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Saturday, 25 June 2011

Calcutta Salvationist Servicemen's Band by L.A. Brand

In 1944/45 morale amongst the troops in South East Asia was low, they were know as the "forgotten army", food was poor and any promotion very slow. Also the media were regularly carrying reports of the war in Europe and very little about the Far Eastern conflict.

Following a report from a parliamentary delegation who suggested "Martial Music" to help improve morale, the War Office in London approached the Salvation Army Headquarters in Calcutta enquiring if a band could be formed to go into Burma to play to the troops. Subsequently there appeared on 'Orders' an instruction for Salvation Army bandsmen who were stationed in India to report to the orderly room of their Unit. Consequently a number of Salvation Army bandsmen - both Army and RAF - were instructed to report to Colonel Cunningham, the Territorial Commander at the Salvation Army Headquarters in Calcutta.

We formed a band under the leadership of Adjutant Denis Parker. We were billeted in a large room belonging to the Salvation Army Men's Social Work centre in Lower Circular Road, Calcutta, which was near to the RAF Transit Camp. We had a week's intensive practice before moving off into Burma along the Arakan Front where we gave concerts, sometimes as many as three a day and often travelling at night. Sometimes we played to not more than a dozen people and sometimes as many as 300.

The time was not without incidents. We were scheduled to catch the midnight train on 1 January 1945 into Burma. During the morning of 31 December 1944 it was decided to have a band photograph taken on the steps of the Queen Victoria Memorial, (the photograph to be sent for publication in the War Cry). We had only travelled about 100 yards in a lorry when we were involved in an accident. Fortunately no one was seriously hurt but it was soon obvious that some of the instruments could not be played without major repair. (We never did have the official photograph taken).

A short time later a telephone message was received from the railway station to say that there was a large crate addressed to the Salvation Army in Calcutta, marked "Brass Band Musical Instruments". We borrowed a lorry from the RAF to fetch the crate and when we open it we found a replacement instrument for each of the badly damaged instruments. However still not all the instruments were playable - the only instrument not replaced was the Bass Trombone - but later in the afternoon a phone call was received from an American Unit to say that they had heard of our accident and they had a bass trombone we could borrow. So we were able to travel into Burma on the midnight train with a complete set of instruments.

We subsequently learned that some months earlier the War Cry had an appeal for donations to purchase instruments to be sent to Calcutta. The ship on which the original set of instruments were sent was torpedoed and a second set was purchased from the insurance money. Had the first set arrived these would probably have been damaged in the accident.

While in Burma we had some scary moments. We were crossing over the Brama Putra river on a pontoon bridge at a recommended speed of about 5 miles per hour when two Japanese fighter planes started to machine gun us. The driver of the lorry put his foot flat on the floor - I don't know which danger we were in the most - the machine guns or being thrown into the river.

On another occasion after we had played to the patients in a hospital, the chief medical officer said that there was an empty ward where we could sleep. Although the hospital was plainly marked with red crosses, the Japanese dropped bombs on the site - fortunately they missed all the wards and landed on open ground.

Another incident occurred when we were travelling down a mountain road with high cliffs on one side and a practically sheer drop on the other. A rear wheel came off the lorry and bounced down the side of the mountain. The Indian driver jumped out of the lorry but the person sat by him (who was a bus driver in civilian life) caught hold of the steering wheel and managed to steer into the bank to stop the lorry. I'm sure the Lord was looking after us the whole time.

One memorable occasion was when we unexpectedly came to a Red Shield canteen, fairly close to where the Allies and Japanese were fighting. Brigadier Jewkes and volunteers were manning the canteen.

I often wonder at the thoughts of some of the troops who saw us because each morning before we started our journeys we met together to pray and read a passage from the Bible. I know the Lord used us to witness at that time.

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