Chester Bennett – ‘The American Hero of Hong Kong’

Note: My main source for this post is the work of the American war reporter Hal Boyle. In December 1945 Boyle wrote an article on the Japanese public prosecutor Kazuo Kogi in which he outlined Bennett’s story. He went on to write a seven part article on Bennett, under the heading ‘The American Hero of Hong Kong’, which was syndicated in the period January-March 1946. All seven parts are available on the internet, in different formats and from different sources. I provide a transcript of four of the articles here: http://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2011/11/16/part-4-of-hal-boyles-series-on-chester-bennett/

I also use documents from the Ride Papers, which can be accessed at the Hong Kong Heritage Project, kindly sent to me by Elizabeth Ride.

 

Chester M. Bennett was born in California in the early 1890s, but there is some disagreement as to exactly when and where. One source says in San Francisco and on February 12, 1892,[1] while another has it on February 25, 1890. Oil City, a small town in the southern part of the state,  is given by another source as the place birth.

He studied law at the University of California, and practised for a short time, but then went to London as a commercial attaché with the American Embassy.[2] However, having started off on what might have seemed like a career of solid if somewhat unexciting professional activity he soon found ‘the movies’ more interesting.

Bennett’s career in film went back to at least 1917, when he acted in three short films and one longer one, The Lair of the Wolf.[3]  It’s possible he was an aviator in WW1;[4] if so, he returned successfully to his original career, directing 18 films between 1919 and 1926.[5] The last of these, a 50 minute effort called Honesty is the Best Policy was co-written by Howard Hawks, who later went on to direct Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and other Hollywood classics.

After gaining a technical grounding in film-making, he became a director for Vitagraph.[6] The 1920 US census already describes him as a ‘motion picture director’ and it also has him married and living in Los Angeles. In 1923 he was an active member of the Motion Pictures Directors Association.  He supervised the developing and printing of the films at his own laboratories. He was living in Hollywood and his hobbies included automobiles, golf and books.[7] He was divorced in 1924.

The 1930 US census describes him as lodging on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard. According to Hal Boyle, he arrived in Hong Kong in 1933 to look into the possibilities for animal pictures in the Far East.[8] However, one source claims he was present in Hong Kong in 1928, attempting to set up a production company with a Chinese partner; this came to nothing, so he launched his own business.[9] Given the 1930 census entry, either this source is wrong or Mr. Bennett visited Hong Kong in 1928, returned to California, and then went out to Hong Kong again.

Whenever he actually arrived, Bennett liked Hong Kong and made his home there, gradually building up a restaurant and juke-box provision business. He also worked for the brokers W. R. Loxley and Co. – although not mentioned by Boyle, this firm is given as his employer in the entry on the Jurors’ Lists for both 1939 and 1940, which also tell us he was living in the RuttonBuilding.[10] By the time of the Japanese attack December 7, 1941) he’d fallen he in love, with a Portuguese-Irish girl called Elsa Soares, whose father was a Justice of the Peace.[11]

After the fall of Hong Kong (Christmas Day, 1941), Bennett’s fate was the same as most of the rest of the Allied civilian community: at the end of January 1942 he was sent to Stanley Civilian Internment Camp to wait out the rest of the war. The rations sent in by the Japanese were neither calorific enough nor nutritious enough to maintain the health of the roughly 3000 internees, and it says a lot for Bennett’s standing in Hong Kong that, when the Japanese agreed that one person could return to the town to arrange the purchase of supplementary food with HK$300,000 that had become available to the internees, it was Chester Bennett who was asked to carry out this important task. His knowledge of the food business was one reason, but he must also have been completely trusted by the British administration and accepted by the internees as a man of integrity.[12] He was, it is said, ‘the man everyone in Hong Kong knew in peacetime’.[13]

On April 27, 1942 Stanley internee Barbara Redwood recorded in her diary:

Japs have offered us HK$75 each, and we have made out lists of what we want to buy and it’s hoped they will let someone in to town to buy it soon.[14]

There is much disagreement in the sources as to whether this money actually came from the Japanese; Boyle is probably wrong to suggest it came directly from the internees, but it’s possible that the ultimate source was the American Red Cross.[15] The diary of the Catholic Maryknoll Order, many of whom were interned in Stanley alongside their secular American countrymen, tells us what happened next:

May 8: Mr. Bennett, American, chosen to act as purchasing agent for our allotment of food, goes to Hong Kong and on his return announces that while in the city he got himself married.[16]

Elsa Soares was a courageous woman who supported him in his relief work: later she’d pawn the jewellery he’d given her to buy food for Stanley, while they lived simply together.[17]  It sounds as if the Maryknoll diarist thought that Bennett was buying only for the Americans, but it seems as if even at this stage he was purchasing on behalf of the whole camp.  On June 2 he was elected chairman of the American council,[18] the first incumbent the controversial Bill Hunt having been transferred to Shanghai. This is another sign of the high regard in which he was held.

