Jack Edwards 1918 – 2006

Jack Edwards, the veteran campaigner for the rights of war veterans widows, died on Sunday in Hong Kong.   A proud Welshman, British Patriot and unrelenting thorn in the side of the British government, whom he believed disgracfully let down the survivors of loyal servants of the Crown, he was also one of the oldest members on the Hong Kong Male Welsh Voice Choir.

I have friends in the choir and was fortunate to meet Jack several times.   The last – at one of the annual Choir concerts – was 2 years ago.   Jack was in the audience, with wife Polly and joined in an impromptu sing-song after the show had officially finished.   Jack was Welsh Choir royalty and the rendition of Men of Harlech, was all for him.

From the Telegraph

Jack Edwards, who has died aged 88, survived the notorious Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and copper mine at Kinkaseki, Taiwan, to become a relentless campaigner for former servicemen and their widows in the Far East.

The greatest triumphs arising from his battles with the British government were the award of pensions to ethnic Chinese veterans and their widows in Hong Kong, agreed in 1991, and the granting of British passports to survivors’ wives and widows in the run-up to the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Increasingly exasperated by the government’s refusal to give way over the latter issue, Edwards devised a series of elaborate stunts, finally mounting a daily vigil outside Government House in Hong Kong, at which he carried the first Union Jack to be hoisted over Victoria Peak after the Japanese surrender. Eventually he was summoned inside to meet John Major, the prime minister, who was in Hong Kong for final negotiations in early 1996. “Major placed his hand on my arm and said he had some good news,” he later recalled. “I said, ‘Thank goodness for that.'” Jack Edwards was born at Cardiff on May 24 1918.

Having joined the Royal Corps of Signals, he was a sergeant in Singapore when it fell to the Japanese in 1942. On being taken prisoner, his first job was removing from the beaches the corpses of captives killed by the Japanese at sea and thrown overboard.

Later that year he was transferred from Changi jail to the Japanese colony of Taiwan, then known as Formosa. Kinkaseki, in the mountains near Jiufen, never achieved the notoriety of the Burma railway, but is acknowledged to have been among the most brutal of the Japanese camps. Inmates worked the mine daily in tropical heat until they dropped or died in rock-falls. Those failing to meet the steep production targets were beaten viciously by the Japanese and Taiwanese guards. Malnutrition, beri-beri and dysentery claimed many lives. As the end of the war approached, the emaciated survivors were marched to a mountainside south of Taipei, where they were forced to build a new camp in the jungle. Those who made it to the Japanese surrender – 64 out of an original 526 (though some had been transferred elsewhere) – were “walking on the narrow edge between man and animal,” Edwards wrote. “All of us looked ghastly, eyes sunken, mere skeletons, covered with rashes, sores, or cuts which would not heal. Others too far gone to save were blown-up with beri-beri, legs and testicles like balloons.”

Forty years later he recorded his experiences in a book, Banzai, You Bastards! The title, he said, was not intended to be inflammatory, but referred to the only release from suffering, other than death, that the prisoners enjoyed: as the Americans advanced across south-east Asia, bombing raids would force the guards and camp commanders into shelters; the inmates would emerge from their huts and, when no one was looking, cheer on the bombers with borrowed war-cries. On one occasion Edwards was overheard and beaten with bamboo rods.

The book was translated and published in Japan (where Edwards was, in his later years, to make many friends) under the more conciliatory title Drop Dead, Jap! While a PoW Edwards had discovered that a tunnel built into a nearby hillside was to be the prisoners’ tomb: orders had been given that, should the Americans land in Taiwan, the PoWs were to be taken there and shot. After the war he returned to Kinkaseki with war crimes investigators, and gave evidence at the subsequent trial in Tokyo.

Edwards spent a year recuperating in London, then returned to south Wales, where he worked in local government; but he was unable to settle, and in 1963 took up a post in the housing department of the Hong Kong administration. There he became active in the Royal British Legion and the Hong Kong Ex-Servicemen’s Association.

Among the successful campaigns which he supported were the effort by former “comfort women” to force the Japanese government to admit that their enslavement into prostitution was an official policy, not just a by-product of war; and, in 1986, the granting of British passports to Hong Kong ex-servicemen. He was greatly outraged to discover that ethnic Chinese servicemen, and their widows, were not entitled to war pensions, unlike the British alongside whom they had fought. “When I first learned this, I assumed it must have been a mistake, an oversight,” he said later. “When I wrote to the Ministry of Defence and found it was policy, I felt deeply ashamed to be British, though I had always been a patriot.”

On having this wrong rectified in 1991, Edwards turned his attention to winning passports for ex-servicemen’s wives and widows, whom the British government had decided did not qualify to be part of the scheme which gave citizenship to 50,000 Hong Kong residents before the handover. Edwards argued that a clause offering 6,300 passports in recognition of “special services to the Crown” could be used for the women, but he was repeatedly rebuffed. As well as writing letters to the administration and government, he raised the issue with visiting politicians and eventually won the support of the last governor, Chris Patten. At one point, he ambushed John Major while the prime minister was on an official visit to Tokyo.

In 1995, at the parade down the Mall commemorating the 50th anniversary of VJ Day, he carried a protest banner. By the time of Major’s change of heart, Edwards had come to be seen even by some sympathisers as a “difficult” character, with his daily Union Jack vigil outside Government House. But in the wake of the decision, beneficiaries of his campaigns wrote to the South China Morning Post demanding Edwards be given a knighthood.

In the end, he was appointed OBE in the Birthday Honours’ List of 1997, to add to his earlier MBE.

Edwards’s first marriage did not survive the war. In the 1970s he met Polly Tam So-lan, a former member of a Chinese People’s Liberation Army dance troupe. She and Edwards married in 1990, and lived in a flat in Sha Tin new town. Edwards, who spoke fluent Cantonese, insisted on hanging his Union Jack from his window on Remembrance Day. The couple shared a love of dancing, which they practised in their small living-room to recordings of Taiwanese songs.

Jack Edwards, who died on Sunday, is survived by his wife and her daughter by her first marriage.

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