This two part blog is about the power and value of standardisation.
This first part is written in memory of, and in tribute to, Jack Edwards OBE MBE
Last August I was on a Teams call with my colleague Richard Edmonds when I noticed that his profile photo had changed. It was now a photo of an older gentleman, proudly waving the Union Flag.
Intrigued by this, I asked who the man in the photo was, and therein started a fascinating series of insights into a hero of the Second World War and beyond. Richard had chosen to mark the 75th anniversary of VJ Day by proudly displaying his Great Uncle’s photo.
The man was Jack Edwards and, during the Second World War, he was captured in Singapore and eventually transported to Taiwan where he was a prisoner of war (PoW) in a Japanese slave camp, tasked with mining copper. He was a fascinating character and very quickly I was reading all about him. For those of you that are interested I attach various links to the end of this blog, the highlight of which is hearing the man himself. The quantity of information available about him is a tribute to the man himself.
Eventually my research led me to purchasing a copy of Edward’s biography and, frankly speaking, I could not put it down. The book focuses on his experiences in WW2 and is an extremely emotional read. It is a mix of the barbaric, the tragic and eventually, the power of human resilience and hope.
By the end of the book, the Japanese had surrendered, and the Americans were urgently focussing on delivering food and medicines to the island’s PoW camps. This critical task should have been a moment of unmitigated joy but, tragically, disaster struck meaning it actually cost lives. The PoWs had placed “PW” signs on the roofs of their buildings to indicate to the American pilots where to drop the aid supplies. The B-29s were too low, so the parachutes on the supplies did not open sufficiently. The result was tragic — 2 civilian and 3 PoW casualties, 5 severely injured and 16 injured. All of this after the war had ended. Edwards captures this as follows:
“That was a day we would never forget. Planes were circling in the distance, dropping supplies with parachutes on what we guessed were other PoW camps and seeming to ignore us. We waved, shouted, and ran about pointing to the PW markers on our roof, praying they would see us. At last one B29 spotted us and came so low we could see the crew waving… those minutes of terror and tension had to be lived to be understood. As soon as we saw what happened on the first drop, civilians crushed to pulp by the heavy containers, we knew what to expect. Each time the plane came in to drop, the group I was with tried to run out of the line of the falling containers. The plane was so low the parachutes weren’t opening and the huge metal containers came crashing down like unexploded bombs. I was running towards the hut with others to try and reach the screaming patients inside when the fourth drop caught our group. The container swept past me and I was bowled head over heels by the parachute trailing behind, my pals scattered like nine-pins.”
The B29s returned the next day. To avert a repeat of the carnage, Edwards and his fellow PoWs attempted to signal to the pilots. “DO NOT DROP” signs were marked out with the old parachutes to no avail. Metal lids and flags were prepared for use as signals. The story continues…
“When they appeared next morning there were three. They came in and began circling, trying to decide where to drop. The Major lined up all the men in three ranks along the road outside the camp boundary. I was on my own, standing on the platform of containers, armed with a tin lid and two big pieces of white parachute to be used as flags. The Camp Commander, Tamaki, and the remaining Japs ran past me into the air-raid shelters at the end or the compound. I flashed with the tin lid first and then waved frantically with the flags, hoping they would see me and the “DON’T DROP” sign.
At last one or the B29’s came out of formation, banked, and headed straight for our camp. Now I was desperate. I dropped the lid and started signalling in semaphore, “DON’T DROP, DON’T DROP, DON’T DROP”. On came the plane. I could see its bomb bay was wide open. I shut my eyes and held my breath, praying they would not drop. As it roared low over my head I opened my eyes and could see the containers, attached to the parachute cords, ready to fly out.
Now I breathed again and, as it banked away, signalled “DON’T DROP, THREE MEN KILLED, DROP OUTSIDE CAMP.” I continued repeating this message and, as it circled again, I was rewarded with an “R” flashed by a signalling lamp. With his signal light flashing, he came down low and I could see the crew.”
The desperate attempts to signal to the B29 pilots had worked using the crudest of tools. Lives were saved by simple flags and semaphore. Some days later, once Edwards and his fellow PoWs were in hospital, the connection was made between the incident and the American pilots (the pilots had dropped a message containing their personal details). The story continues…
“In our hospital beds we were questioned by American Intelligence officers. I told them the story of the food drop, my luck in contacting the B-29, and showed them the names of the aircrew. It was typical of the American kindness, generosity, and concern that, to my astonishment, a week later those very men were brought to my bedside. Quite off-handedly they told me they had flown down from Saipan when they had received the news that our camp survivors were in Manila. The miracle, I discovered, was that there was only one man in the three B-29s who could read my signals. He had learnt his semaphore as a lad in the Boy Scouts! They were even more surprised when I told them I was the only man in that camp who could send semaphore, and I had learnt mine in the Boys’ Brigade!”
A signalling standard learnt by two pre-teenage boys, one in the Scouts, the other in the Boys’ Brigade has saved numerous lives. There was no-need for planning, equipment, training etc. just arms, eyes, flags and a common communication standard. To me this was the perfect description of the power of standards.
Edwards was buried in a coffin draped with the Union Flag pictured above. The arrangement was made in secret by Lord Patten, the last Colonial Governor. That historic flag was the first flag raised after the liberation of Hong Kong and the last lowered at Government House on the night of the handover. It is now held in a museum. An exceptional tribute to an exceptional man.
In part 2 of this blog I will write about my own experiences with standardisation, albeit in a slightly more irreverent manner.
In remembrance of Jack Edwards OBE MBE
I would like to thank Souvenir Press Ltd, part of Profile Books, for their kind permission to publish extracts from Jack Edwards’ biography.
For those interested in more information about Jack Edwards the following references may be helpful:
1. “Banzai you Bastards”, Jack Edwards, Souvenir Press Ltd, London, 1994; ISBN 0285631780
2. Wikipedia entry for Jack Edwards https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Edwards_(British_Army_soldier)
3. Whickers World, “Face has to be provided”, broadcast 2nd March 1990, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5jeAusiKd4
4. Hong Kong — “A Matter of Honour” Part 2a, BBC and RTHK broadcast on the matter of the handover of Hong Kong to China. Jack Edwards speaks at 2:12 https://youtu.be/jvy99k3VQB4?t=132
5. Memorial facebook page to Jack Edwards https://www.facebook.com/Jack-Edwards-OBE-MBE-130364800054/photos/?ref=page_internal
6. Jack Edwards Obituary, The Times, London, 15th August 2006 https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/jack-edwards-wk0mzvnqc9g
7. Jack Edwards Obituary, The Daily Telegraph, London, 16th August, 2006 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1526416/Jack-Edwards.html
8. Jack Edwards Obituary, Taipai Times, Taipai, 15th August, 2006 http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2006/08/15/2003323258
9. Associated Press broadcast featuring Jack Edwards, http://www.aparchive.com/metadata/youtube/638bad331303d6b560179dd12f12a506
10. “Patten pays tribute to war veteran”, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 20th August 2006 https://www.scmp.com/article/560985/patten-pays-tribute-war-veteran
11. “Stirring farewell to ‘indomitable, fearless’ Jack Edwards”, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 2nd September 2006 https://www.scmp.com/article/562451/stirring-farewell-indomitable-fearless-jack-edwards