“After the war, you have to learn to live together, remember that you are all human … behind all the bare recounted facts lies a great tragedy that can be imagined, but not relived by anyone who has not lived through it …”
These are Pat Rorke’s words; the war Pat lived through was the Second World War. She was seventeen and living in Burma when the Japanese began their invasion of her beloved homeland in December 1941; it was then she first saw bombs fall, and people she loved being killed, maimed, hurt – and changed for ever.
Pat died on 9 December 2023, five weeks after her 100th birthday; hers was a blissfully peaceful parting; she was weary, frail and closed her eyes that morning to rest, only this time her eyes did not open. I was introduced to Pat seven years ago, whilst I was researching testimonials for a book I was writing about the Second World War. I am prouder than ever today to have her story in my book Remarkable Journeys of the Second World War; but especially proud because her son has kindly told me how much it meant to Pat that her story was written up for this book, because it ‘was one of a few things that kept her distant past alive for her’.
Pat Rorke, notwithstanding her frailty in her old age, was one of the strongest, kindest, gentlest and most intelligent women – people – I have known. In telling me her story of the war (which is beautiful, touching, colourful, heartfelt and painful in equal measure) she has also given remembrance to many, many others who experienced the war as she did, but who did not – could not – share their life story. Since hearing of her passing a few days ago, I have re-read her story and perhaps what saddens me most is the fact whilst her story is contained within a history book, what she told me about is – as we all know – reality today, in far too many places.
Pat, I am sure, although I am saddened not to have seen her in recent months to discuss this with her, would have been exhausted and devastated by the state of the world around us today. We hear in the news all the time about Gaza and Ukraine, but so many other countries are at war too – Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, to name but a few. No one can live through being part of any of these wars without being changed in some way; some may be strengthened by their very survival but almost certainly far more are weakened, physically or mentally; hurt so badly that the dark cloud of their memory cannot be dispelled. Pat Rorke, I think, was one who was strengthened by her war experience – simply surviving gave her a gratitude for life that she may not otherwise have had to the same extent – a contentment in life that should not be underestimated. But nonetheless, she lived her life with the memory of war inside her heart, inside her own memory, inside her head, never able to escape the intimate awareness of the worst aspects of humanity. It is so sad that for millions of people life is – simply – bittersweet, as it was for Pat.
It sounds simplistic to say ‘we should learn lessons from the past’ and ‘draw strength’ from people like Pat Rorke, but it is true, isn’t it? So many conflicts and wars are history endlessly repeating, so whilst human beings behave in such a way we do have to find strength where we can, and actually know – as Pat did – that is possible to live through such awfulness, and find goodness in life too.
Pat Rorke’s Second World War story is fascinating, as it is important for anyone who wants to advance their historical knowledge of this time, in a way they might least expect; as well as reflecting on the damage wreaked upon Burma, she describes her long and difficult ‘passage’ to India, and her job in a Special Liaison Unit in India, where she worked as a clerk receiving Enigma-coded messages from Bletchley Park.
However, it was a job she undertook after the war, that she told me about in words so descriptive they have forever been etched on my memory (as well as now being in print.) She told me about a job she had in a military hospital, listing the names of dead and wounded servicemen, taking their names from identity cards. She told me that ‘often the cards would be encrusted in blood, partially concealing the handsome face of a young man, full of hope and determination.’ She said she felt she was ‘mourning for the families and would see their faces as she slept at night’, and it was this job – more than anything else that happened to her – that led her to truly understand the horror of war.
Pat Rorke’s was a life well-lived; she and her husband, Bill, who was in the army, met in India, and they moved to England after the war ended. They settled down to very ordinary lives just like everyone else, eventually retiring to a tiny village in Buckinghamshire, probably the most perfect ending to a long story. Pat loved village life and the small community that revolved around her local church, which remained a great comfort to the end.
She wrote an autobiography called Every Common Bush, which makes beautiful reading, especially the descriptions of her childhood; I still have the images she describes of colourful curries, golden honey and luscious palm trees imprinted in my mind. Pat Rorke also enjoyed writing poems, including an Easter one; the first line of which is: “What shall I say when I leave the garden?’’ Pat has now left the garden – quite simply, wanting us all to ‘live – better lives – together.’
By Victoria Panton Bacon