The war within

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2007, 12:00am

A quarter of a century ago, three men - a soldier and two sailors - said goodbye to their loved ones and set off on ships to war. The trio served the same queen and country, were called to arms under one flag yet were divided by race, culture, rank and continents. They were to be united in a horrific, shared experience that would change each of their lives forever.

Fate and military orders conspired so that able seaman Chiu Yiu-nam from Hong Kong, ship's cook Cheung San-fan, originally from Hainan Island, and Welsh infantry soldier Simon Weston were all aboard the RFA Sir Galahad, a British supply and transport ship that saw action during the Falklands war, a brief but bloody conflict between Britain and Argentina that ended 25 years ago this week. On a cold, clear winter's day in the South Atlantic, their lives collided in a fireball - an unimaginable hell on Earth - when Argentine bombs slammed into their ship as it was preparing to disembark troops.

The vessel was brimming to the gunwales with soldiers from the 1st Welsh Guards, their stockpile of ammunition and military vehicles, the 50 or so mainly Hong Kong Chinese crew and their British commanding officers. Forty-seven men, including Hongkongers Leung Chau (an electrical fitter) and Sung Yuk-fai (a butcher), perished among the flames, explosions and toxic smoke that quickly engulfed the decks. Add to the tally two Hong Kong men - seaman Yeung Shui-kam and bosun Yu Sik-chi - who died on RMA Sir Tristram in the same bombing run, and this becomes the highest death count suffered by British forces from a single attack during the 11-week war.

Many accounts of that tragic day have been examined and publicly recorded. They have exposed a mix of heroism, horror and military blunders, the latter blamed on poor communication, misunderstanding, inter-service rivalry and bureaucratic incompetence. But that's war and the objective was met: Britain won and reclaimed its sovereign territory. And, as any veteran soldier, sailor or airman will tell you, it's not cunning military strategy or the latest hi-tech weaponry or defence mechanisms - or even human error - that ultimately dictates whether you survive unscathed or otherwise. There's something more facile at work - luck.

As it was, Weston and Cheung experienced a mixture of good and bad fortune. Both were badly burned but were rescued alive from the floating inferno. The pair are living out their lives severely disfigured and disabled, and have spoken at length about that day and the war.

Weston became the acceptable yet painful face of war for the British public. He shunned major plastic surgery to his face to highlight the plight of injured soldiers and give hope and courage to other disabled individuals. He wrote a successful book about his ordeal, learned to fly a plane, started a successful charity, was made an Order of the British Empire (OBE), fell in love, married and raised a family, and has made several documentaries about the war and his life, most recently for the BBC. Today he makes a living as a motivational and after-dinner speaker.

Cheung has also spoken about his trauma, though to a smaller audience. His is a tale of acute poverty and includes claims of unfair treatment and neglect he says he has suffered since the end of the war. He readily accepted the surgery offered to improve the disfigurement to his face, hands and legs because he feared the community's reaction to his appearance - a fear that turned out to be justified.

Chiu fared relatively well under fire. Indeed, the bombing of the Sir Galahad turned him into a reluctant hero and the winner of a rare bravery award. It also turned him into a near recluse and now, at 58, he is a very ill man. He has never spoken publicly about his war. Having left the navy, he attended Buckingham Palace in London to pick up his medal from Queen Elizabeth II a year after the campaign. That was 24 years ago and he has since shunned any attention, be it from the media or from his former employers.

On Thursday, three days of commemoration in and around London will begin, marking the end of the conflict over a cluster of small, barren islands almost 500km east of Argentina. The Falklands, the British sovereignty of which had long been disputed by Argentina, were brought dramatically to the world's attention on April 2, 1982, when the economically stricken South American nation invaded. There followed more than two months of fighting in the air, on land and at sea.

When the white flag was hoisted over Stanley, the Falklands' capital, on June 14, 1982, the curtain came down on a conflict that had claimed hundreds of lives and, according to some, continues to do so. The voluntarily run South Atlantic Medal Association claims more British Falklands veterans have committed suicide since the end of the war than the 228 servicemen and up to 27 merchant and Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) crew members who died during it. Similar Argentine records are unknown but the nation lost 649 men, mostly young conscripts, during the conflict, with many more injured.

The lives of Cheung, Chiu and Weston, which have been defined by the war, throw a spotlight on Britain's vow to remember its war heroes, those living and dead, wherever they may be. And the trio underscore the strong bond that develops between combatants.

Cheung's war

'At first, during my recovery, I wanted to die. My nerves were completely exposed and the pain was so excruciating my whole body would shake from the core. I just didn't want to be alive. I would think about my family and the tears would flow,' says Cheung, 71, who made solid progress during his long rehabilitation after suffering 65 per cent burns to his face, hands, arms and legs in the South Atlantic.

