In a previous post I discussed a few of the many psychic mechanisms which enabled the internees to survive their experiences. In this one I want to focus on something that had both ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ effects: the presence in the Camp of a number of people who were both fair and generous when it came to the great issue of food distribution. Everyone in Stanley knew one thing, however much they tried to deny to themselves that they knew it: there was no guarantee that they’d live long enough to be liberated because they were slowly starving to death and there was no way of knowing if the end of the war would come before their bodies gave out. This meant that any food given to another and any opportunity to get food for yourself that wasn’t taken, whatever the cost to your fellow internees, might be literally fatal. Whatever the exact date of liberation, there were always going to be people who would have lived if it had come a week or a month earlier; perhaps even those whose wasted frames gave up the struggle on the day itself, people who would have survived if they’d managed to get just a few hundred extra calories into their starving bodies…
So it’s not surprising that there was plenty of selfishness in Stanley plenty of mean-spiritedness, and a substantial amount of outright theft – it was said you couldn’t leave anything edible lying around, not even communion wafers! One individual made himself so unpopular through his ceaseless concern for his own interests that at the end of the war Franklin Gimson had him put into custody for his own protection. What is perhaps surprising is that most people seem to have pulled together, looking after their own interests and those of their family without harming others, and helping out their fellow internees where possible. And there were in Stanley a number of individuals who did more.
Shipyard clerk (probably manager would give a better idea of his role) George Gerrard was a big man: before the war he weighed sixteen and a half stone. But when he was released, the years of internment had seen him shrink to a mere six and a half stone– 91 pounds. One might be forgiven for assuming that he was one of those unlucky people who didn’t have friends outside to send him parcels, or that he was a rather lazy individual who never got to the ration queue early enough to get a fair share of the scanty food being doled out. In fact, I’ve never come across an internee who got so many parcels – and when ex-Stanleyite Barbara Anslow read his diary, she was astonished at the number he received and found her mouth watering at the thought of all that precious food!
Gerrard is one of those largely unknown heroes of Stanley who made an important contribution not only to the stomachs but also to the spirits of everyone; it was partly due to people like him that most people did make it through to August 1945. Without men and women of such generosity and rectitude Stanley could have degenerated into a Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’ in which the strong survived and the weak went to the wall. Gerrard’s many parcels came from his Chinese former workmates (who risked imprisonment and torture to send them) but he scrupulously shared them with his fellows. Even when they sent him in money, he usually passed some of it on. Perhaps even more importantly, he was quartermaster for his block but he never used his position to get extra food: partly because of his huge weight loss he had to be repatriated on a hospital ship.
When the internees first entered Stanley, cooking seems to have been done on an individual, family or small group basis, but eventually things became more organised. The Camp was divided into ‘west and ‘east’ regions with a Kitchen for each. The ‘west’ region consisted of St. Stephen’s School and the Bungalows, with a kitchen behind St. Stephen’s. Bungalow D actually ate with Gerrard’s block (9) of St. Stephen’s so that might well have meant he was in charge of issuing rations to Thomas and Evelina.
One of the responsibilities that Gerrard must have enjoyed the most – for his own sake and that of others – was organising the distribution of the Red Cross parcels of September 1944. Unlike the ones sent to individuals by uninterned friends, these were distributed equally to all adults in Camp.
On Sunday 17, September 1944 Gerrard wrote:
The big news for this period is that the Canadian Red Cross parcels have actually arrived and are now in our hands and some of the contents in our tummies and Boy Oh Boy are they good.
September 14 was the day that the parcels were given out (from 3 p.m. onwards). I like to think that it was Gerrard who handed Thomas and Evelina their parcels. Whoever it was, this was a red letter day for them and their fellow internees. They were living mainly on rice and vegetables at this time – no meat since February, 1944 and only an ounce or two of fish. The typhoon of July 22 had further disrupted food supplies. Gerrard’s fellow diarist, the colony’s former hangman Raymond Jones, gives a grim picture of deteriorating conditions: on September 4 he tells us that the ‘daily average of vegetables is 9.5 oz. fish not enough to be worthy its reckoning’. He ate a good meal on September 8 (‘fried liver’ – one of the occasional returns of meat to the 1944 diet), but on the next day no rations arrived, so the cooks had to make do with what they had, resulting in ‘poor meals today…hungry as hell tonight’. When the rations did finally arrive, at 8 p. m., they were ‘veg only’. On September 11 fish was sent in but ‘so rotten most of it had to be buried immediately’. No wonder he writes on the same day, ‘Hurry up you US blokes’.
Later in the September 17 entry Gerrard lists the contents of each parcel: powdered milk, butter, jam, tins of salmon, corn beef, sardines, a packet of tea or coffee, chocolate, prunes, raisins, pepper and salt, some cheese, a cake of soap….And everyone got two parcels (with a third to come on Thursday, September 21). Even though the parcels had been in Hong Kong for over a year and the dried fruit and chocolate were mouldy, this was a wonderful gift.
