Monday, 12 May 2014

Remembering the Far East

As the US celebrates Asia-Pacific Heritage Month I turn to the Far East for May's entry in my Year of Remembrance. Today we'll look at several war veterans who, although they survived the war, saw and endured suffering in the Far East during World War II. This is a lengthy article, and I decided not to split it up over several days as I feel it deserves to be complete.

The article features 3 gay men who experienced that war from 3 different perspectives - invasion, capture/internment, and liberation.

Willem Nijholt was born on Java in what is now called Indonesia, and what was then called the Dutch East Indies, in 1934. His parents were Dutch and his father was a sergeant in the Royal Netherlands East Indian Army. When he was aged 8 the Japanese invaded the islands. This was at the beginning of 1942 just a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Java was the last of the Dutch Indies to be captured, the inhabitants having lived in fear of the formidable might of the Japanese advancement through the islands.

The neighbouring Philippines fell to the Japanese in May 1942. Consequences of this will be related in a couple of days in relation to the ancestry of an lgbt singer.

As nationals of an enemy country the Nijholt family were interned in a concentration camp. Willem's father, however, was soon sent to work on the infamous "Death Railway", the Thai-Burma railway. It was the last Willem would see of his father until 1948.

The Thai-Burma Railway was one of the worst horrors of the war in the Far East. Not only was the jungle environment overbearingly hot and humid for the non-stop labour enforced upon the prisoners, but disease was hardly dealt with. If a prisoner had a nasty and painful puss-filled ulcer on his leg a Japanese guard would kick it. If the prisoner didn't cry out in pain he was sent back to work. If he DID cry out in pain he was shot. Only very few escaped this treatment.

The railway was built to complete the supply route from the bottom of Malaya to Rangoon in Burma. Construction began in June 1942 and thousands of POWs were transported as slave labour, including Willem Nijholt's father. One British POW who also laboured on the railway was Dudley Cave.

Dudley was serving the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and was captured at the fall of Singapore in Febrary 1942, just a month before the invasion of the Dutch East Indies. He was one of many lgbt service personnel in the British army. At the time there was no forced discharge of known homosexuals, and Dudley later recalled how gay men, even though subjects of verbal abuse, were tolerated in times of war. Dudley was sent to work on part of the railway 10 miles north of the famous Bridge on the River Kwai.

Most of the men in Dudley's sections died from exhaustion, malnutrition or disease. Dudley himself caught malaria and only the forceful persuasion of a POW doctor saved him from the type of execution I mentioned earlier. Dudley found himself back in Singapore in Changi Prison.

The distance from Europe and the speed with which the Japanese conquered the Far East was an important factor in the time it took for the Allies to come up with an effective co-ordinated response, bearing in mind there was still the war against the Nazis in Europe to deal with.

During 1944 the Allies broke through the Japanese sea defences and were advancing. They now has the upper hand. The USA did a remarkable feat of mobilising their forces after Pearl Harbor. Their main focus of attack was on the occupied Asian-South Pacific islands. In the Philippines this began at New Year 1945 with the attempt to liberate the main north island and the capital Manila.

HQ I Corps of the US army moved south from the Lingayen Gulf encountering heavy bombardment from two sides.  They were forced to dig trenches in the sand with their helmets. Technical Sgt. Elmer Lokkins was serving with I Corps as it landed at Lingayen Gulf pushed towards Manila, giving up a post as clerk in the Adjutant General's office to join the invasion force. Manila was reached on 22nd February 1945 and fell to the Allies a few days later. The liberation of the Philippines was achieved, and Elmer earned the Philippine Liberation Medal. The liberation also saw many American servicemen remaining on the isalnds for a while. One was to marry a local girl and was the father of the subject of my "Out Of Their Trees" article in a couple of days.

Liberation for the Dutch East Indies and Burma came with the surrender of Japan on 2nd September 1945. Allied troops from around the world converged on south-east Asia to start the clean-up and the restoration of order and legitimate government. My own father was one of these troops.

Dudley Cave and Willem Nijholt were released from their prisons and repatriated to Europe. Willem's mother suffered greatly from the experience and spent some time in hospital on the return to her home town in the Netherlands.

Despite the horror and trauma of experiencing the war in the Far East all gay men featured in this article went on to achive some significance in other fields in later years and there was a happy ending, of sorts, for all of them.

Willem Nijholt became a well-known Dutch entertainer and actor. In 2011 he was knighted by Queen Beatrix for services to the arts. Willem's memories of the war included those of friends and neighbours he lost touch with. Last year he traced a childhood friend who had also been a POW. Their reunion in Amsterdam after more than 70 years captured the attentin of the Dutch media (you can watch the reunion here).

Dudley Cave went on to become one of the leading figures of the gay rights movements in the UK during the 1960s. In 1955 he met his life-partner, and ex-RAF pilot, and they were together for over 40 years. Dudley encountered discrimination which led to the loss of several jobs which fuelled his zeal for change, and he saw the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK come to fruition in 1967. He was also a leading light in the fight for gay rights and equality within the Unitarian Church of which he was a lay preacher, and the church's belief in tolerance was instrumental in his own decision to promote peace and reconciliation with the Japanese.

Elmer Lokkins returned to the US in June 1945 and almost immediately met his life-partner Gus Archilla. They were together until Gus's death in 2012. In 2003 they married in Canada and became involved in the Marriage Equality movement in the US. They appeared together at many Pride events as role models for marriage equality, gay rights and lgbt veterans. Elmer died last year on 12th October, National Coming Out Day (UK), at the age of 94.

1 comment:

  1. I received this email this week (reproduced with permission) -

    Hello Tony,

    I was searching google for something completely unrelated and stumbled upon your blog. Gustavo Archilla was my Great Uncle. He was the oldest of 9 siblings who came with their parents to NY from Puerto Rico. When my great grandparents died after their arrival, the kids were orphaned in NY, and Gus, being the oldest, cared for the family. He met Elmer and the two of them were soul mates. I remember as a kid always hearing them sing together from a never ending catalogue of old forgotten songs. Up until Gus died, he and my grandfather were the last of their siblings. I truly feel that Gus's happiness and joy kept him young and healthy for so much longer than the rest. Now my grandfather is sadly the last one. I just wanted to let you know that just last week Gus an Elmer's ashes were scattered together off the Florida coast. They were remarkable people, and made an impact on everyone they met. They had friends all over the world who knew them as kind, loving, and vivacious people. Thank you for sharing their story.