I’m sure I had been told the story before … probably years ago but it was since forgotten. The subject came up purely by chance a few weeks back during one of my long-overdue visits to my mother’s place.
“I’m going next week to the Kranji War Memorial,” I announced. Well up to that point it was a rather dull conversation so even an intended visit to a graveyard had an edge of uplifting excitement.
“Don’t forget to visit your grandfather” she intoned.
“Huh?” was my reply.
Mum rolls her eyes to heaven (yeah sarcasm runs deep in the family) … and so the story was retold.
My maternal grandfather Arthur Henry Nunes had died many years before I was born … during the war - that's World War II (No Viviane, I’m old but not that ancient!).
It was just before the Japanese invasion of Singapore. The word had gone out in late 1941 asking for civilian volunteers. Help was needed for civil defence – to direct people to air-raid shelters, and putting out the fires from the aerial bombs that everyone knew was surely to come. Others were asked to join the Local Defence Corps – essentially to help out with the military defence of the island.
The latter was considered more dangerous but also prestigious – probably because you were armed with a rifle and would soon be in the thick of the action. So being a young man in his 30s, he went to the military.
My mother, who would have been about six or seven at the time I guess, couldn’t quite remember the details apart from the fact that her father was a rather eccentric individual with a bad temper (traits I was destined to inherit).
Seeing the Japanese planes bombing Singapore at will without a thought for innocent civilians killed and maimed, must have ignited that anger which apparently knew no bounds.
“He used to run around pointing his rifle in the sky, taking potshots at the planes” she said.
Of course he never hit anything. The Japanese fighters and even the bombers were probably flying too high and too fast but I guess he wanted to make a statement – that we – or at least he – would not go down without a fight.
He survived the invasion but died during the Occupation due malnutrition and illness at the age of just 38.
And so when I finally made it to the Kranji War Memorial a week later, I headed straight to locate the memorial to a man I owe my life to (in a way) but never knew ‘cept in some old faded pictures.
Among the many columns dedicated to Allied soldiers who gave their all for Singapore, I found the wall listing the names of our local volunteers. And there two-thirds of the way down was his name – “Nunes A. H.”
I stood there for several minutes waiting to feel well … something.
I had envisioned that it would be a special, humbling moment of sorts … stretching across time and space to be reunited for a moment with a family member long gone.
And so I waited as sweat trickled down my face.
Damn … nothing happened. I felt a little cheated.
It should have been something grand, unforgettable. But all I felt was the heat of the noon-day sun. I took a photograph just to show I was there, turned and walked away.
I still did not know him any better. It was just another name on a wall, one name among thousands, nothing more.
As I headed down the gently sloping grounds to the bus, a group of people were laying a wreath of poppies. I stopped in respect and watched as a styrofoam wreath covered with tacky plastic poppies was placed against a Christian cross.
As at this point I wasn’t looking to feel anything, I wasn’t disappointed.
As I passed row upon row of white tombstones, the futility of the place sank in. So and so aged 23 – Dead, So and so aged 19 – Dead, Unknown soldier – Dead. Was it worth it? Singapore had been billed as the impenetrable fortress and yet we didn’t even put up much of a fight, surrendering in about a week.
So maybe that crazy guy who pointed his rifle at the devils of the rising sun as they flew on towards the city to unleash yet another load of wanton destruction and fired round after round until his magazine clicked empty, wasn’t all that mad after all.
When all seems lost and hope has run cold, in a time of madness maybe the only sane thing left to do, when you are pissed and have your back against the wall, is to fire your weapon into the sky in one last act of defiance for freedom, for country … and for family.
Rest well A. H. Nunes ... I still don’t know you but I'm walking away with a sense of pride ... I think I’m beginning to understand...