The lady sat down in the lounge chair and then said hello. The pool was deserted, except for a few sun worshippers determined to grab a few rays at the hottest point of the day. She stood out amongst the dozens of business travellers at the West African resort. She was carefully groomed from her stylish, blond hair, to her manicured nails, and her voice matched her appearance perfectly—an articulate British lilt to go along with the slender, middle-aged blond. It seemed likely she would indulge in a 10-minute chat about travel, shopping and family; the safe subjects that can complement the mood of sunshine and poolside conversation. She did not.
Sherry Scott was at Accra, Ghana, last July for the 30th Triennial Conference of the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL). She was there as one of two delegates from Burma (now known as Myanmar). The league was created in 1921 as the British Empire Services League, but in the late 1950s—as nations of the Commonwealth gained independence and veterans’ organizations joined the fold—the charity changed its name to the British Commonwealth Ex-Services League (BCEL). Then in 2003, the current name, Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League, was granted by royal assent.
From all appearances Sherry seemed the sort of woman who could have chosen any number of causes, but she chose the RCEL and Burma. Why? Sitting sideways on a dark blue lounge chair, she began her story by remembering her husband, Lieutenant-Colonel Ray Scott. “He was with the Burma Rifles in the Second World War, and did a lot of spying. He was behind the lines; he had to walk out, and in fact was alive, simply because his men took care of him…. Every time he asked me, ‘Where would you like to holiday?’ I would say, ‘I would love to go to Burma.’ And so, at the first opportunity of getting a visa, we went into Rangoon where word went around that he had returned, and his soldiers soon found him. How, I don’t know. I never can work out how they know who’s there…. He was horrified to see that the men he knew as proud soldiers had not received an income since after the war. These men had very little left in their lives and of their pride. When we returned home he said to me, ‘I believe I can afford to help my men and I want to give them back their dignity.’”
A year later, Ray was able to return to Burma. “This was very important work to him, and so we returned…with cash, and he distributed it to the men who had helped him (during the war),” explained Sherry.
Back in England, Ray approached other British officers in an effort to establish a fund for the Burma veterans. “I remember men saying to him, ‘What makes you think you will succeed when two governments have failed?’ Ray said, ‘Just because you can’t do everything is no reason to do nothing.’ It’s something that I live by.”
An officer Ray served with was keen to help. Major Neville Hogan is 84 and believes he is one of only three remaining veterans from the Burma Rifles. He remembers joining the cause and has warm memories of his old comrade. “I am a Burmese. My mother is a Karen, and my father is Irish. I was born and bred in Burma. I knew Ray Scott when I was about 12 or 13. I grew up with him—wonderful man, played rugby against his European club. When I was commissioned as a Rifle, he was always one or two ranks higher than me. He kept an eye on everybody, and gave me hell when I needed it. He was the loveliest man; a gentle, wonderful sportsman—and handsome as hell.”
While efforts were being made to establish the veterans’ fund, Ray didn’t just focus on the help he could get from old comrades. He dug deep into his own pockets and Sherry remembers his determination. “He said to me, ‘I can help my men if we don’t eat out, and we don’t have foreign holidays.’ I’m thinking, bloody hell! Not so good!”
This was the impetus Sherry needed to find a solution. Her work as a horse physiotherapist introduced her to British philanthropist Sir John Paul Getty II. During his lifetime, Getty was reported to have donated well over 140,000,000 pounds to culture. “He gave me 25,000 pounds just because his wife’s father served with my late husband, so we used that.”
This was a great starting point, but a more lasting solution was needed. Hogan and Lt.-Col. Sam Pope, who was secretary-general of the BCEL at the time, worked with Ray who became chairman of the newly formed Burma Forces Welfare Association (BFWA) in 2000. Around the same time, the association became a new member organization of the BCEL (later RCEL). As such, it is an autonomous organization within the charitable status of the larger organization, raising its own funds and setting up and running a welfare program.
Although Burma is not part of the Commonwealth, there are thousands of veterans in that country today who fought for Britain during the Second World War. Ray Scott, Pope and Hogan became league delegates, and Sherry worked as a fundraiser and committee member. Their patron was Viscount John Slim, retired colonel, trustee of the RCEL and president of the Special Air Service Regimental Association (SAS). As the son of General William Slim who commanded the 14th Army in Burma, he is dedicated to the welfare of the men who served under his father during the campaign.
The story of that campaign is long and complicated. In broad strokes, it began in January 1942 when Japanese forces invaded Burma. By May they had driven the British, Indian and local Burmese forces out of the country and into India. It wasn’t until 1945 that the 14th Army, under Slim, was able to reclaim Burma. The 14th was made up of units from all corners of the Commonwealth, and has been referred to as the Forgotten Army because its operations were overlooked by the media and misunderstood at the time. The campaign was as grim as it was complicated. Burmese soldiers fought alongside the Allies, and Ray Scott felt indebted to these steadfast Burmese soldiers until the day he died.
While attending the same RCEL Conference in Accra, John Slim made time to visit Sherry at poolside where he talked to her—and to others within earshot—about how remarkable she and her Burma team are. “There are areas that are quite difficult for her to get about, but she is a very resourceful person,” said Slim, who is proud of what he calls an outstanding little organization. “We do our best to look after those that fought for my father’s army…. There are still a good 21⁄2 thousand to three thousand warriors from all over Burma. We do our best to help them.”
“I remember men saying to him, ‘What makes you think you will succeed when two governments have failed?’”
The viscount also reminisced about Ray. “I only met him two or three times. He commanded a battalion of the Burma Rifles…. He was a marvellous soldier, and a brave man, and he loved the Burmese and they loved him. He spoke the language absolutely fluently and Sherry also speaks it a bit.… The big thing about Sherry is she is doing all this in memory of her husband. There is no doubt about it…. Nothing daunts her. She makes certain she meets as many of the Second World War veterans as possible.”
After Slim had left the resort’s poolside area, Sherry leaned forward in her sleek, one-piece bathing suit and continued her story. She described an incident that occurred in a refugee camp in the Sangklaburi area, within a kilometre of the Thai border. “About seven or eight years ago we were in the camps when the Burmese army decided it would send in soldiers to chase the veterans…. The moment the Burmese army crossed the border into Thailand (in search of the veterans), Thailand sent their soldiers out to chase the Burmese soldiers back. We suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a fracas. I mean it’s a small incident really, but we had to run—try to get ourselves out of the way…. We thought we would be safer in Burma than in Thailand because the Burmese were firing that way….I remember putting our passports, and the money we had on my head because I thought, we’re not going (to get across the bridge, and we’re going to have to swim for it). Suddenly, Ray grabbed my hand and said, ‘Run!’ We all ran. Where we had been standing was a huge hole (from an explosion), and I said to him, ‘How did you know?’ And he said, ‘These old instincts come back to you.’”
“When we got back to our hotel he had a stroke. He was 83 at the time…. I got him into a hospital in Thailand. We were due to go into Burma the next day to take a lot of money in and visit the nannies of all the families we knew,” said Sherry. During the war, British families who lived in Burma were often able to hire caregivers for their children from the local population. The Scotts became the means by which they could contact these now elderly nannies and get a little money their way because, added Sherry, they were suffering from the same frailties as the veterans. “The nannies were waiting for money because it couldn’t be sent the normal way.”
At the hospital, the Thai nurses assured Sherry that her husband would live, but he would heal far quicker if they could stop him from worrying. “The one thing that was worrying him was to finish his work in Burma, and the nurses suggested that I go into Burma, and do it quickly. I got the money in by putting it in a bathing costume, and I remember my husband sitting up in bed…saying to the little Thai nurses, ‘Now come on, pack it in…. You’ll have to have more on the bottom than on the top or she’ll fall over.’”
A plan was made to get the British pounds exchanged for local currency. Sherry was directed to the Scott Market, the largest market in downtown Rangoon, where she would shop for souvenirs. “I would buy an article in a number of different places, and they (the vendors) would give me the cash stuffed into the article. But I had the map to the market upside down, so I was working the wrong way. The vendors very soon put me in the right. It just shows you how they watch over you.”
Sherry remains amazed at how efficiently the ‘grapevine’ works in Burma. “Word went round about which hotel I was staying at and very quickly the veterans would gather round when I went out.” With the help of these men and their families, Sherry managed to distribute the money in two days before returning to Thailand for her husband’s recovery.
“He lived a further two years, still doing his work. By that time the association was linked with the BCEL, and was able to become more formalized,” said Sherry, whose husband died in January 2002. “We now have committees all over Burma made up of old soldiers. Their sons and daughters are helping because we need the technology. We’re able to use e-mail. We’re able to have interpreters.”
But even with Sherry’s trustworthy networks in place, Burma remains a tightly controlled regime, and so she knows her movements can compromise the safety of the veterans she is trying to help. “During my trips over there I have always been followed and spied upon. When my late husband died, his soldiers went to the embassy in Rangoon and expressed their sadness.… They just sat in the British Embassy, down the steps, down the road, past the Strand Hotel. They all just sat there and the ambassador put the embassy flag at half-mast. But if too many people gathered together they shot them. The ambassador was really frightened, and he phoned me just as I was going to my husband’s funeral. He said, ‘I have an emergency here. I know the day it is, but what am I to say? I must announce something because these people must disperse. Because the flag is at half-mast, they’re all holding posts with a handkerchief halfway down. They think that signifies something.’”
Sherry advised him to tell the mourners she would continue her husband’s work and that she would raise every flag lowered. “Daftest words I’ve ever said,” she smiled and shook her head, “because, of course, they went home and put the flags up. So I have visited every soldier that we’ve got. I visited to take the flag down and say, ‘You’re OK.’”
Hogan is among those who are impressed by how Sherry meets challenges, including various cultural differences, and how her ordinary sensibilities see her through. “She’s not one of those vice-chairman or colonel’s wives. She gets down to the nitty-gritty. She walks into every house barefooted to see my old soldiers there and their families. She sits down with them, holds their hands, comes out and walks barefooted in the village. She arrives by jeep, not a loaner jeep, but a jeep-taxi. There are about eight or 10 other people all hanging on to the jeep, and Sherry’s there in between that crowd. She doesn’t stand on any ceremony at all. She’s absolutely marvellous. I’m from Burma, born in Burma, and hygiene is nil. How they cope with the hygiene—she and Phil (her current partner)—I do not know.… Water is so scarce. You can’t even wash up. You have to be careful. Don’t drink the water. You even have to be careful when you’re cleaning your teeth, but Sherry comes through absolutely, both she and Phil.”
Sherry has travelled much of Burma, and her team has set up committees in various communities, and identified doctors that can help. But amid the practical work of setting up medical clinics, she remains sensitive to the need for old soldiers to trade stories. “Outside each clinic there is a little ‘talking’ house, and they have a sort of smouldering log in the middle. Then they have copious cups of different brew and they talk. They are incredible, these old men, absolutely incredible.… We have some amazing film of three old soldiers who lost their uniforms. They had uniforms made out of sack clothing which they kept over the years. And they were wearing this sacking uniform and just their medals (in 2005) when they placed a wreath for their fallen comrades to commemorate 60 years after the war.”
While Sherry spoke from her poolside lounge chair, it was easy to imagine her raising charity dollars in the luxurious salons of British society. It was harder to see her as the pragmatic woman who had a job to do up-country. “We have funny sides,” Sherry said. “When we come to a river, we need to wash. I asked my doctor how I was to do this and she said, ‘Well, you tie the longy, which is sort of a (Burmese) skirt, you tie it around your chest and then you wade into the water with your soap.’ Well, I tie it and then wade into the river. The longy gets wet and falls off. They all had to rush (into the river), not to save me, but to save the soap because it was everybody’s soap. So the first thing you need to do is tie a tight knot on your longy.…
“We were in the jungle. We were so far from civilization. When you go to these places you think, well I’m going to manage without a bathroom for a start. I’m going to manage without a mattress, because of course there are no beds, there are no rooms, but there are wells. So we have lovely fresh well water, fresh vegetables. We dine on things like rat, which isn’t as bad as it sounds, because they’re vegetarian rats. They’re a bit like chicken.”
Overall, Sherry and her team were making progress in Burma until Cyclone Nargis hit in May 2008. It was the worst natural disaster in the country’s history, killing between 135,000 and 146,000 people. Winds, which exceeded 190 kilometres per hour, smashed through Rangoon and devastated large parts of the Irrawaddy River delta. Compounding the disaster was the Myanmar junta’s resistance of outside humanitarian aid. Indeed, the stalling and lack of relief efforts made it impossible to estimate the number who died in the aftermath. Ten days after the cyclone, China was hit by a massive earthquake and the world staggered trying to respond to two disasters.
“We dine on things like rat, which isn’t as bad as it sounds, because they’re vegetarian rats. They’re a bit like chicken.”
But Sherry proved the exception to the rule. “We were there in May. We set off three days after the cyclone, so we were there four days afterwards. It was amazing that we got a visa.”
Lt.-Col. Chris Warren, Controller Finance of the RCEL, also remembers that time. “We gave her 42,000 pounds to take with her for the welfare of Commonwealth veteran soldiers that were affected by the cyclone…tablets were donated to her as were a number of water purification kits. She did a fantastic job in getting them (the supplies) all together and also persuading Thai Air to fly a significant amount of freight into Rangoon for free. She took all this stuff plus all the money.”
The Benevolent Secretary of The Burma Star Association, Rowena Patrick, said the association was happy to help. “We gave an additional 25,000 pounds towards the problems for our veterans in Burma…. We are all trying to support her as much as we possibly can, because she does such wonderful work.” The Burma Star Association was formed in 1951, and it too is dedicated to promoting comradeship and helping veterans from all over the Commonwealth who fought in the bitter campaign.
Sherry and her team of nine also approached friends, family and community organizations for contributions of water purification, rehydration and diarrhea tablets. “We booked our flight through Thai Air, and I asked them for support because I said, ‘You know we’re going into Burma, and we need to take excess luggage.’ And they said, ‘What sort?’ I said, ‘Well, cancer research has given us two microscopes. The Oasis is a company that makes water tablets for purifying the water, and they have given us a million. We’ve got rehydration tablets, we have diarrhea tablets, and we have clothing.’ And they said, ‘OK, unlimited. This is the first time we’ve ever given unlimited.’”
