1944 (4): Two Deaths, a Move and a Release

1944 was not marked by ‘big’ events like 1943 (the Kempeitai ‘strike back’, leading to the arrests in Camp, the death of the HKSBC chief Sir Vandeleur Grayburn and the executions on Stanley Beach) or 1945, but there were some significant happenings. In this post I focus on two deaths and a release.

David Charles Edmondston was one of Grayburn’s senior assistants, the Hong Kong manager of the HKSBC. According to Emily Hahn, Edmondston at the start of the war was  ‘a funny man with a mustache, and a bit of a pot’.  Hahn’s book China For Me portrays him as a petty and spiteful moralist, who took against her because, in his eyes, she lured Major Charles Boxer away from his wife and then become the mother of his baby without even having the decency to marry him. But this representation of Edmondston has to be treated skeptically: Hahn didn’t go out of her way to be scrupulously fairly to those who annoyed her during the Hong Kong war.[1]  What’s certain is that Edmondston was in prison because he’d joined the other bankers, left outside Stanley mainly for Japanese purposes, in a courageous operation to raise money to help their beleaguered fellow citizens in the Camps.[2]

He was arrested on May 24 1943.[3]  The fact that the water torture was used in questioning him[4]   might mean that the Japanese suspected him of spying or at least listening to a secret radio and passing on the news, as they didn’t usually torture Allied nationals unless some such crime was involved (although an ordinary ‘interrogation’ was hard enough). He was tried on October 19, 1943 and sentenced to ten years in prison.[5]

According to Japanese medical officer Sato (or Saito) Shunkichi he first entered the Prison hospital in May 1943 suffering from indigestion. He was eventually discharged but frequently returned for treatment for colitis, beri beri and dysentery. He was finally admitted with a carbuncle that covered the whole of the back of his neck.[6]

Dr. Harry Talbot examined him and later stated that continual sepsis contributed to his death.[7] Sato, defending himself at his post-war trial, claimed that he’d administered various appropriate treatments, but Dr. Talbot stated that Edmondston had received no help from the medical officer, and this is supported by the banker’s own statement, two days before his death.

Image: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205086921

Just before Edmondston died his wife Kathleen and his seventeen year old daughter were called in from Stanley Camp to see him. He was so emaciated she didn’t recognize him and his state was such that no meaningful communication was possible. The Japanese refused to allow a doctor to enter the Prison to inspect him, but did allow drugs to be sent in. The injections came too late. He died –  of malnutrition, sepsis and medical neglect – on August 29. He was 54.

File:David Charles Edmondston Headstone.JPG

Image: Wikimedia, at http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:David_Charles_Edmondston_Headstone.JPG

The other man whose death I want to write about could hardly have lived a life more different to that of a banker with the HKSBC, whose senior officials were expected to set an appropriate tone for pre-war Hong Kong..

There have been only three Englishmen who were made generals in the Chinese army: one was the Gordon who died at Khartoum– he had previously been known as ‘Chinese Gordon’. The other two were in Stanley Camp, although neither was there at liberation. One of them, Morris ‘Two Guns’ Cohen, an English adventurer, whose life is the subject of a proposed film,[8] was released as part of the second exchange of prisoners on September 22/23, 1943. The other died in Stanley.

 Frank ‘One Arm’ Sutton celebrated his sixtieth birthday on February 14, 1944. He wrote in his diary:

I am young no longer, ambition to take the world by storm has passed me and gone. I remember my many failures. I flee from life and do not pursue it, as formerly….Enthusiasm in starting each new job and brushing aside all obstacles is not wholehearted. What’s the good? comes too easily to my mind.[9]

He’d had an eventful life:  born to a Lincolnshire parson in 1884 and educated at Eton and London University, he’d been a South American railway builder before the war, and lost an arm to a hand-grenade at Gallipoli. He was lobbing  back time-lag hand-grenades  into the Turkish trenches but after successfully returning six he fell foul of one that had cunningly had its fuse shortened, and it blew his right arm off at the wrist. The thrower, a huge Turkish soldier, leapt into Sutton’s trench to finish the job with his bayonet. Sutton, with no weapon and only his left arm,  managed to deflect the bayonet into his thigh. There followed a desperate struggle rolling in the dust during the course of which Sutton was almost knocked out by a rock– it was thrown by a fellow British soldier but failed to find its target and hit Sutton on the head instead. The Turk managed  to get on top of the semi-comatose Englishman and was strangling the life out of him when Sutton groped around with his one remaining hand and managed to locate a Gurkha kukri, which he plunged into his assailant’s throat. As the struggle ended, Sutton noticed he’d bitten off the other man’s ear. (I am not making this up – someone else may be, probably Sutton himself, but not me![10]).

How could such a man not go gold mining in the frozen wastes of newly Bolshevik Siberia? And how could he have avoided being asked to re-organize one of the Red navies?  Next he decided to try his luck in war-torn Republican China, seeking to interest one of the rival war-lords in the products of his fertile military inventor’s imagination, and in his own martial skills. The Chinese general who was besieging Sutton and summoned him to negotiate terms of surrender should have known that the resourceful but not overly scrupulous Englishman would shoot him before making a James Bond like escape. Sutton eventually became a general for China’s famous ‘Old Marshall’ Chang Tso-Lin. He made and lost three fortunes in the course of all this.

