26 October 2012

Personal Remembrance: 4th December 1977

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My personal remembrance assembly: This assembly is partly about the remembrance day ceremonies that will be carried out around the world on 11th November, in remembrance of those who died in WW1, WW2 and war in general.  It is also about the personal nature of…

Personal Remembrance: 4th December 1977

My personal remembrance assembly:

This assembly is partly about the remembrance day ceremonies that will be carried out around the world on 11th November, in remembrance of those who died in WW1, WW2 and war in general.  It is also about the personal nature of remembrance for me and for others……

Remembrance Day is just one of many that take place throughout the year across the world to mark various events in History. Remembrance is usually related to soldiers who died in war – fighting for their country out of duty or conviction.  Nowadays remembrance events are also held for the victims of genocide such as the WWII Holocaust and the Rwanda genocide in the 1990s.They are also held for victims of terrorism  – such as The September 11th Remembrance events – or natural disasters like the Tsunami.

This picture shows a woman finding the name of her son who was one of the firemen that died in the World Trade Centre on September 11 2001

Today I want to tell you about an event that is particularly important to me personally……………….

On 4th December 1977 Malaysia Airlines Flight  653  from Kuala Lumpur to London was hijacked by terrorists from the Japanese Red Army.  The pilots were killed and the plane crashed in the swamps of Tanjung Kupang  near Johore Bahru in Malaysia.  100 People died; there were no survivors.  The investigations into the incident suggested that, after demanding that the flight was re-directed to Singapore, a fight broke out, possibly with guns, and the pilots were killed.

Initially, there was suggestion of a mid-air explosion.  But actually the cause was simply that, with the pilots killed, the plane was out of control and crashed to the ground.  Imagine how frightening that would have been. The crash was so violent no bodies were found in the wreckage; just a few body parts.

This is the mass grave and memorial in Johore Bahru.  Another list of names….

And just like every memorial every name is someone’s father, mother, brother, sister, husband, wife, daughter, son, friend.  But for me this event and this memorial represent a defining part of my life – and for my mother, my brother and my sister.

My father, Richard Sherrington, was one of the people on the plane;.  He had been working for the British Council and was on his way back home after a business trip to Kuala Lumpur.  He died along with 99 other people from all over the world –including the hijackers themselves.  The story was reported on the television news, which is how my mother heard about it.  Since then, it is all but forgotten…….

When my father died I was 12 years old;  he was 37. The initial feeling of shock and disbelief was soon replaced by a long period of grief.   It was extremely painful for my family and it took a long long time for us to get back to normal.  We all tried to make sense of it but there is no sense to be made from terrorism.   In our case the hijackers never made any political demands or statements – there was no cause; no reason.   My father died for no reason at all and that is hard to take.

Eventually we did get back to normal. Obviously my mother had a very difficult time, becoming a widow and bringing up her three children on her own –  but 10 years later she remarried and has now been married for over 20 happy years.   Actually we have a very happy family and feel grateful for that.

Over the years the act of remembrance has been vital.  Every year, although I think about my father almost every day, I still take time on the anniversary of his death to think about him and how my family was affected by losing him.   It is a permanent regret that we never knew each other as adults.   Our relationship is forever stuck in the 1970s when I was still a kid.  It is also a great sadness to me that my wife and my children will not meet him and he will never meet them.   Grief is partly about coming to terms with missing someone, losing the love and joy that they brought you… but later it also becomes an anger at being robbed of the relationship that might have been….  I felt that very strongly in my early 20s, a time when I wanted to speak to him more than ever.

But now, with over 30 years of grief and remembrance behind me, I look back on my childhood fondly – not full of anger or despair.  I still feel that I had a priviledged upbringing and although I am not religious, I feel that my father is with me in spirit. This is all in my mind of course, reinforced by photographs and memories, but, without question, he is still a part of my life. In time my children will learn about their grandfather and what he was like.

Although the grief subsides, it never quite goes away and, on a bad day, I can still cry (quite easily in fact) and feel the pain of missing my father and wishing I could talk to him again.

