Nigerian who fought in Burma in WWII remembered

Jan. 25th, 2013

Yahoo: LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — At 16, Isaac Fadoyebo ran away from his home in southwest Nigeria and signed up to fight for Britain in World War II, a decision made from youthful exuberance that saw him sent to Burma to fight and nearly die.

Courage and luck kept him alive behind enemy lines as local farmers protected him for months until the British broke through and found him. When he returned home to Nigeria, his story and those of his fellow veterans largely fell away from the public’s mind as independence swept through the country and a devastating civil war and political unrest later followed.

Fadoyebo, who died in November at the age of 86, represents one of the last so-called “Burma Boys” in West and East Africa. On Thursday, his family and friends gathered for a final worship service and celebration of his life, as new attention has been paid to his sacrifices and those of other Africans drawn into the fighting.

“There was this allegiance to the British; we would sing ‘God Save the Queen.’ … Those who joined the war then were of course celebrated as heroes, not as we were celebrating them now,” said Elizabeth Adenike Ajayi, a daughter of Fadoyebo. “But like much of Africa’s history, there wasn’t an attempt to get the history from the perspective of the Africans.”

Fadoyebo served as a medical official in the Royal West African Frontier Force, a military comprised of Britain’s then-colonies of Gambia, the country that would become Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Coupled with recruits from Britain’s eastern colonies as well, authorities recruited some 500,000 Africans to fight.

Shot in the leg and chest in battle, Fadoyebo drew the attention of Japanese soldiers who approached him with bayonets on their rifles. However, they left him alone, likely believing he’d succumb to his serious wounds. He survived, crawling to a fellow soldier still alive from Sierra Leone. Villagers later took them in and protected them for months, even though they could have been killed for aiding the African soldiers, according to accounts from him and his family.

Fadoyebo returned home to Nigeria, still then a British colony despite a growing call by nationalists for the nation’s independence. Soldiers who took part in World War II from Ghana later sparked the 1948 Accra riots, the start of the nation’s march toward independence. However, their Nigerian counterparts largely faded back into normal life as the nation gained its independence from Britain in 1960.

On 6 November 2002 HM The Queen officially inaugurated the Memorial Gates on Constitution Hill in London, UK. These Gates have been erected as a lasting memorial to honour the five million men and women from the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the Caribbean who volunteered to serve with the Armed Forces during the First and Second World Wars. They also celebrate the contribution that these men and women and their descendants, members of the Commonwealth family, continue to make to the rich diversity of British society.

African participants in the Second World War

During the Second World War some 375,000 men and women from African countries served in the Allied forces. They took part in campaigns in the Middle East, North Africa and East Africa, Italy and the Far East.Men of the 81st and 82nd West African Divisions served with great distinction against the Japanese in Burma, as part of the famous ‘Forgotten’ 14th Army. The 81st was composed of units from the Gambia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast (now Ghana), while the 82nd comprised further reinforcements from Nigeria and the Gold Coast. Both Divisions formed part of the RWAFF (Royal West African Frontier Force).

Two soldiers
© Imperial War Museum
The King’s African Rifles was composed of units from Kenya, Uganda, Nyasaland (now Malawi), Somaliland (now Somalia) and Tanganyika (now Tanzania). The KAR fought in Somalia and Abyssinia against the Italians, in Madagascar against the Vichy French, and in Burma against the Japanese.
Non-white South African participants included Cape Coloured and Indian members of the Cape Corps, and black South Africans who served in the Native Military Corps. Though both the CC and the NMC made extremely valuable contributions to the Allied cause in auxiliary roles, neither was used for combat, to the displeasure of many of their members.
Out of a population of 42 million in the African Colonies of the British Commonwealth, 372,000 served in the Allied cause during the Second World War. Of these 3,387 were killed or reported missing; 5,549 were wounded.
Their Own Stories

Al-Haji Abdul Aziz Brimah, 81st West African Division (Gold Coast)
Aziz Brimah, son of a chief of the Muslim community in Accra, Gold Coast (now Ghana), joined the Gold Coast regiment not long after the outbreak of war. He saw service on the front line with the 81st West African Division, fighting the Japanese in Burma.

Editor note: the Chief Brimah royal office in Ghana is occupied by the Brimah family descendants, with lineage from Nigeria, and the office presides over the Yoruba and Zango settlers in Ghana.

Aziz Brimah
© Christopher Somerville
‘We knew that if we didn’t volunteer the enemy would come. Our motives: one, the British helped us to quench our tribal wars. Two, if they have trouble elsewhere, it’s proper for us to help them. Three, it’s also in our own interest – these people have an expanding attitude to cover the whole world. If we did not go out to face them, they would come here … This fight we took like a Jihad, a Holy Battle. So it was allowed to Muslims. If you don’t fight – they will come to your home, and kill you!’
‘When we were coming into India on our ship, rumours went round among the Indians: “The Africans are coming! They are cannibals; they chop [eat] people; they have tails!” So when we went to bathe in the streams, people asked us not to take our pants off – our blue PT pants – in case they would be frightened by our tails! Then the British authorities themselves began to spread the story: “We are bringing in the Africans. When they catch you, they will chop you alive” (laughs) This was the best way they had of putting fear into the Japanese.’
‘In the Burmese jungle there was something we called tiger leech. It’s very small, very thin. If it gets to your body it will suck your blood and get bigger and bigger. So we used a cigarette end or a match on the under of that thing; it will take its fangs out. But if you don’t do that, but just pull it off, the fangs will stay within your body, and it will go bad – very bad.’
‘The Japanese put leaves all over their bodies and they crawl gradually, as if they were trees or grass. We’d been trained and lectured as to all these tricks. If there’s two trees near together they can fix a machine-gun to each one and tie a rope to the triggers, then lie in the middle. If he see you coming, he’d pull this rope: kak-ak-ak-ak-ak! Then that one: kak-ak-ak-ak-ak! Then he’ll release a mortar bomb: bam-bam-bam! You’ll think there are so many people, but it may just be one or two.’
‘If you are in a war you forget everything. There was no time to pray. This jungle war was not a child’s play – it was something very dangerous, I think unprecedented anywhere. You become a different person. You left behind every civilian attitude, every gentle attitude. You forgot … everything. That is why, after the war, they did not let us come home straight away. They gave us two good months, with money, to go to any part of India. It was something to refresh us, to let us come back to a human being.’Source: