Remembering lucky randomness survivors at VJDay75

A patrol of the 2nd Battalion in BurmaVJ Day’s 75th anniversary stresses a respect for historic significance, and it is important for people to share their perception about how events affected them. I commemorate the occasion here through reflecting on close life with a veteran — a 2nd Battalion Royal Welch Fusilier sergeant, of whom I am extremely proud. Without demeaning the occasion and with respect for other veterans and families, these words are about me, my memories and personal experience: how randomness takes a heavy toll on humanity, and how luck allows us to remember.

My personal tale concerns two young men who never met, yet whose legacies intertwine in unforeseen ways, considering their involvement in this common narrative. Both men, far from home, removed from family warmth: an unwilling traveller’s most precious memory. Two strangers facing each other across an abstract line, detached, pawns playing a game in which neither knew the stakes.

One man is my grandfather; the other, my grandfather-in-law. While I knew one well, I met the other only once — a privilege — yet neither are here to retell their stories today. I recall my grandfather’s recollections; I perceive my grandfather-in-law’s opinion through family connections.

Today both men watch over me from their photographs.

My grandfather believed it a futile storybook. He disliked the shy king who declined to look at his face, and he mocked the prime minister who told him he might never return from an undisclosed destination. A year after the story ended my grandfather came home, his jungle experience humbling. The country offered its thanks, yet he refused it for 50 years.

I remember the ‘thanks’ remained in its box after it arrived in the ’90s. In hindsight my grandfather’s behaviour suggested what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The ‘thanks’ — a Burma Star — still exists, somewhere. 75 years after he ‘earned’ it, albeit unwilling (“I didn’t do it for a f—— piece of metal“), I give thought to both young men. I also ponder their relatives, friends and colleagues who travelled with them but never returned.

Let us consider a different ending to this story, in which decades ago in distant lands luck and randomness denied the countless descendants on both sides of the abstract line an existence. Or that our parents or grandparents might only exist in family memories. Sobering.

Photograph: ‘A patrol of the 2nd Battalion in Burma’ from The Royal Welch Fusiliers Museum at Caernarfon Castle.