I used to think that Remembrance Day wasn’t relevant to me – that the wars were over and people should move on.  But now I see it differently…. As time goes on it is more important to remember; not less.  My personal remembrance matters more now as I cling onto memories of my Dad that are more and more distant with each passing year.

Remembrance is not celebration of war or disaster; it is not just about honouring those that died.  It is about giving support to people, families and communities who suffer the consequences of tragedy – including war and violence – long after the event.  The collective act of remembrance gives people strength and helps us to focus on all that is right and good about human society striving for peace.

My Dad was not a war hero.  But we was a human being that gave a lot of joy to a lot of people; he mattered.  Through terrorism, my Dad became the innocent victim of an act of violence.  In telling you my story, it helps me on a personal level to share and to remember; and I hope that in turn I can help you to connect to events that may seem remote…

This week, spare some time to give your support for the millions of people who will be taking part in Remembrance Day for those who have died in war and remember, when you pass a memorial of any kind – each name on the list is a person who mattered and who matters still.

Update 2013:

My Dad died before the era of video so we can’t ever see or hear him as he was.  However we have plenty of pictures of him and we are also fortunate to have some recordings of him singing.

These are songs we used to play a lot when we were younger.  They are Edwardian Music Hall songs of the type my Dad used to love playing on the piano. He and some friends had an LP printed up of some recordings they made and I’ve just converted them to digital files. It’s a different kind of remembrance to listen to them, imagining him singing and playing the piano in our front room as he always did. The first is very poignant; about a boy longing for his father to return from the Boer War.

The second is a piece of family folklore.. our Dad making us laugh with the story of a boy who played ‘The Hole in the Elephant’s Bottom’.

Looking through my photos just now, I found this.  I left this message at the memorial in 2007.  It was all very ritualistic….I know he’s not there; but in that place, it feels that he is.

My last message for my Dad.

My last message for my Dad.

Further Update

Following a lot of interest in this blog with the disappearance of MH370, we’ve been talking about it again in the family.  My mum just gave me this correction:  Dads plane was flying from Penang to KL and overflew for about an hour on its way to trying to land in Singapore before the hijacker went berserk and shot both pilots, and obviously lost control.  Dad was due to go to a concert in KL and then get the London plane, and friends realised he wasn’t there.

So… all this time, I’ve had the details slightly wrong.  To me, aged 12, he was on his way home… and I’d imagined that the plane he was on was the return flight… but no. I’ll have to re-align my thoughts. It shows that, after the event, we haven’t really gone over the detail.  Losing him was what we focused on… the details of how, in all the confusion, didn’t really matter in the end. Although, as my mum has just suggested, she took great comfort in being told by a doctor friend that everyone would have been unconscious long before the plane hit the ground.  But he’d have had time to think about us. Imagining my Dad’s final moments – that’s something I’ve run through hundreds of times.

Here is the video report from CNN broadcast in March  2014 as part of the MH370 coverage, featuring an interview with me and images of the crash site, the cockpit flight recorder – and shots of my kids looking at this blog with me.

Click for link to CNN news piece.

Click for link to CNN news piece.

The story is captured in this report:  http://edition.cnn.com/2014/03/27/world/asia/malaysia-mh653-crash-relatives/index.html?hpt=hp_t2

 Update October 2014:

Here is an interview I did for BBC Radio 4 on the iPM programme with Eddie Mair:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04kfk6l  I describe the horrible glass mug I bought my Dad for Christmas but never had a chance to give him and the taxi driver who took me to the crash site in Malaysia.

Update November 2015: 

I received this email this week:

Screen shot 2015-11-07 at 10.14.42

41 Comments
  • behrfacts
    Posted at 11:25h, 27 October

    Thank you for a very moving and poignant post. Losing a father at any age is difficult but in your case this must have been especially so.

