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War hero recalls harrowing moment priest gave Last Rites to boat full of soldiers

By Rebecca Black

Published 07/11/2015

Bravery: Veteran Noel Johnston with his medals
Bravery: Veteran Noel Johnston with his medals
Bravery: Veteran Norman McKeown with his medal
Decorated soldier: Jim Lennon
Jim Lennon as a young man

One of Northern Ireland's oldest surviving veterans of the Second World War has recalled how he was given the Last Rites during a mission in the Far East.

Jim Lennon (96), from east Belfast, served with the 12 Mile Snipers across the world.

He was also part of the British Expeditionary Force in 1940 and was among the last of the almost 400,000 troops rescued from the French coast before going on to serve as a gunner protecting London during the Blitz.

Mr Lennon was then sent to Burma to fight against the imperial Japanese troops.

He was sent to shoot down enemy aircraft, but instead managed to convert the guns to use as cannon against the enemy.

Mr Lennon was picked as the poster boy for the Royal British Legion last year, with his image projected on to Edinburgh Castle to commemorate those who served in the Second World War.

He recalled the terrifying moment he and his fellow soldiers were given the Last Rites.

"We were on a troopship heading for a landing on Sumatra to take on the Japanese," he said. "Everyone knew there were going to be heavy casualties when we hit the beach. Everyone was gathered together on the ship - Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, the lot - and the priest gave us all the Last Rites whether we wanted them or not. At least we knew he wasn't going to do us any harm."

Before the soldiers faced the enemy on the beaches, US President Harry S Truman gave the green light for atomic bombs to be dropped on Japan, bringing the war in the Pacific to a speedy end. Mr Lennon, whose father fought at the Somme, said the First World War was much harder for soldiers.

"There is no comparison," he added. "They were poisoned by gas, lived in the trenches and it went on for months."

Another veteran also spoke of his urgent desire to help his country 76 years ago when he signed up to the Royal Air Force.

Norman McKeown (95), from south Belfast, said he could remember waiting at Donegall Quay in 1940 with 19 other young men for a ferry to leave Northern Ireland for the first time.

As an RAF groundsman, he received training in England before getting his first mission, which was to Singapore.

However, the devastating blow of the fall of the city came as they were in the boat preparing to make the long journey, so instead they were diverted to South Africa, then Australia and then to North Africa, where they fought German forces.

He said one of his most vivid memories was an audience with the Pope after Italy had declared peace. The Belfast man also saw King George VI close up when he visited Libya to celebrate the Allies taking control.

Mr McKeown now lives at the Somme Nursing Home in east Belfast with many others who bravely served in conflicts.

Noel Johnston (88), from Castlereagh, said that despite receiving a letter from a friend incarcerated in a German prisoner of war camp, he was determined to sign up - and even tried to do so before he was old enough.

Mr Johnston was allowed to join the Royal Signals in 1945, and he served in Egypt and Palestine when they were still under British control.

He said the sense of jubilation when the Second World War finally ended following Victory in Japan day on August 15, 1945 was palpable.

Donaghadee man George Thompson (89) was just 17 when he and his fellow soldiers landed on Sword Beach on June 6, 1944 to take part in Operation Overlord, now known as D-day.

The former Harland and Wolff apprentice joined the Navy when he was just 16 and served for almost five years before returning to the world-famous shipyards.

He also served in the Far East, where he witnessed the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

"The whole sky lit up - we thought it was the aurora borealis," he said.

Belfast Telegraph

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