They may have been dubbed “The Forgotten Army”, but today Sunderland remembered WWII heroes who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the Far East.
To mark VJ Day, the end of the war against Japan, veterans and members of the public gathered at the cenotaph in Burdon Road to honour those who endured unimaginable conditions.
On August 15 1945, VJ Day ended one of the worst episodes in British military history, during which tens of thousands of servicemen were forced to endure the brutalities of prisoner of war camps, where disease was rife and there was a lack of food and water.
Speaking at the event was Len Gibson from West Herrington who knows all too well about the atrocities of war.
The 96-year-old was a member of the 125 Anti-tank Regiment that was captured at the fall of Singapore and used as slave labour on the infamous Burma Death Railway. Of the 600 soldiers from the ill-fated regiment taken prisoner by the Japanese, 198 were never to return home.
Len endured more than two years of malnutrition, torture and despair while working on the Burma railway and later the Mergui Road - a harrowing chapter in his life which remains with him to this day.
Len, who gave an oration at the Burdon Road service, said: “There’s not many of us left now. Today always brings back some terrible memories but I feel proud that Sunderland, my home town, remembers it in this way. 198 men from this area never came home and it’s so very important we remember what happened so that it never happens again.”
Major of Sunderland Alan Emerson also gave a speech at the service, which was attended by standard bearers and a bugler.
Though victory in Europe was declared in May 1945, the war continued for another three months in the Far East.
Those who fought in the British campaign to push the Japanese out of Burma, which happened thousands of miles away from home, were often known as the Forgotten Army because their efforts were not as widely covered as those who fought on the battlefields of Europe.
It is estimated that there were 71,000 British and Commonwealth casualties of the war against Japan, including more than 12,000 prisoners of war who died in Japanese captivity. More than 2.5 million Japanese military personnel and civilians are believed to have died over the course of the conflict.
Graham Hall, chairman of the Sunderland Armed Forces Network, who organises the city’s annual memorial service on behalf of the council, said: “For three months after conflict ended in Europe, prisoners of war continued to endure horrific conditions. A lot of the families of those men didn’t know if they had lived or died.
“Hero is a word bandied around all too often. But these men truly are heroes. They endured a living hell after being captured. The only light at the end of that tunnel was coming home to Sunderland.”
National VJ Day is celebrated annually across the country each year on August 14 to August 15. The official announcement of Japan’s surrender to the Allies during World War II was made at this time in 1945, and because of the time zone difference, both dates apply. On September 2, 1945, the signing of the surrender document occurred, which was the official ending of World War II.
The formal signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender took place on board of the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. At that time President Truman declared September 2 to be the official VJ Day, however, over the years, many citizens of the United States have celebrated August 14 as the official VJ date.