Seventy Years Ago Today: A Personal Account

Not long after 2 pm. on October 29, 1943 – seventy years ago today – 33 lives were brought to a brutal end on Stanley Beach.1

32 men and one woman were executed by beheading. Their trial had been held in two sessions on October 19, and the interpreter provided by the court made little effort to convey to the prisoners what was going on, but at one point he did offer a rather feeble English summary of the proceedings. William Anderson, the Stanley Camp Quartermaster and one of those in the dock during the afternoon session, was able to pick up the gist of the accusations:

Anderson’s understanding was that it was primarily to do with the prisoners hindering the Japanese in bringing about a new order in Asia.2

Yes, indeed. They had all done so through contact of one sort or another with the resistance organisation, the British Army Aid Group. Most had been agents, but the one military man on trial that day, Captain Mateen Ansari, of the 5/7 Rajputs, had been a POW in Ma Tau-wai Camp and some of his fellow prisoners had been caught when a plan to free him was betrayed (it’s possible that the whole idea was conceived by the Japanese in order to trap members of the resistance).

By the end of October 19, 33 people received the death penalty; the rest, including William Anderson, got 15 years – this was simply a slower death sentence, even when it was reduced to ten later, as conditions in the Kempeitai jails were so bad that British prisoners who came out after two years were barely clinging on to life even though they’d received extra rations both openly and through smuggling. But happily most of this group were alive at the end of the war – although not David Edmondston, the number two at the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, who died of malnutrition and medical neglect in 1944.3

Like so many others my parents made the decision not to pass on the burden of suffering by telling their children about what happened to them during the war; my mother occasionally spoke about the (relatively!) lighter side of things – for example, finding a centipede in her shoe and calling my father to kill it – while my father was occasionally forced by the pressure of emotion to speak about his grimmest experiences.

It was clear to me even as a child that for him the worst time of the Hong Kong war was not the hostilities, with their constant threat of sudden death from the incessant shelling and frequent air raids, but the occupation that followed. And it wasn’t the hunger, the cramped conditions, the lack of decent sanitary and washing facilities, or the restricted life he was forced to lead that had scarred him the most: it was the fear of the Kempeitai.

No wonder. To be arrested by the Gendarmes was to enter a world of deprivation and terror that it’s hard for those of us who have known only peace-time conditions to even imagine. The cells themselves were torment enough: prisoners were packed tightly into rooms far too small for their number, the stench was foul – one or more of them was almost certainly suffering from dysentery – and it was not unknown for newcomers to find themselves forced to squeeze in next to the body of a poor wretch who had succumbed to mistreatment and neglect. In the Happy Valley Gendarmerie – where my father would probably have been taken if arrested during his time of greatest risk4 when he was outside Stanley, living in the French Hospital in Causeway Bay and baking bread for the hospitals – no bedding was provided – you had to wait for a cell-mate to die, be transferred or released.5 Some cells had natural light, others didn’t.

The food, as I’ve already indicated, was not enough to keep anyone alive for long: it seems to have varied at different times and in different prisons, but I think that a typical daily ration would be about 12 ozs of rice, salt, and a little vegetable marrow. But the inmates couldn’t expect even this much food to be served regularly: the gendarmes used starvation to ‘soften up’ prisoners, so interrogation would often take place when the last meal was nothing but a distant memory; sometimes longer periods of food deprivation were applied.6 For similar reasons, at least one prison was kept deliberately cold. In most cases prisoners were expected to spend much of the day cross-legged, silent and staring at a wall. Beatings were handed out for the slightest deviation.

And those already enduring these unendurable conditions lived with the pain of previous interrogations and the fear of future ones. I do not intend to describe these hideous occasions in any detail; suffice it to say that a session might begin with a beating (an amazing variety of objects were used for this) and proceed to worse measures if this failed to get the desired co-operation.

It’s probable that most or all of the people who died on October 29 had been interrogated under torture. I argued in a previous post7 that in general the Kempeitai, although brutal, treated ‘European’ prisoners with a great deal of procedural scrupulosity: they were not routinely tortured, but they almost always were if they were suspected of spying, and there’s evidence that the severity and extent of the brutality depended on the degree of involvement in espionage suspected by the interrogators. Most of those today were not ‘European’ anyway, and those who were, had taken part in activities such as military espionage, the operation of secret radio sets, and the passing on of messages, some of which were from the BAAG.

