A gripping true story of survival set in Hong Kong and Burma, as one family struggles against overwhelming odds in World War Two. Divided by war, in order to see each other again they must overcome terrible danger. The beautiful landscape of Burma and the tragedy of war are evocatively portrayed in this haunting and moving book.
Hong Kong. Leading an attack on Golden Hill, Jack Devereux of the Royal Scots is shot through the head. A Japanese officer attempts to behead him, in order to blood his samurai sword; waking momentarily, he kills his would-be executioner. His head swarming with maggots, he survives capture as the Japanese are both impressed and fascinated by his wounds. Alive, albeit in a dangerously precarious physical state he then goes on to experience and escape the horrific and tragic incident of the sinking of the Lisbon Maru, in which hundreds of POWs drown, the sharks of the South China Sea, the mines of Nagasaki and the atom bomb.
Burma. Jack’s wife Kate Devereux, her infant son (the author) and mother Harriet desperately try to avoid the unstoppable advance of the Japanese; they flee their home, taking only what they can carry and walk the jungles foraging for food while avoiding predators, snakes and armed bandits (dacoits). Terrified Kate’s marriage certificate will be discovered by the Japanese, they adopt the guise of the Mons Burmese tribe. The once prosperous family becomes destitute and starving. Their chance of survival was slim; multitudes of people like the Devereux’s fleeing the Japanese died of exposure and starvation, were shot by dacoits or killed in bombing raids. They are kept alive by the author’s incredible grandmother, a strong-willed resourceful woman with a proud bearing, able to speak fluent Japanese but also to pass herself off as native Burmese. Their destination is the deserted and mystic city of Pagan. The beautiful but deadly landscape of Burma is the setting for their adventure-filled story.
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About the Author
Brian Devereux was born in Burma in 1940 and the early part of his life is described in this book. He worked freelance for twenty five years in the film industry, and as a stuntman; once doubling for Michael Caine, performing all the stunts including the ‘deadfall’ in the film of the same name. He also owned a country house hotel.
Read an Excerpt
Escape to Pagan
By Brian Devereux
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2016 Brian Devereux
All rights reserved.
The Temple Bells of Pagan
To my dear departed Mother
After an infinite time I met my dear Mother; she looked as I first remembered, young and nimble, smiling always caring "Son – how old and tired you seem," she said, as if surprised Yes Mother, the years have been unkind, unjust – unsparing "Never mind Son," she answered – as if in her distant dreams She gently stroked my old grey head, "soon – you will be my Little boy again – I will chase you laughing – like I used to As on baby legs you ran while I delighted in your joyful screams." Forgive me my dearest Mother, I wish I had been a better son.
At the beginning of her story Mother would always pause, narrowing her eyes as if protecting them from a burning Burmese sun while she scanned some dusty, jungle fringed bullock track. Maybe she was searching for the first front-line Nipponese soldiers we were suddenly confronted with all those years ago. The Japanese soldiers' sudden appearance shocked both mother and daughter, yet they found themselves strangely curious; the fast approaching warriors looked medieval. Perhaps in her distant mind's eye she was peering into a remote stilted Burmese village surrounded by tall graceful palms and sheltered in the dapple-shade of mango trees. She may have been looking for the red face of her mother in the colourful milling crowd of villagers, or her young child running naked, laughing with the village children. Perhaps Mother was searching for a fleeting glimpse of her tall, handsome young husband looking dashing in his Glengarry and tartan trews on their wedding day.
I would wait while Mother searched for a particular indelible memory of her past. All she had to do was find the correct location and the correct bookmark. Only then would she smile and begin.
Meeting the enemy for the first time was one of her favourite stories, for now the terror of that moment has faded with the passing years. I would always listen, even though I had heard the story many times since the age of seven, for the re-telling gave Mother pleasure. I was the only one left, the only one there. Once the images and locations were established, her flow of words would increase. When in full flow she did not like me interrupting.
"How do you spell the name of that village, Mum? What direction were we travelling?" I would ask. Mother would stop and give me one of her long looks, regardless of my age.
* * *
"Do you want to learn the story of our survival, our hardships, or how to spell the names of Burmese villages? I just followed my mother. There were too many other worries: your father, escaping, the dangerous wild animals, poisonous snakes and you. You kept running away.