The happiness of most of the starving internees that day can be imagined. George Wright-Nooth wrote on September 15:
Though really tired I did not sleep during the whole of yesterday. The arrival of the parcels made me restless and excited. Geoffrey and Lance could hardly sit still….The first thing I did, and so did the others, was to eat my chocolate, at least one slab of 5 oz. It was delicious and I found it more satisfying than two of our ordinary meals (doubles); it filled me right up. How Geoffrey and Lance managed two slabs I do not know.
The powdered milk does grand for congee in the morning, the biscuits with jam are top hole, the chocolate is just rapidly disappearing….
According to Geoffrey Emerson, Gerrard’s claims were wrong in one respect: he stated that the parcels would help ‘for the time being at least’ fight beri beri and pellagra, two diseases caused by deficiency of B Vitamins: Emerson points out that the contents didn’t actually provide many foods rich in B1. Luckily there were some bulk supplies in the 1944 delivery, including multivitamins and synthetic B vitamins. Gerrard records that the first multivitamins ones were given out on October 1 and they tasted like ‘burnt rubber’. Eventually, though, the vitamins and thiamine ran out, leaving whatever yeast was available as the only possible treatment.
I wrote that ‘most’ of the internees were happy for good reason. Gerrard comments on the Camp mood after the issue of the third parcel:
This issue we easily made and all are more or less pleased, tho’ in a camp like this it is impossible to please everyone, some of course are perpetual and impossible grumblers. To give them the Kingdom of Heaven wouldn’t be more than some expect.
Judging by his diary, Gerrard was a good-tempered man, so it’s easy to imagine how sorely he must have been tried in the course of his thankless task as block quartermaster. But, in spite of these grumblers, most people were pleased: ‘everyone much happier’ states Jones on ‘parcel day’ and on the day after he writes ‘What an immense difference a little extra and better food makes’.
Parcel sending wasn’t the only service the Red Cross provided for the Stanleyites and the POWs in Shamshuipo and the other camps. It also carried out the distribuion of the £10,000 a month sent by the British government to the internees. The money, amounting to about 20 yen per adult, began to arrive in February 1943. The Government had no way of knowing that massive inflation in Hong Kong was reducing the value of their gift hugely as the months went by – but on June 22, 1944 Gerrard recorded receipt of the ‘very welcome’ 20 yen and it was probable only sometime in 1945 when there was almost nothing in the canteen and what little there was had become unaffordable that the gift became almost valueless. And it was the Red Cross who were mainly responsible for getting cards and letters in and out of the Camps, and who provided occasional gifts to help equip the schools.
It’s possible that even the mills on which Thomas ground rice to make bread were provided by Mr. Zindel, the Hong Kong Red Cross representative. Rudolph Zindel, a Swiss businessman, was nicknamed ‘Swindle’ by some internees, who believed he was making little effort to help. There is a vigorous defence of Zindel in the introduction to the book version of Geoffrey Emerson’s thesis, and I think Emerson makes his case conclusively: Zindell did everything he could, at some risk to himself. A couple who unofficially represented the Red Cross in Borneo were executed as spies, along with 24 others said to have helped them, and Zindel himself was under investigation. It would have been easy for him to lose his head, very difficult indeed for him to do much more for the internees.
Sadly Thomas took from his Stanley experiences a lifetime’s prejudice against the Red Cross. He must have learnt from family letters that his mother was sending him parcels though that organisation, parcels he never received. His rather scanty ‘collected correspondence’ from Camp shows that this upset him, as on a couple of occasions he asks his mother not to send anything. Of course, the failure of those parcels to arrive in Stanley had nothing to do with the Red Cross, but were caused by Japanese theft and obstructionism, or perhaps simply by the disruptions caused by war. Without the work of Rudolph Zindel and those who funded and supported him from afar there would have been much more misery and death in Stanley and Shamshuipo (see next post).
George Gerrard ended the war with a wasted, suffering body (see 1944 (6): The Darkest Winter, forthcoming). But his spirit was undimmed. His diary ends on August 19, soon after liberation. On that day friends from Hong Kong were allowed to enter Camp, and a fellow dockyard worker and his two sons came, bringing gifts. The last words of George Gerrard’s diary are these:
He brought us bananas, sugar, tea, cooked meat and buns which I divided out to our lads here in the room.
In ordinary times such a distribution would mean little. But these weren’t ordinary times: this act of sharing was the work of a big man who’d shrunk to below 100 lbs in weight, and who, even amongst a malnourished and sick population, was about to be selected as ill enough to require repatriation on a hospital ship. In his response over almost four years to the harsh conditions of the Japanese occupation George Gerrard – an unassuming man whose diary was written for his wife, not for ‘posterity’ – revealed himself to be a man of exceptional quality. In the middle of what Quaker missionary William Sewell considered to be the general moral deterioration of the last years in Stanley he retained his unselfishness and generosity of character to the end.
 George Wright-Nooth: Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 234, 240, 247.
 Allana Corbin, Prisoners of the East, 2002, 164.
 Gerrard diary: May 8, 1943; July 29, 1945.
 Geoffrey Emerson, Hong Kong Internment, 1973, 151.
 Emerson, Kindle Edition, Location 719, 728.
 Cards dated 30/9/43 and 12/4/44.