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Rediscovering an unsentimental World War Two memoir

John Bowen’s remarkably restrained story relates a chance encounter some 45 years after the war ended.

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One common feature, it seems to me, unites all the millions of men and women who experienced the Second World War. “Reticence” is perhaps the most succinct way of describing it, though “modesty” or “silence” might do just as well. My own family history is typical. One uncle, in the navy, was present at D-Day. Another uncle won the Distinguished Flying Cross for successfully outmanoeuvring three Japanese Zero fighters over half an hour in his unarmed Auster spotter plane. An aunt was a radio operator contacting clandestine Special Operation Executive (SOE) forces from a base in India. My father-in-law was captured, aged 20, at Tobruk in 1941 and spent the rest of the war in Italian and ­German POW camps. When liberated in 1945 he commandeered a bicycle and headed west through the ruins of the Third Reich towards the advancing Americans.

The common factor is that in my recollection none of these individuals – whom I knew very well – ever spoke about their extraordinary experiences. I only learned about their “war” decades after their deaths. Luckily my father-in-law was persuaded in his eighties to write down his story, otherwise we would know next to nothing of it. But so many participants remained silent about their wartime history. Maybe that explains their apparent absence of trauma, the seeming lack of enduring stress.  Perhaps the very fact of not talking about your ­astonishing experiences rendered them paradoxically mundane, or at least tolerable, and normal life could be more easily resumed. In any event, it is in stark contrast to our rush-to-confession age.

John Bowen, the author of the following postwar reminiscence, did, however, eventually write up his experiences of fighting with insurgents behind the Japanese lines in Burma in a memoir published in 1978. But even though he tells his story – it was published as Undercover in the Jungle – the tone remains remarkably restrained. What he experienced was not only incredibly dangerous, arduous and unprecedented, but also appears almost surreal when one considers the brutal, sweaty, terrifying ­reality of his day-to-day life. There is absolutely no hint of vainglory or exceptionalism. If anything, the opposite applies: his prose is unsentimental and matter-of-fact. In ­memoir after memoir of the Second World War the same candid self effacement seems to apply. It’s the reader, in a way, who has to perform the thought-experiment and ­register the true, almost unbelievable ­nature of a life experience that would never be repeated again.

John Bowen was born John Gebhard in 1915 in South Africa. He returned to live in England in 1924 after the divorce of his ­parents. On leaving boarding school, he began a career in journalism and worked in Paris as a sub-editor on the Continental Daily Mail for two years, before going to Cambridge, graduating in 1938.

Despite being deaf in one ear (a result of the polio he contracted as a small boy) and with pretty poor eyesight, he still managed to pass his army medical examination and served in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment with the British Expeditionary Force in France before being evacuated from Cherbourg to Weymouth in 1940. He transferred to the 5/16th ­Punjab Regiment in 1942, and then joined “V” Force and Force 136, the SOE’s branch in the Far East. Working behind Japanese lines, SOE’s “V” Force, and later Force 136, were reconnaissance, intelligence-gathering and guerrilla organisations. Led by British officers, they employed local insurgents as guerrilla fighters harassing Japanese lines of supply.

During his time in Burma, John Bowen was twice mentioned in dispatches and was granted the Military Cross. In the recommendation for the award, his commander wrote: “His example of outstanding leadership, following continuous operations since 1942, first in the Arakan then Imphal, and leading patrols ahead of our regular troops across the Chindwin and Irrawaddy rivers has been of the highest order. This officer has now completed three-and-a-half years of almost continuous active operations in the Field.” Undercover in the Jungle is the remarkable memoir of his time with “V” Force and Force 136. He also wrote three novels, one of them about a young officer in the Indian Army during the Second World War, which remain unpublished.

In 1941 he married Elaine Winbolt ­Lewis, who became a Wren officer. They had three sons, born after the war. He changed his ­surname from Gebhard to Bowen (his mother’s maiden name) in 1947, and ­qualified as a solicitor before eventually  becoming a legal civil servant. He was made OBE in 1966. He retired in 1977 and died in 2002.

This short memoir, only recently d­iscovered by his son, relates a chance re-encounter some 45 years after the war had ended with one of the “irregular” Burmese soldiers he had fought alongside, one Saw Thet Wa. Saw Thet Wa was a Karen from south-east Burma. The Karens were loyal to the British, the former colonial power, after the main Japanese invasion of Burma in January 1942, and suffered many savage reprisals from the Japanese as a result.

A voice from the past
By John Bowen

It was after ten o’clock in the evening when the telephone went. In the Dorset village where I live it does not often ring so late. A foreign lady’s voice asked for “Major Gebhard”. This was a name which had been mine 40 years before. It had a very Teutonic ring to it and I had changed it when I came back from the war at a time when I believed that it would be held against me.

“Do you remember someone called Saw Thet Wa?” The lady asked. “I am his sister.”

