Personnel from all three Services commemorated the 70th anniversary of VJ Day in London on Saturday 15 August. It was a historic occasion, which was attended by one of our residents, Bill Beaumont and Carer, George Major. Bill lives with Dementia and Parkinson’s.
The Royal British Legion invited Bill to the VJ Day commemorations. Staff members from the Surbiton Home completed the necessary applications and helped to arrange the day for him. George kindly wrote about their experiences of the day.
We set off from the Surbiton Home at around 11.00, with the sun shining behind us. From door to door, the outing was around eight hours long. It was a long day for Bill but one that he managed admirably.
After arriving slightly late due to traffic, a friendly Officer let us through a barrier so that we could decamp at Parliament Square. It was now 13.20 and I was already resigned to missing the service at Horse Guards Parade. I then looked for a way to join the parade down Whitehall, around Parliament Square, through Dean’s Yard to the reception at College Gardens. However, a very helpful Royal British Legion representative escorted us both to the Accreditation Centre and to our place in Block A of the Horse Guards Parade.
So, all’s well that ends well! Though we were late, thankfully so was the start of proceedings.
Bill and I took our place in the first of many open-fronted, covered stands, right in the front row. Bill was grateful to have a drink of apple juice.
His Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cornwall drove up in their old-fashioned black Rolls Royce. The Prince wore a pale military uniform and the Duchess a pale green dress.
There followed a flypast, the first pair, a Dakota and a Hurricane of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. The second pair was a Swordfish from the Royal Navy Historic Flight and a current RAF Typhoon. The flight was directly overhead and so Bill was not able to see the aircraft but he certainly heard them and understood what was happening.
The Chaplain-General, The Reverend Dr. David Coulter QHC (Queen’s Honorary Chaplain) introduced the service, followed by the singing of the hymn, ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’, one of those hymns that makes a person misty-eyed with emotion. I sang it quietly in the ear of an attentive Bill. He knew the hymn well.
Viscount Slim, President of the Burma Star Association, read an extract from his father’s memoirs. Field Marshal Slim commanded the British 14th Army in the Far East, which included personnel from almost 30 different nations and were known as The Forgotten Army.
Charles Dance, the famous actor, read Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Mandalay’. Again, Bill clearly recognised the very well known words of this evocative piece of writing.
After a couple of Bible readings, a prayer and a sermon, we all sang (in my case, haltingly, because I was somewhat choked by the words!), ‘Abide With Me’. It is such a well known hymn that Bill made a great attempt to sing along with me.
Two short readings followed – short, but containing such power:
They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them not the years condemn;
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.
We will remember them.
And the Battle of Kohima Epitaph:
When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow we gave our today.
The conclusion of the service included The Lord’s Prayer; the hymn, ‘Guide Me, O Thy Great Redeemer’; and The National Anthem. Bill’s clear recognition of all three pieces and his characteristic sideways glances were very moving.
Just before we set off on the parade, Prime Minister David Cameron walked over to greet some of the veterans. I couldn’t let the opportunity pass without introducing Bill to him. I wheeled Bill to a point beyond where Mr. Cameron was chatting and waited. As he made to leave, I said to Mr. Cameron, “May I introduce you to Bill Beaumont. As well as being a Burma Star veteran, he was Secretary to the Speaker of the House of Commons!” Mr. Cameron was very gracious, bent down, made eye contact and shook Bill’s hand. “Oh really,” said Mr. Cameron, “that would be when Bernard Weatherill was Speaker of the House,” as, indeed, it was. Mr. Cameron said to me, “I remember you!” He recalled meeting me last Remembrance Day, when I escorted Jack Ovens.
After the service, the participants paraded down Whitehall, around Parliament Square, into Dean’s Yard and College Gardens where afternoon tea was to be served in special Royal British Legion food boxes for the veterans’ reception.
Four or five times during the march, I noticed people waving flags, smiling and taking photographs. So, knowing that Bill tends to look downwards, I stopped, turned his wheelchair to face the crowds, and crouched down to encourage Bill to look up by pointing at the onlookers. There was incredulity in his face and eyes and he kept looking to me and then to the cheering throng as if to say, “Are they cheering me?”
After each occasion, I observed behaviour that I had never seen in Bill before. I can only describe it as a short wail such as one might give when near to tears. He was humbled. I was humbled. It was a beautiful moment.
At the entrance to Dean’s Yard, the narrow entrance caused the parade to slow. I was asked to move Bill’s wheelchair slightly because VIPs were about to arrive. To my surprise, I looked around to see Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall approaching us. Prince Charles put his hand on Bill’s right shoulder and said, “It is a privilege to meet you.” Camilla said a few words to Bill as well. I can’t be sure whether Bill recognised the couple, but I told him about it!
We took a seat at a table. Bill enjoyed some ‘finger food’ sandwiches, marinated chicken pieces on a stick, an orange juice and a tub of strawberries. I had a scone, with strawberry jam and clotted cream.
Bill will recall the events of the day for as long as he lives. As will I.
Image: Civilians and service personnel in London’s Piccadilly Circus celebrate the news of Allied Victory over Japan in August 1945. © IWM (D 25636).