The Second World War made many heroes that are remembered to this day in Canada. Generally, our military history tends to focus on the lives of men who fought for their country, but there were thousands of women who did their part.
Today, I am looking at one of those women, Joan Bamford Fletcher.
Fletcher was born in Regina on July 12, 1909, to British immigrants who owned a successful cotton business. As a child, she would be sent to England to boarding school, and would attend further schooling in Belgium and France. Comfortable around horses, when she was on the family ranch, she could often be found training horses.
As an adult, she returned to Regina and began working at the Office of the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, while helping her father raise horses.
When she was 30, the Second World War broke out and Fletcher began working as a driver for the Canadian Red Cross. She would also study motor mechanics at the Saskatchewan Auxiliary Territorial Service.
In 1941, Fletcher, using her own funds, travelled to Britain and it was there she would join the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. She would be stationed in Scotland, driving cars and ambulances for the exiled Polish army.
By the spring of 1945, the war was drawing to a close and Fletcher would be re-assigned to Southeast Asia. Arriving in Calcutta in April 1945, she then took a hospital ship across the Bay of Bengal and sailed towards Singapore. Due to the fact the ship had to go slowly through waters filled with mines, she would not reach Singapore until September 2, after the Pacific War was finished.
During the war, 130,000 civilians, mostly Dutch, had been imprisoned by the Japanese. Many died from malnutrition and disease, and those who survived were weak from months and years at the camps.
She would then travel to prison camps to help the internees who were sick. Promoted to the rank of lieutenant, she was appointed as the assistant as to the brigadier in command.
In October, Fletcher was assigned to Indonesia to evacuate a civilian internment camp. At these camps, the internees had been subjected to starvation, forced labour and torture. Diseases such as malaria were also common.
Arriving at the Bangkinang Camp, she found 2,000 prisoners, mostly women and children, in poor condition. It was her job to transport them to safety at Padang. Unfortunately, the Allies had no personnel in the area and Indonesian nationalists were taking advantage of the power vacuum left by the surrender of the Japanese in August. On Aug. 17, Indonesia declared independence and rebel groups were common throughout the country where they took many Dutch prisoners.
Fletcher would approach the commanders of the Japanese 25th Army and persuaded them to provide her with 15 trucks, 40 armed soldiers and an interpreter. Salvaging broken down trucks she helped repair; she increased her convoy size to 25 trucks.
Fletcher would say quote:
“It shook the Japanese a bit to find themselves under the command of a woman.”
Things got off to a rough start when the ferry that would need to be used at the start of the journey had no engine. To fix this, a long cable was stretched across the river and a young man would pull the ferry along the current towards the shore.
The journey from the camp to Padang was not an easy one. It was 450 kilometres through the jungle, across mountains. Only have 25 trucks, she could only move a small number of internees at one time. Each trip would take 20 hours to do.
Fletcher would monitor each convoy, going back and forth to deal with barricades, bridges that had been sabotaged and road conditions that were hazardous to say the least.
While travelling with the third convoy, her coat became caught in the wheel of a passing truck and she was dragged under it, causing her to sustain a four-inch gash on her scalp. She was aided by a Japanese physician. Two hours later, she was back managing the convoy. This incident would earn her the respect of the Japanese soldiers travelling with her, who saluted her whenever she passed.
Fletcher would say quote:
The trips became worse when the monsoon season arrived, turning roads that were merely paths in the jungle into bogs. The rebels continued to barricade their path, so Fletcher had a car in the front be fitted with a special bumper to crash through the barricades.
Eventually, British troops arrived, and she could have turned over the operation to them. Brigadier General Peter Hutchison told her she could stay in charge if she wanted to, and he would cover her on the condition that headquarters not find out. In the end, she chose to stay in charge of the convoy, and she focused on working with the Japanese.
By the final convoy, there were 70 Japanese soldiers assigned, with several using mounted machine guns on trucks. Through all of this, Fletcher did not carry a firearm.
