Pilgrimage of a son: How Changi Cross made history

Fifty five years after the the Changi Cross (St. George’s Cross) was crafted at the Changi prisoner of war camp in 1942, the world finally discovered the full identity of the maker of the symbolic Changi Cross: British Staff Sergeant Harry Stogden. He made the Changi Cross with a 4.5 Howitzer shell and strips of brass. Sadly Sergeant Stogden never made it home, leaving three orphans in Britain. He died at sea aged 38 in 1945 after spending 3 years as a Japanese prisoner of war in Singapore and Japan.

In 2001, The Singapore Tourist Board invited the son of Sergeant Harry Stogden and his family to visit Singapore to mark the end of the 59th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore. Changi Cross was a symbol of hope and strength to hundreds of POWs at Changi. The creation of the Cross also marks the resourcefulness of the POWs incarcerated in Singapore during the Japanese Occupation.

Staff Sergeant Harry Stogden who made the Changi Cross, 1942, POW at Changi in Singapore. (Image credit: Bernard Stogden)

POW Staff Sergeant Harry Stogden made the Changi Cross, 1942, at Changi in Singapore. (Image credit: Bernard Stogden)

How far did the Changi Cross travel around the world?

Changi Cross

In 1942, Staff Sergeant Harry Stogden made the cross using a 4.5 inch Howitzer shell, based on a drawing given to him by the late Changi POW chaplain, Eric Cordingly. Padre Cordingly looked after the cross all his life, taking the cross with him to the Burma Railway. Sergeant Stogden was however transferred to Japan. Both men never met again. Padre Cordingly survived his trauma in Burma and later settled in Thetford in the east of England. In the 90s, Changi Cross was returned to its original place, Changi in Singapore.

At my request, Singapore historian and blogger KL Lee of the From Dusk to Dawn blog kindly drew a map of the incredible journey of the Changi Cross for me. His map showed a round trip of over 25,600km over a period of 50 years, from the darkest valley in 1943 to the digital age of prosperity.

  • 1943: From Changi, Singapore to Death Railway (1,870km)
  • 1945: Death Railway to Singapore (1,870km)
  • 1945: Singapore to Thetford (East of England in Norfolk) (11,000km)
  • 1992: From East England to Northeast Singapore at Changi, Singapore (11,000km)
Amazing journey of the Changi Cross since 1942. (Credit: Map design by KL Lee.)

Amazing journey of the Changi Cross since 1942. (Credit: Map design by KL Lee of From Dusk to Dawn blog.)

I exchanged a few emails with Bernard Stogden and also interviewed him via Skype. Bernard Stogden is now 76 years old and he only found out about his father’s short life in 1997, when he was 60 yeas old. In this interview, Bernard revealed a remarkable story of his father, his burial at sea, the Changi Cross, and how his past 16 years has been transformed since this amazing discovery.

1) How did you find out about your father’s life as a POW?

Bernard Stogden: I found out about my father in the winter of 1997 through the front page of a newsletter of the Japanese Labour Camp Survivors Association (JLCSA) which I was a member. I have attached it for you to see.

Article on St. George's Cross Changi (or  Changi Cross) by POW Bil Holtham.

Article on St. George’s Cross Changi (or Changi Cross) by POW Bil Holtham.

When I read that article, I just knew instantly that the ‘Harry’ who made the cross was my father. I phoned the writer Bill Holtham (also a POW), and told him my father’s surname, and he confirmed that it was my father.

“The cross itself was made by a Staff Sergeant of the R.A.O.C. unfortunately only his first name, ‘Harry’, is remembered. The base of the cross was fashioned from the base of a 4.5 howitzer shell, the rest from carefully fashioned strips of brass….”

From the article “The St. George’s Cross. Changi” by Bill Holtham, Issue No 54, on Fulcrum, winter 1997.

2) What else did you find out about your father as a Japanese POW?

Bernard Stogden: Someone called Ron Smith contacted me. He told me he was a seaman petty officer on board the ship – HMS Speaker, from which my father was buried at sea. He loaned me his photo album with my father’s burial pictures. These were wonderful photos!

I got in touch with a lot of people. Another man was the seaman Mr John Payner. He was the seaman who went to get my father’s body off the USS Haven. He was a sail maker on Speaker and the last man to see my father,  as he was the person that sewed my father into the canvas bag. He could tell me a lot about my father’s body, and he said that my father didn’t look too bad. He was told that my father was coming along alright but all of a sudden he just died.

Harry Stogden was buried at sea with full military honours. (Image credit: Bernard Stogden)

Harry Stogden was buried at sea with full military honours. (Image credit: Bernard Stogden)

I asked him what weight did he use to bury my father at sea. He told me that he put the gun shells on both his feet and tied them together.

My father made the Changi Cross with a gun shell, and he was also buried with gun shells on his feet.

3) As the child of the prisoner of war, how has your life been affected by the Second World War?

Bernard Stogden: Life for me and my two sisters was difficult. We had not only lost our father who served in the war, but we also lost our mother for she died in 1942.

