14 March 2018

On 12 May, I climbed into a Douglas DC-3 aircraft and headed north to Sylhet, which these days is in Bangladesh but which was then in Assam in India. We arrived just before 2 p.m. and went straight to a hospital there, passing well-tended tea plan­tations, rice paddies and lush jungle vegetation along the way. I remember that the cases in that hospital were particularly bad; even though I had by then been to many different hospitals, I was still shocked by the severity of them. On a couple of occasions in hospitals the boys would ask me to sing for them right by their bedsides as they were unable to make it to one of my performances – at least twice I sang for my smallest audience of just two; and on both occasions I believe that one of the two men did not make it. One of these times – and it may have been in one of those hospitals near Sylhet – I met a man called Stanley McDermott of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who was very ill with malaria, and sang to him and another man in a neighbouring bed. Many years later his daughter sent me a letter to tell me that this was ‘his proudest memory’ from the war.

Perhaps the thing I remember most about my visit to Sylhet, though, was being pestered by insects in the jungle when I was trying to sing to the boys. The most memorable type of insect there was definitely the beetles – they had the misfortune to be both gigantic and clumsy, and ended up getting into all types of places, including my hair and the piano keys! Their favourite trick was to fly straight into a light and then fall on the floor – or the piano. They then made an alarming scratchy sound as they righted themselves and tried to scramble to safety. A number of times a beetle would fly into my hair or land on my shoulder just as I started a song, and it would disturb me so much that I would stop singing, turn to Len, apologise to the audience and have to start again.

Keep Smiling Through

'You have to remember that when a war is taking place, discomforts like this really seem of so little importance'

In general, though, beetles were not the worst insect problem – that dubious honour definitely belonged to mosqui­toes. The main problem with mosquitoes was not the bites themselves, but the danger of malaria, which meant that I could hardly ever wear the sleeveless pink dress that I had brought with me from London. I mainly had to wear khaki trousers and shirts with long sleeves so that I wouldn’t get bitten on the arms or legs. On the odd occasion that I was seen in the evenings with my sleeves still rolled up, the boys would yell at me: ‘Roll down your sleeves, Vera!’ That’s why in all the pictures from that time I am always dressed in army fatigues. This, I know, was a big part of General Slim’s drive to eliminate malaria as much as possible from the army, and I was happy to follow orders as much for my own benefit as anything else.

It was in Sylhet that I really was singing in the rain – the monsoon was finally upon us. This meant plenty of squelchy, muddy tracks, in which our truck with the piano on the back occasionally got stuck. There was also mud at the various camps, and occasionally one or more of the most gallant boys would offer to carry me over it to the stage or the canteen. A lady called Rachel Holloway from Ealing in west London wrote to me in 2012 to let me know that her grandfather was one of those men who had helped to pull our vehicle out of the mud.

You were out in Burma cheering up the troops whilst my grandad was serving out there. He told me once about a concert you gave whilst out there. My grandad, Harry, served in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. He used to tell a story about when a jeep got stuck in mud and you needed assistance getting out.

In all other respects my grandfather was an immensely private man but he spoke warmly of his comrades in Burma and your efforts with the troops.

I wish you well and wanted to express my thanks for the happiness that you so obviously gave to people, soldiers, in particular, who were so in need of comfort and a connection with home.

On 13 May, after having photographs taken with the boys and being shown a gun display, we did the first of two concerts in Sylhet in the open air. I was told that we were not far away from Cherrapunjee – known to be the wettest place in the world – and I could well believe it when it started to absolutely hammer it down. I got drenched. We performed the second concert under cover at the football ground, and it was here that I met Brigadier Lentaigne for the first time. He had taken over from General Wingate as the leader of the Chindit forces that went behind the enemy lines.

That night Len and I were put in a concrete outhouse to sleep, with a sheet hung between us for propriety. We were both tired, but we didn’t get much sleep. All the time we had been having dinner with the brigadier, there had been torrential rain, which now poured in under the door of our outhouse and soaked us. There was nowhere else to sleep, though, so we just had to get wet and put up with it. You have to remember that when a war is taking place, discomforts like this really seem of so little importance.

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