Category Archives: Charles Hyde

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

Doris Cuthbertson

Note: This post should be read with

https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/the-free-french-in-hong-kong-2-raoul-de-sercey/

All unattributed quotations are from the statement of made by Raoul de Sercey on June 2, 1944 to the British Army Aid Group. This statement is part of the Ride Papers (held at the Hong Kong Heritage Project) and it was kindly sent to me by Elizabeth Ride.

The relief work of Dr. Selwyn-Clarke, financed by money raised by the uninterned bankers under the leadership of Sir Vandeleur Grayburn, is well-known. But less is known about some of the efforts that supplemented this, and which continued after his arrest on May 2, 1943. In today’s post I tell a pleasingly multi-cultural story of humanitarian co-operation involving one Australian woman, two Swiss, a Frenchman, several Portuguese families, a Chinese man and woman and three British. It should be remembered that almost every act described in this post carried the risk of imprisonment, torture or even death, and that no-one  but the three British (assuming they were in fact English) could have been confident they faced no ethnic or national prejudice in pre-war Hong Kong.

Doris Mabel Cuthbertson was born on August 27, 1897 in South Australia.[1] She worked as a secretary until after her mother died in 1930, then took a job in England. From there she moved to Shanghai, working for the shipping company Jardine Mattheson.[2] Ironically she went to Hong Kong seeking refuge from war.

On August 15, 1937 the British Government took the decision to evacuate women and children living in Shanghai to Hong Kong because of the outbreak of hostilities between Japan and China in the previous month. Miss Cuthbertson is documented as one of the trained nurses who helped the doctor in charge at a clinic for the evacuees. [3] She stayed in Hong Kong as private secretary to Jardine’s managing director, J. J. Paterson.

During the hostilities she worked for the Food Control Unit. After the surrender she was held in the Nam King Hotel before being sent to Stanley Camp.[4] Most of what we know about what happened thereafter is contained in a statement made to the British Army Aid Group on June 2, 1944 by the French national Raoul de Sercey, who escaped from Hong Kong on April 23.

Soon after the surrender, Mr. de Sercey managed to send some parcels to his friend J. J. Paterson, Jardine’s managing director and now a POW,  and to Jardine’s staff in Stanley, such as D. L. Newbigging and Doris Cuthbertson herself. In the early months his efforts were focused on Stanley, as ‘the situation was reported as appalling’. The Jardine company history mentions Henry Lo and other Chinese staff as also having taken part in courageous relief efforts.

What seems like harmless humanitarian work was in fact highly dangerous: parcels could only be sent in through the Japanese, and the sender’s name and address had to be supplied.  Any Chinese, Indian or ‘third national’ (European neutral) who sent too many was likely to be suspected of pro-Allied sympathies and questioned by the Kempeitai. This could lead to torture, imprisonment and death.

Mr. de Sercey realised he couldn’t give the required assistance to Jardine Matheson’s former employees: he was already looking after over 40 members of the Chinese Maritime Customs, and others; he did not, moreover, as someone who wasn’t a company member, have the authority to raise funds in its name. To better meet the needs of Jardine’s staff, he decided to ‘guarantee out’ Miss Cuthbertson. ‘Guaranteeing out’[5] was the system whereby people were allowed out of Stanley (and much more rarely Shamshuipo) if a neutral would promise to support them financially and guarantee that they would not act against Japanese interests (but see below).

Mr. de Sercey explained why he’d chosen her:

As Private Secretary to MR PATERSON I had had opportunity to know of her excellent qualities as an organiser, and knew that she had probably the most complete knowledge of the staff in the firm.

Guaranteeing her out wasn’t a smooth process:

The story of MISS CUTHBERTSON’S release was, as usually with the Japanese, a mixture of dramatic and grotesque events…but she finally came out of Stanley on the 12 September, 1942 with the last batch of internees allowed out.

 It seems she was released along with the members of the Maryknoll religious order: https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/guaranteeing-out-the-evidence-of-the-maryknoll-diary/

I may point out here that MISS CUTHBERTSON has not had to sign any undertaking towards the Japanese authorities besides signing on her pass which is exactly the same as that delivered to neutrals in HONG KONG. The only difference is that below the stamp indicating her Australian nationality is added in Japanese the rather surprising remark ‘Semi-Enemy’.