Sutton was billeted in Block 4, Room 18, billeted with seven others. He was severely overweight by this time, and his mutilated arm made it impossible for him to sleep soundly in any position but flat on his back; the result was massive and re-echoing snoring. Sutton, to the immense gratitude of his roommates managed to get hold of a tennis ball and had it sewn into his pajama jacket so as to make it impossible for him to sleep on his back. Then he taught himself to get a decent night’s rest on his side.[11]

That story shows that at least some of the determination and courage that had marked Sutton’s life were still with him at the start in Stanley. Sadly these qualities were worn down. His decline after that despairing birthday entry was ‘shockingly rapid’ and Drage puts down his death to ‘slow starvation’ undermining ‘not so much his superb physique but his always vulnerable emotions’.[12]

He was put on a ‘Special Diet’ but to no avail, and he was eventually admitted to TweedBayHospitalwith ‘beriberi, avitaminosis and bacillary dysentery’ – Drage suggests a simpler diagnosis would have been ‘hunger and heartbreak’.[13] Mrs. Anslow, who was nursing in Tweed Bay Hospital at the time, agreed, saying he died from ‘malnutrition and despair’. The end came at 10 a.m. on October 22 of that terrible year 1944. He asked for his clothes to be divided amongst his fellow prisoners,[14] a much needed final act of charity.

My guess is that an event towards the end of the year marks the date when Thomas began to feel that he would most probably escape the Kempeitai.[15] In the Camp ‘Log’ held at the Imperial War Museum[16], next to the names of Mrs. and Miss Selwyn-Clarke it is recorded that they were ‘removed 6.12.44’.

Hilda and Mary Selwyn-Clarke had been living, with their friend Margaret Watson, in the tiny room 6 of Bungalow D.  Thomas and Evelina were amongst the probably 8-10 people in room 1. They’d arrived with the Selwyn-Clarke’s on May 7, 1943, after Hilda’s husband had been arrested by the gendarmes early on May 2 under suspicion of being the head of British espionage in Hong Kong.  In fact, he didn’t get involved in military matters but had been operating a medical smuggling ring, and it’s most unlikely that Thomas had stayed completely clear of its work in the fifteen months they were all in the French Hospital  together.[17]

 Selwyn-Clarke heroically resisted 10 months of brutal torture. After that he was held in solitary confinement, at first under sentence of death, then with a ten year prison term. But, out of the blue, he was released, for reasons which have never been clarified.  Two days after the ‘removal’ of  Hilda and Mary he was visited in his cell by the advocate- general who had been at his trial and Colonel Tokunaga, the head of all the camps in Hong Kong, and told the rest of his sentence had been remitted, and he would be interned in a small civilian camp – 600 people, who would be under his medical care:

 The sense of relief was almost too much for me. I felt completely dazed[18]

 When he arrived at Ma Tau-wai Camp in Kowloon Hilda and Mary were there to meet him:

 The emotion of this reunion can be imagined, though I fear it must have been something of a shock for Hilda and Mary to be presented with a ragged, bent and emaciated figure, white-haired at fifty and with a long white beard, and this after only nineteenth months of separation.[19]

That day was joyful for the Selwyn-Clarke family and it also meant that Thomas need no longer fear actions from his time in the French Hospitalwould lead to his arrest. And six days later the parcels sent by the Canadian Red Cross were distributed!  (see next post). There seems little doubt that the week or two starting on September 8 was the best period for Thomas and Evelina in 1944, perhaps in the whole of their internment.

 Most people kept at least one item from these parcels to help make Christmas Day special. Then the hunger returned, and, as the harsh winter weather conducted the inhabitants of Stanley inexorably into the new year, it got worse.

Everyone realised this would be their last year as captives. There was no way the emaciated bodies that shuffled listlessly around Camp could take another twelve months  of such starvation. Either they’d be freed in 1945, or the hunger that had been with them since the Japanese attack in those long ago days of December 1941 would finally kill them. There was another possibility, though, and a dreadful one.

 As Thomas’s fears of the Kempeitai and their methods of interrogation began to recede, they were replaced by images of  a new horror. Would the history of Stanley Camp end with a final massacre?

[1] Emily Hahn, China For Me, 271-273, 392-393. For a rebuttal of Hahn’s portrait of Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, see James Bertram, The Shadow of a War, 1947, 81. Margaret Watson’s comments on Hahn in Susanna Hoe, The Private Life of Old Hong  Kong, 1991, 227 are revealing.

[3] China Mail, April 9, 1947, page 2.

[4] China Mail, January 9, 1947, page 2.

[5] George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 180.

[6] China Mail, April 12, 1947, page 2.

[7] China Mail, Friday, April  3, 1947, page 2.

[8] http://www.movieweb.com/news/doug-liman-directing-two-gun-cohen-biopic

[9] Charles Drage, General of Fortune, 1973 ed., 259

[11] Drage, 257.

[12] Drage 259.

[13] Drage, 259.

[14] Drage, 260.

[16] IWM, Misc 932.

[18] Selwyn-Clarke, 93.

[19] Selwyn-Clarke, 93.




1 Comment

Filed under Hong Kong WW11, Stanley Camp

One response to “1944 (4): Two Deaths, a Move and a Release

  1. Pingback: Thomas’s Work (5) The ‘Siege Biscuits’ | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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