Named one of the Best Books of 2014 by NPR
"Riveting. It's an extraordinary story, well-researched and beautifully told but not about the World War II you might know. Barnaby Phillips writes about humanity and compassion from the perspective of a Nigerian soldier whose forgotten colonial unit fought for the British Empire in then-Burma. Sixteen-year-old Isaac Fadoyebo is one of the "Burma Boys" who found themselves battling determined Japanese soldiers far away from home. Wounded and left for dead in the jungle, Isaac and Sierra Leonean David Kargbo survive only thanks to the goodness of a local villager, Shuyiman, and his family. Phillips delves deep into relationships, identity and much more in this stunning book. I couldn't put it down."Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR correspondent
In December 1941 the Japanese invaded Burma. For the British, the longest land campaign of the Second World War had begun. 100,000 African soldiers were taken from Britain’s colonies to fight the Japanese in the Burmese jungles. They performed heroically, yet their contribution has been largely ignored. Barnaby Phillips travelled to Nigeria and Burma in search of "Burma Boy" Isaac Fadoyebo, the family who saved his life, and the legacy of an Empire. This is Isaac's Story.
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Barnaby Phillips is a senior correspondent for Al Jazeera English, which he joined at the time of its launch in 2006. His documentary Burma Boy won the prestigious CINE Golden Eagle Award. Previously, he was for 15 years a correspondent for the BBC, reporting primarily from Africa. Phillips grew up in Kenya and now lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
2 March 1944
Isaac Fadoyebo would always remember the Kaladan as a wide and calm river, as silent as a graveyard. They had been drifting down it for four days. Trees lined the banks and monkeys played in the branches that reached above them. They were some ninety soldiers, British officers and their West African men, equipment heaped precariously high on the little fleet of bamboo rafts. Most of the West Africans could not swim. When Lance Corporal Felix Okoro had fallen in a couple of days previously, he had drowned. His body had washed up on the far bank the following morning, and by the time the burial party reached him, vultures had already started to tear away at the flesh. It had been a horrible accident, Isaac thought, although not one that had created a feeling of impending disaster. He had woken that morning with no sense of foreboding. He didn’t know that for the rest of his long life, he would always think in terms of before and after this day.
The officers and men were taking breakfast together around a campfire. A simple affair of bread and tea, washed down with plenty of sugar, but no milk. This would be their last day on the river. That afternoon they hoped to arrive at the town of Kyauktaw, which their colleagues in the 81st Division had captured only the week before. They were a medical unit, trying to keep up with the advance. At Kyauktaw, they’d been told, they would be setting up a small field hospital, because the Japanese were expected to put up more of a fight to the south. There would be casualties, and they would be responsible for them.
None of the men on the riverbank that morning could have been described as battle-hardened. The officers were doctors, almost all from Scotland. They were volunteers, and most had only signed up after war was declared. The West Africans were from Nigeria and Sierra Leone, and had joined the army in the last couple of years. They’d been trained in first aid and nursing, but given only the most rudimentary of fighting skills. The few that carried guns probably hoped they’d never have to use them. Their unit’s name precisely determined their role in the great British army’s attempt to recapture Burma: they were the 29th Casualty Clearing Station, and they belonged to the 6th West African Brigade, part of the 81st Division of the Royal West African Frontier Force.
It sounded grand, put like that, but the truth was that the 29th CCS was an odd assortment of men of variable quality. When they’d crossed the border from India, they’d heard artillery, and seen British planes strafing enemy positions on distant hills. On one occasion, they’d even treated some injured Japanese soldiers who had been captured by the front-line soldiers. But that was weeks ago now. There were some who’d begun to hope quietly that the Japanese had pulled out of the Kaladan Valley altogether.
The men dawdled. Most were wearing only vests and shorts. Many were barefoot. If they were going to spend another day back on the rafts, they asked, why bother to put boots on? Some ambled down to the water, to wash their faces. Others wandered off in the direction of the nearby village, a straggling line of bamboo and thatch huts along the riverbank. When they’d arrived the previous evening, they were relieved to see that it was an Indian settlement. Indians, that’s what they called the Muslims, because that’s what they looked like. They could be trusted; the officers had drummed this into the men before they’d set out, and it was turning out to be true. It was the others, the Arakanese Buddhists, or Burmese as they called them, who were slippery. Why, they even looked Japanese. The Africans asked the Muslims what name they gave to their village. ‘Mairong,’ they replied.
The commanding officer, Major Robert Murphy, looked at his watch. Half-past seven, time to load up the rafts. The mist over the river had burned away, revealing the outline of the trees on the far side. He wondered if he should tell the men to make less noise. He didn’t like this complacency. He looked down the sloping muddy bank, and saw Isaac sipping his tea and chatting to Company Sergeant Major Archibong Bassey Duke, a fellow Nigerian. There’s two young men who seemed to be enjoying this adventure, thought the Major.
That morning Bassey Duke was warming to one of his favourite themes: life after the war. When it was all over, he told Isaac, they’d return home with some money to spend, and some stories to tell. Bassey Duke was a giant of a man. He wore blue shorts and a white vest, and would have been easily visible from the far side of the river. It was the end of the dry season, so the opposite bank was only one hundred or so yards away. Behind it the sun was rising over the steep hills, the dark jungle still in shadow.
