Thomas And The Dilemmas Of Occupation

One reason I like Staff-Sergeant Sheridan’s Memoir is that there’s a lot in it about my father. Another reason is that he’s an objective and reliable reporter who’s obviously not out to magnify his own role in events or to settle scores. He just tells you who did what and what happened next, and doesn’t waste time condemning behaviour or pointing morals.

Take, for example, his wonderfully clear and unbiased account of my father’s actions sometime in January 1942 when the humane Captain Tanaka had allowed the bakers to return to the Qing Loong Bakery in Queen’s Road East to make bread for the hospitals:

There were quite a number of different nationalities who up till now had not been interned by the Japs, i.e. Swiss, Portuguese, French, Irish and others. It soon got round that we were making breads, and as it had not been possible to get any for weeks, some visited the Bakery and were prepared to pay any price for a loaf. We did our best to discourage their visits as it may mean the loss of our jobs. Some were friends of Edgar’s whom he helped at great risk to us all, but he never took a cent in payment.

I used to think that my mother met my father during the hostilities – she was taken to see him by her landlord in the hope that he could help her (and presumably him) to get food. Now I think this was the time they most likely met. Staff-Sergeant Sheridan’s fear was that Thomas’s generosity would get the two military bakers (Sheridan and Hammond) sent to Shamshuipo and Thomas himself consigned to Stanley. Conditions in the latter were poor enough, but, as Staff-Sergeant Sheridan well knew, they were far worse in Shamshuipo, unimaginably bad.

Thomas was faced at an early stage with one of the great dilemmas of the occupation: anyone is free to put themselves at risk but how far is it justified to bring others into jeopardy? In his autobiography Dr. Selwyn-Clarke describes how he and two ‘volunteers’ nearly got caught while stealing (as the Japanese would have seen it) a dentist’s chair and some surgical instruments and medical drugs from a warehouse that had been adorned with a notice saying ‘property of the Imperial Army – looters will be summarily shot’. He’d calculated they had 12 minutes before the next patrol, but was horrified to realise that there’d been a change of schedule and a party of sailors was marching towards them. Was it worth risking two lives, as well as his own, for the things they were after? No, it wasn’t  But if that logic had been followed through no-one would have done anything illegal or risky because it was almost impossible to do so without putting others in danger –  sometimes people’s families were punished for their actions, those sleeping next to POW escapees were brutally interrogated, one person breaking Japanese law could get the whole group punished, as Sheridan feared here, and so on.

My intention is not to take sides – if I had to, I’d support Staff-Sergeant Sheridan – but to point to one of the worst dilemmas of the occupation. It was dreadful enough having to put yourself in danger, but how should one act when it was almost impossible to carry out works of relief and resistance without threatening the safety of others?

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