World War II ended 75 years ago. This was commemorated in numerous events, speeches, ceremonies, writings, interviews and film documentations during the past weeks. However, not much has been done to remember black Africans who served in the Allied Forces in Burma. Their names and their sacrifices have been absent from the combat narratives of World War II, and primary sources to find out about these heroes are limited and not easy to find and to access. Most of these servicemen are no longer alive, and there are no statues, monuments or street names to remember their names.

 

81st West African Division

Soldiers of the 81st Division Recce Regiment in Burma, c. 1944. © IWM IND 7049

As a result, Southeast Asian historians still struggle to acknowledge the African involvement in Burma during the last three years of World War II, although the African divisions played an important role in the battle against the Japanese forces, most especially in the capture of Myohaung, the ancient capital of Arakan. The British colonial possession of Burma was a rich prize for the Japanese – partly on account of its natural resources, partly as a stepping stone westward to India, and partly as a buffer against the Chinese in the North and Northeast. Japanese troops had reached Burma in December 1941, and had consolidated their position there by the end of 1942. Recapturing the country would take the Allies’ 14th Army, which had nearly one million men in its service, three years of desperate fighting. Thirteen divisions were under control of the 14th Army: eight Indian Divisions, two West African Divisions, two British Divisions, and one East African Division. Little of this is commonly known today, let alone discussed in history lessons and textbooks.

A few publications, however, stand out of the sea of silence.

In his 2001 academic publication “War Bush. 81 (West African) Division in Burma 1943-1945” (Norwich: Michael Russel) John A. L. Hamilton gives a detailed account of events of the war in Burma, but focuses on the involvement of  the 8lst (West African) Division of the 14th Army, which was made up of about 23,000 West Africans from Nigeria, Gambia, Sierra Leone, and the Gold Coast, who joined the Allied Forces as volunteers. Hamilton’s research is mainly based on records and personal notes of the British involved in the war in Burma. A few memories of the Africans were investigated, too, but the Burmese view itself is missing completely. Some poems by African soldiers have been included to give an impression of the precarious atmosphere in the jungle.

War Bush Hamilton

Hamilton criticises that in the British annals of the Burma campaign much emphasis is put on the Indian Divisions, but the efforts and successes of the West African troops are either completely ignored or underrated.  Not only does Hamilton’s work provide very detailed information on the involvement of Africans in the Burma campaign and many facts concerning the movements and the battles, it also describes the natural environment and aspects of everyday life of the African soldiers, their experiences in the jungle and in villages, their anxieties, and their relationship with their European (mostly British and Polish) officers. A ten page bibliography lists the primary sources analysed by the author, and gives important bibliographical data for further reading and research. As such it is a valuable source for further investigation.

Nearly a decade after the publication of Hamilton’s book, the journalist and film-maker Barnaby Phillips located a rare treasure in the library of the Imperial War Museum in London: Isaac Fadoyebo’s memoir “A Stroke of Unbelievable Luck” (Madison: University of Wisconsin African Studies Centre, 1999). Nigerian Fadoyebo enlisted in the Army in January 1942, aged 16. Once in Burma, he was assigned the job of medical orderly but found himself thrust into active combat in March 1944. After he was seriously injured and spent a precarious time the jungle, a Muslim family in Burma provided support and concealed him and a friend from Japanese patrols. After the war Fadoyebo suffered from impaired mobility due to the wounds he received in Burma, but later recovered and he went on to work in the civil service back home in Nigeria. He was fortunate to find work – many servicemen who returned from Burma struggled to find work and to cope with the trauma of their experiences in the war. Fadoyebo’s memoir offers a unique record of one African soldier’s war service in Burma and tells the story of how he relied on the kindness of a Muslim Rohingya family to survive. Barnaby Phillips’ interview of Fadoyebo resulted in a TV documentary with the title “The Burma Boy” which was published in 2012, not long before Fadoyebo’s death in 2013.

Another Mans War

Fadoyebo’s story is also included in Stephen Bourne’s “The Motherland Calls. Britain’s Black Servicemen and Women 1939-45” (Stroud: The History Press, 2012), alongside other black service personnel who joined the Allied Forces like Ulric Cross (Trinidad), Cy Grant (Guyana), Billy Strachan and Sam King (Jamaica), Peter Thomas (Nigeria), Johnny Smythe (Sierra Leone), ‘Joe’ Moody, Lilian Bader and Ramsay Bader (Britain), Connie Mark and Allan Wilmot (Jamaica). Fadoyebo’s account is also the main subject of Barnaby Phillips’ debut book “Another Man’s War: The Story of a Burma Boy in Britain’s Forgotten African Army” (London: Oneworld Publications, 2014). Despite Fadoyebo’s fame as the subject of a TV documentary and two popular books by white authors, his memoir “A Stroke of Unbelievable Luck” is barely known and has remained out of print for many years since its publication in 1999.

Nigerian-born playwright, filmmaker and novelist Biyi Bandele gives a voice to the thousands of Africans who fought in Burma – including Bandele’s own father – who have not been properly memorialised until today. In his novel “Burma Boy” (London: Random House, 2007) he tells the story of the main character, Ali Banana, a fourteen-year old Nigerian blacksmith apprentice who finds himself behind enemy lines in the jungle in Burma, a dangerous place riddled with Japanese snipers, ambush, infection and disease. And most of all, leeches. In the end, it is the jungle that lays bare the truth that black and white are not different after all: all capable of courage, cowardice, compassion, selfishness, intelligence and mindlessness, all human. The brutality and privation of fighting in Burma was a leveller of hierarchy. Bandele’s tragicomic novel is a story of real-life battles, of the violence, the madness and the sacrifice of World War II’s most vicious battleground. Biyi Bandele was named one of the fifty Best African Artists in The Independent in 2006.

Burma Boy Bandele

Report by Jana Igunma