Bassey Duke jerked and spun, and only then did Isaac hear the shots. He watched his friend fall to the ground, still clutching his red enamel mug. Tea spilled from it and trickled down the bank. There were flashes of light in the jungle on the opposite side of the river. Bullets buzzed past Isaac’s head. Like angry wasps, he thought. He fell face down into the reeds. His heart thumped against the cold ground. They were in a terrible position, exposed on the steep, slippery bank. Machine-guns had opened up now. How many? One, at least, probably two. He caught a glimpse of Major Murphy stumbling past, walking like a drunk. That was strange. From higher up on the bank, he could hear screaming. Then he saw that Major Murphy’s head was covered in blood. The shooting stopped. Someone nearby was gasping in a quiet voice. ‘Take me, O God, take me, O God.’ It sounded like Private David Essien, but Isaac could not be sure. He tried to crawl towards the voice, but as soon as he moved the shooting resumed. More angry wasps spun through the air. The Japanese had Isaac in their sights, and bullets ripped through the reeds around him.
When the shooting stopped a second time, Isaac reached out with his left hand for Essien, who had stopped gasping. It was strange how still Essien was, how cold he felt, for Isaac could see no blood on his uniform. Isaac tried to crawl up the bank, but one of his legs did not seem to be working properly. He looked down and saw that his khaki trousers were soaked with blood. So was his shirt. He closed his eyes and said to himself, ‘Is this me? Is this really me, boy?’ He saw his father Joshua, sombre and pained, sitting on the veranda of the family house in the village, pleading with him to run away from the army before it was too late. Good advice, he thought now, but at the time he had shrugged his father away. ‘I am in trouble, I am in deep, deep trouble.’ His leg had started to ache, sending spasms right through his body. Tears rolled down his cheeks. Tears of fear or pain? He didn’t know. He was sure of only one thing: he was going to die.
Many hours must have passed, because the next thing he can remember is that the sun was low in the sky, and a kind white face was looking down at him. A miracle. It was Captain Brown, who seemed to be unhurt. He was smiling, and still trying to talk like one of the soldiers. ‘Ebo, my boy, you are down o!’ Ebo, the affectionate name the Captain always used for Isaac because, so he explained, Fadoyebo was too long to pronounce. The others must have all run away, but the Captain had stayed, or maybe even come back, to try to help the injured. As far as Isaac could see, Captain Brown did not even have a scratch on him. Isaac reached feebly out towards his officer. ‘I’m thirsty, so thirsty,’ he said.
The Captain went away, and Isaac could see he was fetching a flask of tea from one of the bamboo rafts that were still tied up on the riverbank. He came back and urged Isaac to sit up, take a sip. He was talking fast, telling Isaac that Major Murphy was badly hurt, he’d been shot in the head, and that he’d been dressing his wounds. It sounded like Captain Brown didn’t think Major Murphy would make it. Now he wanted to take a look at Isaac. He took a knife to Isaac’s trousers, and carefully cut them open, to reveal a bloody mess of a right leg. The Captain was saying something about bullets and a fractured femur, and how he was going to put together an improvised splint. Isaac struggled to raise his head to drink the tea, when he saw the Japanese soldiers running up the bank towards them, bayonets pointed at Captain Brown.
They had crossed the river.
The Captain turned around in surprise and jumped to his feet. He remonstrated with the Japanese. ‘I am Captain Richard Brown, a medical officer,’ he explained. He did not even reach for the pistol at his waist. The Japanese surrounded him, and lead him away. For some time after they’d disappeared from his view, Isaac could still hear the Captain, protesting.
Isaac watched other Japanese soldiers as they tore through the equipment on the rafts. One of them carried the flag of the rising sun. Then they turned to the dead bodies there seemed to be two or three near Isaac and took guns, ammunition, even clothes. They seemed desperate, taking whatever they could get their hands on. Only after they’d finished their plundering did they show any interest in him.
They spoke so quickly, he couldn’t understand. But they repeated a phrase again and again: ‘English people, English people,’ they seemed to be saying. Were they asking him whether they were any other officers? Did they want to know where the survivors were hiding? Now they were gesturing for him to stand up. One of them pointed a rifle at his head. They were saying something else, it must have been, ‘Get up, get up,’ but Isaac could not even sit. He wondered at the idiocy of it all. Did they think that if he could get up, he would still be lying here?
He knew what was coming. The Japanese, take a prisoner? A white man, like Captain Brown, perhaps, but a black man? No chance. That was not how they did things. He closed his eyes and waited to be shot.
Table of Contents
Part I. Sacrifice
1. One big man
2. Let this bayonet drink my blood
3. A calabash in the wind
4. The generals are met
5. Black men held the gate
6. Full of loneliness
7. Ju-ju on the River Kaladan
8. Cover me, Lord
9. Loyalty and patience
10. Home again
11. Great awakening
12. The cries turn to laughter
Part II. Debt
13. Into a ravine
14. Here you left us
15. Natives of Arakan
17. For our children to be free
Appendix: Key events