Former British Soldier Urges Rights For the Crown's Forgotten Heroes

VETERAN ACTIVIST. WORLD WAR II REVISITED

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE war in the Pacific never really ended for Jack Edwards.

Since trudging out of a Japanese prisoner-of-war (POW) camp in 1945, Mr. Edwards has fought for the honor of Allied servicemen against what he calls stubborn bureaucrats, hypocritical politicians, and evasive Japanese.

The self-described "living cenotaph," or monument to war dead, appears to be winning his unending war here in Hong Kong.

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Edwards, who manages a huge Hong Kong apartment complex, has brought Japanese war criminals to justice and helped families recover the remains of servicemen killed in the Pacific.

To many ethnic Chinese veterans and war widows facing the government with modest means and scant English skills, Edwards is a lone figure of hope.

"All these years since my father died, no one has helped us out but Mr. Edwards. Words can't express how my family feels about him," says Monica Kotwall. Her father, a Eurasian in the British Army Aid Group, was killed by the Japanese on St. Stephen's beach in 1944. "Without the help of Mr. Edwards, there would be no way for my mother to get a [British] passport," she says.

Edwards says that he is merely trying to make Britain live up to its word. After the Hong Kong garrison held out for 18 days against a much larger Japanese force, Winston Churchill said the colony "had fought a good fight. They had won, indeed, the lasting honor." Many Hong Kong veterans thought this gratitude signaled future British citizenship. But Britain's Nationality Bill for Hong Kong says otherwise.

"This is a group who served the crown, gave their husbands to the crown, and the crown gave them a tombstone with the very coat of arms that it won't put on a piece of paper in the form of a passport," says Edwards.

"I think it's downright outrageous, downright miserly," he adds, jutting out his jaw in the bulldog grimace that attends much of his criticism.

In May 1991, the dogged Welshman won pensions for veterans or spouses of veterans who were taken prisoner or executed by the Japanese after the fall of Hong Kong.

Edwards plans to shame the British government into granting citizenship to almost 140 men or wives of veterans who he thinks deserve passports because of their service to Britain.

The Edwards style of agitation mixes persistence with colorful vitriol. He speaks in a scattershot of irony and intense emotions - sorrow, devotion, and exasperation - while giving testimony to the past hardships of POWs and their current neglect by British officials.

Britain is doubly responsible to the veterans and veterans' widows because it plans to take the unprecedented step of handing them and the rest of the colony over to a communist regime, Edwards says. Britain will yield sovereignty over the territory to China in 1997.

Even officials in the bureaucracy cannot hide their admiration. "Mr. Edwards is a man of principle. He strongly believes that what he has been doing is right and he keeps on fighting," says Stephen Fisher at the Bureau of Health and Welfare. Edwards "is an old warrior, an old soldier, and I think we in government respect him for that," Mr. Fisher says.

Now Edwards is trying to publish in Japan his first-hand account of the brutality of Japanese officers at the forced-labor camp on Taiwan where he was held for most of the war. While forgiving Japan, Edwards is determined to make it acknowledge its past brutality.

He and 525 other POWs entered the Kinkaseki copper mine on Japanese-occupied Taiwan in 1942. At war's end, only 65 POWs emerged alive.

Edwards says the audience he seeks most now are the Japanese who he contends have not yet faced up to their cruelty during the war.

"Even the present Japanese emperor - all he keeps saying is 'Japan is now peace-loving and this will never happen again'," Edwards says. "He doesn't say Japan is sorry for the war and he doesn't say Japan plans to pay compensation for the victims."

With veterans from several countries, he has appealed to the United Nations to help secure a formal apology and compensation from Japan for POWs held during the war.

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