On June 30 almost all of the Hong Kong Americans sailed for home – their government had arranged a prisoner exchange with the Japanese. In an extraordinary act of self sacrifice, Chester Bennett stayed behind. The British Colonial Secretary Franklin Gimson, had asked him to do so to continue helping the internees.[19]

Bennett used his relationship with his former barber to get himself sent out of Camp on parole – Yamashita, who’d cut his hair every week at the Hong Kong Hotel, was now a commandant of Stanley Camp (opinions differ as to whether Yamashita enjoyed a dramatic promotion or had always been a Japanese officer working in deep cover as a spy!) Again, it tells us something about Bennett that he had obviously won a degree of affection from a man whose nationality and line of work would hardly have commended him to most ‘white’ Hong Kong residents in the pre-war period, when hierarchies of race and class seemed so important. On August 11 he was allowed to leave the Camp alongside three Britishers,[20] probably under the guaranteeing out system:[21] one British Army Aid Group (see below) document claims the ‘guarantee’ was given by Elsa Soares. In any case, it would seem that he went to live in his wife’s  home, perhaps with other members of her family (KWIZ/41/4).

In June 1942, just before the Americans left for home, agents of the British Army Aid Group, a resistance organisation founded by escaped Hong Kong University Professor Lindsay Ride, made their first contacts with occupied Hong Kong. Ironically their first news of Chester Bennett was that he was ‘suspiciously intimate with the enemy’.[22] This opinion was offered by the bankers Fenwick and Morrison, who escaped in November 1942. I think that Mr. Bennett had almost certainly begun to raise money for Stanley illegally by that time, and he’d almost certainly begun smuggling it into the Camp as well –  my evidence for this is that Marcus da Silva approached Bennett to offer his help in late 1942:

Chester, I want something to do. I want to help. I know you didn’t get out of Stanley for your health. Bennett gave him a grin and replied, ‘Marcus I’ve been waiting for you to come to me. I knew you would.’ And the big American businessman and the dark energetic little Portuguese lawyer teamed up to get money into Stanley. [23]

We don’t know how long the American had been ‘waiting’ but it seems highly likely that he’d begun smuggling before the escape but that Fenwick and Morrison weren’t aware of it; in which case, his ‘intimacy’ with the Japanese was for the purposes of his illegal as well as his legal (food-purchasing) activities. It’s even possible that he’d already started spying for the BAAG when Fenwick and Morrison made their report, but its operatives didn’t realise this as the information was being relayed through Bennett’s ‘boss’ in the resistance Charles Frederick (‘Ginger’’) Hyde,[24] another of the bankers who the Japanese had kept out of Stanley for their own purposes.

Hal Boyle gives us a picture of the money raising work Mr. Bennett carried out with Marcus da Silva:

They did it by having Chinese guards on food trucks entering the camp bring out promissory notes standing in the community Bennett and Da Silva would then take the promissory notes signed by internees of known standing in the community. Bennett and Da Silva would then take these notes to rich Indian and Swiss merchants and asked them to advance Jap military yen in exchange for promissory notes, pointing out that when Allies won they would be worthless anyway.[25]

The system of smuggling messages et. al. through the drivers (rather than guards) of the Kowloon Bus Company was uncovered by the Japanese in the spring of 1943, and it’s possible that this was what led to Bennett’s arrest. As we shall see, the Gendarmes knew about his smuggling into Stanley, but they never had conclusive evidence of his spying.

