t know about that. Then, later when I lived in Nigeria, they were mentioned to me a few times. In fact, once I went to a military parade in Kaduna Northern Nigeria and there were Burma Boys there. There was the modern army at the front and these old guys at the back. In khaki but, essentially barefoot, in their 70s at the back and for whatever reason, I didn’t get a chance to talk to them.

I moved on from Nigeria in 2001 and, over time, I thought that was stupid, because if 100,000 of them went to war, there must be incredible stories… I didn’t want to tell a dull, dry overall history. In 2009 I took a week off and I went to the Imperial War Museum library, I was ploughing through all these memoirs by British officers thinking they were all a bit samey, not actually taking me closer to the fundamental questions that interested me about this, which were why did these people go? Did they want to go? Were they forced to go? What did they think of it? How did they feel about the British Empire that they were ostensibly saving? How did their experiences change them and how were they received when they went back to Nigeria and Kenya, Ghana and Sierra Leone? I was pulling up two kinds of documents – by British officers or else by Nigerian academics written in the 70s and 80s, when Nigerian universities were better funded than they are now. They were very polemically anti-colonial and angry – completely legitimate. But, they too didn’t get me any closer to the participants… Then there was the one by Isaac Fadoyebo. I started reading it and it was this first-hand account…

The title, A Stroke of Unbelievable Luck is a bit self-effacing, isn’t it?

Phillips:  In the 1940s, the vast majority of Nigerians who went into the army wouldn’t have gone to primary school. Fadoyebo was instantly in a very rare category. I had to try and find out straight away of he was alive or not. Basically, Professor David Killingray, an academic, had edited it 10 years earlier. But, he’d had no contact with Isaac, and doubted he was alive. From the description of his injuries, he shouldn’t have survived, and certainly not into his 70s. The only reason I was hopeful was that he was only 16 when he signed up. When I did track him down, he was so delighted to tell his story and everything clicked into place, because, he died 14 months later. I believe he took enormous pleasure from the film and the recognition it got. Even the British officers who were interviewed in the film, three died within the following year. So it was just on the cusp of a generation that’s lost forever.

I liked the fact that you stressed this was his story, his memory – in some respects it’s absolutely crystal clear and in others its slightly romanticised. Also hearing the recollections of some of the British and Japanese officers and Japanese soldiers stationed in the same region. Then being able to tell the continuing story of the countries, which you couldn’t do in the film. Was it a book you had in mind, was it a simple interview, an essay?

Phillips: Once I found that he was alive, I knew I could pitch it to Al Jazeera as a documentary. I thought it would fit quite well with their agenda. It hadn’t occurred to me that it would take me to Burma as well. I already had the idea that if it went well, it could become a book, because even just finding Isaac and hearing his story was so extraordinary. Then when we found Shuyiman’s family in Burma and Isaac passed away, it almost seemed – at the risk of sounding incredibly pompous, a duty to write it, because it had all worked out so incredibly well. Isaac’s family had been very warm and accommodating to me. I went to his funeral and I wanted to do him justice. Of course, I then realised that one of the frustrations of his passing away was, suddenly, there were questions that I wanted to go back and ask him, ranging from the trivial to the important.

Like David Kargbo’s story, which is still a bit of a mystery, but…

Phillips: David remained elusive to me, he died more than 50 years ago. I’ve reconnected with his son who’s been incredibly helpful on the phone and [I’ve] spoken to various peers. It was nice to be able to get something of that because he saved Isaac’s life.

David Kargbo
Photo credit: http://barnabyphillips.com/

You never work out what David’s motivation was, obviously, he was a comrade-in-arms, but there didn’t seem to be much between them before or after the ambush. They fell out several times. Yet they both died wanting to know what happened to the other. Wasn’t that odd that they never reached out to one another?