"At night we were vulnerable. Human corpses lay everywhere; many bodies had been half eaten by wild animals. Lying on the ground at night was tempting providence. I was also terrified of dangerous snakes as they killed so many people in Burma. As the sun sank below the horizon jackals began calling. Their eerie calls always frightened me. These were the things I was concerned with not the spelling of Burmese villages, now stop interrupting me!"
* * *
The warriors of Dai Nippon swept away all before them like an unstoppable Asiatic tsunami. Unlike the Mongol invasion centuries past, these warriors came from the east, out of the rising sun, from islands scattered like a handful of pearls in the cold waters of the East China Sea.
Looking back as an adult, I can now describe these images that I witnessed as a child, images that impressed my receptive young romantic mind; the Japanese were the first soldiers I had ever seen. Each Nipponese soldier was loaded down like a pack-animal, their faces contorted by the pain of their burdens. They marched at a desperate speed with their Havelock's bouncing on their shoulders like ancient chain-mail. They marched with their overlong bayonets exposed, blades that stabbed upwards to a cloudless sky, a sky dominated only by their Sun Goddess Amaterasu-o-mikami; a goddess that had smiled down favourably on her warrior sons as reward for worshipping her image and emblazoning it on their national flags and also for revering a close relative of hers; their Emperor, a son of heaven. These fighting men on the march gave the impression that they had come from another bygone age or perhaps even another distant planet.
Without my dear, wise, matriarchal grandmother, my mother and I would not have survived the many attending dangers of the jungle. Serious diseases, parasitic infestations and snakebite, were only some of the dangers we faced. This is the true story of our survival that took place in that far off land of green-domed pagodas now called Myanmar.
The dreaded meeting
In the distant shimmering heat haze stands the mystic spectacle of Pagan, a city of a thousand ornate red and white green domed pagodas. Temples devoutly built by the placid hands of Buddhists centuries long past, long forgotten. Pagan now stands lonely surrounded by wildness on the burning red ochre plains of central Burma.
When the shadows of the pagodas lengthen, a balmy wild jasmine fragrant breeze blows in from the far off purple tinged mountains. This scented zephyr seems to whisper ancient secrets to the thousands of small temple bells that hang idly during the still heat of the day. The lazy temple bells slowly begin to stir and tinkle tranquil sutras to their many listening Buddhas that guard each pagoda.
This ancient city of Buddhist temples is now surrounded by wilderness. On still moonlit nights only the solitary hamadryad and skulking hyena wander there cautiously, for Pagan (it is said) is a place where spirits still linger.
The once prosperous British Devereux family, Kate, her mother Harriet and young son were now destitute, making their way towards Pagan alone. At night as they slept on the ground, they shivered with cold and fear of attack by wild animals. It was somewhere near Pagan that the first dreaded encounter with the invaders occurred.
* * *
"We were walking along a lonely cactus and prickly-pear bordered bullock track that had been previously used by the retreating and ravenous Chinese Army; we could tell this by the litter they had dropped. Our slow exhausted steps were watched with hostile intent by the white-bleached skulls of village dogs that littered the ashes at the side of the track. Each skull had been picked clean by eager chopsticks. My mother said the starving Chinese soldiers favoured dog flesh above pork to fill their shrunken stomachs, for dog flesh is red and contains no rich fat.
"We feared the Chinese soldiers and Burmese dacoits only second to the Japanese. Pagan was my mother's intended destination of our escape. She decided we would be safer in the less populated rural countryside away from the Japanese Air Force. At one point, she wanted to reach some villages on the other side of Pagan. Mother believed we could get food in these villages and hide in one of the pagodas. My brother Harry Talbot used to camp near these villages while out hunting and knew the headmen. He always helped when a predator became a danger to livestock or the villagers; he also gave them the excess meat. Harry was a well known sportsman in Burma and popular with the Buddhist pongee monks who supported the football team he played for [it was Mandalay or Rangoon]. My mother believed the headmen of these villages would help with food and shelter without betraying us. The invaders called themselves 'The Warrior Gods of Dai Nippon' in their propaganda pamphlets, dropped by their shiny silver planes. We had secrets to hide from a suspicious and paranoid race who dealt harshly with suspected spies. Jack and my brother Harry Talbot were both in the British Army.
