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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 July, 2005, 00:41 GMT 01:41 UK
The importance of remembering
By Hannah Goff
BBC News

As commemorations for the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II get under way, BBC News pays a visit to the Living Museum in London's St James's Park.

As veterans mingled with visitors, tourists and living history interpreters, it was difficult to tell just who was being commemorated and who was doing the commemorating.

Jean Fleming
The Living Museum brought exhibits from across the country together

Young soldiers clad in rough 1940s khakis rested against sand bags sharing cigarettes from a precious packet of Woodbines while craggy-faced veterans looked on.

Slightly less elderly men, tagged with Paddington Bear evacuee labels, chatted easily with buxom Land Girls holding huge baskets of carrots and cabbages.

As the strains of a Glenn Miller standard faded into the smoke from the latest military display, the cheery voice of the Naafi char lady cried out:

"Are you a soldier, airman or evacuee? What's your forces number then luvvie?"

"I haven't got one," came the response from the thirsty customer, "but I was in the frontline!"

"It's an honour to meet you sir," the formidable Jean Fleming responded with a wink as she handed him a cup of tea.

"This is my Naafi wagon and I only come and do this because I love flirting with the veterans," she explains.

"It's so important that what they all did is remembered."

As children we lived in holes in the ground
War veteran Bill Hearn

As I made my way around the network of stalls and displays, it became clear she did not just mean those who actually fought - but anyone who lived through the war.

Bill Hearn was four years old when the war started. He lived in Canning Town, a heavily bombed part of east London.

He said: "I've heard Dutch and French people say Britain wasn't invaded. Of course it was invaded.

"It was invaded in the most horrific way. We were bombed continuously and this went on for five years.

"As children we lived in holes in the ground," he says now aged 70.

Vegetables at the Dig for Victory stall
The Land Girls took on responsibility for growing the nation's food

It is the memories of people like Bill that the Living Museum wants to bring alive during this week of 60th anniversary commemorations and beyond.

Spokesman for the project, Group Captain David Prowse, said: "As our veterans get older, memories are fading, but we still realise the significance and the implication of their contribution.

"The Second World War shaped the world as we know it. It brought about the end of the British Empire and the birth of the Commonwealth.

"What we want to do is challenge young people to find out about the experiences of their parents and great grand parents and find out what they were doing in World War II.

"But this isn't Britain going on about the war - we are trying to show that it's not just about those who were in the forces."

Sensitive

This is being done not just by those who were actually there, but by actors, relatives and living history interpreters from museums up and down the country - as well as the military.

Machine gun post
Professional actors played the 'ordinary heroes' who fought the war

Squatted conspiratorially around some sandbags is a gaggle of soldiers who look authentic 1940s in everything but age.

Private McGurk, his character name as a living history interpreter with the National Army Museum, says World War II veterans by definition have to be 80 plus.

This makes it a bit tricky to get them standing up all day, he explains.

'Crazy'

So he and his colleagues work with veteran groups up and down the country and bring their tales to life.

His colleague, Corporal King, chips in: "They are getting older and there's less of them, but that's no reason that we should forget what they did.

"One of the veterans we deal with is 98. He's still as sharp as a knife and he can still drink us all under the table!"

But there's another reason why the war-time stories are sometimes best told by people at one remove.

Cheslea pensioner Albert Leach was his driver
Field Marshall Montgomery's car was landed on Juno Beach after D-Day

As Beverley Bowring on the Dig For Victory stall with her daughter and husband explains.

"It's actually quite difficult with the vets. Some just don't want to talk about it.

"My father was in Burma and he really thinks we are crazy. He thinks it's better to forget.

"But we do it because actually it isn't better to forget."

The Living Museum is in St James's Park, London until Sunday 10 July.


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