As soon as she was out, she began making plans for her work.  Through Charles Hyde[6], who seems never to have been far away when works of relief or resistance were taking place, she got back in touch with Mr. Newbigging in Stanley, and presumably through his authorisation she was given $7,000 in instalments. At the same time, Mr. de Sercey got in touch with Selwyn-Clarke, who agreed to let him send in as many parcels as he wanted under the auspices of the Informal Welfare Committee – as far as de Sercey could work out, this seemed to consist solely of Selwyn-Clarke!

Miss Cuthbertson also carried out relief work for Jardine Mattheson employees in Shamshuipo. She asked the company’s Portuguese staff for help, and every one responded unreservedly, sending in a parcel for a ‘foreigner’ alongside each one they sent to a family member:

The effort was thus made less conspicuous, a very important point, since, the money being obtained through forbidden channels, had the Japanese become wise to it, serious consequences for all concerned would have certainly taken place.

Dr. Selwyn-Clarke was arrested on May 2, 1943. Mr. de Sercey’s statement adds to our knowledge of what happened to relief efforts after that date.

Miss CUTHBERTSON had to stop sending parcels in large number into Stanley but continued with the funds at her disposal to send the SHAMSHUIPO fortnightly ones until September, 1943, when a new wave of terror and the lack of funds forced her to stop temporarily.

My guess is that this new ‘wave’ involved a crackdown on the Portuguese community, possibly in the wake of the discovery of incriminating documents at the Portuguese social centre, the Club Lusitano.

At a time Mr. de Sercey was unable to remember exactly, but was probably in late 1942 or the first part of 1943, funds were sent from Shanghai to the International Red Cross for Jardine employees. After consultations between Miss Cuthbertson and the Red Cross, most of it was delivered in cash to internees and POWs. Miss Cuthbertson at all times acted with Mr. Zindel, the Red Cross representative in Hong Kong and received unreserved support from him.

The situation for Jardine’s staff appeared gloomy in autumn 1943. Funds were exhausted, the man sending the funds from Shanghai had been interned, and the authorities were tightening their control over all activities of any sort. The Japanese, wrote de Sercey, made monetary transactions difficult to increase their control over individuals; their first question in an interrogation was ‘How much money have you got?’ and they always wanted to know where it had come from. Fortunately Miss Cuthbertson got to hear that arrangements had been made in Shanghai for a Swiss firm, presumably  the chemical company CIBA, to supply money to Mr. Newbigging through their Hong Kong representative Walter Naef. She got in touch with Mr. Naef and these two, together with Rudolf Zindel and Newbigging, seem to have negotiated division of the cash, Miss Cuthbertson obtaining funds for the Argyle Street Camp and the Bowen Road Military Hospital.

Thanks to Mr. Naef, who’d provided about 10,000 Military Yuan by the time Raoul de Sercey escaped, and the help of Mr. Zindel, Miss Cuthbertson was able to continue to provide cash regularly to Shamshuipo and Stanley and parcels to Argyle Street and Bowen Road. Mr. de Sercey went on to point out that the arrangement  involving Walter Naef was most dangerous for all parties; it breached Japanese exchange regulations and if found out would have lead to ‘serious if not fatal trouble’. In other words, all those who got involved in this humanitarian activity were risking death.

Mr. de Sercey went on to make some suggestions, arrived at after consultations with Miss Cuthbertson, for further Jardine’s relief efforts. He says that he’d left some money with her for personal needs, but with the sky-rocketing cost of living this wouldn’t be enough and he suggested adding 800 Military Yuan to each remittance for her own use. If this wasn’t possible, he thought that Miss Cuthberston, who was now guaranteed out by another French national, would be allowed to return to Stanley. This is significant. Miss Cuthbertson had already gone through two waves of Kempeitai terror. after the first one – February-July 1943 – there were very few Allied citizens left uninterned in Hong Kong, and one of those helping her, Dr. Selwyn-Clarke, was experiencing months of brutal treatment in a Kempeitai cell. The second (in the final months of 1943) would also have come close to her: it hit the Portuguese community, and we’ve seen that she was working with Portuguese families to get parcels into Shamshuipo, and, as we shall see, her links were even closer than that suggests. Just after Mr. de Sercey’s escaped, another ‘wave’ of arrests began, as the Japanese, who’d previously not cared if people knew about events of Europe, were panicked by the D-Day landings (June 6, 1944) and started hunting for radios. Miss Cuthbertson certainly stayed out of Stanley during the first two periods, in spite of the obvious huge danger she was in. In a moment I’ll present evidence that she stayed out through the third wave of arrests and remained at her post until the end. She was an astonishingly brave woman.