He no longer becomes emotional when recalling the day he was working in the galley of the Sir Galahad, preparing dinner, when his world exploded in a maelstrom of ignited vaporised petrol and diesel fumes, shrapnel, smoke and the haunting screams of dying, burning men writhing in agony and calling for their mothers.

His wife of 50 years, Fu, sits in equally passive repose in a tatty wicker chair in their two-roomed, 300 sq ft apartment in a nondescript Aberdeen housing complex, their home for 37 years. She listens without interruption to her husband's war story. Several times she gets up and shuffles through a chest of drawers, seeking faded photographs to corroborate the tale; the pictures represent a scant pictorial record of Cheung's seafaring career, showing the various merchant ships he worked on before signing up to the RFA.

The RFA is an anomaly: a commercial shipping company that exclusively serves the British Royal Navy, supplying ships and other logistics. Cheung joined the RFA Sir Galahad in 1979.

His wife passes over a photo from 1985. It's of her husband and shows his appalling injuries - the blisters and the red-raw scarring - that caused neighbours to cast looks of horror and shun the Cheungs on the sailor's return from the Falklands, and for years afterwards.

'My legs were trapped under something heavy, I couldn't see anything because the electricity had gone,' continues Cheung. He had been preparing a meal for the soldiers on board because their landing had been delayed.

The passage of time does not diminish the memories of trauma; three bombs struck, the most deadly underneath the galley in the engine room. The fireball shot upwards through the decks, setting off ammunition such as phosphorous grenades and bullets, sparking full jerry cans and setting Cheung and scores of other men on fire. Of the 10 Chinese crew injured, Cheung suffered the most.

'Breathing was difficult. I managed to kick free and get up, feeling my way to the door, where I stepped on a body. I couldn't see who it was. I didn't feel any pain. All I could hear was this ringing in my ear. I managed to get out to the back of the ship where they were lifting people up by cable to rescue helicopters. That's when I saw through the smoke that the skin on my arms was peeling off like tree bark and my hands were charred and misshapen. One of the soldiers helped me get on the helicopter, where I collapsed and couldn't move. I was freezing. I remember someone taking off his coat and putting it around me. I could hear them talking to me, but I couldn't respond,' he recalls, abruptly ending his dialogue.

The silence in the apartment is amplified by the ceiling fan, which swirls the heat and humidity and gently rocks the family photos hung in three frames on the wall. Two frames show a young Cheung and Fu soon after they were married in 1956. It was a simple Hainan village ceremony. Cheung was a merchant seaman, working contracts on various vessels and he was often in Hong Kong. On receiving his migration papers, he rented a room in Hung Hom. In 1959, Fu arrived and moved in. The number of subjects in the photos increases, reflecting a growing Cheung family.

After working on a variety of ships, Cheung paid a visit to Stonecutters Island, which was then a British naval base, and got a contract working with the RFA. He was continuing a tradition that spanned generations and saw Hong Kong and mainland Chinese join the ships of Britain as mess boys, cooks and tailors. Others gained uniformed ratings, such as engineer, as Local Enlisted Personnel.

By coincidence, the 25th anniversary of the Falklands war falls in the same year as another milestone in British military and colonial history: the 10th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong. The war stories of the local Falklands war veterans highlight the former colony's vital role in the fortunes of the Royal Navy.

Most of the 400 Hongkongers working aboard RFA vessels in 1982 were dispatched on the 100 ships carrying 18,000 men to the South Atlantic. Some lobbied hard not to go, claiming their civilian contracts did not mention war, a charge refuted both by ships' captains and the Ministry of Defence in London.

The captain of the Sir Galahad, Philip Roberts, who has since retired, recalls how Cheung was among the leaders of a deputation that approached him as the ship left Portsmouth for the southern ocean. 'The Chinese crew on board put together a declaration stating they did not wish to fight in a war that had nothing to do with them. You can't blame them for that.

'I remember Mr Cheung very well. He brought his young sons on board when we were in Hong Kong. He was like the other members of the crew: very hard working and they kept a good ship.

'I do not feel guilt in terms of what happened, as the war had to be fought, and the Chinese crew, most of whom had been working on the ship for some time, knew we were on a ship prepared for war. The Sir Galahad was painted grey, after all,' he says.

Despite the protest, the ships set sail and more British naval tradition kicked in as the wrangling over contracts and complaints went on. When the Task Force, as the fleet became known, passed an invisible line drawn across the Atlantic, all non-military personnel fell under the Navy Discipline Act and were pressed into service whether they liked it or not; mutiny meant an instant court martial. There was nothing Cheung and his shipmates could do but find some solace in the extra pay afforded to men in a war zone.

