AN intimate account of the life of a soldier serving in India, Burma and Malaya during the Second World War has been published by Port Erin resident James Fenton.
The book, The Forgotten Army consists of Mr Fenton’s letters, photographs and sketches from his service with the 178 Field Regiment Royal Artillery.
‘It’s the only story written about the soldier’s life as he lived it in Burma,’ he said. ‘It’s my diary more or less.’
During his war service he wrote consistently to his parents, in Lancashire, his brother Harry, who served with the Royal Corps of Signals and his wife Lillian. When his parents died in 1980, he began the long task of sorting through the 440 letters his family had kept and, with other documents such as call up papers, bound the information into nine volumes.
Then he began taking extracts to form a book. ‘It took 20 years,’ he said. ‘It’s interesting, I would not have remembered a lot of what happened.’
Strict censorship regulations meant information about troop ships, military activities, locations and place names could not be revealed, so the focus is on the soldier’s life.
The book charts his war experience, ‘from very first day in army to very last day’. It follows the voyage from England in a troop ship to India. Then his division took part in large scale campaigns against the occupying armies of Imperial Japan in Arakan and Burma.
They faced the terrifying prospect of being tasked to invade the Japanese mainland.
‘We were absolutely worried to death about that. We were assault troops, the first to go in with the landing, we had small guns.’
The nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought an abrupt end to the war there. After that, his division went to Singapore and Malaya to re-establish civil rule.
When he was called up, Mr Fenton, aged 90, had just graduated from Acrington School of Art and was destined for art college in London. His natural inclination is to capture – in words and images – his environment and experiences.
His paintings were gathered into an exhibition One Man’s War shown at the Manx Museum, Douglas, in 2005.
An infamously ferocious enemy, he described what it was like fighting the Japanese. ‘We had problems going through the jungle, driving on the road, being attacked by the Japs … Every night we were shelled in Burma. We had to spend the whole of life in Burma digging.
‘The Japanese were frightful, they had such strange tactics, they did not seem to have any fear to die.’
He said: ‘It [art] carried me through the war, some were so miserable and afraid. I tried to learn Hindustani. I was taking advantage of what I could, making the best of life even though I might never come home … I was interested in all the things surrounding me. Other lads just played cards. I was interested in everything.’
Once discharged from the army, he resumed his career in art, as a graphic artist. He also pursued his career in photography and in 1977 was awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society. He also founded the UK’s first private photography museum in what is now the ice cream parlour in Strand Road, Port Erin, which he ran until the late 1990s.
War ‘broadened my mind’, he said, his one regret, it seems, is he allowed people to take his works off him while in the army. ‘I gave a whole load of pictures to an officer who sent them off for publication, they were never returned to me. I met a Yank photographer, who wanted to do an article on me. I sent the pictures for that and said: “I want them back”. The blighter never returned them. They are probably somewhere in the US.’
The Forgotten Army is published by Fonthill Media, RRP £18; copies are available in The Bridge Bookshop, Port Erin.