We should remember them ... but I'd rather forget the horrors of war
As the nation prepares to mark Remembrance Sunday this weekend, David Clensy talks to one of a handful of surviving Bristolian Burma Star veterans about the horrors of war
FOR John Skene MBE, fighting the Japanese in the punishing jungles of Burma during the Second World War was one long series of horror stories. But among the nightmares of death and destruction he witnessed, there is one horrendous travesty in particular that has haunted him for more than 70 years.
"We arrived in a clearing one day, and there tied to a tree was the body of a small child covered in stab wounds," he tells me – his eyes fixed on a point in the distance in horror, as if he can still see the sight before him.
"The boy can't have been much more than four or five, and he'd clearly been taken from the local village and tied to the tree so that the Japanese could use him for bayonet practice.
Bridal hand tied bouquet (Roses)
2 Bridesmaids (Roses)
Groom & Best Man button holes (Roses)
Discounted rates apply to larger Bridal party requests.
Not to be used with any other offer.
Contact: 0117 2448228
Valid until: Tuesday, December 31 2013
"Those are the kinds of horrors that stay with you for the rest of your life. Of course, I saw my fellow soldiers being killed horribly on an almost daily basis, but it was war – you told yourself it was war, and you simply got on with your job.
"But it was very hard to accept that sort of thing happening to innocent children."
Today the 93-year-old, from Stapleton, is one of just five Burma Star veterans left in Bristol.
"There aren't many of us left in the country these days," he says. "I've been to a lot of funerals over the past 20 years."
But Mr Skene, who received the MBE six years ago for his contribution to engineering after the war, was invited back to Buckingham Palace last week, to meet Prince Andrew.
"The Duke of York had been out to Burma earlier in the year, and had visited a lot of the battle sites," he explains.
"When he came back he was keen to hear more about it, and wanted to meet some of the veterans in person, so I received a letter from the Palace, inviting me to a special reception.
"It was a wonderful experience. Prince Andrew chatted to all of us veterans about what we'd been through – you could tell that he was genuinely interested."
Mr Skene certainly has plenty of stories to tell. He was just a 21-year-old apprentice engineer from Kingswood when he was called up to join the Glosters in spring 1940.
He served in France with the British Expeditionary Force, before being driven back across the Channel by Hitler's forces.
After a short time serving on the Yorkshire coastal defences, with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, Mr Skene found himself sailing out to the war in the Far East – leaving behind his wife and two-week-old daughter.
The hardest fighting came in 1944, when Field Marshall Bill Slim's troops were taking Kohima back from the Japanese.
"There was a lot of confusion – it was jungle warfare, not a traditional battlefield," he explains. "I remember one occasion when the man standing right next to me was struck by one of our own shells.
"It blew the clothes right off him, and he fell to the ground. He lay there and said 'it's one of ours', and when I tried to turn him over, all his insides fell out. He had been split right down the middle. I held him. Then he died."
On another occasion, Mr Skene was nearly killed himself in another so-called "friendly fire" incident.
"We had been pushing forward, and called for air support, but the RAF couldn't send the planes in that morning because of the weather.
"By the time they could get the planes in, later that day, we had moved forward and taken the land we had asked them to bomb – so when I spotted the Hurricanes coming over, I knew what was about to happen.
"They dropped the bombs directly towards us. It was carnage. Somehow I escaped with my life. Then they circled and attacked us again, this time with cannons. So many of the men around me were killed – shot-up very badly – it was awful."
Mr Skene's luck finally ran out when a 600lb shell exploded close to his head – he survived, but received head injuries that still cause him to suffer regular headaches more than seven decades on.
While convalescing in a field hospital he contracted malaria and dengue fever, and was transferred to administrative duties.
"It was my job to organise the servicemen who were being freed from the Japanese prisoner of war camps. They were all in a terrible state – it was horrible to see it.
"They were so emaciated, and had been badly treated – but it was rewarding to be a part of helping to get them back on ships bound for home."
Mr Skene was himself finally sent home in December 1945, and officially de-mobbed in February 1946.
"I then focused on rebuilding my life," he says. "I got my old job back, and we had a second daughter in 1947. For a very long time I tried not to think about what I'd been through, and certainly didn't talk about it to anyone.
"Then finally in 1990, I made the trip back to Burma, on a pilgrimage organised by the War Graves Commission."
The trip gave Mr Skene the closure he had long needed.
"It was a very emotional trip," he says. "It brought everything back – it was a very sombre week, but it certainly helped me to come to terms with it all.
"It's a long time ago now of course, and sometimes I think I'm lucky that my memory is failing a little – I wouldn't want to be able to remember every moment of those times, as I know some veterans can.
"I don't get out much these days," he adds, as he looks down at his wartime "bush hat", which he is holding on his lap.
"But on Remembrance Sunday I turn the television on and watch the ceremonies quietly by myself, and remember all the men who didn't get to come home and rebuild their lives."