A VJ Day Story
Seventy five years after the end of the Second World War, we are sharing one Stevenage man’s wartime experiences in the Far East. Cecil Warrel Denson was born on 10 November 1911 at Woolmer Green and later lived at 15 Walkern Road, Stevenage.
He enlisted with the Army on 27 April 1939 and served with, 135 (East Anglian) (Herts Yeomanry) Field Regiment Royal Artillery, the 344 (Hitchin) Battery, reaching the rank of Lance Bombardier (the Artillery equivalent of a corporal).
In January 1942 the Regiment arrived in Singapore, just before the attack by Japanese troops. After a fierce battle, on 15 February 1942 he was captured and spent the rest of the war at Prisoner Of War (POW) camps, working on the infamous Burma Railway and ending the war in Chiang Mai.
The postcard that Cecil’s mother eventually received telling her that her son was a prisoner of war.
Chiang Mai was a busy city with a railway station in the North of Thailand, important to the Japanese as it was near the border with Burma (now called Myanmar), then a British colony and the gateway to India.
Chiang Mai railway station.
The Japanese were keeping 46 Allied prisoners in a temple compound. The prisoners were used as drivers and mechanics and had to visit a garage across town with their captors when repairs were needed. Next door lived a family who would play a critical role in the lives of the soldiers. The father, who spoke English, was pressed into service as a translator to help the POWs communicate with the Thai mechanics.
Orachun stands behind his father’s left shoulder in this family photo.
The Japanese guards, who couldn’t speak either language, soon got bored with supervising the exchanges and Mr Tanaphong was able to talk to the prisoners. He found out that the POWs were often hungry, had only a pair of sandals and a single pair of shorts to wear and were at the mercy of the guards, who could be cruel. When some of the POWs became sick and stopped coming, he realised they had no access to medicine, including quinine to control malaria. He decided to act and his 12-year-old son, Orachun, became a courier, taking medicine, fruit and cigarettes in a basket on his bicycle.
Graves at No 1 POW camp. Many POWs did not make it home.
Orachun rode for nearly an hour to get to the camp at a temple complex on the other side of the city and used the time when the POWs collected water to make the exchanges. As he became more confident he and his father started including updates on how the war was going. On his last visit, a note explained the war was over, and the Japanese had surrendered. Cheers and shouts erupted, the men hugged each other and leapt up and down with joy, much to the confusion of the Japanese guards, who had not yet heard the news!
This leaflet gives your Japanese guards the official news that Japan has surrendered and tells them to treat you with every care and attention. Your guards have been told to withdraw to their own quarters.
The plaque sent by grateful soldiers: “To our friends in Chiang Mai. A token of appreciation for services rendered in time of need to 46 Allied soldiers.”
After the war, the men who had been held in Chiang Mai raised money to send a plaque to the Tanaphong family to express their thanks.
Cecil and the Tanaphongs exchanged Christmas and New Year cards.
At home, he married and returned to work at the Education Supply Association. Young Orachun went on to become a diplomat, eventually becoming Thai ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, Portugal and Mexico.
You can read more about Orachun's story at the Central Intelligence Agency.
With thanks to the Denson family, Alan Ford and the CIA!
You can find out about other local soldiers named on the war memorial at Stevenage at War