Promise is met at last in Dereham to honour the FEPoWs
It was the most poignant of days to fulfil a promise made more than 20 years ago to honour local servicemen who endured some of the most unimaginable wartime atrocities.
Just after the Armistice Day two minutes' silence was observed at Dereham's War Memorial yesterday, a short ceremony was held a few hundred yards away on the town's Fleece Meadow.
During the simple act of remembrance on the grassy area behind the Memorial Hall, an oriental gingko tree was planted by 90-year-old Dereham man Les Secker and local councillor Linda Monument.
The significance of the occasion was not lost on anyone there – as it ensured Mr Secker had seen through a pledge he made to the late Dr Harold Churchill before he died two decades ago.
'I am happy that I have seen this happen.
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'I had thought I could never keep the promise but I never forgot and I'm so pleased to see it finally come to fruition,' said a visibly-moved Mr Secker after helping plant the tree, which is a living memorial to all those who served and suffered in Singapore and the Far East during the second world war.
Dr Churchill – who retired to Dereham and helped out the town's GP Dr Susan Palmer – spent three years as a Far East Prisoner of War after being captured by the Japanese in February 1942. It was while he was walking on Dereham's Neatherd Moor about 20 years ago that Dr Churchill met Mr Secker, who was the former honorary warden and was planting trees.
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He talked to Mr Secker about his experiences in the camps and asked him if he could help create the living memorial to the FEPoWs.
Mr Secker has suffered a series of strokes and has been very ill but has maintained the determination to ensure the promise was fulfilled.
He recalled: 'Dr Churchill made a number of visits to see me on the Neatherd Moor.
'He said in the prisoner of war camps boredom was the greatest problem, which drove some to suicide.
'It seems that Dr Churchill's greatest job was to create an interest to stay alive. Many would try to create their own garden they had left behind in England.
'Dr Churchill made me give him a promise that if I could in any way help to create a memorial in memory of those who didn't come back I would.'
Dr Churchill – who was a GP in Pulham Market – joined the army as a medical officer and witnessed the horrifying treatment of servicemen and cared for many of the thousands of captives.
He was in Changi Camp and then the camps beside the Burma Railway and he managed to keep a diary on rice paper, which he buried in a tin to keep it from Japanese guards.
Later he wrote it up into a memoir which forms the first part of a book called Prisoners on The Kwai.
The second half is of compelling extracts from the memories of surviving FEPoWs which were recorded from interviews carried out by Dr Palmer, who was also at yesterday's ceremony. Mrs Monument said: 'To Dr Churchill trees and plants were very important, as they had been to the other FEPoWs.
'We decided to plant it behind the Memorial Hall so it was accessible for more of the elderly population who want to come and see it.'
Dereham rector the Rev Sally Theakston led a short blessing of the tree before Mr Secker and Mrs Monument completed the planting.
Dr Palmer has become an 'honorary member of the FEPoW Brigade' after learning about their suffering while treating them over the years for 'most peculiar symptoms.'
'I feel part of them,' said Dr Palmer, who said the tree in Dereham was a fitting living memorial to the FEPoWs.