From the Archive: Remembering Sao U Hkun

10th November 2017

As Remembrance Day approaches we are sharing this story written by our Archivist, Amanda Ingram. In Pembroke’s Damon Wells Chapel there are four plaques carrying the names of fallen alumni from the two World Wars. ‘Sao U Hkun’ is inscribed on the second of the WWII panels, and until recently we knew relatively little about his story...

Sao was born on 26th February 1920 into the ruling family in the Tawngpeng region of Burma, part of the Federated Shan States of Burma – a semi-autonomous region comprised of thirty-two traditional monarchies. In 1926 his father, Hkun Pan Sing, became the Sawbwa, or hereditary ruler, of Tawngpeng; his mother was Sao Noom.

Both Sao and a brother attended Framlingham College in Suffolk and, in 1938, Sao matriculated at Pembroke to study Law. He occupied a ground floor room of Staircase 5 in the Old Quad for a single year before living out, though his name remained on the college books until his death.

Trained as a wireless operator and air gunner, he joined RAF 215 Squadron from 357 Squadron on 8th December 1944. On 3rd January 1945, Sao flew his only op on 215 Squadron, as the mid-upper turret gunner aboard B-24 Liberator KH214.  He was one of a very small number of Burmese to be involved in aerial operations against the Japanese over their home country.

KH214 was shot down by anti-aircraft fire during a low level attack along the Burma-Siam Railway, made infamous by the film ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’, with the loss of all eleven crewmen, including Sao.

Although the crew were officially listed as missing, their communal grave site was visited on 26th September 1945 by the first post-war Allied graves search team to reach the area, at which time a brief memorial service was held and a photograph taken (right). In the village of Anankwin, adjacent to the rail line, the Japanese had recovered the crewmen’s remains from the wreckage and had interred them in a bomb crater. However, although the remains of a PoW casualty who had been buried in the same small village were eventually retrieved and reinterred in a war cemetery, the crew of KH214 were, somehow, overlooked.

For decades no Westerner was allowed into this part of the country due to unrest, but, in November 2015, Australian relatives of PoWs who worked on the railway were finally permitted access. In Anankwin they were taken to the site where KH214 fell to earth but, sadly, the exact location of the grave is lost. Sao, however, is commemorated by name on the Singapore Memorial at Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore and on the memorials of both Framlingham College and Pembroke College.

Special thanks to Matt Poole for his extensive and ongoing research into RAF Liberator operations in the Far East

‘Pembroke College Freshers, 1938’ Credit: Gillman & Soame
‘Pembroke College Freshers, 1938’ Credit: Gillman & Soame
‘Memorial Service, 26 Sep 1945’ Courtesy Matt Poole
‘Memorial Service, 26 Sep 1945’ Courtesy Matt Poole