We shall remember him

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 August, 2006, 12:00am

'Give me the peace the world knows nothing of.' If ever there was a fitting epitaph for Jack Edwards, this was it. The tribute was offered by fellow Welshman and life president of the Hong Kong Male Voice Choir, Berwyn Evans.

Few deserve peace like Jack Edwards, MBE, OBE. He died last Sunday after a long battle against deteriorating health. He was 88.

Edwards dedicated more than 60 years of his life to fighting for justice for the thousands who died at the hands of the Japanese in the second world war. He was based in Hong Kong for more than 40 of those years.

There was little to suggest that the boy born in south Wales in the Cardiff suburb of Canton on May 24, 1918, would make the pursuit of justice for others his life's work. He went to the local school where he excelled at singing. He lived there until he joined the Territorial Army from Cardiff just before the second world war broke out.

He was serving with the Royal Signals, attached to the Royal Artillery in northern Malaya, when war broke out in the east. They retreated through the jungle down the length of the Malay peninsula to Singapore, where they were taken in February 1942. Edwards never forgot the 'living horror' of that retreat. 'Our people were dying along the way. It was malaria, dysentery, heat, lack of water ... it was horrible.'

After a few weeks in Singapore's Changi Prison, Edwards was shipped to Formosa (Taiwan), where he spent the rest of the war as slave labour in the Kinkaseki copper mines. 'We stood up to the groin in water contaminated with sulfur and worked in 130 degrees Fahrenheit heat,' he would recall more than 40 years later. 'The nightmare started early every day with the almost 1,000 steps we had to climb to reach the mine's entrance. It was not enough to get the ore out; we had to wheel the bloody stuff in big wooden carts to the collection point. It was backbreaking work, on starvation rations. Inside the mines, we often had to kneel to work. The damage those sharp pebbles did to my knees still hurts today. Oh, the Japanese were bastards, they really were.'

Edwards was one of only 40 survivors of the 524 who were shipped to the mines. It was while he was there that the determination to live to bear witness to the Japanese atrocities took hold. He was determined to win compensation for former PoWs and obtain an apology from the Japanese government.

Mr Evans described him as: 'Jack Edwards, ex-soldier, man of integrity, one who carried his memories of a time of severe hardship from the war in the east not as a burden but as a support for others. His Welsh roots held fast through a lifetime of service in the east, always evident in his speech and bearing.'

The survivors were 'little more than bags of bones' when they were liberated by the Americans and shipped to the Philippines on the first leg of their journey home.

Edwards finally found release from the demons of Kinkaseki when his book Banzai You Bastards was published in 1991. It was a frank retelling of the daily horror endured by prisoners of war during the conflict.

It was translated into Japanese two years later and was well received in Japan. There is also a Chinese version.

He was proud to be Welsh and loved great Welshmen such as Richard Burton and Dylan Thomas. He flew the Union Jack from his balcony the day Diana, the Princess of Wales, died in 1997. 'She was our princess,' was the simple explanation he gave.

Edwards first came to Hong Kong in 1946 as part of the war crimes investigation team. From here he went on to Shanghai, researching Japanese atrocities. He recorded his findings in a close hand-written diary that extended to more than 300 pages.

He returned to the mines and took part in re-enactments of some of what went on there during the war. Photographs of the re-enactments were part of the evidence when he testified at the war crimes tribunal in Kinkaseki.

Edwards moved to Hong Kong permanently in 1963, and worked for three years as a manager in the Housing Department.

This was followed by an 18-year stint with Hongkong Land, also as a housing manager.

From there he moved to Cheung Kong, where he managed 52 high-rise residential blocks at City One in Sha Tin until his retirement in the early 1990s.

His work on behalf of veterans began with trying to meet requests from families in Britain and the Commonwealth to locate the remains of missing relatives. His major battles on behalf of the veterans began with gaining government recognition of prisoners of war in Hong Kong.

This was followed by another titanic struggle for pensions, which was won in 1991.

His finest triumph came in 1996 when he won the right to British passports for the men, their wives and widows, on the eve of the handover.

Christopher Hammerbeck, president of the Hong Kong branch of the Royal British Legion said: 'Jack Edwards contributed so much to both Hong Kong and the legion. Of course, he was less active over the past two years, but he contributed so much in the past that the legion was able to build on the foundations he laid down. Hong Kong ex-servicemen, be they local or expatriate, owe a great deal to him. Jack Edwards displayed degrees of fortitude like he did during the second world war.'

He lamented the unresolved battle to get both China's and the SAR flags flown at the Cenotaph to the war dead in Central.

'The legion will fight on for Jack,' Mr Hammerbeck promised.

Edwards was honorary chairman of the Hong Kong Ex-servicemen's Association and chairman of the Hong Kong and China branch of the Royal British Legion. He was also patron of the Welsh Male Voice Choir and enjoyed performing with them until a couple of years ago.

Eric Hotung, patron of the Hong Kong and China branch of the legion, encapsulated the spirit of Jack Edwards when he described him as 'a chivalrous gentlemen who fought for others more than he did for himself'.

Edwards' health began to deteriorate visibly from 2002 when he collapsed at the Sai Wan War Cemetery in Chai Wan. He suffered a stroke in 2003 and lost the sight in his left eye. The following year he sat through the Remembrance Day ceremony in Central - he had always stood throughout - and had to be helped to the microphone for his annual recitation of For the Fallen, by Laurence Binyon.

Edwards and his wife, Polly, travelled annually to visit his sister in Wales and stopped off in London. Ill-health prevented them from travelling in the past two years. 'Just you watch. Once I get this out of the way, Polly and I will be on our way,' he told a friend the day before he went into hospital.

Edwards went into hospital on August 1 and underwent surgery three days later to relieve a buildup of fluid in his leg, which caused the ankle to swell painfully. He was transferred to the Sha Tin Hospital on August 9 to recuperate, but four days later he suffered a relapse and was rushed back to the Prince of Wales, where he died immediately after a heart attack.

His wife had left the room about 15 minutes earlier and could not believe he was gone. It had never occurred to either of them that he could die as a result of the surgery. He had undergone so much in the past that they both looked upon his last stay in hospital more as a necessary irritation than anything life-threatening.

'I never thought he would die because of something he considered so minor. I just thought that after the operation he would get better and then we could do what he wanted. He was so unhappy because he had to stay at home so much this year,' Mrs Edwards said.

Edwards is survived by his wife, his sister Marjorie in Wales, two nephews and two nieces.

Funeral arrangements will be announced later.