World War Two veteran who survived horrors of Burma Death Railway and taught Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart to play guitar is honoured by Spitfire and Red Devils as he turns 101
- Len Gibson, 101, celebrated his birthday with a spitfire flyby and Red Devils drop
- Bombardier Mr Gibson endured forced labour and malnutrition while a POW
- The veteran, of Sunderland, volunteers with cancer charity Daft as a Brush
A 101-year-old veteran who was a Japanese prisoner of war and now volunteers with a cancer charity has enjoyed a spitfire flyby and Red Devils drop in at a huge party to mark his birthday.
Former Bombardier Len Gibson lived through the horrors of the Burma Death Railway and years as a prisoner of war, but conquered untold hardship to become a musician who inspired Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics.
And now, following in the footsteps of the charitable late centenarian Captain Sir Tom Moore, the war veteran, of Sunderland, Tyne and Wear, has signed up for volunteer work with cancer charity Daft as a Brush.
Mr Gibson, who endured forced labour and malnutrition while a POW, said of the event held in his honour: ‘It’s absolutely tremendous.
‘When I was a prisoner of war on the Mergui Road there was a time when I thought it was so bad I was in hell.
‘So I have experienced hell, and to be here today is heaven.’
Len Gibson, 101, who survived the horrors of the Burma Death Railway, celebrated his birthday with a spitfire flyby and Red Devils drop today
Daft as a Brush charity threw a party for the hero in Herrington Country Park, Sunderland, where he was treated to spitfires (pictured) flying overhead and a Red Devils parachute jump
Red Devil Lance corporal Lee Crudgington seen during the Red Devils parachute jump
Today the charity threw a huge party for the World War Two hero in Herrington Country Park, Sunderland, where he was treated to spitfires flying overhead and a Red Devils parachute jump.
He also received a personal message from his former neighbour, 80s popstar Dave Stewart.
WW2 veteran and Japanese POW survivor Len Gibson pictured during his wartime years
While incarcerated Mr Gibson, who turned 101 in January but couldn’t celebrate due to coronavirus, would entertain fellow prisoners around a fire each night with a guitar.
And when he returned home from war he continued to play next to a fire he would light in his back garden. Neighbours would join in, including Mr Stewart, who went on to co-found the Eurythmics.
In the personal message Mr Stewart says: ‘I just wanted to thank you so much for inspiring me when I was a young kid.
‘I was such an admirer of you and your family and it’s inspired me and helped form the foundation of the fact that I wanted to be a musician.’
At the event today, Mr Gibson also listened to a choir of 120 schoolchildren sing in his honour, was presented with two giant cakes, and enjoyed fish and chips from Humbleton’s Fisheries, next to his and Mr Stewart’s old homes.
Mr Gibson added: ‘I think what has kept me going all these years is a British spirit and I love music.
‘Music helped me during my prisoner of war times and has helped me eve since.
‘I am probably the luckiest man in the world and I really think that.
‘I am so lucky and I have such lovely family and friends and I am at peace with the world.
Mr Gibson also listened to a choir of 120 schoolchildren sing in his honour (pictured) and was presented with two giant cakes
Mr Gibson said: ‘The choir brought back a lot of lovely memories for me, from that school’
Children from Hastings Hill Academy school attend the event alongside a Rothbury Piper
Mr Gibson receiving a copy of his republished book, A Wearside Lad, from Red Devil Lee Crudgington
‘I never thought that such a fantastic event would happen in my life.’
Mr Gibson added: ‘When I was a prisoner of war I didn’t think I would live, let alone to see this party.
‘It was terrific to get a message from Dave. He is a star. He once came to my door and said, “will you teach me to play the guitar”, and now he is a millionaire guitar player.
Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics (pictured in 2019) who said he was inspired to become a musician by Mr Gibson
‘The choir brought back a lot of lovely memories for me, from that school.’
The indomitable veteran is helping with a drive to roll out the Newcastle and Cumbria based Daft as a Brush, which provides free transport to and from hospitals, across the UK.
The charity aims to be operating in Aberdeen, Londonderry, Cardiff and London by 2022 and Len is appealing for volunteers and fundraisers in those areas to step forward.
Copies of a book he has written about his extraordinary life, A Wearside Lad, which Daft as a Brush has updated and reprinted will also be sold to raise funds to support the new centres.
In 1942 great-grandfather Mr Gibson was with the 125 Anti-Tank Regiment Royal Artillery when the ship taking them to the Far East conflict was bombed by Japanese planes, and though he survived, he lost his beloved banjo.
After making it to shore, he was captured and as a prisoner of war was forced to work on the infamous Mergui Road building the ‘Death Railway’ in Burma until liberation in 1945.
While in the camp he built his own musical instrument and worked out how to make a guitar, entertaining fellow prisoners around a fire each night.
Daft As A Brush charity founder Brian Burnie (right) with Ray Spencer MBE today at the event
Mr Gibson being presented with two giant birthday cakes at the Daft As A Brush celebration
Mr Gibson alongside his sister Ena Gardner at the large celebration in Sunderland
Despite two years of forced labour, physical cruelty, malnutrition and malaria, he was one of few who survived but was critically ill on his return to Sunderland. He spent many months in hospital, where he met a nurse, Ruby, who was to be his wife for 70 years before she passed away in 2014.
Mr Gibson, who was awarded the British Empire Medal at the age of 99, went on to become a teacher, working at primary schools in the Sunderland area for 34-years.
Daft as a Brush was founded by former businessman Brian Burnie and is powered by over 400 volunteers, who provide around 40,000 individual journeys each year so that patients do not have to worry about how they will get to their appointments.
Mr Burnie said: ‘Me and Len go back 20 years. I am 77 and without a shadow of a doubt he is the greatest gentleman I have ever met in my entire life.
The spitfire flypast. Mr Gibson was awarded the British Empire Medal at the age of 99
Mr Gibson holding a copy of his republished book, A Wearside Lad, which Daft as a Brush has updated and reprinted will also be sold to raise funds to support the new centres
‘He is absolutely remarkable.
‘Len is the star of the show. We haven’t had to do anything.
‘People have bent over backwards to come along and say ‘well done Len’.
‘Its hard to believe that 76 years ago when he left that Japanese prisoner of war camp he has been giving and helping people all over the North of England.
‘He is a true giant of a gentleman.’
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