The Story of Deveraux Family in World War Two
‘Beautiful, battle-scarred and deadly landscapes ranging from Burma to Japan are the backdrop for the Devereux family’s trials and tribulations. This riveting book reads more like a work of fiction than an incredible but true story.‘ – Toy Soldier and Model Figure Magazine.
‘This pulse-pounding Hong Kong war memoir hinges on a stunning event: the felling of the protagonist, Royal Scots Regiment sergeant Jack Devereux, shot in the head after leading an attack against the Japanese on Golden Hill in 1941. … The Devereux saga is tremendously gripping and gory.’ – Modern China Morning Post.
Escape to Pagan is a gripping, harrowing, pulse-pounding tale of survival against impossible odds. Left at the mercy of the Empire of Japan, the divided Deveraux family must use all of their wits and cunning should they wish to escape the onslaught.
Brian Deveraux, the son of the two unwitting protagonists, believed that he knew everything there was to know about the events that threatened the lives of his parents during the Second World War. After all, he was there, a young boy unable to fully grasp the severity of the events unfolding around him. Yet, with the arrival of a mysterious set of twelve pages, gifted to him by his sister, he soon discovered a number of secrets that he had never before known about his early years. Below, Brian recounts receiving his letters and discusses in detail his miraculous family, including his stoic father, caring mother, and cunning, resourceful and inspiring grandmother.
There are two possibilities: the first is that Mum dictated the twelve pages to me in 1976. This is unlikely as my slowness in making notes always annoyed her. ‘How do you spell that name, Mum?’ I would ask. She would stop and give me one of her looks. ‘Do you want to know the history of our family, or how to spell the names of Burmese villages?’ she would say. Thus I stopped making notes and relied on my memory and the constant repetition of events I received from Mother since the age of six. I was the only one left, the only one there.
Someone else could have typed them up for Mum (she had many visitors) as part of a letter. Many of our relatives had no idea of our experiences in Burma during the war. She was in communication with relatives in the UK and abroad and may have left a copy that my sister found and kept as part of family history.
Anyway, I was delighted when I received the twelve pages from my daughter who in turn received them from my sister who lived in Australia. It filled a massive gap in the first part of my original manuscript before we began our odyssey into the wilds of Burma. I was not aware Mum’s brothers and sister were with us when we left Taunggyi for Myitkyina airport or the events before reaching the station. My original book started, “We left Taunggyi in a rush…it broke my heart to leave my lovely new home and all my animals behind”.
For over fifty years I intended to write Escape to Pagan. It was only when my own mortality came sharply into focus after suffering a heart attack and surviving the complicated operations that followed; added to the fact, after a routine scan, glass fibres were found in my lungs (I worked at Cape Asbestos for six months in 1960). I finally decided to recall all the moving images that occurred in my far distant mind.
My dear Mother (Dad died in 1962) remembered practically every jungle path we walked, every shelter we slept in and every dangerous moment of our escape from wild animals, murderous Burmese dacoits, and Japanese patrols; then finally our internment. My Mother and Grandmother had secrets to hide. Mum’s oldest brother, Harry Talbot, was a major in the British Army. Mum’s sister Annette was married to a colonel, Wallace RA, and of course, Dad was fighting in Hong Kong. The Kempeitai military police believed that the British Army had left spies behind. Being found with a radio or having relatives in the British army meant interrogation. They used the most primitive of persuasions to make people confess. With this in mind, we disguised ourselves as Mons Burmese.
The story switches between us in Burma and Dad in Hong Kong.
The heroine of this book is my grandmother Harriet. If it wasn’t for her knowledge of the jungle and the attending dangers, including deadly animals and diseases (I contracted two), and the nature of the various tribes, together with her multilingual skills, including Nippon Go, we would not have survived. Unfortunately, she was too late to save her son, Victor.
Mother could never get used to sleeping on the ground. The distant call of a leopard or the roars of a tiger terrified her, especially if they appeared to be coming closer. We had no walls to protect us. Grandmother told my Mum that all the dangerous predators would be frightened away by the fighting. Mother did not believe her: something was eating the dead bodies.
Aiding our survival was a strange relationship that developed between my grandmother and a notorious Japanese sergeant who shared the same interest. On occasions during the evening, they would sit together. Grandmother was given permission to bake cakes to sell to the Japanese soldiers. She also obtained a JIA stamped document giving her authority to travel. Though out-of-date, this document saved us on more than one occasion from the notorious Burmese dacoits who greatly feared the Japanese’s instant and cruel reprisals.
My first vivid memory during our escape was the time we came upon warehouses abandoned by the British; being looted by the Burmese. According to Mum, I was two years old. I remember running up a mountain of white sugar with other naked Burmese children. Stopping every now and then on all fours to lick the sweetness.
Soon after in a derelict bungalow, while Mum was breastfeeding me, a cobra appeared through a crack in the floor. Before it could bite Mum, grandmother killed it from behind. In modern-day Myanmar, twenty thousand people are killed per annum by snake bite.
The looted food we accumulated and carried in an old pram that we found was to see us through our wanderings in the wilds of Burma. We were hoping to hide in the jungle until the British returned; however, the pending monsoon forced us to seek shelter in a village. My grandmother, who spoke Burmese fluently, bribed the headman of the village to allow us to stay. Unknown to us, this village had two deadly secrets we would soon discover, forcing us to leave for our own safety.
We were moved to Tada u internment camp. Unknown to us we were near the Kempita (Military Police) headquarters where they interrogated prisoners. At night their screams shattered the tropical stillness. One of the officers took an interest in my mother, who was terrified. He would stand by our doorway and talk to my grandmother in Japanese. One day he asked my grandmother why she had learnt to speak Japanese. Her answer pleased him.