The last photo on the Cheungs' wall is of a young Charles, Prince of Wales, the heir to Britain's throne. In characteristic pose, the prince is self-consciously twiddling his fingers. He stands over a hospital bed from which Cheung appears to be talking, his hands wrapped in swathes of bandages on the blanket, his face contorted by weeping wounds.

The irony of the visit and the photographic record that takes pride of place in the Cheungs' home is all too evident; the monarch looking down and talking to a reluctant subject who served the shrinking empire so gallantly and at such a high price.

'The prince came to the hospital. He asked me how I was, what had happened, and how my family was,' says Cheung.

'My husband was usually gone at sea two years each time,' Fu recalls. 'Though I'm not good at writing, we would send each other letters when we could.'

Typically, after each contract, Cheung would spend two or three months with his family before packing his bags for another far-flung port. Fu had her hands full, raising the boys with a largely absentee husband. But money was steady and Cheung moved the family to a bigger apartment, in Aberdeen. Tentative plans were made to further expand their horizons and look for a still larger flat. That plan was shot down by the Argentine fighter jets that came screaming unchallenged over the treeless hills and steel-blue waters of Bluff Cove on East Falkland island.

After several operations, including major skin grafts, doctors allowed Cheung to be flown home.

The three years that followed were a period of intense readjustment for the family.

'People on the street would get scared when they saw me. On the bus, they would move seats to avoid me. When I went to yum cha, people would look the other way,' recalls Cheung.

The daily routine centred around hospital trips, skin-graft surgery, painful physiotherapy and counselling. Fu had to feed and bathe her husband the way she did their youngest son, who was then two and a half.

'My heart broke every day,' Fu says. From seeing her husband for three months every two years, she now had to care for him 24 hours a day, and continues to do so despite the strain on their marriage. 'I'm quite traditional and I believe in accepting reality. I keep my expectations in check and just get through it as I can,' she says.

'We received sympathy from close friends but no special attention or help,' says Cheung.

He was given the South Atlantic Medal for taking part in the war and, because he would never work again, two cash payouts totalling HK$360,000 from a trust fund collected via public donations from around the world. He is entitled to a small pension, which - as a result of a letter-writing campaign and protests over the years by war-veteran volunteer groups in Hong Kong and Britain - has risen from a monthly HK$4,000 in 1990 to HK$10,000. He has not worked since 1982 but spends time as a volunteer, caring for residents at an old people's home.

'All I hope for now is that [the British government] keep giving me monetary support till the end of my life. I can't work,' says Cheung. The anger, which intensified after the war, has subsided. 'I try not to think about the war. When I do, my heart turns sour. That's why I sometimes do volunteer work. I can't repay the people who helped me to safety during the attack, so I'm helping who I can, as a way to remember their kindness.'

A shipmate of Cheung, Yan Wei, suffered lesser injuries that day but he has become too frail to make their once-weekly get-togethers. Other veterans who once spoke about their ordeal say they now feel too ill or too old to do so and the memories have become too painful.

'What can I do? I can't change anything. This is how my life has turned out. I just have to accept it,' says Cheung.

Weston's war

Welsh Guard Weston was with his 'band of brothers' on the vehicle deck of the Sir Galahad preparing to disembark when a grey, metal object - 'like a shark' - screamed by him just 2.5 metres away. The missile entered the port side of the ship and sliced through several walls before exploding when it hit the starboard engine room.

'I heard jet engines screaming from above as the planes went over, then there was a brilliant flash from the engine room, and the beginning of my personal Hiroshima,' he recounts in his best-selling autobiography, Walking Tall, which was published seven years after the war.

He had joined the Welsh Guards as a 16-year-old, having grown up in a working-class home in the valleys of South Wales. He had had a minor brush with the law - stealing a car with his mates - so his mother hastily gathered information from the army careers office, hoping to find discipline for her son. After tours with his regiment in Kenya and Northern Ireland, he boarded the commandeered QE II cruise liner in Southampton in late May 1982 and, with thousands of other troops, made the long passage to war. In his book, he writes of the day his battalion was transferred to the Sir Galahad ready for the invasion. 'We had been greeted aboard by the smiling faces of her largely Chinese crew,' he recalls.

The rest of that chapter and the following pages detail the harrowing moments during and after the fireball that claimed the lives of many of Weston's colleagues and close friends, and nearly killed him.

His memories echo those of Cheung. 'Men were mutilated and burning, and fought to rip off their clothing or douse the flames and beat their faces, arms legs and hair. They rushed round in circles [on the deck], screaming like pigs. A human fireball crumpled in front or me ... disintegrating ... blistered hands outstretched as he called for his mum,' writes Weston. The pain hit him after he managed, miraculously, to run and escape from 'hell'.

