By David Michael Newstead.
Media coverage about West Africa is rarely positive and recent news from the region has been no exception. But this month, a new book by Barnaby Phillips highlights the significant contributions of West African soldiers to the Second World War.
Recruited by the British, these young men were nicknamed Burma Boys since many of them were shipped off to fight against the Japanese in the jungles of Burma. They came from Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, and the Gambia as well as other British colonies in Africa. In total, almost 100,000 Africans took part in this effort, half of them from Nigeria. Because only 20% of the British Army in Burma was made up of Europeans, colonial recruits like those from Africa and India were vital to success. But due to the racial realities of the 1940’s, their sacrifice went largely unnoticed. And over the years, this story of African military service has been forgotten.
Ultimately, what helped revive the legacy of the Burma Boys was a detailed account written by one Nigerian veteran named Isaac Fadoyebo. His memoir, A Stroke of Unbelievable Luck, is the only firsthand account of the campaign from an African soldier and it serves as the basis for the 2011 documentary, The Burma Boy. This award-winning film (also by Barnaby Phillips) traces the human connections formed during World War Two, locating a handful of surviving participants of the Burma campaign. This includes British officers, Japanese soldiers, an elderly Isaac Fadoyebo, and the rural Burmese family that sheltered two wounded West Africans during the height of the conflict. One was from Sierra Leone. The other was a young Nigerian named Isaac.
The Burma Boy is one of the most fascinating documentaries I’ve ever seen, covering three continents and one man’s life story. Barnaby Phillips’ new book, Another Man’s War, builds on that research and honors the legacy of soldiers like Isaac Fadoyebo. To learn more about West Africans in the Second World War, check out the links below.