1944 (6): The Darkest Winter

I suggested in an earlier post that any honest and realistic observer of the Hong Kong ex-pat community in late 1944 would have predicted its more or less total disappearance over the next year. Almost all of the men and many of the women and children were languishing in Stanley, Shamshuipo or in work camps scattered around Japan, and their prospects for surviving another twelve months were decidedly bleak. 

Thomas’s friend Charles Sloan had been sent to a work camp in Japan

 Only those women and children evacuated to Australia in the summer of 1940 were safe. Those left in Hong Kong faced either being shot down in a final massacre – something that had been on the internees’ minds from almost the first moment they arrived in Stanley[1]– or submitting to slow destruction by malnutrition and disease.

 The winter of 1944-45 was one of the toughest in living memory: the staff of the Observatory told some of their fellow Stanleyites that it was the ‘coldest and longest stretch of cold weather Hong Kong has had for 40 years’.[2] The electricity and water supply was intermittent, and the food situation was getting worse. At first the frequent American air raids were a bright spot: they were something of an inconvenience, as sometimes they meant Camp life had to be suspended until the planes had gone to another part of Hong Kong and the alarm was turned off but the internees were glad to put up with this, as seeing the US flyers destroying Japanese Hong Kong showed then they hadn’t been abandoned and gave them hope that somehow they might be liberated. But soon a tragic accident was to put many of them in fear of another death. And yet they still welcomed them; this is perhaps the sharpest version of the paradox that in 1944 and 1945 Allied action was the source of the internees’ main problems and their only realistic hope of salvation.

 Perhaps the most obvious effect of the American bombing was disruption of the water and electricity supplies in the Camp. Gerrard wrote on November 12, 1944:

 The water has now been cut off completely so that we have neither light or water.

 On November 19 he noted that the water supply was now back, but causing problems because it was off two days out of three. Electricity though was still not being provided at all.

 The internees responded to the water crisis by digging, and on 27 November water was struck at 16 feet.[3] Thereafter the intermittent external supply and the water obtained in Camp just about kept the internees going. Not without huge problems though. Gerrard wrote on February 28 that the water was only on every third day and that the fates seemed to decree that this day would always be wet, making washing of clothes very difficult. Not to mention of humans:

 …bathing is no pleasure and a cold shower is out of the question.

 On April 19 Jones had his ‘first shower of the year’ – presumably because the taps were on and it was also warm enough to brave the cold water (Gerrard reported an upturn in the weather during first week of March). Like everything else in camp in 1944 and 1945 water supply was liable to unpredictable ups and downs: on April 11 Gerrard noted that water was only supplied every fifth day, and then only in the evening. On July 8 it was now on for part of every day.

It wasn’t just water that was in short supply. On July 15 it took Jones half an hour to wash his overall with his few remaining fragments of soap. On Friday July 27 he wrote, ‘No soap, salt, sugar or toilet paper for days’ followed by a not fully decipherable phrase that might contain the unsurprising information that many people were dirty!

 In 1942 there had been enough electricity to light the Camp in the evenings (until the blackouts began in response to American bombing raids) and to provide power to those internees lucky enough to have electric hotplates on which to prepare their own food.[4] Most internees couldn’t get hot water, though, but at least they had something. As far as I can make out, the power didn’t come back on after the disappearance noted by Gerrard in November:

 In the long winter of 1944-45 we sat in total darkness from 5.30 p. m. onwards.[5]

 The electricity wasn’t to be restored until the war had ended.[6]

 I’ll write in a separate post about Christmas 1944 and the role Thomas played in preparing the food for what was, in spite of everything, a season of celebration. But once it was over, the basic trend of 1944 – towards a worsening in the rations sent by the Japanese – continued.