  • Dealing with grief: how schools can offer sanctuary, normality and valued support | Top Set Education Ltd
    Posted at 09:39h, 29 November

    […] their own way. When I was 12, I lost my father in tragic circumstances that I’ve described here so I have personal experience to draw on in supporting others in my school. Some need a good cry […]

  • Dealing with grief: how schools can offer sanctuary, normality and valued support | Education News
    Posted at 11:52h, 29 November

    […] their own way. When I was 12, I lost my father in tragic circumstances that I’ve described here so I have personal experience to draw on in supporting others in my school. Some need a good cry […]

  • KEGS Assemblies: Ethos, Aspirations, Spirit « headguruteacher
    Posted at 02:23h, 29 December

    […] the Growth Mindset, Mental Health, the Hajj and Democracy and I’ve contributed by sharing my personal remembrance story and by showing this fabulous short film […]

  • Amanda Triccas
    Posted at 07:31h, 04 December

    Thank you for sharing that Tom; very powerful and extremely moving. A privilege to read.

  • Name withheld
    Posted at 11:26h, 08 March

    Your words are beautiful.. And powerful..and so right! I lost my son to cancer. I feel sad, angry, ripped off. I cry easily, yet also smile readily at memories. Every person who leaves us, regardless of the circumstances was a son, sister, brother, cousin, wife…whatever…and they mattered!,

    • headguruteacher
      Posted at 16:15h, 08 March

      Thanks for the comment. Losing a child must be so very hard. We’re not alone in this…it’s something we should talk about more. Today, another plane has gone down. Obviously resonates given the plane’s origin. Every person with a family; it’s terribly sad.

      • Anis
        Posted at 08:30h, 09 March

        thank you for sharing your story. I was 7 when the Tanjung Kupang incident happened. I remember vividly it was my mother’s birthday on 4 Dec. My parents were quiet the whole week, saddened by the tragedy. Today, we are praying for MH370. it is terribly sad. Guru is teacher in Malay. I am a Malaysian. Take care.

  • ali
    Posted at 10:59h, 09 March

    So sad to read about your story. I am from Malaysia… Currently, Malaysians are very sad. The Boeing 777 of Malaysian Airlines is still cannot be found… Almost two days, but people don’t have clues where is the plane. So sad to see the family is hoping and waiting to see their loves one which are in the flight.

  • Charity Chu
    Posted at 13:27h, 09 March

    My father was in that flight too, he was 34, left three young children and my mum. Life turned upside down since then.. .. I had to left my family and live in other country at age 6 ….. and later my 2 siblings also die of sickness. Still do not know why all these happened….. but I am grateful for I believe there is a purpose for everything…. and might only When I see God face to face. Cheers for life!!

    • headguruteacher
      Posted at 14:01h, 09 March

      Thanks for leaving a comment. Really sorry to hear about your siblings. That’s really sad. A tragic event in all of our lives… I’ve been to the memorial in JB several times and it is always good to see that people visit regularly – even though it looks a bit less looked after now than it did. Have you been?

  • Desiree Gasper
    Posted at 16:25h, 09 March

    Hi there… was moved reading about your father… I wonder if you have been following updates on MH370, a Malaysian Airlines plane that recently just disappeared. Would love to speak to you further. Please send me an email at desiree@thestar.com.my 🙂

    • headguruteacher
      Posted at 16:27h, 09 March

      I have been following. It’s awful – and all those people are still waiting for news. Happy to speak further.

  • Naomi
    Posted at 11:06h, 10 March

    I understand exactly how you feel, especially as I have watched my sister’s children grow up since that day in 1977. My brother-in -law was on the same plane as your father, another one of the 5 UK residents that flew that day from Penang. He too left a widow and three children aged 5, 10 and 12. We were in contact with the other 4 British families so I guess we spoke with your mother all those years ago. I am really pleased you had a good childhood and that your mother found happiness again.
    My heart goes out to all the families that need to know what happened to their loved ones on the Malaysian airlines plane that disappeared.