Here’s the rest of Boyle’s account of the smuggling technique:

 Da Silva would collect the money and put it in a small basket swinging from his arm – (figure illegible- perhaps 40,000) to 50,000 dollars at a time – and walk boldly past Jap soldiers to a book store around the corner. Bennett would be waiting in the rear of the bookstore. He would take the money to another rendezvous and they’d smuggle it into Stanley by putting it in the bottom of lard cans This went on for several months They got hundreds of thousands of yen in to helpless internees – money that was translated into food and kept them going.[26]

 Boris Pasco, a bookseller of Russian origin who’d been in Hong Kong for over ten years, was arrested and charged with allowing his shop to be used for spying, so it seems likely that it was his premises, Brewer’s, where the exchange took place.[27] Pasco managed to convince the Japanese of his innocence, and thus survived to give evidence at the War Crimes trials. Bennett was also helped in his Stanley work by the Chinese Stanley Camp supervisor Mr. Chan Kai Wai.[28]

 As a BAAG agent Mr. Bennett’s main work was gathering information about Japanese shipping movements and sending the details to agents in China.[29] American submarines were able to take a heavy toll of Japanese ships partly thanks to this kind of work.

 In spring 1943, Bennett and da Silva were informed of Charles Hyde’s arrest, and soon after were told by a Chinese agent that their names were on a Japanese blacklist and advised to go into hiding. They discussed the situation and decided their work was so important that they had to continue it.[30] They planned to tighten their espionage ring, with Bennett focusing on financial issues, da Silva on spying. They also devised an impressively ambitious three part programme of resistance: 1) the organisation of an intelligence unit to spy on ship movements; 2) the assassination of Indian and Chinese agents of the Kempeitai (Japanese security police) as a warning to others and the first step in inciting wider resistance; 3) the maintenance of British  loyalty amongst the 2,000 troops used  by the Japanese to guard the Hong Kong-Canton railway by raising the money to give them a small monthly cigarette allowance.[31]  In April 1943 they sent a messenger into China with details of these plans, hoping to get approval from higher authority. It was their last message; the British Army Aid Group received notice on June 8 of the arrest of 173 people, including Bennett and da Silva.[32] Bennett had been taken by the Kempeitai on May 13.[33]  His arrest was part of a broad Japanese strike-back, beginning in February, against a range of ‘illegal’ activities in Hong Kong and the Camps.[34]

Four Japanese ‘gendarmes’ arrived at the Bennetts’ home one morning. They managed to hide the radio – another of Bennett’s ‘crimes’ was passing on war news to others –  and some internee promissory notes and messages from the Colonial Secretary, Franklin Gimson. The Kempeitai were eager to find an excuse to arrest Gimson, and the quick action of the Bennetts probably saved his life, as well as sparing the signatories of the notes arrest and mistreatment. The four gendarmes found nothing, but still took Bennett away.

 Over the next months he was starved and brutally tortured but he never revealed a single name of all those who had helped him in his work. Rope burns on his leg became gangrenous and the Japanese would have amputated if he hadn’t been sentenced to death.[35]Boyle gives the trial date as October 26,[36]  but according to former internee George Wright-Nooth it was October 19, and Bennett was one of the second of three groups of defendants.[37] The trial was a farce, with the verdicts decided beforehand and no defence allowed. The prisoners were forced to stand in the same place for hours on end, and beaten if they made any movement.[38] The Japanese were never able to prove that Bennett had spied on them, but they were confident he’d been smuggling money into Stanley. Marcus Da Silva thought they probably wouldn’t have executed him just for financial ‘crimes, but did so because of the arrival in September of Japanese ‘thought police’ from Tokyo ‘who put the harshest kind of penalties into effect’.[39] I’m not sure who these men were – the Kempeitai were sometimes called ‘thought police, and they might have been Gendarmes with a new attitude – but Mr. da Silva’s theory is plausible, as the Japanese didn’t usually condemn men to death without a confession or at least strong evidence of spying. In any case, it’s worth noting that Charles Hyde, in spite of being treated with great brutality, obviously never revealed his connection with either man.