View cuthbertson doris.jpg in slide show

Photo of Miss Cuthbertson courtesy of Christobel Botten

Mr. de Sercey ended with a tribute to Miss Cuthberston’s efforts: some Jardine’s POWs released from Shamshuipo said that company members there were the best cared for in the Camp.

Not long after liberation, Miss Cuthbertson met an Australian reporter, and her story was featured in the Melbourne Argus on November 6, 1945 (page 8). The report identified her as the sister of Mr M. R. Cuthbertson of Malvern.[7] The paper tells us that after leaving Stanley she’d lived with a Portuguese family in their flat and that her ‘parcel service’ went on for three years, which suggests she did remain out of Stanley until the end of the war. The reporter says that Miss Cuthbeertson told her she was helped by Helen Ho, who she considered ‘the heroine of Hong Kong’.  Miss Ho was getting parcels into ‘the Military Hospital’ –  Bowen Rd.[8]

Miss Cuthbertson also paid tribute to her house boy, Ma Ba Sun, who went everywhere with her for three years and slept outside of her door every night. On April 15, 1947 a ceremony was held at Government House to present various forms of honour to a small number of the people who had rendered courageous service to others during the occupation. Ma Ba Sun was awarded the British Empire medal. The citation reads in part  ‘in recognition of your loyal and devoted conduct in the period of the enemy occupation… when you, like many others who had been in domestic service, ran the greatest risks and performed services of incalculable value in aiding  those who had been interned by the enemy’. (China Mail, April 16, 1947, page 2).

I presume that at some point after the war Miss Cuthbertson emigrated to Canada, as she died in 1968 in British Columbia.[9] This must have been after February 13, 1949, as she’s recorded playing in a Fanling Golf tournament on that date (China Mail, February 15, 1949, page 12).

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Filed under British Army Aid Group, Charles Hyde, French in Hong Kong, Hong Kong WW11, Portuguese in Hong Kong, Selwyn-Selwyn Clarke, Stanley Camp

Marcus Alberto da Silva

The concluding moments of the trial played themselves out according to the best Hollywood clichés: the packed courtroom – even the corridor was full of people  waiting to hear the outcome –  the excited ‘ripple’ of reaction at the verdict, which meant the judge had to threaten to clear the court, the rush to congratulate the acquitted man… His co-defendant was duly declared innocent too, in spite of having fled in the middle of the trial (his current whereabouts were unknown).[1] It was a suitably dramatic ending to a trial that had gripped Hong Kong in late July and early August 1950. This was strange. The case was a complex one and the subject matter not particularly compelling: an alleged conspiracy to procure false evidence in an accidental manslaughter charge. Yet on the day when the ‘first accused’ appeared in the dock the account of his cross-examination was spread over three pages of The China Mail.[2]

The reason for this interest was that this ‘first accused’ was Marcus da Silva, arguably the colony’s most prominent lawyer, and, for those who cared to cast their minds back to those dark days, a war hero, who had courageously smuggled money into Stanley, spied for the British Army Aid Group, and then steadfastly resisted the violent attempts of Colonel Noma’s Gendarmes to make him incriminate himself and others.

Mr. da Silva died six years after his acquittal, at the age of 48; before the coming of the internet his story had effectively disappeared from public view but now the outlines at least are visible in contemporary newspapers from both Hong Kong and the United States.

Marcus Alberto da Silva was born on March 1, 1907 and educated at St. Joseph’s College. He was admitted to practise as a solicitor in the Supreme Court in 1930[3] and he joined Mr. D’Almada Remedios, who was then a partner with Mr. Leo D’Almada senior.[4] From 1933 onward he operated a one-man practice. He stayed in Hong Kong after the surrender, remaining uninterned because of his Portuguese nationality.