I will never forget the burying of Uncle Victor, my grandmother’s youngest son in a dusty cactus filled Christian graveyard at the edge of the jungle. The Burmese gravediggers, to make their task easier, had recently opened an occupied grave and thrown out the partly rotting body of a young woman. I can still remember her perfect teeth, a mass of jet black hair and her dark-stained pelvic bones; visible through her rotting longyi (traditional Burmese attire). I would join the village children and often visited her corpse out of interest until the hyena discovered it.
One day, while in the Japanese quarters with other naked children, I stole a ping pong ball. To me, it was as precious and magical as the “all seeing eye”. I was chased home by the Japanese soldier. Grandmother blocked his way. I denied the theft despite having the ping pong ball in my hand. The Japanese soldier demanded that I be physically punished while he watched. Grandmother gave me a good dose of her leather slipper. The Japanese soldier asked for one more whack to be administered before walking away satisfied with said ball.
Frightening occurrences began happening in camp during the night.
When the war started to go badly and the Japanese began digging mass graves for the prisoners, Grandmother decided it was time to escape again. The penalty for going beyond the camp boundaries was death.
During our escape, Grandmother looked up and was horrified to see a Japanese sniper tied to the tree, looking down at us in that quizzical way they have. Following her instructions, we escaped being shot. We headed towards the sound of artillery and after narrow escapes from dacoits and Japanese soldiers; we finally met up with the tanks of the British army.
Mum told me of the day she received an Army telegram, which was short and to the point.
‘I regret to inform you that your husband John Devereux, 2nd Battalion Royal Scots, is feared dead or missing during the battle of Hong Kong.’
Dad was left terribly wounded. He had been shot through the head by an explosive bullet that entered his temple and exited through the back, leaving a gaping wound. To add to his agony, a Japanese officer attempted a beheading to blood his sword. Dad was left on the battlefield for three days. He had become the lord of the flies. Three days later he was found by his comrades. His wound, still swarming with maggots, was cleaned and the rotting flesh cut away using a razor blade and sown up with cotton thread.
During an attempted escape, Dad was left behind by his comrades who believed he was dying. Waking up and despairing from the pain of his wounds, Dad contemplated suicide but found he had been robbed of his revolver and cigarettes by a Chinese man. Apprehended by the Japanese, Dad was totally surprised by their reaction. His military bearing, surviving an attempted beheading and the live maggots falling from his wound captivated and amused the soldiers who treated him well.
Dad was originally from Nelson, Lancashire and proud of his northern roots. He came from a large, talented and well-read family. His father sang in operas. His younger brother Brian became a successful businessman. His sisters were all successful professionals in their own right as were his nieces and nephews. One of his sisters owned the “Devereux Private School for Girls” in Lancashire.
Dad’s distant ancestors must have arrived in Britain with the Norman Conquest – 1066! As Devereux is a common name in Normandy. The Devereux Celtic tribe was known as “people of the river”.
Dad first became attracted to Mum when he collected the army mail from the local post office in Taunggyi, where she worked. Every time Dad would make the excuse that he did not have a pencil so had to borrow one from Mum. This went on for five weeks and Mum was getting fed up with it.
One day after work Mum found Dad outside waiting for her and asked if he could walk her home. Coming from a family that had Irish, German, English and Portuguese; Mum’s family were not keen on Dad’s French Norman name.
To her German, English and Portuguese relatives, Napoleon was as popular as Oliver Cromwell was to the Irish.
Dad won Mum over by saying he was a devout Catholic and went to church every Sunday (so he said). Dad was eventually invited to be scrutinized by my grandmother, three of Mum’s brothers and three sisters. To add to my Dad’s embarrassment, he was given a trick chocolate by Mum’s younger sister Lucy (chocolate on the outside rubber on the inside). They watched Dad try to chew the chocolate all evening.
Lucy and her family were brutally attacked by Burmese dacoits who cut them deeply with their long sharp dahs (machete). Some of her family lost limbs but all survived.
Dad died in the winter of 1962 in the middle of the night. Mum rushed upstairs and shook me awake. ‘Jack’s having a heart attack!’ she exclaimed, ‘please help him.’ I rushed down. Dad was in the last throes of death and unconscious. I placed a small white tablet in his mouth – an anticoagulant. ‘Give him the kiss of life,’ said mother. I obeyed without success. Mum was devastated. It was after dad’s death that her reminiscing became more frequent.
Mum had contracted beri-beri (elephantiasis) in Burma. Her legs would balloon with water up to her knees. I did my best to look after her and pay her mortgage. She died in 1988. My sister and I were heartbroken.
At the age of five, disobeying my grandmother, I walked past the Kempeitai building; the barn doors were closed. Returning later the doors of the Kempeitai building were now open. I heard the terrible screams of a human being, suffering mortal agony. Curious, I looked inside to find a man hanging from the ceiling over a massive pool of shiny blood. Two Japanese soldiers were pushing long sharpened bamboo sticks into his body. Seeing me the soldiers bellowed “Kurra! Kurra!” I ran home crying. It was not until adulthood that I fully imagined the physical and mental trauma of their victim.
The British had little success dealing with Burmese dacoits. The Japanese dealt with the problem successfully within a few months. Once caught a dacoit was tortured by the Kempi. They would extract the name of his village; take him there and with hands tied, string him up by a metal hook under his jaw. It took three days to die. No one from the village was allowed to help the man. After death, his body would remain in situ as a warning. This saved our lives on our last escape. Grandmother spotted such a body hanging in a village after she had been promised water by a group of men.
If you would like to read more about Brian and his family, his book Escape to Pagan is available now.