Like Cheung, Weston, 46, met Prince Charles, an occasion and photo opportunity that helped him become the face of the Falklands for the British public. In another parallel to Cheung's post-war life, Weston has devoted a lot of time to helping others. In between media interviews, he runs Weston Spirit, the charity he founded 'to promote the personal and social development of socially excluded and disaffected young people'. He also has an agent who ensures his diary is kept busy with motivational talks and after-dinner speeches. And he's just started writing children's books.

He is an inspiration, not just to his three children, but also to millions around the world. When Post Magazine spoke to him, he was in the middle of doing voiceovers on television programmes to be shown this week in Britain to accompany 'Falklands 25' commemorative events.

'The Chinese were a crucial component of the war. I remember them on the ship. We're indebted to them,' he says. 'I can share the pain with Mr Cheung. When it's hot, the scars burn because the skin is so sensitive, so you avoid sunlight. In the winter, the skin contracts and is very uncomfortable.

'As to Mr Chiu, there are many men out there who owe him. Sadly, to hear these two men have been neglected is often the norm for veterans. The Chinese are not alone in that. I urge them to keep in contact with the veterans associations for support.'

Weston, who works for various veterans associations, has just helped produce a re-recording of Brother's in Arms by British rock band Dire Straits. Proceeds will go to the South Atlantic Medals Association and will help pay for veterans to return to the Falklands.

'By going back we can help slay the demons,' says Weston. 'The Chinese crews should be offered the same opportunity.'

Chiu's story

Retired brigadier Christopher Hammerbeck wears many hats. He is the executive director of the Hong Kong British Chamber of Commerce, the honorary president of the Hong Kong Ex-servicemen's Association, president of the Royal British Legion (Hong Kong & China Branch) and chairman of the executive committee of the Hong Kong Local Enlisted Personnel Trust.

Last month, he received a call from Britain's Ministry of Defence, which said it wished to fly a holder of the George Medal - one of Britain's highest civilian bravery awards - to London for a heroes' dinner at the Painted Hall, Greenwich. His name was Chiu Yiu-nam.

As an able seaman, Chiu was working on the Sir Galahad's upper decks helping to load helicopters with equipment when the bombs hit. He was also a drilled member of the ship's fire-fighting team so donned a Fearnought fire-fighting suit, which offers 'only partial protection', and started to tackle the flames. His medal citation highlights acts of exceptional bravery, detailing how he ran into the flames to rescue a Welsh Guard.

'He then returned with a man only again to disappear into the smoke and flames to rescue a further seven men. He continued without regard for his own danger or fatigue until he had rescued all those he could find,' reads the report.

Chiu flew to London in 1983 and collected his award from the queen then returned to Hong Kong. He used to visit the World War Two Veterans Association headquarters, a small prefabricated hut located under a flyover in Wan Chai, but had not been seen for many years. He was 'rediscovered' at his modest Aberdeen apartment by officers of the Royal British Legion (RBL) after they had called a number of people named Chiu found in the telephone book. Too poor to afford extensive medical care, he had been for years suffering in silence from a severe respiratory disease. The RBL paid for medical check-ups and initial results suggest the toxic smoke - including lethal blue asbestos - he breathed that day is now taking grave affect.

He was not fit enough to be flown to Britain, so various veterans associations honoured him in Hong Kong with a celebration banquet attended by Stephen Bradley, the British consul general, last Thursday.

Chiu has never spoken publicly about his heroism, not because of modesty, 'but out of self-preservation', believes Hammerbeck. 'It is important to realise these things must be handled with sympathetic care otherwise post-traumatic stress disorder syndrome could set in again,' says Hammerbeck, a veteran of the first Gulf war.

Aided by Hong Kong barrister James McGowan, a former naval officer and naval lawyer, Hammerbeck and the veterans associations vow to ensure Chiu and other Falklands survivors receive help from the range of charitable funds and trusts available and 'to assist where necessary'.

'There has been a long tradition of Chinese, Hong Kong Chinese and men of other races who have served with, and in support of, the Royal Navy,' says Hammerbeck. 'The conduct of Chiu Yiu-nam on that fateful day 25 years ago in Bluff Cove exemplifies the courage and self sacrifice of he and his many forebears in the service of the Royal Navy. The award of the George Medal to him was, I am sure, representational of the others that served in this conflict.'

Welsh Guards Major Charlie Carty helped evacuate his injured men from the burning ship and today runs the regiment's veterans association, which has branches dotted around the world.

'Thank God for Mr Chiu,' he says. 'This man is an honour to the regiment and we shall now endeavour to try and trace the men he saved to see [whether they], if they so wish, to pay tribute to him.

'However, it's sad to hear what has happened to Chiu and Cheung. But they are, sadly, among thousands of other veterans who have suffered neglect from the British government since the end of the Falklands war. It's true what they say: you're just a number at the end of the day.'