African soldiers who fought in Burma during World War II finally recognised

Photograph courtesy of Jill Hopwood.

Enlistment centre during the war, Nigeria. Photograph courtesy of Jill Hopwood.

African soldiers who fought in Burma during World War II finally recognised

07 September 2015

By Jemimah Steinfeld

The battleground of Burma was brutal, as any flick through a prisoner-of-war memoir will attest. It was also pivotal. It was here that Allied forces pushed the Japanese back and in so doing changed the course of the war, in Asia and from that elsewhere. It was also here that the longest land campaign of World War II occurred. Yet you wouldn’t know this from the literature: the war in Burma is more of a footnote than a chapter. What really went on in this feared jungle terrain?

Barnaby Phillips’ book Another Man’s War: The Story of a Burma Boy in Britain’s Forgotten African Army offers a missing piece to the puzzle. The men who fought for the Allies in Burma were the 14th Army officially and, with time, the ‘forgotten army’ unofficially, if ever there was acknowledgement that they’ve not been paid their due. Moving from there, Phillips looks at the forgotten of the forgotten, namely the African soldiers who risked life and limb to fight for the Allies. They numbered approximately 100,000 of the total one million soldiers in the 14th Army and were invaluable, but again who knows that?

Phillips became aware of these soldiers during his 15-year stint for the BBC in Nigeria. This interest led him to the library of the Imperial War Museum to conduct further research, hoping to unearth something interesting. His investigation bore fruit – he came across the manuscript of a man called Isaac Fadoyebo and was immediately struck. He then tracked down the editor of the manuscript and that led him directly to Isaac, who was fortuitously still alive. An amazing story unfolded.

The barebones of Isaac’s life are as follows: aged 16 he left his village in Nigeria to enrol in the British army. His motivation was pragmatic – a job in the army was a good career move. This is something Phillips is keen to highlight; Nigerian soldiers were attracted to the British army for a myriad of reasons, none of which included force as there was no conscription. Nor did it really feature loyalty to the British Empire. For some it was fear of a Nazi-controlled Nigeria (Hitler had described black people as ‘semi-apes’ in Mein Kampf, a little known fact in Nigeria). For others their reasons were similar to Isaac. He signed up in 1942, shortly after the Japanese invasion of Burma in December 1941.

After months of training and a long, difficult journey that took Isaac through the chaotic streets of Bombay, he arrived in Burma at the start of 1944. Within a few weeks, misfortune had befallen him. His unit was caught in a Japanese ambush and most were killed. Isaac, badly wounded and hardly mobile, was left to die. What followed after was a tale of survival against the odds – a mixture of luck, will power and the kindness of strangers. Isaac and David, another man injured in the attack, managed to survive largely thanks to local people who fed and cared for them. One man specifically, named Shuyiman, hid the two in his hut, endangering his life in the process.

This was their situation for nine months until they were reunited with a British unit and sent home. Isaac was welcomed back a hero, his tale of unlikely survival filling local newspapers. But once his five minutes of fame were up, his story, like so many others, was relegated to the fog of the past. That was until Phillips started to investigate.

In many ways Another Man’s War is three stories in one. Drawing on a plethora of sources and voices, it is about the war, the end of empire, and finally one man’s life. It is in the latter that the book really excels. Isaac’s singular experience is a window to understanding the broader context. The fear, the pain, the frustration – they all come alive through Isaac’s memory and through the fluid, accessible prose.

Another Man’s War does not just look back though. Once acquainted with Isaac, Phillips learns of a regret – Isaac left Burma in such a hurry that he never properly thanked Shuyiman. So, carrying a letter from Isaac, Phillips ventures to Burma himself to seek out the man’s family and pass on the message. Seismic shifts have occurred in the country since the war’s end, and yet Shuyimam’s family remain in the village and they know of Isaac. For all the change, there is continuity.

Another strength of the book is Phillips’ ability to not only unearth hidden narratives, but to challenge popular ones. As he writes towards the book’s end:

“Were the British really fighting for freedom? In Europe, perhaps, but when it comes to Asia, that seems a generous interpretation of their motives.”

Questions such as these remain as relevant today as they did 70 years ago. Through them, hidden narratives resurface and players are positioned more accurately within the past.

Listen to Barnaby Phillips’ talk about his book and the wider context of Burma during the war that took place at Asia House on Thursday 10th September below: