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Last Updated: Friday, 30 December 2005, 10:07 GMT
Prisoner's list proves Gurkha lifeline
By Martin Plaut
BBC News

Captain Peter O'Neal, centre, with his regiment
Wartime records held by Captain O'Neal (c) helped hundreds of Gurkhas
In November 2003 the British government decided to pay 10,000 ($17,000) to each of its soldiers who were interned in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps during World War II.

Among those who were eligible were the Gurkhas of Nepal, who fought for Britain. But the team sent to Kathmandu to discover which Gurkhas were eligible faced an almost insuperable task of identifying who had served in the war.

Many looked as if they would never benefit from the payout, since few had the papers necessary to prove that they had been captured.

And there the story might have ended, had an article outlining the problem not appeared in the UK's Daily Telegraph newspaper.

The sad tale of the Gurkhas was read almost by accident by Veronica O'Neal, the widow of Captain Peter O'Neal, who had served with the Gurkhas.

"I don't usually read newspapers," says Mrs O'Neal, "so it was quite extraordinary that I saw the article at all. But having seen it, I realised that I had a list of Gurkhas that my husband had kept, up in a suitcase in my loft. And I felt I had to contact someone and let them know."

Veronica O'Neal with the regimental list made by her husband during WWII
Mrs O'Neal remembered the papers in her loft

In Mrs O'Neal's loft were sheets of thin paper, typed in Rangoon at the end of World War II. They contained the names of 1,000 Gurkhas who had been imprisoned by the Japanese.

Captain O'Neal was captured along with his men following the fall of Malaya (the former name for peninsular Malaysia) in 1942. He was interned in a series of prisoner of war camps, and made to work on the notorious Burma railway.

It is not known exactly how many Gurkhas were imprisoned by the Japanese, but Britain's Ministry of Defence estimates that they numbered around 3,000.

List buried

As adjutant of the Second Battalion, First Gurkha Rifles, Captain O'Neal felt it incumbent on him to keep a list of all the men under his command. So he recorded all his troops in a Royal Navy logbook. This had to be hidden, as any records were forbidden by the Japanese.

Finally, as the war drew to a close he was forced to hand it over to his captors, but not before he had made a copy, which he buried in a jar covered with tin, under his camp hut. When the war was finally over it was dug up, returned to Captain O'Neal and transcribed.

The register of names recorded by Captain Peter O'Neal
The list has allowed 790 compensation claims to be verified
It is this list that has now helped the British army to so far identify more than 790 Gurkha soldiers and their widows. Each will receive the promised sum of $17,000 - a fortune for most Nepalis.

And Mrs O'Neal's reward has been the thanks of so many old soldiers.

"I have had a letter from Nepal saying some of the Gurkhas are so happy they don't know what to say. Others openly weep with gratitude. And some would like to write to me, but don't have the skills. But that's enough thanks for me."

The Far East Prisoner of War team attempting to identify those eligible for the payments will finish its work in February 2006.

Gurkhas have fought for Britain for almost 200 years, and are an integral part of the British Army.

Record unrivalled

During World War I, 100,000 Gurkhas joined up, fighting in France, Belgium, Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, Gallipoli and Palestine. They served again during World War II and since then have fought in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Iraq.

There are currently 3,400 Gurkhas in the British Army. Their record of bravery is unrivalled, and Gurkha battalions suffered 43,000 casualties and won 26 Victoria Crosses in two world wars.

Joining the British Army is one of the few ways Nepalis have of escaping the poverty in their country, as well as being a prestigious profession. As a result there were more than 15,000 applicants for the 230 places being offered during this year's recruitment.

I asked Mrs O'Neal whether her husband, who died in 1975, was a brave man for maintaining the list despite Japanese threats.

"I think he was an honourable man, who felt it was his duty to do it. He didn't talk about it a great deal."

Who are the Gurkhas?
21 Feb 03 |  UK

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