Beacon commemorates 70th anniversary of VE Day
A fiery beacon was lit off the coast of West Bay on Friday night as the Cayman Islands joined countries around the world in a poignant salute to the heroes of World War II.
The lighting of the beacon, timed to coincide with the 70-year anniversary of the declaration of peace in Europe, stirred different memories and emotions among the veterans present.
Thomas Ewart Ebanks, now 94, was on patrol with the Trinidad Navy, hunting German U-boats and protecting oil fields in the Caribbean Sea when Victory in Europe was declared.
Athel Long, who would later become Cayman’s first governor, was toiling some 11,000 miles away in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Singapore.
Dale Banks was just a boy of 8 when the war came to a close. But he vividly recalled the climate of fear in the Cayman Islands during a conflict that left no corner of the globe unaffected.
“I remember that our windows facing the sea had to be covered each evening before our kerosene lamp could be lit because we were afraid our light might attract shelling from a German submarine, many of which patrolled our waters,” said Captain Banks, who went on to have a 30-year career as a U.S. Air Force pilot.
“When this beacon is lighted tonight, may it signify the permanent removal of those blankets that once covered our windows and let us resolve that the light of freedom will forever burn bright.”
Like many Caymanians, Mr. Banks had family fighting the war. His uncle, a gunner on a navy ship, was killed when the vessel was torpedoed. His cousin served in the 79th U.S. Army Division that took part in the invasion of Normandy in 1944 and was involved in the infamous Battle of the Bulge.
His father and grandfather captained ships in the conflict, and he recalls that the wait for news of family members was one of the most striking aspects of life in Cayman at that time.
“I remember that notices of death were delivered in black-bordered envelopes by an employee of the wireless station in George Town, riding a bicycle.
“Because there was little mechanical noise, human voices carried long distances, and I remember the mournful wailing of families that had just been notified that a beloved one was never coming home.
“I remember the joyous day news was received that four West Bayers and one Cayman Bracker, who had been held as German prisoners of war for years after their ship had been torpedoed, had been rescued,” he recalled.
Mr. Long, now 96, had a very different war-time experience, fighting in Asia with the British army. He was 19 when war broke out in Europe and remembers a “great rush” to join the war effort.
“I suppose a lot of us regretted it afterwards,” said Mr. Long, who spent more than three years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp and worked on the infamous Burma Railway.
Mr. Long, who was part of the 22nd Mountain Regiment of the Royal Artillery, said he was not treated badly by the Japanese.
“People say it must have been horrific, but it was really not as bad as all that. Everybody used to make a hell of a fuss, but if you are a prisoner of war, you are a prisoner of war. We had to take what was handed out.”
Mr. Long became Cayman’s first governor in 1971, and has since returned to the islands to live.
U.S. radio clips announcing the end of the war in Europe were played at Friday’s ceremony at the car park opposite the Cayman Turtle Farm, while a bugler played the last post and chorus before Governor Helen Kilpatrick lit the beacon at precisely 9:32 p.m. Large fires or beacons were lit across the world as part of a unified ceremony of remembrance.
Premier Alden McLaughlin paid tribute to Cayman’s Home Guard, led by Maj. Roddy Watler, who manned watchtowers around the island to look out for German U-boats.
He said it was an honor and privilege to commemorate the contributions made by Caymanians, many of whom fought with British and U.S. forces as well as with the Trinidad Navy.
“I’m most grateful to be part of this ceremony and to say to these men and to those who have gone before them how grateful and how proud we are of their contributions and how much we value, and forever will, their tremendous sacrifices.”