The Taxi Charity recently received a donation from Caroline Upcraft, in memory of her father, Leslie Brewster, who served in the Pacific Campaign during World War II. I wrote back to thank her, and so began an exchange of emails.
Caroline described how she often asked her dad about his wartime experiences, "but he was always reluctant to share those memories, except for the happier recollections."
That was typical of his generation – our country's 'greatest generation' – as they are often, and in my opinion rightly, described.
Caroline recalled the time she attended a hospital appointment with her dad shortly before he passed away.
"We sat in the cafeteria afterwards," she explained. "There was a gentleman on another table who struck up conversation with us and wanted to know my father's age etc. It came about that dad was a World War II veteran and when we were about to leave and push dad in his wheelchair to the exit, the man asked if I would allow him to do it as he would feel honoured to be able to just give something back to someone who had given up so much in order that we be free. It was then that it came home to me just how proud I was of my dad and what a very special person he was along with many others."
It was whilst looking at our website that Caroline discovered the Taxi Charity was founded in Fulham where, coincidentally, both her parents were born and bred, and where she also grew up.
"What a pity he didn’t know about the Taxi Charity - he would have loved it."
Equally, it’s a great shame we never got to know, or have the opportunity to thank, Leslie.
As the country marks the 75th anniversary of VJ Day – which saw the end of the conflict in Asia and brought the Second World War to an end – I asked Caroline if she would like to share her father’s story with us, both as a tribute to him and to the generation of World War II veterans we never knew, but must never forget.
On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of Victory in Japan Day, I would like to pay a tribute through the Taxi Charity not only to my father, but to all those who served in this campaign and more importantly, to those who sadly did not return and paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Leslie Brewster was born at home in Fulham on 4 October 1924.
His young life was happy and carefree and although he lived in the centre of London, he was lucky enough to be surrounded by beautiful parks – Bishops and Hurlingham – where he spent his childhood days.
Sadly, war reared its ugly head, and Leslie was eager to play his part in defending his country.
Like many young lads at that time, he told a white lie about his age (he was 15) and applied to join the Royal Navy. His application was accepted and he was called up and sent for initial training in December 1942.
In 1944, Leslie was a crew member on HMS Artifex (a Heavy Repair Ship), which was nominated for service with the East Indies Fleet and departed from the Clyde in June 1944. In 1945, she was re-allocated to the British Pacific Fleet.
Dad almost circumnavigated the globe whilst in service, sailing into Port Said, then on to Bombay, India, Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Trincomalee also in Ceylon. Whilst in Hong Kong, the Artifex assisted in the repair of a hospital. It was then on to Sydney, Australia, Leyte (Philippine Islands), Brisbane Australia and the Admiralty Island (Manus).
Leslie was finally discharged in November 1946. His last port of call on the way home was in Sydney, Australia where the ship loaded up with food and supplies to bring back to a starving Britain; something he was always so proud to have been a part of.
The personnel in the Burma and Pacific Campaign were not demobbed for another year and hence were unable to take part in the exhilarating celebrations held up and down the country; the like and euphoria of which can only be imagined by those not there.
The stories, pictures and newsreels of the time speak volumes as to what a most emotive and moving occasion it must have been after six long years of war, sacrifice heartache and suffering, to suddenly find yourself free.
Leslie did have one regret, or at least he thought he did, as Caroline explains:
Along with many young sailors at the time, it was de rigueur to have the usual tattoo!
Later in his life, he decided that he would like to have it removed. I suppose by today's standards it was rather primitive. So, he made an appointment to see a skin specialist to enquire if it would be possible. The doctor was astounded that dad wanted to remove this 'battle scar' and his exact words to dad were, "Mr. Brewster - wear it with pride" which from that day on he did!"
After the war, Leslie worked as an electrician, thirty years of which were with Thames Television. He married Winifred in 1950.
Dad and mum were keen golfers and became Captain and Lady Captain at their local golf club, Wimbledon Park. When retirement eventually came in 1985, they decided to sell up in Fulham and bought a bungalow on the Isle of Wight.
Whilst Leslie was reluctant to share his wartime experiences, Caroline remembers the many amusing occasions when their home resembled a Naval operation:
Dad taught me how to salute in the Navy. Not with the palm facing outwards but inwards. The mantra was, "longest way up - shortest way down."
He never lost the discipline they were taught all those years ago. He always took a pride in his appearance and he instilled that in me also, among many other qualities.
Dad had many amusing turns of phrase, "Lash up and stow, the sun is scorching your eyeballs out," which meant, time to get up and make your bed!
I was also told of the empty cans of h.i.t.s. (herrings in tomato sauce), which at Christmastime would be strung up in the mess as makeshift decorations!
Leslie certainly had a great sense of humour, a quality that was severely tested the day he discovered his young daughter had swapped most of his service medals for marbles – something Caroline has no recollection of.
Fortunately, his Burma Star was not among the marbles swap.
With the 75th anniversary of VJ Day approaching, Caroline decided this is the time to make amends and has ordered replacements which will be framed with his Naval photo.
Perhaps now I will be exonerated, and Dad will be looking down and saying "about time!"
Leslie Brewster passed away on Remembrance Sunday 11 November 2018 - the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
It was seeing television pictures of London taxis lined up on Westminster Bridge that indirectly led Caroline to the Taxi Charity.
I was among the many 'Poppy Cab' drivers on Westminster Bridge that day, so I was able to share some photographs of that poignant occasion with Caroline.
"If he had to choose a day for his demise," she concludes. "I am sure it would have delighted him to join his brothers at arms on that day."