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Pictured: Last of the heroes of Burma in Exeter

By Exeter Express and Echo  |  Posted: March 21, 2013

  • BurmaVets-Matt-Austin 1

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THE sun has gone down and the morning has broken and they still remember their friends who never came back.

They were young men once, fit and active and determined to do their duty by King and Country – and they did, in one of the most hellish campaigns of the Second World War.

Now there are just five of them left in Exeter, from the more than 125 who came together after the war determined not to forget those who never returned to home and hearth.

They are the last of the Exeter Burma Star Association, men with ramrod straight backs, medals and memories.

Soldiers, sailors and airmen, Ray Pett, 90, Harry Jordan, 95, Wally Snell, the youngster at 86, Ron Sherwin, 92 and Joe Ponsford 90.

For nearly four years, they and their comrades fought implacable Japanese opponents in hostile conditions thousands of miles away from their homes.

The men in the Burma campaign regard themselves as a special group, and rightly so.

They know their sacrifices did not win a world war, but probably prevented it from being lost.

Fresh from its triumphs in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong, the Imperial Japanese Army prepared to sweep down on to the plains of British India in 1942-43.

If they had succeeded and isolated Australia as well, Britain might well have had to withdraw from the East.

Inevitably, that would have meant America sending more men and ships to the Pacific for a long campaign, thereby also delaying D-Day and the liberation of Europe.

It would have also condemned much of the world to ruthless oppression under Japanese rule.

So Burma did matter, and it still matters to those who fought there. Bitterly won victories at Imphal and Kohima are almost always overshadowed by commemorations for European theatre operations.

Ray lives in Stoke Canon and is secretary of Exeter's Burma Star Association. He served as a target spotter for the guns of the Royal Artillery, flying low and slow in single engined Auster aircraft above and behind the Japanese lines.

He remembers only too well the nagging feeling of being out of sight and out of mind.

Ray said: "There was always the sense that we were forgotten about back home.

"Equipment which could have come to us was kept in Britain in readiness for the Second Front and everything else took months to reach us.

"It was understandable as we were far away and most people had very little idea of what we were doing, but we fought in many very bloody battles.

"I was at Chittagong in India preparing to go back into Burma when I heard about D-Day.

"We were very relieved for our families back home because we knew it was the start of the finish for them in their war, though our war was to go on until August, 1945.

"And all Burma veterans have tremendous respect for those who fought in Normandy and Europe. We just wish some more people remembered us, too.

"We fought through the jungles of Burma and down into the plains, and the Japanese were not the only enemy.

"There were temperatures of 120 degrees-plus, snakes, diseases and all sorts of things to deal with. The Japanese were very tough and fanatical, too.

"If we thought we might be captured, I had an agreement with my mates we would shoot each other because we had seen evidence of the atrocities carried out on PoWs and the Burmese. We didn't tend to take too many Japanese prisoners either."

Ron Sherwin, was just 16 when he joined up as an RAF apprentice and served his three years just in time for the start of the war in 1939.

His No. 5 squadron flew Hawker bi-planes over the North West Frontier of India before being switched to American Mohawk planes .

"I was a wireless operator, mechanic and gunner and we roamed all over the place," he said. "I was sent to Burma to set up mobile aircraft control centres . When things got really hot we had to get out by way of Rangoon and Mandalay and then we went in with the second group of Chindits.

"We located dropping zones and set up mobile radar units."

After the war Ron, who lives in St Leonard's, worked for the Marconi company.

Wally Snell, the chairman and bearer of the association's standard, served aboard the cruiser HMS Nigeria as a gunner on one of her 12, six-inch guns. Based at Trimcomalee in Ceylon with the 5th Cruiser Squadron he and his crew mates carried out heavy bombardment of Japanese positions, "softening up" the opposition for allied troops to land. Now living in Somerset with his wife Brenda – secretary and acknowledged stalwart of the branch – he went on to become a garage engineer and then a civil engineer.

Harry Jordan, who lives at Pocombe Bridge, Exeter, joined the 1st Devon at Higher Barracks and fought at the terrible battle of Kohima.

Far below Ray Pett in his spotter plane, Joe Ponsford and his mates were foot-slogging through the Burmese jungle to victory.

Joe, now living in Heavitree, was called up to the army aged 19. While training for D-Day, he and 20 others were picked out and sent instead to the Far East as replacements for those lost by the 10th Glosters.

His regiment was part of a division commanded by an American general fighting in Northern Burma, separate from the main British forces.

He finally came back to Devon in 1947 after four years in Burma and Japan.

Joe remembered: "There were chaps out there who seemed much older than me and had been through the worst of it by the time I arrived.

"I always thought I was a little lucky to have got there later.

"I lost a few friends out there and although I don't like remembering them, we will be going to two of the war cemeteries next week.

"While you were there, you got to the stage where you accepted whatever happened. As I was so young, I didn't really have any expectations so I thought everything was normal.

"I was just 19 and had never been abroad before. We ended up marching all the way through Burma apart from a short ride into Mandalay.

"My job was on the three-inch mortars. Unpack, set up, fire and pack up again.

"We had no motorised transport, just pack mules to carry everything while we walked."

The association is now looking to lay up its standard at St Michael and All Angel's Church in Heavitree, where it has a stained glass window dedicated to its members.

Mr Pett said: "We will keep going as long as we can. It is right that we keep together as well as looking after the widows – although we are all a bit old for fundraising these days.

"We are very lucky to be able to meet at Timepiece and we are immensely grateful to all the young people who come here and contribute to our cause. We are not forgotten by them.

Timepiece owner George Sloan said: "Part of the building was the old Royal British Legion headquarters and the association was left with nowhere to meet.

"I was happy to help and offer them Timepiece. We do some fundraising and put posters up and I have to say the young people and students give very generously.

"We must never forget what these veterans did for us all."

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