History unveils itself as you travel. If you get to know tourist sites, local people (even as a tourist) then you can find out and gain real insights into the places you travel to – or the people in the places!
In each country I visited I found this. Sometimes natural history, sometimes political. Nowhere more than SE Asia was the politics made clear – from Machu Pichuu and Angkor Wat from the 10th Century, to WWII escapades and atrocities in my lifetime! Yes, that’s now history! 😮
I have, this week, been reminded of this and one experience in particular, as I went along to listen to a friend relay the story around a WWII runway he and I, with his wife, ‘discovered’ in Ubon Ratchathani! I was and am excited to be part of history here as it’s something I love to learn about and being part of this new discovery and the growth in interest around it, is gratifying!
So, arriving in Ubon in September 2015, I stayed with Ray and Kammah at their home in a small village where Kammah was born, and her family live, as well as the extended area in Issan – north east Thailand.
I came over the border by bus from Laos, not yet setting foot in Vietnam and Cambodia with their own histories and stories to be shared later on.
I was included in trips out, special visits to show me around, and then this one day Ray had put aside to explore and achieve his goal to find this airstrip he had identified through war studies he started around a medal for his dad from France. Dad was 92 years old this year (2017) and a veteran of the world war. He got his French medal too, a little late especially for some too late, but at least it came.
We drove out to an area of Ubon where Ray believed this airstrip was. He had seen it on Google Earth amongst the dense jungle, following leads in accounts he read and researched. Kammah came and was helpful, as ever, in translating as few people in Ubon spoke English (not a tourist route generally) and of course, interested to help Ray in his quest too.
We drove down lanes through densely set trees and plants, jungle uncleared except for the town areas where people had homes and schools. We didn’t see anything. Then Ray saw a secondary school and said we would pull in to see if they could help. I dismissed the idea with: “As if there will be anyone in a school who will know that, just because it’s in the area”. And hey presto – amazingly, there was! (And this sort of fortune has been around Ray during the research and events he’s attended since starting his historical quest around the war heros and personnel!)
I stayed in the car, he went to the door and asked the man who opened it. I was watching expecting disappointment. Then, the man pointed to his left, and we looked as a woman, about 30-40, came along and chatted to Ray. Would you believe that this woman, a cleaner at the school, was the daughter of a man who was a young boy in the area when the war was on and the Japanese were in the area! He KNEW the PoW camp and other sites, and, having disturbed his attendance at a friend’s funeral, came in the car to show us around with his daughter, translating with Kammah’s help!
We found the airstrip. I had read some stuff on it from Ray’s writings and as we wandered the vicinity, after parking up at the edge of a concreted runway now, quite short, Ray and Kammah found more from Nong and I noticed the worn away dirt uncovered marble stone – that the runway had been built from! I was SO excited and told Ray. We continued to wander, found a bomb hole we were told about, and a small plane hanger. A white 4 x 4 had driven off at the other end of the runway but otherwise no one else around.
Nong took us to the site where 1000 horses were buried after being euthanized (shot by Cnl Toosey himself, a hero of the war who helped manage and release the PoW in this area and others throughout the war). They were so badly cared for and worked so hard they were not able to recover sufficiently. A vet was sent out to check this was the right option and sadly so many had to die. Nong, at 90 years old, dressed in black shirt and pants, simple sandals on too, came along an uneasy route to this field through bushes, and a small unkempt edging to this mass grave. I was impressed with him, his help, ability and memory especially!
He was just 8 years old when the camp was there, and sneaked in as boys will, even making friends with some of the prisoners and no doubt helping to get them some food when they could. The Thai’s are resourceful and opportunities to make some small amount of money for extra food for the prisoners (they were paid for their work on constructing the Thai-Burma Railway (Death Railway as it is nicknamed as so many men, soldiers of the world, died in inhumane and cruel conditions yet constructing such a magnificent legacy for this country now).
As well as the PoW camp where we were taken to see – now just an empty field, which was initially taken from the owners who grew rice there, to become a camp for the 1400 soldiers captured, worked and beaten there. Here, though, conditions improved as time went on and was better than other sites and camps along the railway path. Even so, the son of one PoW and another whose father was the camp band leader for the troupes there, told us their fathers were merely 6 stone in weight when they were freed!
We toured around seeing where, as the war ended for most of these men, and celebrations and changes took place for them, a horse race was arranged with locals, soldiers and saviours coming together for some much needed fun!
It was a privilege to see these sites, hear the stories, be part of the discovery of this airstrip that locals and formal authorities didn’t know about, and now Ray talks to groups, there and here, about it and shares the war strategies and PoW stories he’s found.
They are many. I have now bought the book that one of the prisoner’s sons has written about his father’s situation although his dad prefers not to talk about it. Not many do.
I met an ex SAS member in his 90s once who told me stories and shared memories but was afraid to tell his family about this exploits because of both the Official Secrets Act which he felt was still in force for him, and also his own experiences and acts that he was afraid would colour other’s views of him perhaps. It didn’t for me and I was proud of him and his comrades in arms, who saved us from the German invasion; but in the end, having opened up confidentially with me he could open up to his family, and his daughter – for his 90th birthday which I couldn’t sadly attend – got his war medals from the war office to give to him! How lovely and how proud his family were of him and how that alone might well have lifted a long-held weight from his shoulders. No doubt, the same for many if not all those soldiers of war!
I read Two Years of Tenko by Cecil Lowry, a book he gave me at the talk, about a 16 yo girl and her family taken prisoners of the Japanese and how her island home was invaded and taken over, and how they were treated.