The 33 who died reacted differently to this ordeal. Two are known for certain to have been unbreakable and to have told their tormentors nothing – I think it highly probable that many more also said nothing, or only admitted to what was already known, trying to give the impression of providing information without putting anyone else at risk. We can be sure that, whatever was wrung out of them, almost nobody told everything they knew: there were many people involved in resistance whose activities were known to some of these prisoners, who were never suspected. Only one man is believed to have broken completely and attempted to spy on his fellows for better conditions and in the hope of a reprieve (which was not granted). Those who are certain they would never have done the same may wish to condemn him.

Most of those who died seventy years ago today had been arrested in the period from late April to late June – as far as I know at the moment Charles Hyde was the first and Thomas Monaghan the last, but I have very little information about the arrests of the non-Europeans. The main investigations ended around August 19.8 After that, the prisoners were probably left to await trial and then the carrying out of the sentence.

At about 2 pm on October 29 the condemned were taken out of solitary confinement and assembled inside Stanley Prison. They were refused a visit from a priest, but were allowed five minutes together to compose themselves. Captain Mateen Ansari gave an impromptu talk:

We will die strong and healthy for an ideal; not as traitors but nobly in our country’s cause.9

Wong Shiu Pun, who had worked at St. Paul’s College, led prayers. Then it was time to go.

The prisoners had their hands tied behind their backs and were roped together in groups of three. They were taken to the prison’s administration compound and put into the large prison van.10 They set off on the short drive to Stanley Beach soon after 2 pm; the blinds were pulled down, and the van was followed by two Japanese staff cars.

The American Chester Bennett was briefly interned in Stanley before being released to buy extra food for the Camp. War reporter Hal Boyle tells the next part of the story from Bennett’s perspective:

He gave the note ((a final message to his wife)) to a friendly guard and soon it was time to go. The crowded black van pulled out from the steel gates of Stanley Prison and moved slowly down the rough, narrow road leading to the small bay where British redcoats had planted the empire flag more than a hundred- years before.

As the van passed a number of internees toiling up the slope someone put his face up to the rear wire grill and called out: “Goodbye boys. We shan’t be seeing you again.” ((Believed to be Scott or Fraser.))

At the bottom of the hill the prisoners were forced to dismount and follow a trail winding around the edge of the bay. It must have been torture at every step to Chester Bennett. Rope burns on his left leg had become badly infected, the leg had become gangrenous and needed amputation. But he walked upright and limped only slightly. To all outward appearances he was utterly calm. The prisoners marched in single file to a small clearing. Ringing the hills around them were scores of Chinese gravestones. Before them in the center of the clearing the prisoners saw two trenches dug by Indian warders and knew how they were to die.11

They were all blindfolded. Captain Ansari, Walter Scott and John Fraser ward led forward first. The others followed, also in groups of three. The whole business lasted about an hour. The beheadings began, but the executioner tired and the swords lost their sharpness: some of the victims had to be finished off with bullets – some internees heard the shots and believed that the prisoners had all been executed by firing squad. Anne Ozorio describes the unflinching demeanour of Wong Shiu Pun as these dreadful events were playing themselves out:

By the time it came to him the swords were blunt. But he kept praying.12

There was no intention on the part of the executioners to cause their victims additional suffering; just incompetence and indifference.

There were 33 victims in total: seventeen Chinese, eight British, four Indians, one Canadian, one American, one Portuguese, one Eurasian. 32 were male; Lau Tak Oi, the wife of resistance leader David Loie, was the only woman.13

After it was all over, the Indian guards filled in the graves, while the Japanese became very serious, and bowed deeply as water was sprinkled on the graves. Then they returned to the prison for a raucous celebration.14

October 29, 1943 was one of the few war-time experiences my father spoke to me about. He could obviously never forget this day on which he was with Mrs Florence Hyde while her husband Charles was being executed on Stanley Beach.

My memory is that my father told me that the victims were forced to dig their own graves. I now know this wasn’t true – the graves were pre-dug, but I don’t know if the mistake in memory was mine or my father’s. And did he actually watch the executions? My memory is that he told me he did, but I find it hard to believe that Mrs Hyde chose to do so. I’ve read a few accounts that link her death from bowel cancer in 1944 to the terrible events of 1943 – her husband’s arrest, brutal torture and execution. But none of these accounts mention that she actually watched the beheading. Nevertheless, Wright-Nooth makes it clear that some internees did see the prisoners leave the van and march with their guards to the place of execution, and most sources agree that this could be seen from some parts of the camp. I’ve never read a first-hand account written by anyone who claims to have actually witnessed the beheadings, though, so I have an open mind as to whether my father actually saw them or if my memory betrayed me.