“It was clearly very dangerous for them to go. It was dangerous for Phil and Sherry, but how can I tell them don’t go?”
Her partner of four years, Phil Johnson, has travelled to Burma with her four times and was with her that May. She recalled leaving for Heathrow airport in a fleet of cars and vans. “We got to Heathrow where we needed five porters with big long trolleys…. (We flew) Thai Air from Heathrow to Bangkok, Bangkok to Burma, and actually the flight into Burma was nearly deserted. When we got to the airport we were very recognizable because we are completely wrong. I am totally the wrong colour, and Phil is too tall. They just asked us one question, which was, ‘Are the microscopes staying in Burma?’ We said, ‘Yes.’ Then they looked the other way, and we were waved through.”
Among Sherry’s extraordinary luggage were invitations to the upcoming Lambeth Palace Conference in London. The conference is a gathering of Anglican bishops and part of its purpose is to encourage discussion on the issues of the day and express united Anglican opinions. The invitations in Sherry’s luggage were going to be hand delivered to the Burmese bishops and archbishops in Rangoon. She recalled the conversation she had with them. “Look, we need to go up the Irrawaddy. We need to find our soldiers, and they said there was no point in us going at all, because what purpose would there be?”
Even with her assurances the leaders insisted the trip was pointless without the necessary supplies. She would need purification tablets, clothing and transportation to bring out the injured and distressed. Even though she told them she had all those things, they didn’t seem to hear and answered that even if she did manage to get to the injured she would need cars and petrol to bring them from the river to safety. Again, she assured them she could do it.
Suddenly, the Archbishop stopped talking. With a smile, Sherry recalled the words that followed. “He said, ‘Are we listening to you? Are you really saying you have these things?’ I said, ‘You know if I say I’m doing something I will do it.’ And he said, ‘How many tablets do you have?’ I said, ‘More than a million.’ He looked so surprised. He then said it would be very dangerous for them, and very dangerous for us.”
Sherry made another appeal to the young vicars and priests. “I told them that ‘I’ve challenged you before. I challenge you again. Get me up the Irrawaddy.’”
So they did.
Sherry described coming upon a large lump as they were navigating up the river. It was so large that a boat couldn’t pass and it turned out to be a bloated water buffalo. “What we needed to do was have an oar and push it out of the way. As I pushed it out of the way a human heel came up. You just wanted to save them, but what could we do. We could do nothing there. We’ve got to carry on, as our patron John Slim always says to me, ‘Concentrate on the living.’ So that’s what we did.
“And we opened this route and were able to—on the first day—bring 60 people back. The priests had kept saying, ‘Why such a big boat?’ I said, ‘You can’t leave them there. When we get there what are we going to do? We can’t get food because there’s no cooking means. We can give them water because they’re dehydrated. But what we really need to do is bring them out.’”
Closest to Sherry’s heart were the Second World War veterans. She was desperate to find her old soldiers, but they only found 10 in the wake of the cyclone. It is always the old and young who are most vulnerable in the floods. She carried a toy car given to her by her grandson who wished that it go to a child of three. Unfortunately, Sherry found no toddlers on her journey up the Irrawaddy. “The babies were strapped to their mother, but by the time you’re three if a tidal wave comes you stand no chance.”
Warren remembers the day Sherry came home from that trip. “She landed at Heathrow early in the morning…and came straight to Buckingham Palace to give an immediate report in front of the Duke of Edinburgh and all the Commonwealth members. It was amazing, she was absolutely knackered…. She has a real and genuine commitment to her husband’s legacy and her husband’s legacy was to care for the soldiers in Burma that he once commanded. It has now expanded. It started off as that, but she is now not just helping old veterans, but has set up through additional fundraising, nothing to do with our money, medical clinics. She has helped with a hydroelectric project and she helps with children. In fact, I think there are a couple of medical clinics actually named after her…because of her numerous visits there she is aware of the dreadful situation, the suffering…. She goes to very remote places and Burma is a very tough country to move around in and live in. She does it and remarkably. She is obviously a very tough and committed lady.”
Hogan worries about her safety in Burma. “It was clearly very dangerous for them to go. It was dangerous for Phil and Sherry, but how can I tell them don’t go?”
Sherry discounts any comments regarding her personal safety. She shakes her head at the idea of risk. “I come out. I leave them (the veterans) with the dangers.”
Sherry was 69 when she went into Burma last May, and perhaps at her age risk is relative. She is everything you first imagine her to be, elegant, articulate and every inch the lady, and she is much more. She is a determined philanthropist who remains devoted to her husband’s legacy, and through that resolve has found the ways and means to be of practical help to the welfare of the Burma veterans.
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