Phillips: It was strange and again, that’s something I would have liked to have pressed Isaac on more. All I can say is I think David was a lot older and to generalise, I think in the hierarchy of more traditional African society, as it would have been then, David was 20 years older, so they weren’t quite peers. He was a sergeant, Isaac was a private, different countries, rudimentary postal systems. But I know both of them thought about it a lot, because it was such a pivotal moment in their lives…

Another Man’s War, completely describes everyone in that book. Even from a British officer or even Churchill and the wider British army’s perspective and then, the other side… It’s a wonderful title…

Phillips: Titles are difficult, but Nigerian singer Aṣa, has a wonderful song called Fire on The Mountain and there’s a line in it – I’m paraphrasing, but it’s something like, ‘hey soldier boy, you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t you know you’re just fighting another man’s war?’ The fact that she was a Nigerian singer singing this, I wanted to put it in, attributing it to Aṣa, but it was going to get very expensive. I met her in London about 6 months ago performing in Union Chapel in Islington, I blagged my way backstage, told her and gave her a copy of the book.

It does keep away from politics and, if you don’t want to plough through military history, it’s a really good overview of the ridiculousness of parts of the Asian campaign – even though it has been branded as one of the most brutal campaigns of the entire second world war. Who knew? I didn’t!

Africans had no idea what they were getting into either – the issues between the Muslims and Buddhists. But, it’s important to see the African soldiers as individuals. There is temptation to see them purely as exploited victims. Yes, they were exploited. But they were also individuals taking the best opportunities available to them at the time. So you might say when Isaac signed up, what on earth did he know about Japan or Burma and in what way did it represent his interests? But a counter-argument to that is he took a free choice of the options available to him – an offer of employment, training and certain benefits and glamour that was not otherwise available. That was the best-paying, best job that he could see for himself so I fit that theme in.

You can always tell the writers or film makers who claim to have lived amongst ‘foreigners’ in their ‘foreign land’ yet lived apart in reality – they don’t spend time as friends or equals on a human level. An understanding showed in your book, because you had that confidence to tell the story. You didn’t romanticise Isaac. I liked the child-like wonder of when you went to the Myanmar war cemetery and gasped, “Wow! There they are!” at all the names Isaac told you!

It was just an overwhelming moment of being absolutely in touch with a piece of history. What I wasn’t sure of was, did the British army compensate Shuyiman and his family for helping them? Because the British officer said they did…

Phillips: The family said they got some money and gifts, I think was the phrase they used. But no, it made no material difference to their long-term prospects. Isaac got his life and went such a long way… He had a good civil service job in Lagos, he had a car. They called him Pa Fadoyebo.

Referencing the Nigerian experience what came through in the book, but not so much in the film, was that apart from being used in the run up to Nigerian independence as anti-British propaganda, it was forgotten very soon. No-one was interested, apart from to listen to the old stories from the beneficent Pa Fadoyebo…

Phillips: A lot of it is just the demographics of a country like Nigeria – it’s such a young population. There’s few people left in this country with real first-hand experience of the WWII, in Nigeria, it’s much less. To think and reflect about the past in that way is quite a luxury, I think.

I suppose with Isaac and David ‘coming back from the dead‘ as their families thought, the lines of communication at the time weren’t great. It wasn’t like here, where the entire country was involved and some parts suffered attacks. It was ‘another man’s war’! Then as independence followed so soon afterwards it became ‘other people’s business’. Though I think it made him a little sad…

Phillips: It did make him a little sad, and I think that’s why he really enjoyed the film, because enough time had passed to be able to look back at the colonial experience, I suppose with equanimity. Young Nigerians, when they heard what happened to Isaac, they were just like, “Wow! That’s incredible!” and it was a bit less fraught with, “What were you doing fighting for the British Empire?” Things had moved on a bit, and it could be seen in its context.

Enlistment centre.
Photo credit: http://barnabyphillips.com/

What I also found fascinating was that they weren’t soldiers on the front line they were medical orderlies – mobilised to support the 81st Division at the actual Front. Even with the modern ads for the military talking about all the jobs opportunities that are open to you, you still don’t think of war in those terms. I guess M*A*S*H (film 1970, CBS TV series 1972-83) illustrated quite well the dangers of the non-fighting recruits. But I still found his role put a surprising spin on what happened. Isaac was trained as a medic support. Isaac went to war. He was shot to pieces. Was that at all surprising for you?

Phillips: It was a surprise, because what the British realised was that majority of African soldiers were strong, fit and had an amazing carrying capacity in this really hostile terrain. They were fighting without roads, without a place where any air support could drop packs out of the sky. So if you haven’t got mules to carry equipment, people are carrying it all. The ratio relative to all the people carrying ammunition, medical supplies to the fighting men holding guns at the Front – it’s something like 5:1. Which isn’t to say that the others weren’t in very dangerous situations and having to put up with extraordinary hardship.

It kind of seems to relegate their experience or somehow make them not true soldiers. But I think they were all soldiers. They were there. Also if it came down to it, they would have been expected to take up arms and as we know, they died under attack…

Phillips: The irony was that Isaac comes from South West Nigeria which is forested, humid and ‘jungle-like’ in places. But the majority from Northern Nigeria; from drier regions of Kenya or Ghana it was as alien to them as it was to an officer from Surrey.

What the book did slightly better than the film was the officers did come across as a bit pompous and quite ‘them and us’. Whereas the book did manage to say, yes of course. But, there were also some aspects to some of those officers and definitely other officers who were just more humane and really understood the common humanity or the human experience, it wasn’t just. “…aren’t they smiley and cheerful?”

Phillips: As a trained historian and journalist, I’m wary of imposing the morality or judgments of our times on people 70 years ago. It’s quite tricky. You have to tell the story as it was. It’s quite apparent when you compare what different officers said and wrote, that even within the standards of their own times, they clearly came in varying degrees of sensitivity and sophistication. That’s a telling fact, where maybe you can start to make judgments between one guy and another. But it is difficult to know exactly what was acceptable and what would have been perceptive in the 1940s. It’s easier to understand today when someone is being narrow minded than 80 years ago.

This is Phillips’ first book, for which his agent was trying to find a publisher throughout 2012, the year following the documentary’s release. She made him write a very long and detailed proposal of about 12,000 words, which is about a tenth of the length of the book, a chapter-by-chapter summary and one sample chapter to pitch to various publishers. Then, he took 6 months’ unpaid leave to write it. He got very good advice from his published wife, to just start writing straight away from day one…

Phillips: The structure was clear in my head already. I tried to write 1000 words a day in the British Library in the morning, before lunch. The research is relatively easy. You can often just slot anecdotes and things that interest you into what you’ve written already, and you don’t then get this sickening panic that 4 months have gone and now you’ve got to start writing, Then, when I was back at work [I’d] written the first draft! I marked places mainly with direct references to the Nigerians and other people’s perceptions, because I think with the ongoing question of diversity, from our perspective, it is a question of perception.

I’d like to thank you for the film. The Burma Boy was broadcast on Al Jazeera English internationally at the end of 2011. It had a great reception and won the US CINE (Council on International Nontheatrical Events) Golden Eagle Award for history programming 2012. It was then shown in the 2012 London African Film Festival run by the Royal African Society, at the Hackney Picturehouse.

In Nigeria, it was shown in schools and clubs and had a great reception. Last year, 2014, it was shown In the Khalili Lecture Theatre in SOAS (September), and at the Ake Literary Festival (November) – a new Nigerian literary festival – run by an Anglo-Nigerian writer and ex-teacher Lola Shoneyin. In March 2015, it showed at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay, Myanmar.

Phillips: It’s also being shown in October in the Imperial War Museum for Black History Month. I’ve been bugging them for years, saying, “Look, this is such a good fit for you. You tell me you’re looking at ways to reach out and show a less hackneyed version of the First and Second World Wars, and here it is!” So finally they’ve said they’d like to show it.

Another question I would loved to have asked [Issac], and I’ve been pinching myself ever since is, where was he on VJ Day? I know he was physically back in Nigeria. How did he hear that news? How did he feel and where was he? That’s something I’ll never know, unfortunately.

I am so pleased we had the chance to spread this story around – especially amongst our readership and not just London University students and patrons of the Royal African Society. Because it’s another important part of our collective history which needs to be told and recognised. I was also pleased for Butch Stuttard, who has dedicated his life to making important films which carry a message, and for Barnaby Phillips who, it seemed, pursued what felt like a lifelong calling with serendipity’s help along the way…

For more information about the book and film go to:

Website:  | Buy the Book 

Watch the documentary below


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