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It was 1944 and I was just a kid of ten enjoying myself during the summer holidays. I had always been afraid of water but this day in May I decided that I should go to the pool and learn how to swim. The truth of the matter is that I was trying to impress my girlfriend of the day. Alas, she was quite a good swimmer. I was hoping that by the time she came back from her holidays I would be able to swim well enough to score points.
So I hopped on my trusty bicycle and peddled off to the Willingdon Club in Poona. India where we lived, to conquer my fear. The Willingdon club was one of those clubs that the Pukka British Sahibs loved to establish where ever they had a military base. It was an exclusive club for the upper crust of the society. However, as an act of patriotism during the war it was thrown open to all British Other Ranks, or 'erks' as well. It had pretty well all you could ask for in recreation from polo to pool swimming, skittles to skating, besides which the girls weren't too bad either.
In the learning mode I had been told by the other guys that I should hold onto the bar that ran along the wall at the end of the pool and kick with my feet. Then, if and when I felt comfortable, I should push back a little into the pool and return to the bar (so that's where I got the habit). I was very pleased with my progress and after a while decided that I should go home. So I got out of the shallow end and was on my way to the dressing rooms at the other end of the pool. This meant that I had to pass the bar area where there were a number of soldiers imbibing a few. As I was making my way past someone, probably a soldier who was half tanked, thought it would be fun to push the passing kid into the pool assuming that I could swim, which I could not. I sank like a lead balloon and to this day I remember shouting for help only to see green bubbles rise up in front of my eyes. I don't remember much more than that as I lost consciousness.
The next thing I recall was lying on the pool surround with someone pushing on my back. It was a young soldier. All I can tell you about him was that he was a black silhouette against the sky and I was too terrified to take in more details. He helped me to the dressing rooms where we got dressed. He would not let me go home alone so he borrowed a bicycle and we cycled to my place. He had to explain to my parents what had happened and that is was not really my fault. I still got into trouble when he left as I had broken two rules, going swimming alone, and not telling them where I was going to.
Well, in a very short while Jimmy, for that was his name, and his friends were regular visitors to our house. Our family had a sort of "open house" for any of the boys from the forces. They could come there and just sit and chat, all rank was left outside. We often went on trips into the surrounding area so they got to see a little of Poona. Since my father was in charge of the huge vehicle depot on Dehu Road it was relatively easy for us to get a deuce truck and head off to the river or a nearby lake for a picnic. When the boys moved on we often got letters from them.
Jimmy, it turned out, was a tank driver and there was to be a demonstration on the local field or maidan that weekend. Jimmy arranged for us to come and sit in the regimental enclosure. I still remember the tank roaring past and just in line with us its gun fired. I think I must have jumped about ten feet into the air with the sudden sharp unexpected explosion of the cannon firing but I saw the smoke and the blank projectile come streaking out of the barrel. As a ten year old I was very impressed, and later Jimmy told us that he did that just for us.
Well, as it always happens during wars, troops have to move and the day came when Jimmy came and told us that his regiment was moving to the Burma Front but he did not know where. In very short order we knew that he was going to Akyab on the Arakan front which was part of the Burmese coastal area on the Bay of Bengal. Dad knew that because he assigned the tank carrying trucks to the regiment.
Shortly after we got a letter from him and, of course, I replied. I don't remember how many exchanges we had; then came a letter addressed in a strange hand. I tore it open and there was a usual cheerful letter from Jimmy. Just at the bottom of the page he wrote, "I have to go to the air raid shelters, the Japs are strafing."
Then when I went on to page two it was
a strange handwriting finishing off the letter and it read: "Brian, I am very sorry to have to tell you that Jimmy was killed by the Japanese strafing on his way to the slit trench. I am Jimmy's commanding officer and he was a fine young man whom we will all miss." It was signed Lt.Col. Marsh-Banks.
I am told that I cried for days after that. Jimmy was just eighteen years old and had been in the army for less than six months
Copyright 2008 by Joseph Alwyn Valu. All Rights Reserved.