Parts 1, 4 and 6 of Hal Boyle’s series on Chester Bennett

(This is the first of a series

of columns on Chester Bennett,

“Hero of Hong Kong”)

By HAL BOYLE

Hong Kong, Jan. 26—(JP)

When little Carol Ann Bennett

toddles down Queens Road with

her Chinese “Amah” many

strange people pause to pat her

bright, ginger-colored hair.

She looks up at them wondering.

And when her chubby cheeks

crinkle in a friendly smile she

looks like her father. And people

who knew him feel sad and then

move on quickly.

Carol Ann is too small to know

her father was the American

“hero of Hong Kong.” She cannot

speak yet and she never saw her

father. She never will.

All that remains to mark

Chester Bennett’s stay on earth is

a stake driven into a garden patch

overlooking the small cove where

the first British Redcoats landed

more than a century ago on the

barren island that was to become

the empire’s jewel colony in the

Far East.

Japanese guards drove that

weathered stake into the ground

after beheading Chester Bennett

and 32 other prisoners convicted

of “crimes against the Japanese

Imperial government.” They planted

potatoes on the grave as a last

touch of contempt.

They accused Bennett of espionage

and smuggling money into

Stanley Bay internment camp so

that several thousand European

civilians held there could buy

extra rations—food that saved the

lives of many prisoners.

“The Japs were right on both

counts,” said Marcus Da Silva,

Portuguese attorney who worked

with Bennett and himself narrowly

escaped death. “But they could

not actually prove that he was

guilty. They finally killed him on

suspicion.”

Bennett didn’t undertake his

war tasks with the idea of becoming

a hero, or making a

profit. He was just a fat man

with a big heart and a sense of

adventure. He always had liked

to do favors for people.

“I believe be was an aviator

during the last war and just felt

that when the chance came for

him to do something In this

war that he had to follow

through,” said Da Silva, small,

neatly knit[1] man who had scorned

a chance to capture fat legal

fees under the Japanese for the

thankless duty of a spy.

Bennett was a heavy set.

broad shouldered man with a

large face under thinning hair.

His passport gives, his place and

date of birth as February 12,

1892, San Francisco. The photo

on the passport shows a heavy

featured face with keen, friendly

eyes.

Like most Americans who

make their career In the Far

East, he had come originally

only for a visit. He was a Holly-

wood photographer and small

scale producer and his assignment

when he arrived 11[2] years

ago was to look into the possibilities

of wild animal pictures

in the Orient.

But he fell under the Hong

Kong spell and decided to stay.

He had fallen in love, too, with

Elsa Soares, a flame-haired girl

of Portuguese and Irish descent

whose father was a justice of the

peace.

There were several hard years.

He was an American in a British

colony and with few contacts. He

scratched around with several prospects.

He became better known.

No man who talked with Chester

Bennett a half-hour ever left feeling

a stranger. Bennett formed a

partnership and became half-owner

of several bars and restaurants. He

had 17 Juke boxes scattered around

Hong Kong when the Japanese

struck.

After the island fell he was herd-

ed along with 3,000 other American

and European residents into Stanley

Bay concentration comp. The

Japanese, flushed with victory,

agreed to let prisoners send out one

man to buy 300,000 Hong Kong dollars

worth of food to supplement

their rations.

The man the British prisoners

asked to spend their money was

California-born Chester Bennett —

because be knew the food business

and they had faith in him.

“Sure,” said the easy-going American,

“glad to do it.”

And that was Chester Bennett’s

first step toward his grave.


[1] Word uncertain, but this is what it looks like.

[2] Possibly ‘12’.

Correspondents Notebook

By Hal Boyle

(This is the fourth of a series

of columns on Chester Bennett.

American Hero of Hong Kong)

By Hal Boyle

Hong KONG—Red-haired

Mrs. Chester Bennett, who

has an Irish smile and a Portuguese

accent, will never forget

May 14. 1943, the day Japanese

gendarmes took her husband

from her. She never again saw

the man who has become known

as “The American Hero of Hong

Kong.”

They had been living in

straitened circumstances. She

had been cashing her jewels to

buy food—Jewels her husband

had given her when his business

was prosperous and their life

was free. But although they permitted

him to remain at his

home, the Japanese forbade him

carrying on his restaurant business.

Ironically, while his own finances

were at the lowest ebb,

Bennett had sent priceless espionage

information out to the

Allies and had smuggled in hundreds

of thousands of dollars

to internees to the Stanley Bay

camp so they could buy extra

rations from the Japanese

guards.

It was on these matters that

Japanese gendarmes called five

days after Bennett’s first wedding

anniversary.

“That was an awful day,”

Mrs. Bennett said, shuddering.

“I was standing by the window

during breakfast and saw them

coming.”

At the moment she and her

husband were listening to the

shortwave radio over which they

got the war news they relayed

to Stanley Bay prisoners.

“Jap gendarmes,” she called.

“Hide the radio.”

There wasn’t time to put it

to its usual hiding place in the

arm chair. Her brother snatched

it up and fled through the

bathroom, A few seconds later

four Japanese gendarmes broke

into the home and began ransacking

the rooms, breaking and

tearing apart furniture as they

searched.

In a desk were a number

of promissory notes and messages

from the British colonial

secretary in the Stanley camp.

It was these promissory notes

that Bennett used to raise money

from wealthy Indian and Swiss

merchants.

“Chester gave me the high

sign and I began to yell and

scream and cry,” said Mrs. Bennett.

After staring at her contemptuously

for a moment the

Japanese turned away and began

to search another corner

of the room. She quickly seized

the promissory notes and messages

and stuffed them into an

old newspaper.

