Burma’s brutal war is a story still largely unknown
I am currently in Yangon, which we used to call Rangoon in the nation of Myanmar, which we Americans still officially refer to as Burma.
In part I came because when I was six weeks old in the winter of 1944, my dad was deployed to Burma as part of the campaign there against the Japanese. He returned just before my second birthday. Although I did not expect this visit to be nostalgic, I have been thinking about my dad quite a bit.
Last Sunday, I attended mass at St. Mary Cathedral in Yangon (actually I attended two, one in English and one in Burmese). It was a day dedicated to parents, and the sermon and the music both emphasized the importance of good parents.
That got me thinking even more about my dad. I am an only child, and my father always regretted not knowing me as an infant. In fact, when he returned, I apparently rejected him for a while, in part because I had hardly been around men at all since my uncles were all fighting in the war. I recall discovering a few years ago a letter that my dad wrote to me from Burma.
It was in case he did not return, and it told me how much he loved me and why he was fighting a in a war that was to make my life better and freer.
Dad never talked much about details except some funny, M*A*S*H-like ones. Only now am I reading a book about what a brutal war was fought in Burma. I saw lots of black and white pictures that he took, but most were of buddies. However, I recall the horror of a photo of the severed heads of several children. When my dad got together with his war buddies, they recounted mostly the friendships they made and evaluated their superior officers.
All this was going through my mind at mass when the next hymn was announced. It turned out not to be a hymn at all but rather the old sentimental favorite, “Mother.” It begins, “M is for the million things she gave me” and spells out MOTHER, “the word that means the world to me.”
I cried like a baby as I recalled my mom raising me all alone for two years. She could not rent an apartment despite the fact her husband was fighting for the U.S. Women with children but no husbands in residence were objects of discrimination. I know we moved several times, including once into the house of relatives because there was no alternative. And my mom couldn’t work with an infant at home.
One of my goals in Myanmar was to buy some quality remembrance that I would see in my house every day. Today I found just what I wanted — a lovely rug. It is the most expensive and the heaviest purchase of my ramble around Southeast Asia, but I am so happy to have it.
However, I also bought a second item, one that on the surface will seem bizarre — a teddy bear. In 1944, for my first birthday, my dad sent me a teddy bear. I do not know whether he purchased it in Burma (I doubt it) or had someone in the States send it to me.
The family legend is that when I unwrapped it, I made some sound like “Boh-mie.” Hence my bear’s name is Bohmie. It has been lost and also survived a detached ear, but I still have Bohmie and display him in my living room. It is my oldest possession. Well, now Bohmie has a companion, or maybe it is his grandson. The new bear is green, not brown, but is about the same size as Bohmie. They shall be linked forever!
My dad has been dead for 22 years and my mom for seven, but we never forget our parents, and we cling to memories and physical objects that keep them alive in our memories. Being in Myanmar, especially being alone and having time to think about things that matter, has been an opportunity to reflect on those who gave me life and nurture.
They were ordinary, extraordinary Americans. There are no books about my dad or mom, although my dad is mentioned in one memoir of a British doctor in Burma whom he knew. But my dad volunteered for the war — he was too old to be drafted. And my mom raised me and handled the family finances while my dad was providing medical supplies to U.S. and British and Chinese troops along the infamous Burma Road.
I suppose it is exciting and cool to be Chelsea Clinton or Malik Obama. But I have been powerfully reminded in Yangon that is equally cool and exciting to be the son of Bill and Ann Cook.
P.S.: I wrote most of this column twice because as I was writing, Yangon had its third power outage of the day!