On the second-last trip, Fletcher and a Japanese officer were leading the convoy in a jeep at the front. After fixing a tire, she found that two Dutch passengers in the lead car were missing, and a rebel was trying to steal the vehicle. She yelled “Out” at the rebel, who jumped out of the vehicle and ran away. The interpreter and Fletcher then found the two Dutch internees with three armed rebels. The interpreter attempted to pass the Dutch internees off as British, but Fletcher screamed at the rebels, then took out a knife, cut the captives from their restraints and took them out the door. The rebels, taken aback by her display, did not pursue.
Fletcher would say quote:
“I was yelling at the top of my voice, to keep up my courage, but they didn’t understand a word of it. I added color by cursing a blue streak.”
Over the course of six weeks, she oversaw the transporting of 2,000 internees through 21 trips. At the end of the evacuation, the captain of a Japanese transport company that had provided vehicles gave Fletcher a 300-year-old Samurai sword, which was a family heirloom.
Fletcher would ensure that the unit that helped her, the Yamashita Butai, was exempt from serving a year of hard labour, which most Japanese soldiers were sentenced to after the war.
In November 1945, Fletcher was in Hong Kong but three weeks later came down with swamp fever. She would return to England in July 1946, but the disease returned. She would lose half her lower teeth and part of her jaw, which was replaced with plastic.
In 1946, Fletcher was named a Member of the Order of the British Empire for her services in southeast Asia. Upon hearing of the award, she would state quote:
“My, it was a surprise.”
In 1947, Fletcher travelled to Poland to work with the Information Section of the British Embassy at Warsaw. She was assigned the post because she could speak Polish thanks to her time with the Polish Army in Scotland. She would remain there until 1950 when she received a call that secret police were after her.
Fletcher would say quote:
The incident was in relation to her association with Captain Claude Turner, a British air officer who was jailed 18 months on claims of helping a Polish woman leave the country.
Her final week in Warsaw, Poland was one of the worst of her life she would say quote:
“My last week in Warsaw was a nightmare, escaping the Communist dragnet by six hours.”
Fletcher would say the entire incident was trumped up by the Soviets. She would say quote:
“The story about the Polish girl is just propaganda. The secret police are recruited from sadists and perverts.”
In truth, she would say she was targeted for helping three Britons involved in a dispute with Polish authorities.
She burned her address book and left the country on a Royal Air Force plane. She had escaped the police by only six hours.
She would say quote:
“I went through the customs with a nightdress, a tooth brush and the six aspirins I had swallowed to hold my stomach down. I was a nervous wreck. I didn’t carry anything that would give them an excuse to hold me. I am looking freedom in the face now for the first time in months and I am not going back. I am glad to be going home to get as far away as I can from Communism.”
Polish authorities would state that they had no intention of arresting her. Their statement would quote:
After leaving Poland, Fletcher came back to Canada and lived in Vancouver.
She would keep in touch for the rest of her life with her Japanese interpreter Art Miyazawa.
She would pass away on April 30, 1979.
After her death, Miyazawa wrote to Fletcher’s sister and stated, regarding a veterans’ reunion Fletcher had attended, quote:
“Virtually every veteran present recalled the tough but fair-minded woman lieutenant who amazed our troops with her consummate knowledge and expertise in handling the assignment at hand.”
The Yamashita Butai’s honour roll of deceased veterans includes the name of Fletcher.
The sword she received, along with her war medals, is now on display at the Canadian War Museum.
Unfortunately, Fletcher’s name would mostly fall through the cracks of history until the 21st Century. In 1998, a five-part television series was created to focus on women who served for Canada during the war. Independent Moving Pictures had to resort to putting a letter to the editor in the newspaper to find relatives of Fletcher.
Information from Legion Magazine, Canada War Museum, University of Saskatchewan, Wikipedia, Macleans, Vancouver Province, Vancouver Sun, Regina Leader-Post, Richmond Review,