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The forgotten heroes of World War II

From Aja Harris, CNN
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Uganda's hometown hero
  • Sgt Christopher Kagwa fought with the King's African Rifles in Burma
  • More than 500,000 African troops served with British forces in WW II
  • Kagwa is one of the few living Ugandan veterans of the war

Kampala, Uganda (CNN) -- At the age of 19, Christopher Kagwa was taken from his home in Uganda, East Africa, to fight in a distant war he knew nothing about.

More than 70 years later, the memories of fighting for the British Colonial Government in World War II are still fresh.

Sgt. Kagwa, formerly of the King's African Rifles, is one of Uganda's few living veterans of the world's bloodiest conflict.

He told CNN: "We were very scared of the white men. We didn't know anything about them, all we used to hear about was King George, and that made us really frightened when they said they'd come for us and take us to where they are.

We were very scared of the white men. We didn't know anything about them.
--Christopher Kagwa

"In the year 1939 we were told King George was going to come for us in a few days to go fight in Germany against Hitler and Mussolini, so after a few days a truck came calling us.

"When it came we got in and were taken to the barracks. In the barracks we did not even know what a gun looked like let alone how to fire one. We were totally ignorant, but they still took us to the frontline."

In his book, Fighting For Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War, historian David Killingray says more than half a million African troops served with the British forces between 1939 and 1945 -- 289,530 of them with the King's African Rifles from Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Malawi.

He describes it as the largest single movement of African men overseas since the slave trade. Their contribution is often forgotten by the wider world.

Sgt Kagwa and his friend Masulum Museker, along with thousands of their countrymen, were taken overseas and spent time in the jungles of Burma.

He said: "The frontline was scary but we had been trained how to run, how to load our guns with magazines, and also when inside a tank how to fire and operate it. So that made us confident and we fought bravely.

"We were better than the British, we were beating the Germans like how you beat a goat in your garden, as well as the Italians.

"The Italians used to have small bombs that looked like cigarette paper, and white men used to go and pick it up, but for us we never picked it up. When we went there to fight we said we're going there to die, so you fight like it's your last day."

Many of those Kagwa fought alongside, including his own brother, did not make it home. They are remembered in the war cemetery in the village of Jinja.

He said: "It pains us a lot when we come here and see the graves and the names. People's bodies were never repatriated, instead they have numbers, because soldiers were each given numbers, so it was the numbers that came.

"So each number had a name of the person as well as their nationality. So if you were from Kenya, your number would be taken back to Kenya, Tanganyika (present day Tanzania) to there, and for Ugandans here."

Kagwa still wears the medals he received for his part in the conflict. He was honored by Queen Elizabeth in 2007 and is regarded as a hero in his home village of Kabwangasi.

His 16-year-old grandson told CNN: "I'm proud of him because he made history, and people are proud of him."