October 5 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Knight’s tale lived up to Eastern promise

Tom Knight from the Knights of St Columba, gives us an insight into a trip he made to the Far East earlier this year, where he recalled his time serving in the region as a teenager in the RAF

In April of this year I went on a pilgrimage to the Far East. Not the kind of pilgrimage usually shown in these pages, but one back to the days of my youth, the late 1950s, when I was a teenager and serving in the Royal Air Force.

During that period I experienced the camaraderie among servicemen who were part of an organisation with a noble aim—the battle against Communist terrorists in the Malayan ‘Emergency,’ a war in all but name. The vast majority of my colleagues were young men like myself, away from home for the first time—a long way from home—and experiencing a different lifestyle and alien culture.

During the last 30 years, as a member of the Knights of St Columba, I have again experienced that camaraderie, as the order joined the battle against the rising tide of secularism and vicious and sustained attacks on our Christian values.

Cities transformed

At the beginning of my trip I met up with my son in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur and we toured round that ultra modern city, so different now from the sleepy colonial backwater that I can still vividly remember.

The then dusty streets and crumbling buildings have been transformed by a motorway network, a magnificent monorail system and a skyline to rival that of New York, with the tallest tower blocks in all of Asia.

We did find the RAF camp where I was stationed for over two years, though it is now a Malaysian Air Force base. The original guardroom at the main gate has become a museum and the hangar nearby hosts a collection of old military aircraft. It was a bit like seeing a Ford Anglia I once owned in a transport museum at home. The chapel where I had been an altar server had vanished.

My son told me that while we walked round the air base he had a strong sense that I was seeing things invisible to him—ghosts of people, old buildings and roads—another world.

We also visited the Merdeka Stadium, where I had witnessed the Union flag coming down and the Malay Federation flag being raised when they gained independence in 1957.

After several days we flew down to Singapore, to a hotel in the city centre. Very little remains of the city I remember but I did get the chance to have a drink in the Long Bar of the Raffles Hotel. That was an experience I had been denied all those years ago because entrance to the bar was restricted to commissioned officers and I did not have a commission at that time. This had faintly rankled within me down through the years and although not much of a drinker I did enjoy having a Singapore Sling and a pint of Tiger Beer in the bar.

Wartime faith

Another visit was to Changi Jail, where so many of our young men lost their youth during three years and more as prisoners of war during the Second World War. The old jail has been torn down but a museum has been established there and the chapel built by the Allied prisoners has been moved and rebuilt on the site.

I wandered round the exhibits, which included many religious paintings by the prisoners and relics of that terrible time. Many of the prisoners had turned to God to help them through their ordeal and this is very obvious from the many personal diaries and stories in the display which proved that you can take everything from a man but his spirit and his belief in the Almighty. I then went into the chapel to pray for a few minutes, which stretched to an hour as I lost myself in prayer—overwhelmed by the whole experience.

We also visited Fort Canning and toured round the old war room, deep underground, from which the unsuccessful defence of Singapore was controlled. Visiting the Chinese market in the city brought back the sights, the sounds and the smell of exotic meals being cooked over charcoal fires, though the merchandise on sale was the same tourist rubbish that can be found in any city market around the world.

Moving memories

Though I found the city of Singapore almost unrecognisable, Kranji Military Cemetery was exactly as I remembered it from 54 years ago.

No staff were on duty but the graves register was still within an unlocked safe in the gatehouse and the beautifully maintained monument and manicured grass around the gravestones were exactly as they had been on my last visit.

What a serene and moving place. I took some pictures to replace the ones taken so long ago, which are in black and white and now almost sepia coloured.

The particular grave I visited was that of Jack Rivington, a man I never met. He and my brother in law, Jim Tominey, now sadly deceased, had been prisoners of the Japanese in Changi Prison after the fall of Singapore and had suffered together the terrible privations imposed on Allied prisoners of war. Theirs was the type of friendship which can only develop in great adversity, a bond, stronger than that of brothers. Jim, on one of the rare occasions when he could bring himself to talk of his experiences, told me how they had kept each other alive, sharing what little they had. Jim, a deeply spiritual and good man, for the rest of his life shared everything he had with people less fortunate than himself. Almost all he could bring home after the war was a Miraculous Medal which he had beaten into a bracelet and worn all through his captivity.

I prayed for both of them in that hallowed place. Jack died in July, 1944, while still in captivity and Jim, after his return home at the end of the war, had kept in touch with Jack’s wife in Blackpool.

When he heard that I had been posted to Singapore he asked me to take a picture of Jack’s grave, so that he could send it on to his wife. In Singapore, in 1958, I visited Kranji Cemetery and took the picture, sending it to Jim’s sister to pass on to him.

She answered my letter; we corresponded regularly for 18 months and, a year after I returned home,  we were married and have just celebrated our 52nd wedding anniversary. That visit to Kranji Cemetery was the high point of my pilgrimage.

Our visit to Singapore took place during Holy Week and we attended services in the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd. Every time we visited the cathedral it was packed to the doors and beyond with a truly international congregation. On Good Friday we could not get inside and had to stand outside with several hundred other worshippers to listen to the Gregorian chant issuing from inside. Truly memorable.

The whole trip rekindled memories, good and bad, of people and places, from a time so long ago and they will live with me for the rest of my life. I had arrived in the Far East as a boy of 18 and had returned home at 21 as a man, with a sense of duty and responsibility which has shaped my life to this day.


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