 The food situation was bad enough already. On January 9, 1945 Raymond Jones recorded, ‘No work, no rations, hungry’, and the next day he was ‘Hungry as hell & fed up’. But at the start of February even the small quantity of fish in the ration ceased:

 The food is still very poor and we have all been vegetarians for the past fortnight as it is exactly two weeks since the Japs sent us any fish not that it makes much difference as we get very little of that. [7]

 On February 21 Jones reports an 11% cut in the rice ration, and also notes a 50% cut in the cigarette rations issued to ‘workers’ (presumably that meant both the ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ categories). Many internees naturally craved nicotine to dull their suffering, and cigarettes were important even for non-smokers as they were an important currency because the monetary system had almost broken down.

 In his entry for February 24 Gerrard confirms that fish is still not being provided, but goes on to add that ‘The marvellous thing is that the people in the kitchen turn out as attractive chow as is possible under the circumstances’.

 In late February Gerrard was ousted from his post as QM because some people were unhappy about all the time he’d been spending in hospital, but the committee knew the value of his work and asked him to take the newly created post of ‘rations officer’, with duties remarkably similar to his old ones! ‘I don’t get any extra rations of course I wouldn’t have accepted that in any case,’ he wrote.

 One of his first jobs was to distribute the 1945 Red Cross parcel. Through no fault of that organisation this was something of a disappointment: it went out on March 5 but it was not the expected ‘American parcels and bulk supplies’ but the residue of the shipment of November 1942 which had been mouldering in a godown (warehouse) either in Japan or somewhere in Hong Kong.[8] Many items were in poor condition and each internee only got one parcel. How they must have longed for the three good parcels they received in September 1944![9] Jones’ only comment is that ‘many Canadian parcels had their contents stolen’ (March 14) and two days later he notes that cards from Shamshuipo indicate that there too they’ve received ‘only old parcels’ with ‘poor’ food like those sent into Stanley.

But even it wasn’t what the internees had hopes, the parcel was something. The downward trend in rations was soon resumed. On Tuesday March 20 Jones records 15% rice cut for the next 11 days, and on April 10 a 17% cut ‘for next period’.   On May 14 Jones writes:

 Camp grown veg to be included in Jap ration despite their promise to the contrary.

I’ve not seen this point discussed by anyone else. If the Japanese did put this into effect then for the last three months of the war the internees’ vegetable gardens were making a much smaller contribution to their diet than before.

 On June 3 a new scale of rations was issued, although Jones claims it was cancelled as ‘a flop’ on June 10.  However, this scale, although it involved certain cuts, did promise the internees a small amount of meat, and on June 10 Jones records:

 Had meat 1st time for 18 months.

 I don’t know why meat made this unexpected re-appearance in the Camp diet; not surprisingly, after such a long absence, it affected some people’s stomachs (Jones diary, June 24). But, welcome as this was, it couldn’t change the basic situation: the rations were way short of adequate, the canteen was expensive and almost bare of foodstuffs, so people were surviving by selling what few valuables they had and buying extra supplies on the black market. At some point in 1944 or 1945 Thomas and Evelina sold their engagement ring and watches.[10]

 As always in the complex history of life in the Stanley, there were good things about 1945 as well. The lack of firewood for cooking was a major problem, but it seems that the Camp received reasonably frequent deliveries: Jones, who seems to have kept a close eye on everything coming into the Camp, records that ‘much wood arrived’ on March 4, notes on March 17 that the ‘Japs have allowed 50% wood increase’, and ‘wood still coming’ on March 23.

 The lorry brought meat and vegetables on August 11 and the next day the internees enjoyed two meat meals. By then, of course, the rumours of imminent liberation that had often swept through the Camp were on the point of at last being true. But there was one more ordeal that had to be gone through, a fear that strangely enough didn’t end when the Japanese surrendered.

[2] Gerrard diary, Feb 14, 1945.

[3] George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner Of The Turnip Heads, 1994, 209.

[5] John Stericker, A Tear For The Dragon, 1958, 170.

[6] http://groups.yahoo.com/group/stanley_camp/message/1030. Even when the navy began to help with the supply, the enthusiastic use of hotplates by those who remained in Stanley in mid-September sometimes led to power outages.

[7] Gerrard diary, Feb. 14, 1945.

[8] Gerrard Diary, March 7, 1945.


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