Burma - The Day of the Dear Departed (1954), by Gerry Catling

IT was 1954 and I was a 27 year old trainee station officer sitting outside my small office at Mingladon Airport, Rangoon. The BOAC flight was due in 90 minutes. The passengers and crew would nightstop amid the faded glory of the Strand Palace Hotel before proceeding on to Bangkok, Hong Kong and Tokyo at a civilized hour the following morning.

There was not much to do in the afternoon – check that the incoming flight was on time, the baggage porters had turned up, the passenger coach had not broken down, the hotel rooms had been booked and the aircraft meals had been ordered for the next day’s departure.

It was as well to keep an eye on the weather forecast, and compare it with what was actually happening. Although the afternoon was hot and humid, with thunderclouds on the horizon, the local meteorological coded message to the aircraft indicated that ‘ice spicules in suspension’ were to be expected. This had to be amended before the captain started worrying that he might be heading for Labrador rather than southbound down the Arakan Coast.

Apart from this minor distraction, no activity was expected for the next hour or so. There was absolute silence – no breeze, the leaves not stirring, and the flame of the forest trees brilliant red.

My tranquillity was then disturbed by the sound of distant music; it was coming nearer by the minute and I soon made out the sound of a military band accompanied by the tramp of marching feet. Round the corner and on to the ramp came what appeared to be half the Burmese army, led by the band and a Burmese general in full military regalia, with sword and gold braid. They halted near my reclining chair and I sat up to enjoy the military ceremony and display that seemed about to take place.

However, at this point the general advanced towards me. I wondered whether he wanted to pass the time of day, or perhaps join me for tea. No such luck. He saluted formally and asked if I were the officer in charge. I stood up hastily, returned his salute in well-remembered RAF fashion, and admitted that I was indeed the person in charge.

A feeling of apprehension started to come over me as I wondered whether I, or BOAC, had committed some diplomatic blunder that had offended the dignity of the newly independent Burmese state? The general then said in perfect English: “I trust that suitable arrangements have been made to honour the arrival of the ‘Dear Departed?"

At first, I thought that either he or I had been affected by the intensity of the sun, but luckily he explained himself in his next statement. What a tragedy it had been, he went on to say, that two senior officials of the Burmese government had been killed in a recent air crash in Ireland. His guard of honour was here to take over the remains, with due reverence, for a state funeral. A small voice within me said, “don’t panic” but it was a very near thing. I managed to offer a few suitable words of condolence, offered him a cup of tea and requested to be excused to ensure that the ‘suitable arrangements’ were complete.

The airline’s routine is that the ‘load message’ is sent by the previous port of call detailing the number of passengers disembarking, weight of cargo and mail, and any passengers requiring special treatment or any load requiring special handling. The load message sitting on my desk confirmed my reading of an hour before that that there was no mention of the ‘dear departed’ on board or indeed of having missed the flight. By now the aircraft was only about 30 minutes away and was just about to start its descent into Rangoon.

In desperation I ran up the 50 steps to the control tower and asked the air traffic control officer if I could speak to the captain. This was a rare privilege, only usually granted in cases of emergency.

“Are you carrying any human remains?” I croaked, sweat soaking my shirt and gathering in my shoes. “I’ll get the chief steward to check the cargo manifest” the captain replied. After an agonizing wait of five minutes he called back to say that there appeared to be two small boxes of human ashes in the forward hold with the rest of the cargo and what was the problem, as they were not causing any trouble? I told him of the ‘reception committee’ and requested that when he landed, he should park the aircraft 100 yards away from the army with the cargo door facing away from the terminal. He should also keep the passengers on board and I would explain further when he arrived.

The aircraft landed and parked as I had asked; the passenger steps were rolled into position at the rear door and the steps used by the engineers were placed at the front door. Two loaders climbed into the hold out of sight of the army, rummaged through the cargo and soon found the two boxes of ashes. They brought them to me on the flight deck where I was explaining to the captain how I was trying to inject a little dignity in to the proceedings. ‘Face’ was important; the honour of BOAC was at stake. The boxes could not be dragged across the ramp on a battered baggage trolley by two sweating loaders. Here the captain and I faced a dilemma. Should he or I appear out of the passenger door clutching two prosaic little wooden boxes and hand them over to the general like something that had fallen off the back of a lorry?

The chief steward, who had been listening to the exchange, was clearly a man of some resource, and solved our problem in a flash. With a rather world weary air, he produced his silver first class drinks tray, placed the two little boxes on it and covered them with his purple silver polishing cloth from the galley.

So it was that I walked down the aircraft aisle past rows of bemused passengers, carrying the purple covered silver tray, exited through the passenger door, down the steps and on to the ground in full view of the army. I marched slowly towards the general with a suitably mournful expression on my face; he rapped out a word of command; the band struck up a sort of funeral march and the detachment of soldiers presented arms. The general gravely accepted the bedecked drinks tray with its precious burden and placed it on the gun carriage. Shots were fired in salute and the procession proceeded out of the airport gate.

The passengers and crew disembarked looking somewhat stunned and some semblance of normal routine returned, although I felt as if I had lost a stone in weight and my mouth was very dry. “Now tell me what all that was about,” said the captain. “I’ll explain later in the hotel bar” I replied weakly.

Afterwards, I heard that the Burmese minister of transport had told the British ambassador how impressed the government had been with the splendid formal arrangements made at the airport by BOAC to honour the sad occasion of the arrival in Burma of the ‘dear departed’. However, nobody in head office said anything to me about it, it was regarded as just part of the job. I did however get some fairly colourful language from the chief steward for not asking the general for the return of his drinks tray. How, he wondered, was he going to explain its loss when he got back to London? “I expect you’ll think of something”, I said.

Other pages:

This is the text-only version of this page. Click here to see this page with graphics.
Edit this page | Manage website
Make Your Own Website: 2-Minute-Website.com