A VJ Day story

2013.20.20
Photograph of Cecil Denson in uniform soon after he joined up.

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 Bombadier (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.

2013.20.12
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.

Postcard
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.

The Tanaphong family
Orachun stands behind his father’s left shoulder in this family photo.

The Japanese guards, who couldn’t speak either language, soon got bored of 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.

2013.20.15
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!

Leaflet
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.

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.

2013.20.19
A Christmas card from the Tanaphongs

At home, he married and returned to work at the Education Supply Association. Young Orachun went on to became a diplomat, eventually becoming Thai ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, Portugal and Mexico. If you’d like to read more about his story, follow this link: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol52no3/historical-intelligence-vignette.html

With thanks to the Denson family, Alan Ford and the CIA!

To find out about other local soldiers who are named on the war memorial, visit https://stevenageatwar.com/war/secondworldwar/

3 thoughts on “A VJ Day story”

  1. Hello, My Name is Nick Andrean.
    I Am an Australian Citizen, Living in Chiang Mai ,Thailand. I Have Just read your article on
    Mr. Cecil Warrel Denson.
    By sheer Coincidence, I Was Actually at the site of the Wat, or Temple, where he was a Prisoner of War today. The Wat Muen San, where All 46 Allied POWs were held, currently has Many plaques to Commemorate the Japanese soldiers, that were Located there.
    However, there is absolutely Nothing, to Commemorate, or to Indicate, that Allied POWs were held there.
    I Am trying to Identity How Many of the 46 captives were British Citizens, and How many were from Australia.
    Also Note, that your article includes an image of a grave site. There are No graves located ,or Identified, at the Wat Muen San.
    If You able to Assist in Anyway, with Information that May be of Assistance, Could you please Advise, and let me know?
    More than willing to share Any Information from the Location.
    Sincere Regards,
    Nick Andrean.

    Like

    1. Hi Nick,

      How amazing to hear from someone on the other side of the world who has been to the actual site, and so recently! I am stuck (in a good way) in the reception/ giving tours as we’ve re-opened with Covid precautions in place and it is very staff intensive, but I’ll hopefully get a chance to check the archive and see if there is any information on the grave image – I understand he was a prisoner at more than one site, so it may be that it was from another camp – I was working from home rather than the actual objects so only had limited information. Apologies if I’ve got it wrong! I may also be able to see if the letters have any information about the nationalities of the soldiers, I think from memory that it would be a mix of British and Australian. Thanks for getting in touch.

      Like

      1. Hi,
        Sorry, I Dont Have Your Name,
        So Please Excuse My Intro, As Being, “Just Hi ” ,
        Thank You So Much Your Response To My Last.
        Fantastic, and Very Impressed to Actually Hear From the Author. !!!
        I Have Been Researching the Subject of Allied POWs, that were held Here, In Northern Thailand.
        Of Course, Everyone Interested in Military History, Would Know of the Infamous Death Railway, or, As it’s Much Better Known,
        “The Bridge On The River Kwai “.
        However, the Bridge and the associated Rail line, are Located in the Province of Kanchanaburi, which is Very Much in Southern Thailand.
        Anything, that relates to Allied POWs, that were held in Northern Thailand, is Rather Scarce,and sketchy. And hard to come by.
        So I was Totally Amazed , when I Stumbled onto Your Article,
        about Cecil Denson.
        I Can Confirm, that there Were Allied POWs,held at the Wat Muen San.
        “Wat “, meaning Temple, “Muen”, is the Thai word, for the Number, 10,000 ,and “San”, being the Thai word, for Documents.
        The Wat Muen San, was built in around 1438.
        It was used to store and translate Documents.
        Or in modern terms, it was a Library.
        The Temple, or Wat, was taken over, by the Japanese Army In 1942
        and used as a Military Hospital. Many Japanese soldiers,returning from the Burma front, were treated for battle wounds and for tropical diseases, while at the Military Hospital.
        It is also my Understanding, that many may have died there.
        During the 1970s, Japanese Servicemen, started returning
        to the Wat Muen San.They returned, to pay their Respects,
        and to Honour their War Dead.
        In 1981, a Large building was constructed, within the compounds,
        of the Wat Muen San. It is used as a Memorial Shrine, to Commemorate the Japanese, that both Served, and died, at the Military Hospital.
        Inside the building, is a Chapel, and a Museum.
        The Museum, is full of Japanese artifacts from the War period.
        It is well structured and most Items are preserved, behind glass display cabinets.
        I Was fortunate enough,to gain entry to this building just yesterday,
        with the blessing and permission, of one of the resident Thai Monks, from the Temple.
        Why the Interest, you may Ask ?.
        Sadly, I Can Find Absolutely Nothing Whatsoever,
        that Acknowledges or Commemorates, the Allied POWs, who were once Interned and Held at this place.
        I Have been able to locate and photograph,the Water Well,
        from which the POWs, were able to draw clean drinking water.
        The well, once open to the elements, is now partially covered, and surrounded by recently built structures.
        I am Currently trying to discover, how many, If Any,
        of the 46 Allied names, that were engraved on the Shield,
        and then presented to the then Young Thai boy, that assisted the POW’s,
        might have been Australian, or possibly New Zealand Servicemen.
        Any Further Assistance, that You May be Able to Offer,
        Would Be Greatly Appreciated.
        Most Sincerely,
        Nick Andrean.

        Like

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