"My mother and I were now exhausted and so thirsty; we also had you to care for. We had now been walking for many days and nights, sleeping in the open. I hated the eerie calls of the jackals as they heralded the night. My mother always chose the site where we bedded down before the sun disappeared below the horizon. She knew the safest places least likely to be visited by venomous snakes, but we were never really safe. We always placed a waterproof sheet on the ground first then a blanket to lie on and one to cover us. Despite the heat of the day, the nights were so cold. You slept between us for safety; we had heard many stories of wild animals running off with children in rural Burma.
"Occasionally we could hear the distant sawing call of a leopard, sometimes the alarm calls of barking deer that terrified me and kept me awake, particularly if their calls seemed to be coming closer; we had no walls to protect us. After an hour of total darkness, the moon and the stars appeared. To reassure me, Mother always told me that dangerous wild animals would be frightened off by the noise of the fighting and bombing. I did not believe her: something was eating the dead. At night I just stared into the shadows of the jungle that surrounded our hard earthen bed. Cold dawn always took an eternity to appear.
"On our way to Pagan, we could hear sounds of heavy fighting and see plumes of smoke rising behind us [possibly the oilfields]. It was on this bullock track that we would soon encounter a column of Japanese soldiers. This unexpected meeting came as a terrible shock to my mother and me. China was just over the border from our new home in Taunggyi; we had heard news of the atrocities at Nanking. We were also afraid that copies of my marriage certificate were still in the town hall at Taunggyi. The Japanese were convinced that the British had left spies behind. To be suspected of spying meant torture and death by the Kempeitai.
"It was now April. This was the hottest time of the year in Burma. On that particular day, we were very thirsty and tired. We needed to find water and shade to rest. When your mouth and throat are parched there is no hunger, you cannot swallow, and fear and trauma adds to your thirst. All you have is an overwhelming desire for any kind of liquid. Before rounding a bend in the bullock track, both my mother and I as if by instinct, turned around and were shocked to see a column of marching Japanese soldiers behind us. I could feel my heart pounding. We just stood there rooted to the spot, watching them closing the distance. Even though we were terrified, we were also strangely curious. These soldiers looked so primitive and untidy. As they approached, we could hear them all making a soft grunting sound; they seemed to be chanting a single repeated word. We stood aside; Mother could speak Nippon Go but decided not to communicate. 'Stay calm, Kate, and keep your mouth shut,' whispered my mother. 'Don't you dare start bawling – they are unpredictable when their blood is hot.' She said this just before the column of Japanese troops approached us. They looked so intimidating with their long fixed bayonets. They were marching so quickly, hardly making a sound in the dust. We just stood still; my heart was pounding as I held your hand.
"They were led by an officer riding a Shan pony. The faces of the troops were screwed up with fatigue, their uniforms covered in red dust; some soldiers were pulling a kind of big gun. One of the Japs marching in front held the red and white sun flag of Japan aloft. The officer on the horse studied us without expression. The marching soldiers paid us little attention. Each Japanese soldier was loaded down with equipment; they carried big packs on their backs, packs festooned with leaves and grass, they looked so different from our own British troops. We wondered how soldiers that looked medieval and had to pull their own guns could have beaten the proud British Army so quickly. After the Japanese troops had passed us, we noticed strange cloven-hoof foot prints in the red dust and a slight fragrant smell."
* * *
The "slight fragrant smell" left behind by the marching Japanese troops matches other similar descriptions; an American officer fighting with the Chinese described the smell as "tooth-powder", while an Australian Officer recalled the scent of a passing Japanese patrol as "not unpleasant". After the surrender of the British in Hong Kong, Japanese officers often placed handkerchiefs over their noses when approaching their British counterparts.
* * *
"The last column of soldiers had not long passed when there was a guttural shout and the marching column of Japanese soldiers suddenly stopped. Turning, they looked straight in our direction.
"'My God!' I whispered. 'They have changed their minds and are going to bayonet us.'
"'Shut up Kate!' said my mother. Her face was flushed red. We just stood silent; I hoped they would kill us quickly. We soon realized the enemy troops were not looking at us but up at the sky over our heads. We then heard aircraft approaching. There was nothing we could do. If the planes were British and attacked, we would also be killed as we were so close to the Japanese soldiers. If we ran, the Japs might shoot us. There was nowhere to hide. The cactus plants and prickly pear that surrounded us were covered in long needle-sharp thorns and offered little protection. Suddenly two Japanese planes came in low; we could see the red sun symbol and the pilot's faces.
