Thomas’s Card and the Pains of Occupation

When we think of the deprivations of occupied Hong Kong – both inside and outside of the camps – we tend to focus on the often filthy and almost always inadequate rations, the cramped living accommodation, the poor washing and toilet facilities, the lack of freedom and opportunity, the constant fear of torture or execution – and so on.

But there was also a more subtle form of suffering: separation from loved ones. This was particularly hard on husbands in Shamshuipo and wives in Stanley: the men were in the POW camp because, although civilians, they’d fought with the Volunteers, and no visiting between the two camps was allowed through the whole 3 years and 8 months. It was agonising to be no more than half a dozen miles away but in a different world and unable to meet.

The separation was made worse by lack of regular postal communication. Camp Secretary John Stericker didn’t receive a message from his wife back home until two years and three months after the surrender – and he adds that many were worse off, which is hard to imagine.[1] In this respect the situation of husbands and wives in the two camps was a little better, as cards that never left Hong Kong were more likely to get though and to do so in reasonable time.

One of the first priorities of the Hong Kong Government, as it slowly reconstituted itself after the traumas of war and defeat, was to get the names of survivors to people outside Hong Kong. When Gwen Priestwood and ‘Tommy’ Thompson escaped on March 19,[2] 1942 Priestwood was carrying a long list of the names of those in camp written in thin sheets of paper.

Not everyone’s names were on that list though. The archive of Lesley Macey[3] (kindly made available to me by his daughter Ruth Sale) reveals a heartbreaking story of Mr. Macey’s widowed mother quest to find if he’d survived the fighting; it involved her sending SAEs to the Colonial Office  trying to get news of her son’s fate. Mr. Macey was another of those kept outside to help Dr. Selwyn-Clarke so he wasn’t on the list smuggled out by Gwen Priestwood. He’d lost his mother’s latest address in the fighting, and, as a ‘paid companion’, she had moved from those addresses he did have. She didn’t receive any details of his fate until July and August 1943, when the Colonial Office informed her first that her son was at work in town and then that he’d been interned in Stanley. The only card from, Mr. Macey that’s survived was sent to her odd address in May 1943 and is unlikely to have arrived until late in that year or even 1944.

George Wright-Nooth tells us that the pain of separation caused him to make a mistake that could have led to torture and death for two men. In Stanley he’d been ‘running’ a Chinese resistance agent – gathering information, smuggling vitamin enhanced foods into Stanley Prison and so on. Both men had acted with professional skill and avoided detection, and when the agent thought that he was under suspicion, he decided to leave Hong Kong for Macao. Wright-Nooth tells us that, breaking with his previous exemplary caution, he gave the agent a letter to his mother to post from the Portuguese Colony. On reflection, Wright-Nooth realised what a big mistake he’d made, as if the agent had been caught with the letter, the consequences would have been catastrophic for both of them. He later consoled himself with the thought that the man would almost certainly have destroyed the letter speedily.[4]

Thomas was devoted to his family, to his mother, father, three sisters and two brothers. In the English male style of the time, he wasn’t overly demonstrative: as he was saying his goodbyes on April 7 or 8, 1938 before boarding H. M. S. Carthage for Hong Kong,[5] his mother had to tell him that it would be appropriate to kiss her.  The aunt who told me that story also confirms my sense that he wasn’t an obsessional letter writer either. But the feelings were strong underneath, even if they didn’t often find their way to expression, and it must have been a huge pain to Thomas to think that his family didn’t know if he were alive or dead. So he too took a risk, although not nearly as serious as that taken by Wright-Nooth, who would have found it very hard indeed to explain why a Chinese person was carrying a letter to his mother.

Over the spring of 1942 Staff-Sergeant Patrick Sheridan, a pre-war friend of Thomas, and one of the two military bakers who found themselves with unexpected civilian status,[6] was putting together a daring plan to escape Hong Kong and get back into the war. He left on June 4, rejoined the Army at Calcutta, and in November 1942 was gazetted with a Military Medal to honour his achievement.[7]

Years later one of his daughters was going through some previously unnoticed effects of her late father. She found a small collection of escape memorabilia, including a pass he was issued by the British Military Mission at Kweilin (Guilin) to expedite the second half of his journey through Free China. One of the items was this:

dad's card

That’s the address of Thomas’s parents on the top of the card. It seems that Staff-Sergeant Sheridan never returned to Hong Kong,[8] so, he must have taken the card with him when he escaped. The address is not that given on the Jurors Lists for 1939 and 1940 (82, Morrison Hill Road)  so presumably Thomas had the card printed either in 1938 when he first arrived or in 1941. He obviously gave it to Staff-Sergeant Sheridan (or perhaps had already given it to him), added the Windsor address and asked him to contact his parents. My guess is that if Staff-Sergeant Sheridan had been caught, the plan was to claim that he’d been asked to send a letter from Kwang-Chou-Wan in Free China, where he’d told the authorities he was going to get work as baker (in fact this small French territory was merely the first stop on his route to rejoining the British army).

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Pass Given to Staff-Sergeant Sheridan to Help Him Proceed Through Free China

It was something of a risk but it was one that Thomas was willing to take to get word of his survival to his parents. From everything I know of Staff-Sergeant Sheridan, if he promised to get a message through, the message would have been sent.

As it happened, the rumours of the American evacuation that were current on June 4 when the escape began turned out to be true. The first documented news of Thomas was sent to his parents by Charles Winter, one of the bread delivery drivers (the letter, dated August 18, can be read at News coming the other way was slower: Thomas was not to get word from his parents until the spring of 1943, the first letter he’d received for two years.[9]

Perhaps this form of suffering was no less powerful than the more obvious forms of pain I listed at the start.


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