This triggered an explosion of memories. I have not always lived in Dorset, or in England for that matter. There had been a time in the Second World War when I had dropped by parachute on to a mysterious paddy field in a remote part of Burma called Karenni, where a resistance movement was operating behind Japanese lines. It was there that I met Saw Thet Wa. He had been a good-looking young Karen from the Irrawaddy Delta who had fled from Burma before the Japanese invasion in 1942. He had subsequently been trained as a wireless operator and dropped blind in the Karen hills to contact a British officer called Major Seagrim who had stayed behind during the retreat. Seagrim was one of the heroes of the resistance and was awarded the George Cross, posthumously. Eventually he surrendered to the Japanese in an attempt to dissuade them from taking reprisals against the Karens for sheltering him. Saw Thet Wa had been captured about the same time. They were both condemned to death. Seagrim had been executed but Saw Thet Wa had escaped into the mountains. Together we survived until the end of the war. I was repatriated to England almost immediately afterwards and I had never seen him again or known how to contact him. I had often wondered what had happened to him.

That night I found myself talking to him on the telephone after 45 years. It was an ­eerie experience. He told me he had been living in the US for the past 20 years. He was about to go back.

We arranged to meet outside the ticket office at Charing Cross station on what was his last day in England. The problem of identifying one another arose. Forty-five years was a long time. Strange suggestions were made as to how this should be done. Should I carry in my hand the faded red arm band with a black spider on it which we had worn in the resistance? Or the silk maps of Burma issued to the SOE parachutists? In the end we decided that it would be sufficient if I carried in my hand a copy of the book I had written about the operation some years before, by means of which Saw Thet Wa had been able to find me.

We met at the appointed place. I recognised him at once after he had tapped me on the shoulder. But I knew that I would never have done so if we had passed one another by chance on the street. He seemed smaller than I remembered, but he was still a trim figure. We were both wearing spectacles and I was walking with a slight limp. He had with him his sister and his wife, two attractive Karen ladies in Western dress. I had made no plans as to what we should do. It was 12 o’clock. On the spur of the moment I decided that we would all go to lunch at the Charing Cross Hotel. It proved a good choice. The dining room was quiet and we were able to eat our meal at leisure. The dish of the day was roast beef, but I felt fish might be more appropriate. I ordered sole for all of us. Saw Thet Wa and I drank a bottle of Chablis and the ladies had soft drinks.

Suddenly it was as if the time warp had been reversed. It got about in the dining room among the waiters that we were old comrades from the war meeting improbably after 45 years. They made a great fuss of us.

Saw Thet Wa had lived more dangerously than I had in the meantime. He told me his story. When Burma became independent he had been granted a commission in Aung San’s new army. Then Aung San had been assassinated and more sinister figures had succeeded him. Once again Saw Thet Wa had taken to the jungle in a new ­Karen resistance movement. He told me that the next few years had been the most rewarding in his life. He had helped to form a little rebel enclave in the country called ­Kawthoolei. He had married his wife, who was a doctor of medicine.

In due course there had been an amnesty and they had come in from the jungle hoping for a new start in a more liberal climate. He had been taken back into the Burmese army in a much more exalted rank. The Ne Win government had dispatched him to take over a rather ­famous missionary ­hospital, which had been founded and run by an American ­doctor called Seagrave. ­Seagrave had died but another American was running the hospital. Saw Thet Wa had orders to replace him. He began to have new ­misgivings about developments in Burma. The more liberal climate proved to be an illusion. Suddenly the Karens were once again in revolt.

When the American doctor handed over to Saw Thet Wa he told my friend that if the situation became too difficult he would sponsor him and his wife in the United States. In the end Saw Thet Wa decided to accept this offer, but the Burmese  authorities forbad him from leaving Burma. ­After much deliberation he and his wife fled across the Salween River border through the jungle into what is now Thailand. From there they made their way to Minnesota, where the American doctor was running a hospital. Saw Thet Wa’s wife requalified as a doctor in the United States. He ­himself went off to help the American forces in the Laos campaign. They had a daughter and a grandchild who were born American citizens.

I told Saw Thet my own story. I had become a lawyer after the war and it was much more prosaic. I asked him how he had traced me. He had been shown a copy of my book by a mutual acquaintance living in England. There had been photographs in it of the two of us in a group of tribesmen. He had been puzzled by the fact that the man whom he had known as Gebhard had become Bowen. I explained the change of name. It emerged that he had changed his own in the United States to “Charles Kinson”, something more comprehensible to the American man on the street. We laughed about these ­complications. There is clearly more in a name then one realises.

Saw Thet had been amused by my book. I told him that I had written it as soon as I was demobilised after the war, but that no publisher had been interested in it at that time. Everyone – myself included – was anxious to forget the war. Then after 30 years had passed, one of my sons, born in the meantime, had found the manuscript in a cupboaard and suggested I try again. That had been a few years back. It was accepted straight away and is now out of print.

Three hours passed as if in no time, and then it was time to say goodbye. Both of us were visibly moved. We were unlikely to meet again. On my way to Waterloo Station I bought an evening paper. The war drums were sounding again. This time in Kuwait. 

This article appears in the 04 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn't working