Drew Mitchell fought in WWII's Pacific Theatre
Catherine Lynagh meets an NI veteran who sought adventure
As commemorations took place across the UK last year for the 60th anniversary of Victory in Japan day, it was a time for many veterans to reflect - Co Down man Drew Mitchell recounts his experiences fighting Japanese troops in the Far East.
On August 15, 1945, the Japanese surrendered to Allied Troops with the official armistice signing on September 2.
Thousands of Northern Irish defended Britain in mainland Europe, perhaps lesser known are the men who joined the Indian Army to fight a Pacific War.
Drew Mitichell, who lives just outside Newtownards in Co Down, was one such man. At the age of 19 he signed up to the Indian Army at Queen's University Belfast, to in his words, ‘travel and experience different cultures. I saw it as a great opportunity. As a member of Queen's Officers Training Core, it seemed a natural progression,’ he said.
‘I didn’t feel nervous setting off, rather it was more of an adventure. After an eight week journey I arrived in Bombay where training began.’
With post war analysis many historians have argued the Far Eastern front saw some of the fiercest armed combat of the war, because of the Japanese mindset. Drew described the Japanese as a ‘horrible adversary’ and said they were prepared for 'total sacrifice’.
‘They would have done anything to kill us. We knew that they were prepared to sacrifice themselves or anyone to beat us. Even when captured they would have tried to escape or commit suicide, rather than be held captive. Often they wanted us to kill them instead. It meant we had to put so much effort into looking after them as prisoners of war.’
Due to his experiences with Japanese soldiers, Drew said he believes the dropping of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ‘was the only thing to do.’
‘The Americans did the right thing. I really don’t think anything else would have ended the war. We needed something like that to stop it,’ he said.
One of the largest armed conflicts fought by the Indian Army during the war was the battle of Kohima. A battle, which was pivotal in the defence of Assam, now Bangladesh. 734,000 men fought for the Indian Army in the battle with 85% British: ‘It was trench warfare,’ said Drew as he recalled Kohima, ‘I imagine it was quite like First World War fighting.
'We were on the border of India surrounded by Japanese and we were dug in for two months, between April and May 1944. It was quite horrific. We lived in the same clothes all that time. Food was in short supply, so planes parachuted parcels in every so often. There were bodies everywhere and people couldn’t be buried. So you can imagine the stench.’
Drew prefers to remember the fonder times in the army and he talked at length about the camaraderie and long term friendships he made. He said his experience was also full of excitement and adventure: ‘There was one exertion that sticks out in my mind. Four months into my time in India, I was asked if I wanted to embark on a secret mission. Well, as a young man the words, ‘secret mission’, just jumped out at me as, ‘excitement and adventure’ so of course I signed up.
'I wanted to see some action. For the mission we were sent into the hills to train the indigenous tribes. They were crucial to the defence of the border territories, so it was very important. Young people would have to pay nowadays for the experiences I went through,’ Drew continued: ‘We had to get to a village, but the only way was via the river. And it had to be done under the dead of night. So we cut down some trees and used the trunks as rafts. It was terrifying but an adrenaline rush. We only had the moon and the stars to light our way - it was a real white knuckle ride. Not all of the crew made it to the destination.’
Drew Mitchell returned home in 1946, injury free. He forged a career in agriculture and is married with three daughters. In 1997 he returned to India to revisit his past calling it a ‘memorable trip.’