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Camden New Journal - One Week with JOHN GULLIVER
Published: 17 September 2009
Plucked to safety - Atlantic survivors
Plucked to safety - Atlantic survivors
Atlantic survivors are brought to life

LOOK closely and you become part of this extraordinary picture of survivors in a boat in the Atlantic being pulled up to safety.
You can almost feel the shivering cold in this stark black and white image caught by a young merchant sailor in the war, Morris Beckman.
Something made him record this historic scene, and it was that same something that made him, years later, record his life as a sailor in the Atlantic war between the German U-boats and merchant ships, a war in which more than 40,000 sailors lost their lives.
Recently, Morris (pictured below), who lives in West Hampstead, laid wreaths at a ceremony at Tower Hill to mark the role of the Merchant Navy. He rang me and with barely controlled excitement told me of these photographs he had remembered he had taken of a boat of 19 survivors – scores of other sailors and passengers of a sunken ship never made it.
What must have been his thoughts, I wondered, when as a young man he saw the survivors coming aboard? Beckman was a Hackney schoolboy when a friend took him to an RAF office in Kingsway, Holborn to sign up.
“The recruiting officer laughed at us and told us to come back when we could shave,” he recalls.
His friend Max did return – and lost his life as a fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain. Morris, however, joined the Merchant Navy.
His ship, the MV Hilton, was torpedoed.
“It was at night and I was on watch,” he said. “We were in a convoy heading home from Novia Scotia. I suddenly heard a massive explosion. The night was lit up like a painting.”
He remembers with great sadness the loss of lives. “Our Royal Navy convoy would drop depth charges into the water to attack the U-boats,” remembers Morris. “There would be merchant seamen in the water, and they would be killed by these depth charges. It was absolutely terrible.”

Toxic legacy of the Vietnam war

SOME 200 people live in the small South Vietnamese village of Thon Tu, and Binh Doan knows most of them.
She knows the grandfathers, now old and frail, who fought for the Vietcong and were exposed to Agent Orange, the toxic herbicide sprayed by American forces during the Vietnam War; and she knows their children and their children’s children, many of whom are deformed as a result.
Every year, the restaurateur, who runs Chalk Farm’s Thanh Binh eatery, returns to the small coastal settlement, picking her way between the narrow wood and bamboo structures to visit friends and family.
Around each corner she comes face to face with the poisonous legacy of Agent Orange: six families in her village alone suffer from disfigurement, muteness and underdevelopment.
Binh lost her half-brother to illness related to the chemical compound three years ago; he had been exposed while fighting in the war.
“We only found out about Agent Orange 10 years ago. It’s only when the babies started being born that we realised,” she told me.
The Vietnamese government predicts up to half a million died of exposure to the weapons-grade herbicide and that almost as many civilians now live with terrible deformities caused by the compound.
In September every year, the Vietnam government urges the United States to increase funding for the victims of Agent Orange.
This week I learned to my amazement that some sufferers, despite extreme disabilities, have built up a reputation as weavers of painstakingly detailed tapestries. Binh brought back an example of the detailed hand-stitched work made by victims.
It is comforting to see the horrific effect of the toxin is gradually being overcome in some quarters, but such stories remain the exception. Most sufferers require care and financial support and Binh is at the forefront of a campaign to improve medical and scientific aid for them.
The problem reaches beyond Asia as well, to the US troops who fought in Vietnam. It is even believed that the son of Arthur Galston, the inventor of Agent Orange, died of complications caused by the chemical.
In 2006, the US and Vietnamese governments agreed to work together to clear up contaminated sites and research problems linked with the herbicide. But nearly 40 years after US planes dropped their last gallon of Agent Orange, Vietnam is still counting the damage. ?

Tickled by piece of history

I WAS tickled on the forehead by a piece of history this week.
It could have been worse. I could have been hit by a bit of masonry falling from a listed building.
But in fact it was a special bit of paper.
It happened when I was lying in bed reading a book of essays by Thackeray. Suddenly, I felt something tickle my forehead. It must have then dropped onto my duvet because when I put out my hand I found what had touched my head so faintly.
It turned out to be a ticket for a 24 bus that must have been at least 60 odd years old.
Obviously, it must have been used as a book marker by the last person reading the book that I had recently bought at a second-hand bookshop.
Extraordinarily, so little seems to have changed over the years. If you look carefully at the ticket you will see the same bus stops that are still used today on the 24 route.
The ticket dates from the 1940s because on the back of it is a warning that for those readers old enough would bring back alarming memories of the Blitz.
“‘Don’t leave your gas mask on the bus,” warns the ticket.
Note to young readers: During the war gas masks were distributed to everyone, including children, in case the Nazis dropped gas bombs.
Now I have shared my sleeping habits with you, I will hand the ticket to the local history library in Holborn for their wartime memorabilia archives.

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