1944 (1): Towards Breakdown

How very long internment was, and how very hard.

 When Brian was young he asked his father how long he’d been held prisoner by the Japanese – three days?  a week? maybe even as much as ten days? That was as long as he could conceive something unpleasant going on. Ten days would be horrible. Thomas was angry; at some level he must have understood his son ‘s  problem grasping time periods, but, as usually happened when he spoke about the war a deep fury welled up as he gave the real figure of  three years and eight months.

 To be precise, Japanese rule meant Thomas spent a month in the Exchange Building, under the humane control of Captain Tanaka, fifteen months in the French Hospital, probably tolerable enough at first, especially after June 29, 1942 when Evelina came to join him, but then involving increasing levels of deprivation and fear, as the food situation in Hong Kong deteriorated and the Japanese gendarmes launched a ‘reign of terror’ to try to break the Allied resistance movement. This culminated in the terrifying ‘lock down’ of May 2 to May 7, 1943[1] after which Thomas and Evelina were sent into Stanley for over two years of hunger, cramped living and renewed anxiety.

 1944 was their first full year in Camp.

 The terrors of 1943 took some time to die down. According to a retrospective in the China Mail for December 25, 1945, Christmas 1943 was darkened by the Kempeitai reign of terror for both the POWs and the civilians inStanley. It was even worse, the paper reminded its readers, for those unfortunates who the ‘reign’ had put in Stanley Prison, although they might at least count themselves lucky not to have been amongst the party taken down to Stanley Beach to be executed on October 29.

 In January and February 1944 Andrew Leiper and two other bankers joined these prisoners.[2] This must have worried Thomas a great deal: Leiper was almost certainly living in the next Bungalow (E) and through his friendship with Mrs. Hyde[3] he would have been in touch with the banking community. Besides, news of any significant development spread round the Camp in minutes.[4] The bankers were arrested, brutally interrogated and imprisoned for actions taken during the 17 days of fighting and the period when they, like Thomas, had been living ‘in town’– if Camp gossip reported these facts correctly it would have served as a grim reminder to him that he could never consider himself safe.

 But the fears of 1943 did die down eventually. One indication of this is that the Masonic Lodges – Thomas was a member of Eastern Scotia- which had ceased to meet in June 1943 to avoid arousing suspicion started to gather again in January 1945.[5] Andrew Leiper put it succinctly: everyone in occupied Hong Kong, whatever nationality and wherever they were living, feared two things – arrest by the Kempeitai and slowly dying of starvation.[6] As the one anxiety receded, the other came to the fore.

 1944 was a year full of hunger crisis, and constantly disappointed hopes. As it came to an end, the hardest winter in recent Hong Konghistory set in and the fuel to power electricity ran out. The Camp’s very existence was threatened when the water supply was discontinued on November 11: Gimson even suggested to the Japanese that Stanley Camp be abandoned. George Wright-Nooth claimed that this cutting off of water could have been ‘perhaps the greatest crisis of our internment’. After some exploration, helped by divination, water was struck and a well sunk. [7]  The Japanese, who responded reasonably well to the crisis, sent in two pints of water a day henceforth, although there was much doubt as to whether this was properly bolied and chlorinated as claimed. (G. B.  Endacott, and Alan Birch, Hong Kong Eclipse, 1978, 202).

At the same time the rations sent in by the Japanese looked as if they might one day dwindle to nothing.

 Rations varied at different times in 1944, sometimes within the same week. At first some internees were optimistic about the improvements that seemed to follow the Camp’s transfer from civilian to army control in January, when it was renamed ‘the Military Internment Camp’. But as the year wore on the internees were living on about an ounce of fish a day (1944 was basically a meatless year), 11 ozs of vegetables (most of it watery and fibre-filled marrow), 12.5 ozs of low quality rice, 0.4 ozs of peanut oil, and monthly issues of beans, sugar, salt, tea and curry powder.[8] Complaints to the Commandant were met with charges of ingratitude, and the statement that he didn’t care of they starved, died or both. Soon even the fish disappeared, although the rice ration was raised to 16 ozs.[9] It was now that the black market, which had existed from almost the start of the Camp, came into its own. Thomas and Evelina sold their watches and even their engagement ring to buy food,[10] and even those internees who had held on to such precious items usually had to let them go as the battle for survival became desperate.

 Camp Secretary John Stericker sums up:

 In the long winter of 1944-45 we sat in the dark after 5.30 p. m. onwards. Water had to be carried from a distant well which often ran dry. In fact we now had no meat, fish, bread, flour, electricity or mains water.[11]

By January 1945 it must have seemed to any well-balanced and realistic observer, that more or less the entire British community of old Hong Kong was probably going to be wiped out, leaving only a small number of widows – the women who had been sent to Australia under the 1940 evacuation scheme.

Thomas and his fellow internees in Stanley were sick, emaciated and ragged ghosts of their former selves. Thomas’s old friend Charles (‘Chuckie’) Sloan had been sent to Japan to work on starvation rations at Nagoya Camp.[12] The Volunteers left behind in Shamshuipo were in roughly the same state as their civilian wives and friends in Stanley. Only Charles’ wife Jean was safe, at the price of a traumatic evacuation to Australia with only those possessions she could carry.

 So desperate did things become in Stanley that urbane businessman John Stericker, writing years later, contemplated with equanimity the fact that some internees had broken one of the ultimate western taboos:

 I am told since that the excellent tins of fat {sent into Stanley from friends outside} were often human fat. I recommend it. We were literally starving.[13]

 The internees were caught in a grim paradox: the better the war was going, the lower the volume of supplies that came into Hong Kong and the worse their conditions became. The greatest treat for the suffering denizens of Stanley Camp was to see and hear American planes pounding the town; the air raids were destroying the economic infrastructure on which their lives depended.

Given the terrible situation at the year’s end one might have expected to find the Camp sunk in a trough of depression. How moving it still is, so many years later, to read the entry that R. E. Jones – one of  Thomas’s pre-war acquaintances – made in his diary for the first day of 1945:

 Quite a few saw the New Year in, bells were rung & Auld Lang Syne sung. Everyone full of optimism!

[4] Allana Corbin, Prisoners of the East, 2002, 236.

[5] Geoffrey Emerson, Hong Kong Internment, Kindle Edition, Location 4444.

[6]  Leiper, 169-170

[7] George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 208.

[8] John Stericker, A Tear for the Dragon, 1958, 169.

[9] Stericker, 1968, 170.

[11] Stericker, 1958, 170



Filed under Hong Kong WW11, Stanley Camp

2 responses to “1944 (1): Towards Breakdown

  1. Pingback: 1944 (2): Thomas’s birthday – In Praise of Illusion | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  2. Pingback: 1944 (3): Second Wedding Anniversary and Evelina’s Birthday: the Hunger Gets Worse, the Fear Never Goes For Long | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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