    • headguruteacher
      Posted at 16:16h, 10 March

      Dear Naomi

      Thanks so much for leaving a comment. We’re connected by a terrible tragedy.I’ve always found it helpful to share these experiences; it’s the only way to get through it. Life goes on but not without significant pain – and it’s heart-breaking knowing what those people have ahead of them.
      Thanks again for making contact.
      Tom

      • Rachel Godfrey
        Posted at 21:10h, 31 March

        Dear Tom,
        I also understand exactly how you feel. Naomi is my aunt and was one of the members of my wonderful and supportive family who supported my mother, my brother and sister and me through the terrible trauma of losing my father. I too was 12 years old and my father was also 37.
        In an effort, I am sure, to protect us children, I was told very little then of the actual details of the crash, so I was never really aware until now that there were five people from the UK on board. I too cry very easily and the pain, though not as sharp as it once was, never does go away. My father is often in my thoughts and it a great sadness to me that my three children never had the privilege of knowing him.
        The recent disappearance of the Malaysian airliner has rekindled many of the feelings of pain and despair and I feel desperately sorry for the relatives of those on board who just need to know what happened to their loved ones.
        With best wishes to you and your family,
        Rachel

        • headguruteacher
          Posted at 21:54h, 31 March

          Hi Rachel. Thanks for your message. Gosh – we’ve got a lot in common. It’s been lovely to hear from people connected to the same incident, despite all the sadness and ongoing confusion in Malaysia. I wonder if you ever went to Johor Bahru to see the memorial? We lived out in Jakarta for a while and I had the chance to go over there a couple of times; very moving each time. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much as the first time I went there..it was tough but cathartic at the same time. I do hope the families of the MH370 plane get some kind of information that lets them begin to move on. Best wishes from me too.
          Tom

          PS I can see your Dad’s name (Harold John Godfrey?) among the names on the memorial..first column. Have you had pictures of this before?

    • Karin Eldredge
      Posted at 14:56h, 20 March

      Dear Naomi
      I’ve just re-read Tom’s blog and saw your message . I am his mum and may well have met you. Did you come to Farnham where we used to live? We went through many years of feeling vulnerable and adrift but I finally learned to get the most out of life again. the latest disaster has brought it all back of course. so devastating. best wishes to your family.
      Karin

  • tagovita
    Posted at 13:31h, 25 March

    Thank you for this memory, my uncle my cousin’s father was also on board this plane.

    • headguruteacher
      Posted at 13:35h, 25 March

      Thanks for sharing that Tagovita. MH370 is bringing back lots of memories for us all, I’m sure. It’s been good to hear from other families that share the same story as ours. Best wishes. Tom

  • tagovita
    Posted at 15:26h, 25 March

    I was only 12 but it feels like yesterday, my Uncle Tom was a much loved father to 5 children, it is just so sad for so many when these awful tragedies happen.

  • A 2nd Year of Blogging: The doors that opened. | headguruteacher
    Posted at 18:10h, 10 May

    […] a totally different reason.  The disappearance of flight MH370 has generated a lot of interest in my blog about the death of my father in a hijacking in Malaysia in 1977.  The internet searching had taken them to it.  In fact various lovely and sad comments from […]

  • Chris Grandson
    Posted at 07:07h, 12 May

    Awesome story bro.

  • Joyce Grey-Carter
    Posted at 18:49h, 11 November

    I feel your pain in every way. My dad passed away in half the half term 26 October 2014 lung cancer due to asbestos working over the years as a Painter and Decorator. His Funeral is tomorrow 12th November 2014. The reading for Rememberance Day Assembly I wanted to do was partly for my Rememberance of him. ….I feel your pain….However, God is good….may our fathers rest well in peace….Hod bless you Tom and your family always xx

    • Joyce Grey-Carter
      Posted at 18:51h, 11 November

      God bless xx

  • Looking Back on 2014. | headguruteacher
    Posted at 08:37h, 29 December

    […] Dad’s death in 1977 came to the fore following the two Malaysia airlines disasters. I did an interview in my […]

  • My Dad and the last #EdTech Revolution. | headguruteacher
    Posted at 14:39h, 30 January

    […] is my Dad’s birthday.  He would have been 76.  As one of many follow-ons to my blog about his death in 1977, earlier this week I had the pleasure of meeting Pat, my Dad’s PA at the British […]

  • Ben Spiller
    Posted at 01:01h, 16 April

    Hi Tom

    Your father was good friends with mine (David Spiller), they worked together at the British Council.

    There is a picture of your father in our house, my dad tells me that he was one of the most interesting and hilarious people he has ever met.

    I hope you are well.