“While one guard was looking

out the window with a pair

of binoculars I slipped another

packet of letters and messages

from my coat in the wardrobe

and dropped them in among the

soiled linen in the bathroom

which they had already searched,”

she went on.

“They found no papers of

any value at all—only old pictures

and old correspondence.

But they took Chester away anyway

and I never saw him after

that day. I don’t think he quite

realized what the end of it would

be. He just told me: ‘Don’t worry.

I’ll be all right.’

“He was always cheerful

that way. Months after he was

dead I met some Chinese who

had been working with him in

sending out shipping information

and one told me: ‘Ah, Chester

Bennett: He was so brave. We

used to warn him to be careful

but he never was frightened.'”

Mrs. Bennett still weeps

when she recounts the terror-filled

days when her husband

was tortured in the Japanese

gendarmerie before being removed

to a cell in Stanley Bay

prison.

“He was a man who simply

couldn’t tolerate rice,” she said,

“and that’s all they gave him.

I used to take him food every

day to the gendarmerie. The

Japs wouldn’t let me see him.

“Once they didn’t take the

food for 10 days and I knew

they were starving him. I smuggled

some sandwiches and cigarettes

to him through a Chinese

man.

“After they took him to Stanley

prison they only let me bring

food twice a week and stole

most of what I brought. If they

didn’t want to bother, they’d Just

say: ‘No food, he’s already

dead.’

“They thought Itfunny to

say he already had been executed.

And each time I felt

they might be telling me the

truth.”

 


[1] The text here is hard to read but it’s most likely has ‘October 20’; October 19 is the date given by George Wright-Nooth.

Part 6

This Is the sixth of seven columns

on Chester Bennett, American

hero of Hong Kong)

By Hal Boyle

Hong Kong, Feb. 1— (JP) —

Autumn comes with cool benediction

In Hong Kong after the long,

hot, dry summer.

From his cell in Stanley prison

Chester Bennett saw the morning

of October 29, 1943. dawn clear

and beautiful. It was his last half-day

on earth.

In a few hours this American

“hero of Hong Kong” and 32

other prisoners were to be put to

death on charges of espionage and

“conspiring against the Imperial

Japanese government.”

Word of their fate had filtered

through to some 3,000 internees

in Stanley camp. They felt particularly

sorry for the cheerful, big-shouldered

American who had

smuggled money in to them so

that they could buy food. It was

for this crime—Japanese “thought

police” hadn’t been able to prove

he was sending out information to

British secret agents—that he

was to die.

Bennett was a large-bodied

man who had lived adventurously

and with zest. Yet his thoughts

turned less on himself in those

last hours than on his wife of a

year. He had just learned she was

to become a mother and bear him

a child that he would never see.

Before the guards came to take

him away he sat down and wrote

his pretty, red-haired wife a short

farewell note:

“I love you with all my heart

and soul. Goodbye. ChesterBennett.”

Then he turned the small sheet

over and wrote on its back:

“I am told you are to have a

baby. If so please raise it in the

faith of your father and mother {presumably Catholicism}

as I now believe in your faith. My

darling, I am sorry things turned

out this way, but believe me, I

love you and my last thoughts

will be of you. With all my love,

Chester.’

He gave the note to a friendly

guard and soon it was time to go.

The crowded black van pulled

out from the steel gates of Stanley

Prison and moved slowly down the

rough, narrow road leading to the

small bay where British redcoats

had planted the empire flag more

than a hundred- years before.

As the van passed a number of

internees toiling up the slope

someone put his face up to the

rear wire grill and called out:

“Goodbye boys. We shan’t be

seeing you again.”

At the bottom of the hill the

prisoners were forced to dismount

and follow a trail winding around

the edge of the bay. It must have

been torture at every step to Chester

Bennett. Rope burns on his

left leg had become badly infected,

the leg had become gangrenous

and needed amputation. But

he walked upright and limped

only slightly. To all outward appearances

he was utterly calm.

The prisoners marched in single

file to a small clearing. Ringing

the hills around them were scores

of Chinese gravestones. Before

them in the center of the clearing

the prisoners saw two trenches

dug by Indian wardens and knew

how they were to die.

The leader of the Japanese detail

was Captain Yamaguchi, the

prison commandant, who also bad

been trial Judge and now was to

execute his own death decrees.

There were 11 white men, Including

“Ginger” Hyde, leader of

the group of volunteer espionage

agents that Bennett had joined,

and seven Indians among the prisoners.

The rest were Chinese.

They were lined up before two

trenches, 17 in front of one, 16

In front of the other. Their bands

were bound behind them. The

prisoners looked up past the

brush-covered slopes and the ancient

white tombstone to the blue,

sunlit sky. Gulls flapped lazily

over the serene green water

washing softly against the clean,

rocky shore. All nature was at

peace except in this small vale.

The Indian warders who had dug

the trenches watched timorously

from the hillside.

Black execution masks were

dropped over the prisoners’ faces

and they were ordered to kneel.

Then Japanese non-coms wielding

heavy swords marched methodically

down the double line, lopping

off heads with powerful

strokes and kicking toppling

bodies into the trenches. There

were no outcries.

In a few seconds it was over.

The Indians came and covered up

the trenches and stuck up a rough

teakwood marker, listing in Japanese

characters the names of

those buried beneath. So far it

is the only memorial to Chester

Bennett, and his British, Indian

and Chinese comrades in achievement

and disaster.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Parts 1, 4 and 6 of Hal Boyle’s series on Chester Bennett

  1. Pingback: Chester Bennett – ‘The American Hero of Hong Kong’ | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  2. Pingback: Captain Mateen Ahmed Ansari | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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