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We need to talk about past horrors

20 August, 2020 — By John Gulliver

Father Worton speaking at the prisoner of war memorial in Mornington Crescent on Saturday

I COULD sense the tension, rising very slowly, in Father Paschal Worton’s voice as I touched on his father’s life in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in the Second World War.

It wouldn’t be easy for anyone to talk about. Somewhere in the misty past a person you loved suffered enormously. You know it, you are sensitive enough to feel it in the look on his face when the subject comes up, perhaps accidentally, the subject that is pushed away, never talked about.

There are scars that cannot be seen but you know they are there.

Father Worton, with purity in his voice – he was for many years a Franciscan monk before becoming a priest at St Mary’s Church, Somers Town – would, a few days after my call, officiate with prayers at the unique war memorial to Japanese PoWs in Mornington Crescent, paid for by our readers, designed and installed by the New Journal.

The subject was raw for him. I felt uneasy myself. If you have seen men scarred by war, as I have, what else should I feel?

It turned out, as with so many families, that it was some years before Father Worton began to talk as a young teenager to his father William, a kind, loving family man, about the black years in camps where thousands died from privation and often torture.

It must have been difficult but he set out, and could remember stories of unimaginable horror, loss of friends who had died from starvation and disease, of what must have been years of helplessness.

And I had opened up old wounds with my question but Father Worton, spiritually, is a brave man, with an indestructible faith, and it held together.

Father Worton’s father, Lt Commander William A Worton

He was not too sure about details of his father’s service but believed his father, born in India in the days of our colonial rule, had served in the bloody cruel military campaign in Burma. He also knew he had served in the Royal Navy – see the picture above of this splendid man in uniform caught in the period before his demobilisation perhaps – the few happy days after the nightmare of the camps.

It may be that to many readers it will all seem far far away, almost a historical footnote to their lives, but to me, growing up in the after years of the war, I saw what war had done to men I got to know.

It was something beyond the knowledge of two middle-aged officials I had had discussions with before the site of the memorial was agreed.

They knew practically nothing of the PoW camps. They wanted the memorial installed in a park.

To them, perhaps, it may have seemed a museum piece.

To me, I wanted it to become a warning bell in a public place, where local schools could take their pupils to learn about the meaning of war.

I knew a man who had been scarred by war. An RAF veteran, who had been severely wounded in the stomach, caught in a dogfight with Japanese fighters over the battlefields in Burma – and though he never mentioned it – typically of so many of the wounded who tried to slip back into civilian life – it affected him, making him find sanctuary in drink when the terrors were too much for him. He never talked about it but his wife used to talk in anguish about it.

Later, perhaps like Father Worton, I realised how my friend had been affected by the war – and like so many veterans today, from the Iraq War and other contemporary battlefields, they are left by society to “get on
with it”.

Too often today they can end up homeless, sometimes drug addicts – all scarred by brutal conflicts.

On Saturday, a service was held at what is known among veterans in London simply as the “PoW Memorial” to honour those who had suffered in the camps, marking the 75th anniversary of the Victory over Japan Day.

Men in uniform stood to attention, bystanders caught up by the sudden spectacle in the street, bowed their heads – and Father Worton said prayers in what was a moving moment.


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