We were put into a children’s home. My youngest sister Freda was just a babe in arms. I can still remember the time even though I was just four years’ old. It was an awful place.  We were there until our  grandmother took two of us to live with her in Wales, and my youngest sister Freda was taken to live with my father’s sister at Enfield in North London. We were never a family again.

I knew nothing about my father. My grandmother just told me one day, “Oh, your father had died!” I was about six years old, but I remember it very clearly. I don’t suppose my grandmother knew anyway. She was a lovely lady but she was not in the best of health with a heart condition. She lost her husband – my grandfather –  in the First World War at France and he was just nineteen, so it had been hard for her.

Bernard Stogden was orphaned when he was about 6 years old.

Bernard Stogden was orphaned when he was about 6 years old.

My grandmother looked after us first class. She died when I was just sixteen when I was just starting my first job. She would have been so proud of me.  I was called up to do my National Service when I was eighteen and I served in Berlin.  It was while I was in Berlin that I had an invitation from the British government to go to the opening of Kranji War Graves at Singapore where my father’s name is written on the columns.  I went on the Commanding Officer’s orders armed with the letter of invitation and asked if I could go, but I just could not believe the answer: I was refused permission to go. It is something I will never forget, as there was no respect for my father (that was before my father’s Changi Cross story had come to light).

It was not until 1997 that I found out what my father had done through the newsletter and it wasn’t until 1998 that I finally got to see my father’s name on the columns at Kranji.

4) You visited Singapore in 1998 for the first time. How did you feel when you first touched the cross?

Bernard Stogden: I first visited Singapore in 1998 at an invitation from two Welsh families who were living there at the time.  My father’s story was in the news then, and it was from that story that I had a phone call from a Mr Roberts who told me that he lived in Singapore and that he was home on business and he made me promise that I would go to Singapore and stay with them so that I could go and see the Cross.

I had never been on an airplane before and I just didn’t know what to expect. It took 17 hours from the time I left home to arrive in Singapore.  We were met at the Singapore airport by Mr Roberts. When he saw me, he said, “You can take that coat off.” I asked why and he said “Wait until you get outside.” When we did I could see why. It was like as if someone was holding a blow torch over my head.

Bernard Stogden holding the Changi Cross that his father Harry Stogden made in 1942 at Changi. (Image credit: Bernard Stogden)

Bernard Stogden holding the Changi Cross that his father Harry Stogden made in 1942 at Changi. (Image credit: Bernard Stogden)

What a place! So wonderful! It was so very much different to when my father was there I’m sure.  We were treated like Royalty and we even had breakfast with the British High Commissioner and this happened on the two visits that we had to Singapore.

I made a trip to visit the Changi Cross at the replica chapel and museum next to the Changi Prison. The staff there was very kind and they even let me hold the Cross. I felt it in my hands and I was just so full of emotions and I was crying, and lots of people were watching me.

I also saw the Changi Murals whilst I was there. They were quite a sight to see. My father was in the Roberts Hospital a few times as he mentioned in his notebook. It had quite an effect on me to find that I was in the very room where my father had been.

One early morning, I paid a special visit to Kranji War Cemetery and laid a wreath in loving memory of my father.

5) Tell me something about your second visit to Singapore, in 2001.

Bernard Stogden: In 2001, the Singapore Tourism Board paid for us – a family of seven – to stay in a hotel for three nights, and all our other expenses I paid for. They did supply a mini bus to take us to different places for the three days, but the rest of the time we were on our own. We attended a memorial service at Civilian War Memorial in the centre of Singapore. There were Brits, Australians and many others.

6) How did you feel to be asked by the Government of Singapore to place your father’s Changi Cross at the altar of Changi Museum of Singapore in 2001?

Bernard Stogden: For me to take part in the opening of the new Changi Museum in 2001 and to place the Changi Cross on the altar was out of this world. I just broke down with emotion and I just cried and cried. I found it very difficult to talk to people. I was so proud and yet I felt so weak. Such an honour to represent what my father had done all those years ago. I missed my Dad and I nearly went through all my life without knowing what he had done.

7) What do you think about war and peace?

Bernard Stogden: I wish people would try and get along with each other. No good has ever come out of war.

Bernard Stogden, on Skype, speaking from Pontypridd, south Wales.

Bernard Stogden, on Skype from south Wales.

I don’t hate the Japanese people as it was not the modern Japanese of today that did all the hurt. I am a Christian and I love people, not hate them.

I am very proud of my father. I would like people to know more not only of what he had done but there must be many many more stories that have never come to light.

Time is marching on and the history is very quickly being lost. The history of the bravery of all those men must never be forgotten.

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10 thoughts on “Pilgrimage of a son: How Changi Cross made history

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  2. Behind the Story

    It must have been hard for Bernard Stogden to grow up knowing so little about his father. I’m glad he finally had the opportunity to learn more about him and to travel to Singapore and place the Changi Cross on the altar of the Changi Museum.

    1. Janet Williams

      Hi Nicki,
      I was very moved when Bernard told me that he nearly went through all his life without knowing his father and what he had done. This discovery was a blessing for him.
      Thank you for your comment.

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