    Regards
    Ben Spiller

    • Tom Sherrington
      Posted at 15:48h, 16 April

      Thanks Ben. Name rings a bell – one of twins? Brazil? That could be the wrong connection. Appreciate the comment. Best wishes. Tom

  • Claire Jarman
    Posted at 05:40h, 12 November

    Thank you for sharing this. Having recently seen two sets of nephews lose a parent suddenly in their teenage years, this has reinforced my understanding of how their loss impacts not only their present but their future also. So sorry for your loss but reassuring to hear you still look back on memories of a happy childhood. Thank you.

  • ed
    Posted at 13:31h, 04 December

    Hi Tom,

    My mum was on the plane as well….and as it is the evening of the 4th now …I do hope we will one day know the truth of what happened…

    • Tom Sherrington
      Posted at 13:59h, 04 December

      Yes. Seems unlikely. It was a Sunday too. 39 years!

      • Judith Stringer
        Posted at 01:18h, 05 December

        My husband was also a passenger on flight 663 on Dec 4 !977. My daughters and I were in Hong Kong at the time. It was unusual that he did not make his usual Sunday night phone call. When I heard the news the next morning of the crash, I feared that he had changed flights from Penang for some reason. At ten o’clock the next morning someone from his office contacted me at work at the school to tell me that they were afraid he had been on the plane as he was not at the office in KL. That was not confirmed for some hours.
        My daughters were 14 and 11 at the time. We made it through the next few years running on autopilot.
        Reading the reports on the internet for the first time – took awhile for me to finish grieving and be able to read about it – I am surprised to read that the highjackers were identified as Japanese. I heard the recording of the cockpit exchange (I think when being interviewed by the Interpol police) and there was no mention of Japanese involvement and the accents and phrasing didn’t sound Japanese to me. I never saw any reports at the time that even mentioned Japanese and I had all the Malaysian and Singapore and Hong Kong papers. Now I have to dig them up. We lived in Hong Kong for three more years so you can imagine how surprised I was to read this slant on the cause.

        Secondly. at the time of the hijacking it was reported that the plane landed at KL and the officials and highjackers negotiated to try to have the children and women disembark. Then the highjackers got nervous and forced the pilots to take off again. There was much discussion about why they were allowed to take off again.

        Thirdly. not every body was disintegrated . I received my husband’s watch, his passport and his little black address book in perfect condition. At the mass funeral I was told that the ceremony had to take place within a certain number of days according the Muslim law but that the front part of the plane was buried in muck at the site of the crash and so the first class passenger’s bodies would be recovered later and buried with the others. I was offered a flight to Malaysia to identify the body but declined. One of his coworkers did that task for me.
        When we did go to the memorial site later my husband’s name was misspelled. We have been back twice.

        • Tom Sherrington
          Posted at 06:24h, 05 December

          Thanks for leaving a comment Judith. We’ve all has different news reports to pull together over the years I guess. It’s quite shocking to think the plane may have landed at KL. We received my Dad’s charred passport too. It’s a confusing picture. Amazing that you were offered to fly there and someone could identify him. I’ve visited the memorial several times – my mum went very early on, a really tough trip. His name is just a few lines below Richard’s. We’ve been connected all this time through that list! Take care – and thanks for sharing your information. Tom

  • Margaret Warren-Codrington
    Posted at 14:51h, 04 December

    Such a moving story and more relevant than ever in our time.

  • Our family remembrance trip. 40 years on. | teacherhead
    Posted at 12:10h, 05 December

    […] story – the death of my father, Richard Sherrington – to the act of remembrance.  You can read it here.   He died on 4th December 1977, 40 years ago, after his plane from Penang to KL was hijacked and […]

  • Matthew Briggs
    Posted at 17:08h, 22 January

    I have only just found this blog and wanted to say thank you. I am raising my two kids on my own after my wife was killed two years ago in a road collision. My son was 12 and my daughter was 10 when it happened. The fact that you look back fondly on your childhood fills me with so much hope – Thank you. Matt

    • Tom Sherrington
      Posted at 17:47h, 22 January

      Thanks Matt. That must be heart-breaking. You just have to move forward, celebrate her life and love and grieve and cry as much as you all need. But there is joy in a close family even after a tragedy. Best wishes from me to you and your kids. Tom