On October 29, 1943 Bennett, Hyde and 31 others – Indian, Chinese, Canadian and British – were taken to the hillside close to StanleyBeach.[40] Bennett’s walk was upright, and he only limped slightly, in spite of what must have been agonising pain from his gangrenous leg. To all outward appearances he was calm. Two lines of trenches had already been dug in the small clearing. Black execution masks (or perhaps blindfolds) were placed over their faces, and they were told to kneel.[41] The beheadings were begun by one Japanese soldier and continued by others when he flagged.  [42] Eventually all the bodies were in the trenches and Indian warders covered them up.[43]  It was claimed that potatoes were planted on one of these communal resting places as a last gesture of contempt.[44]

In Stanley Military Cemetery, a little above the beach where he was executed, there is a memorial to Chester Bennett. The inscription reads simply British Army Aid Group, and when the stone was created there was no-one available to provide Mr. Bennett’s date of birth.[45]

In January 1944, a woman (her name’s illegible in my copy) who’d formerly worked for Chester Bennett at the brokerage firm Loxley’s escaped from Macao and brought news of his death in prison. In fact, as we’ve seen, he’d been executed long before, but many of the BAAG routes into Hong Kong had been smashed by the Kempeitai, and it seems that they weren’t aware of this. Marcus da Silva responded by pointing to the ‘heroic’ record and ‘considerable’ service of a man he called his ‘close personal friend’, and asking if anything could be done to rescue Mrs. Bennett – again, he seems to have been misinformed about her exact situation, but to have been quite right in principle, as she was arrested a few months later. If no funds were available, Mr. da Silva offered to sign a chit guaranteeing to pay the cost of the escape after the war.[46]

Mrs. Bennett hadn’t been allowed to see her husband for the five months after his arrest. On January 14, 1944, she gave birth to a girl. Marcus da Silva managed to get himself released and promptly fled to Macao, from where he sent a messenger to help her join him, but she refused to leave with such a young baby, and in any case didn’t think the Japanese would bother her after having killed her husband. She was wrong; the gendarmes came in June. They searched the house but failed to find Bennett’s papers, which she’d hidden in the garden. They took her anyway, accusing her of carrying on the work of smuggling money into Stanley. She was brutally interrogated and at one point starved for five days. She had to wash in cold tea. She never told her interrogators where to find her husband’s papers.[47]

One of the first to visit her after liberation was the Colonial Secretary, Franklin Gimson, at whose request her husband had turned down the chance of repatriation.[48]  According to one source, she eventually went to live in Los Angeles.[49]  

 Between August 2 and August 9, 1946 two Japanese civilians and a Warrant Officer were tried for their role in the brutality meted out to Bennett, Hyde and others. One of the civilians was also accused of mistreating Mrs. Bennett. The verdicts were complex and nuanced, with the judges obviously trying to assess the responsibility of the defendants in every act they stood accused of, but they were all found guilty of something. In two cases, their sentences, although not severe given the gravity of the charges, were reduced on appeal.[50] This was very different to the treatment experienced by Bennett and his co-defendants after their arrests.

 While awaiting execution, Bennett had heard that his wife was going to have a baby, whom he of course would never see. He wrote a final message of love, and asked his wife to bring up the child in her family’s faith ‘in which I now believe’[51]– this almost certainly means Catholicism. The letter was taken out by a friendly guard, while a Chinese fellow prisoner smuggled out his last message to Marcus da Silva: ‘Marcus I kept faith. I didn’t talk’.

No, whatever was done to him, Chester Bennett said not one word to implicate others. He knew what was in store for them if he did. But now his actions speak clearly, telling us of selflessness, dedication and total commitment to the cause of the good, of an unbreakable spirit that, in the most extreme of circumstances, displayed courage beyond imagination.


[3] Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0071667/

[20] http://sunzi.lib.hku.hk/hkjo/view/4401414.pdf: ‘Mr. Bennett and three Britishers leave at 3:00 p.m.’.

[22] Ride Papers, NA/343/170.

[27] The first reference to him I’ve been able to find is in the Hongkong Telegraph, October 13, 1928, page 12.

[28] George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 159. Wright-Nooth wrongly calls him Chester-Bennett.

[32] Tony Banham, We Shall Suffer There, 2009, Kindle Edition, Location 1849.

[34] Philip Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, 2003, 185.

[37] Wright-Nooth, 180. Tony Banham accepts the October 19 dating: We Shall Suffer There, Kindle edition, Location 2061.

[38] Wright-Nooth, 179-180.

[40] Geoffrey Emerson, Hong Kong Internment, 2008, Kindle Edition, Location 1758

[42] Wright-Nooth, 187.

[46] Ride Papers: Marcus da Silva, Letter to Ride, January 13, 1944.

9 Comments

Filed under British Army Aid Group, Charles Hyde, Chester Bennett, Hong Kong WW11, Stanley Camp

9 responses to “Chester Bennett – ‘The American Hero of Hong Kong’

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