He had presumably got to know Mrs Hyde during the time they shared in Stanley Camp’s Bungalow D, although it’s possible the acquaintance began before they were sent to Stanley, when he was living in the French Hospital and she in the Sun Wah Hotel. He must also have felt a strong affinity with another of the brave men who went to their deaths today – his fellow Lane Crawford employee Frederick Ivan Hall. Mr Hall was in the company butchery department and at some point was living almost next door to my father in Morrison Hill Road (they probably had company flats). They were both also in the Lane Crawford bowls and cricket teams. And both had married Eurasian women earlier in the occupation.

The events of that day still haunted my father more than twenty years later. Why bring them back now? There are many reasons, one of them to me absolutely compelling.

While awaiting execution Douglas Waterton scratched a calendar on the walls of his cell – every morning he wrote the date and crossed out – ‘EXECUTED DATE CALENDER15 STOPS’.

Mr Waterton also recorded some basic facts:

ARRESTED STANLEY CAMP JULY 7 1943
COURT MARTIALLED OCTOBER 43 AND CONDEMNED DEATH
NO DEFENCE

His fellow prisoner, William John White, did something similar: he inscribed all the names he knew of the condemned with sometimes a little information – for example, after Alexander Sinton’s name he put ‘SD’ for Sanitation Department. (Both of these document can seen at the alternative version of this post:
http://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=865422869407099982#editor/target=post;postID=5702523406503006879;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=0;src=postname)

These men, and I’m sure the 31 others who died alongside them, wanted their story to be told. In the grimmest of circumstances, with a hope of survival gone, they began the process of historical recording that those of us who live in the world made possible by their courage and sacrifice must continue in humility and gratitude. Thank you for reading this post.

1 For some of these people see:

https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2012/03/31/alexander-christie-sinton/

https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2012/08/07/thomas-christopher-monaghans-resistance-work/

https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2012/04/20/charles-hydes-resistance-work/

https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2011/11/16/chester-bennett-the-american-hero-of-hong-kong/

https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/10/14/lau-tak-oi-gladys-loie/

2 George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 182.

3https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/1944-4-two-deaths-a-move-and-a-release/

4February 1942 to May 1943.

5http://gwulo.com/node/8235

6https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2011/11/16/part-4-of-hal-boyles-series-on-chester-bennett/

7https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/how-did-the-kempeitai-treat-british-civilians-in-hong-kong/

8Wright-Nooth, 1994, 177.

9 Wright-Nooth, 1994, 186.

10Wright-Nooth, 1994, 186.

11https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2011/11/16/part-4-of-hal-boyles-series-on-chester-bennett/

12https://www.facebook.com/groups/308617469269780/

13https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2013/07/17/the-executions-of-october-29-1943-update/

14Wright-Nooth, 1994, 187.

15 Sic.

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2 Comments

Filed under British Army Aid Group, Charles Hyde, Chester Bennett, Hong Kong WW11, John A. Fraser, Portuguese in Hong Kong, Stanley Camp

2 responses to “Seventy Years Ago Today: A Personal Account

  1. Carol Honaker

    Hi again. This is carol ann bennett honaker. I cannot find our previous comments. I was so excited hearing from you about my father, Chester Bennett. I am happy to give you any information on my mother, Elsa. Can you email me, so that I will be able to locate it more readily? That would be much appreciated. Thank you. Thank you for these amazing articles from the bottom of my heart. They mean so much to me, though painful at times. Bittersweet.

  2. Dear Carol Ann,
    I’m sorry but I don’t have your email. It seems that no address is provided when a comment is made. My email is at the bottom of the About page, where you’ll also find your original comment and my reply:
    https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/about/

    I’ll also leave this reply on that page and in the Comments on the article about your father. If you would be kind enough to email me I would be delighted to ask some questions about your mother.

    I appreciate your generous words greatly. I realise that there must be pain for you as well as immense pride in both your parents. Thank you for confronting the pain and the more I have learnt about them the more there seems to me to be proud of.
    Brian

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