A Scots prisoner of war is to be honoured with a memorial service, nearly 40 years after he died “in obscurity” in an English town. 

Piper James McLean served in the Far East with the Second Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders during the Second World War.

He was buried in a communal grave in Crawley, West Sussex, after he died alone at his home in the town in 1984. 

He was one of two pipers who marched the famous regiment over the Johor–Singapore Causeway before it was blown up by retreating British forces in January 1942 to stall the Japanese advancement into Singapore. 

The sad circumstances behind the serviceman’s burial were uncovered by his granddaughter, who began researching her family history following the death of her mother in 2021. 

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Serena Gear, who lives in Dorset, was told very little about her grandfather’s life by her grandmother.

She told The Herald she is still trying to fill in the gaps. “My mum passed away a year ago. She didn’t know her dad growing up. Her parents split up when she was about eight or nine.

"For whatever reason there was no contact. But after my mum passed away, I started researching my family history and finally found information on my grandfather. It’s just been such a journey in the last year-and-a-half.

“When we were growing up my Gran always said my granddad was a POW in Japan, but that was all she really said about him. She never said anything else. So we were always under the pretence that he was still in Scotland. 

“We traced him to Crawley where he was found. We don’t know the circumstances as to how he ended up there. I’m still trying to fill the gaps in on that one.

We got his death certificate and from there Crawley Borough Council confirmed that he was buried in a grave in Snell Hatch Cemetery. I was told it was a communal grave.”

The Herald: The grave of former PoW James McLean in CrawleyThe grave of former PoW James McLean in Crawley (Image: Serena Gear)

Ms Gear has since learned the Rutherglen-born serviceman spent four years being held in various prisons, such as the notorious Changi Prison, which housed many of the thousands of Allied PoWs sent to work on the Burma-Thailand Railway, known as the “Death Railway”.

He also escaped death on multiple occasions after three PoW transport ships he was on, the Hofuku Maru, the Oryoku Maru and the Enoura Maru, were badly damaged or sunk by American aircraft. 

Following his repatriation, Ms Gear believes her grandfather returned to Glasgow before spending time living in Campbeltown and Stirling, prior to moving south of the Border.

Since learning of the circumstances of his burial, Ms Gear has successfully petitioned and campaigned for help from military groups and local politicians to pay for a proper headstone for her grandfather and organise for her grandfather’s death and final resting place to be properly commemorated.

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Now, thanks to Ms Gear’s tireless efforts, a service to commemorate Piper McLean’s life will take place at her grandfather’s unmarked grave at Snell Hatch Cemetery in Crawley.

Much to the delight – and disbelief – of Ms Gear, the service, in April, will be attended by veterans from her grandfather’s own regiment, after she enlisted the support of the Grangemouth Branch of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who also contributed to the cost of her grandfather’s headstone.

Of the service, Ms Gear said: “There are nine veterans coming down from the Grangemouth branch. Two standard-bearers, a piper and a bugler will also be there. 

“After the service, the piper will be playing the tunes my grandfather piped the men over the causeway with in Singapore. It is becoming a really touching service to commemorate him.”

Members of the Royal British Legion are scheduled to attend alongside the Mayor of Crawley, members of Crawley Borough Council, and Henry Smith, MP for Crawley. 

The Herald: A Japanese PoW index card for James McLeanA Japanese PoW index card for James McLean (Image: Serena Gear)

Mr Smith said: “It was very sad that Piper James McLean passed away in obscurity in Crawley in the 1980s and I pay tribute to his granddaughter researching his life of service whilst in the Argyll & Southern Highlanders during the Second World War. As representatives of the town he last called home I’m pleased we now have an opportunity to mark his life and his resting place in acknowledgement.” 

As preparations continue for the service, Ms Gear said her late mother – as a “proud Scot” – would be “over the moon” to learn a memorial service will be held in her father’s honour.

She added: “I am very emotional. I’m proud of who he was, not that I ever met him. I’m also so proud of the recognition I think he deserved. I think anybody that fights for our country, whether they died in combat or after, like my grandfather, they deserve to be remembered. 

“I wanted it to be Scottish and focus on what he was as an Argyll, and I wanted it to focus on what he and all of them went through.

“My mum was so, so proud of her Scottish heritage. And my nan was a fierce Scottish woman as well. So my mum would be over the moon that this was happening. It feels to me that I’m doing this for her as well, because it was her father. I feel like it’s something I need to do.”