"The Jap soldier with the big flag began waving it and the rest of the soldiers took out small white handkerchiefs and also began waving them at the planes. The Japanese fighters left. The enemy soldiers continued their march. We did not move until they were out of sight. We quickly learned to identify the different sounds of the planes; Japanese aircraft had a higher pitched tinnier sound than the British and American fighters. With the possibility that more Japanese soldiers would use this bullock track heading in the direction of Pagan, my mother decided to leave the track and enter the scrub jungle where we would be safe and less visible. We could see green hills in the distance, so we headed north away from Pagan."
* * *
It is also true, as Mother states, that the warriors of Dai Nippon in marching order, always had a certain medieval appearance; their light cloven-hoofed split toed rubber boots (tabi), were ideal for tree climbing and jungle warfare. The local Burmese often referred to Japanese soldiers as the "Monkey People" because of their habit of nimbly climbing trees at every opportunity in order to scout their surroundings. Their outdated long bayonets and swords, flashed in the bright tropical sunlight and searing heat. In the van they carried their striking sun flag (the Hinomaru), always proudly held aloft like a feudal banner. This was the banner of their eternal Emperor warlord: a living God. These wispy whiskered hardy soldiers pulled, pushed and carried their artillery like draught animals, softly grunting the same single inaudible word. Their dusty sweat streaked faces twisted with total exhaustion no western fighting man would be expected to have endured. These were frugal, sturdy, olive-skinned men with muscular puttied bound calves. Their hungry, alert eyes constantly scanned the sky and their surroundings with the caution and suspicion of peasants. These men who grew rice (the food of the gods) and fished the deep cold waters that surround their cherry blossom islands, were the hardy warriors from Dai Nippon Teikoku (The Empire of Great Nippon). They were Shinto and Zen Buddhist; rice and fish eaters, who could force-march thirty- five miles in a day. Like all fighting men they marched towards the sounds of battle. But unlike other soldiers who fought to live the warriors of Yamato fought to die. They had already taken their final leave of their loved ones in a "haiku" (a farewell poem).
"Sayonara, sayonara, when
The cherry blossoms fall I will return
Look for me at Yasukuni Shrine Mother."
Nipponese soldiers also loved their mothers.
* * *
"My mother and I carried all that we possessed. To add to the difficulty of our situation you had the habit of bolting. We were so tired and got fed up of chasing you and calling you all kinds of names, for our shouting could give our position away to anyone nearby. God knows how many dangerous wild animals were in the vicinity that could have snatched you."
* * *
Being deeply religious my grandmother and mother never swore at me in English. Swearing in Burmese, it seems, was not a sin: "Come here you little ..." or "wait till I get my hands on you – you little ..." When older, I began to understand Burmese swear words, and then realized what they were calling me. It still makes me smile.
Excerpted from Escape to Pagan by Brian Devereux. Copyright © 2016 Brian Devereux. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Kim von Heintze v
Map of Burma vi
Chapter 1 The Temple Bells of Pagan 1
Chapter 2 Golden Hill 11
Chapter 3 The Telegram 29
Chapter 4 The Perfumed Harbour 43
Chapter 5 The Train Station 53
Chapter 6 The Lotus Eaters 65
Chapter 7 An Evil Spirit 75
Chapter 8 The Attack 89
Chapter 9 Wild Dogs in the Moonlight 95
Chapter 10 Sham Shui Po POW Camp 109
Chapter 11 A Ghost Town 115
Chapter 12 The Lisbon Maru 123
Chapter 13 The Toddy Drinkers 129
Chapter 14 The Grouper's Second War Patrol 137
Chapter 15 Caught by Surprise 141
Chapter 16 The Lisbon Maru is Attacked 147
Chapter 17 Mango Showers 155
Chapter 18 Pongyis 161
Chapter 19 The Lisbon Maru Sinks 179
Chapter 20 Journey to Tada u 191
Chapter 21 The Cherry Blossom Islands 209
Chapter 22 Typhoid and Cholera 213
Chapter 23 The Lost Japanese Patrol 223
Chapter 24 Froggy Comes a-Courting 231
Chapter 25 Winter's Bite 247
Chapter 26 Liberation 253
Chapter 27 Bed Bugs 261
Chapter 28 The RSM Returns 267