Dennis was born in Burma, now Myanmar, when it was a British colony. She was a child when her family had to flee from town to town to escape the invading Japanese during World War II.
“You can’t forget war. Even as a child, you can’t forget,” she said.
Her father, William James Pritchard, was British and took a job in Burma with the Burma Oil Co. He married Nora Patricia Davis, a native of Burma, in the early 1920s.
Burma was part of the British colonial empire, administered as part of the India colony, until 1937, when it became its own colony.
Well before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States on Dec. 7, 1941, Japan was expanding its empire throughout the Pacific to exploit natural resources. The war machine needed oil.
China had been fighting against the Japanese to the north of Burma since 1937. By October 1940, the Burma Road was the last lifeline of supplies to China.
Just days after the Pearl Harbor attack, Japanese planes began bombing targets in Burma.
Dennis was the youngest of five children, schooled and housed by the Burma Oil Co. Her family was living in Rangoon, the old port capital of Burma.
“We saw these planes flying over,” she said. “The next day, they came and bombed us.”
Her father enlisted in the British military, while the children, their mother and grandmother were moved by British forces via rail to Mandalay, in central Burma, as part of a mass exodus to escape the Japanese. “We were well looked after; we were very fortunate,” she said. “Thousands and thousands of people were trying to get out.”
She remembers the train stopping several times along the way, and her mother explaining, “There are planes above us, and they might hurt us if we start moving.”
Rangoon fell to the Japanese in March 1942, before Dennis turned 8. The rest of the country would follow that year, as Japan extended its sphere of influence to most of Southeast Asia.
Eventually, Dennis’ family was flown out of Burma to Calcutta in the India colony. “That’s where all the refugees were at,” she said.
There, they were reunited with an aunt and her two children. Dennis’ great-grandmother refused to leave her native Burma and was never heard from again.
Her father eventually met them in Calcutta. He had joined Major Gen. Orde Charles Wingate’s Chindits, a group of jungle raiders who attacked Japanese targets. In February 1943, the Chindits slipped through enemy lines for three months of raids, relying on airdrops for supplies. Only about two-thirds of the force returned to India, and many of these were so debilitated, they could no longer serve in combat, according to an Army history.
“My father was missing in action quite a few times,” fighting in the jungles of Burma, Dennis said. When he came back from combat to the family, she said, “I thought, ‘Who on earth is this skinny little guy?’ ”