Yorkshire survivors of a wartime exodus of half a million people from Burma are among those whose stories are told in a newly published book.
John Bostock from Ripon and Di Clarke from Knaresborough are survivors of an evacuation in 1942 in which thousands died and whole families were wiped out as they attempted a hazardous trek to India to escape the Japanese.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of their escape, a story told in Exodus Burma – The British Escape Through the Jungles of Death 1942 by Felicity Goodall.
Di, now living in Scriven near Knaresborough, was five in 1942 and had been living in Burma with her aunt and uncle.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, she and her brother were flown to safety on a Princes Flying Boat by her father who had been working in India.
“My cousin was on the trek along the Chindwin river and across to Calcutta with my aunt and uncle and, even though they got out relatively early, he remembered seeing lots of dead bodies on the way,” she said.
“The story of the exodus from Burma is largely untold and this book is superb.
“The past feels so immediate because of the number of personal testimonies that Felicity has used from diaries and letters.”
After an airstrip was strafed by Japanese airfire, thousands of unprepared, unequipped civilians set off on foot on a 300-mile journey through dense jungle, mountain passes and swollen rivers, many women wearing high heeled shoes, the old in slippers, some carrying suitcases.
Many died by the wayside or in temporary refugee camps when they could go no further, succumbing to starvation, drought, cholera, malaria or air attacks.
John Bostock’s family escaped the worst of this little-known episode of the war. They left early thanks to the foresight of his father, Geoff, manager of the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation, who had meticulously and secretly planned an escape route for families working for the company after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and invasion of Singapore in February 1942.
John, now 79 and living near Ripon, was almost seven on 23 February 1942 when he remembers being woken in the early hours at the family home in Maymyo and told they were going on a trek.
“As far as I was concerned the whole thing was an adventure”, he said.
His father, Geoff, who had years of experience of living in Burma and of life in the jungle, led the procession of 56 elephants, 22 women and 15 children through the mountains to safety in the first of two superbly organised caravans.
Di Clarke’s uncle, Jim ’Elephant Bill’ Williams, had worked for the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation for twenty years and his expertise with elephants and knowledge of the jungle and water supplies made him an invaluable resource on the same trip.
Those adhering to instructions to ‘stay put’ until the very last minute were less fortunate, facing soaring temperatures, the monsoon and the Japanese. Their stories are recorded in long unopened diaries and letters that Felicity has researched and which led her to make her own personal trek across Burma to follow the route.
Exodus Burma – The British Escape Through the Jungles of Death 1942 by Felicity Goodall is published by The History Press and available from bookshops and online for £18.99.