On September 23, 1945, shortly after his return from Free China at the end of the war, he was asked – or volunteered – to make a broadcast over Hong Kong radio to try to persuade people to charge a reasonable price for the goods and services they provided – the Government was aiming to restore something like pre-war prices to the Colony after the massive inflation of the Japanese occupation. In the course of his broadcast Mr. da Silva gives a general picture of occupied Hong Kong that’s very much in tune with all the other accounts in English, of the grimness and the terror of this period:

Then – Hong Kong by night was a dull, drab blot against a duller, drabber night sky.[5]

‘Fear’ and the ‘cracking of the whiplash’ were, he told the listeners, the weapons of Japanese rule:

 (E)ach and every one of us walked around Hong Kong furtively looking over our shoulders, afraid to talk, afraid to whisper – every vestige of freedom – that inalienable right of every human – taken from us.[6]

But Marcus da Silva hadn’t allowed this fear to stop him from acting. In late 1942 he approached the American Chester Bennett, who had agreed to forego the June 29 repatriation in order to remain in Hong Kong to help the Stanley internees with the purchase of extra food. Bennett had also been smuggling money into the camp and the Portuguese solicitor wanted to help:

Chester I want something to do. I want to help. I know you didn’t get out of Stanley for your health. Bennett gave him a grin and replied, ‘Marcus I’ve been waiting for you to come to me. I knew you would.’ And the big American businessman and the dark energetic little Portuguese lawyer teamed up to get money into Stanley.[7]

What follows – based on interviews with Bennett’s wife and da Silva himself – is important testimony as to methods used to raise money and smuggle it into Stanley:

They did it by having Chinese guards on food trucks entering the camp bring out promissory notes from people of standing in the community Bennett and Da Silva would then take the promissory notes signed by internees of known standing in the community. Bennett and Da Silva would then take these notes to rich Indian and Swiss merchants and asked them to advance Jap military yen in exchange  for promissory notes, pointing out that when the  Allies won they would be worthless anyway.[8]

 Most accounts I’ve read focus on the work of the uninterned bankers in raising relief funds, and it takes nothing away from the courage and resourcefulness of men like Grayburn and Hyde to realise that Chester Bennett and Marcus da Silva were active in this field too. Here’s the rest of Boyle’s account of their smuggling technique:

Da Silva would collect the money and put it in a small basket swinging from his arm – (figure illegible- perhaps 40,000) to 50,000 dollars at a time – and walk boldly past Jap soldiers to a book store around the corner. Bennett would be waiting in the rear of the bookstore. He would take the money to another rendezvous and they’d smuggle it into Stanley by putting it in the bottom of lard cans. This went on for several months They got hundreds of thousands of yen in to helpless internees – money that was translated into food and kept them going.[9]

Bennett had been a spy as well as a smuggler, working with Charles Hyde and collecting shipping data and either relaying the information by messengers or by sending it aboard a Chinese junk which pulled out of the harbour and passed it on over concealed shortwave radio.[10] Da Silva naturally wanted to join in these activities too, but I’m not sure from Boyle’s account how far this had happened before their arrest. A shocking development threatened their ability to do anything at all.

Some time in April they were brought news of Hyde’s arrest: a Chinese secret agent employed by the Gendarmerie came to Bennett:

‘The Japanese have prepared a blacklist in Hong Kong of people they suspect,’ he warned, ‘and you and Da Silva are both on it. You had better stay under cover.’ [11]

In an astonishing act of bravery, the two men discussed the situation and decided to ignore advice to go into hiding and then escape from the Colony: they reasoned that the internees needed the money they were sending in, and that the shipping information was too valuable to the Allied cause for them to stop. They understood that their arrest was now only a matter of time, and they knew that torture would follow and death would be the most likely outcome.[12]

Instead of going into hiding they decided to tighten and intensify their operations. Da Silva agreed to take over the main burden of Hyde’s espionage work while Bennett concentrated on smuggling funds to internees. The lawyer felt that the espionage ring had been too loosely organised and set out to tighten it.

In April 1943, not long before their own arrest, they designed an ambitious three-pronged resistance program and sent it off for approval by higher authorities. They planned to set up an intelligence section to gather information about the movement of shipping in and out of Hong Kong, to incite resistance among the local population against the Japanese –  partly by arranging the assassination of Chinese and Indian agents of the Kempeitai as a warning to other traitors –  and to retain the loyalty of Indian troops being used to guard the Canton railway by raising enough money to secretly provide each soldier with ten yen a month  to buy cigarettes.[13]

By 1946 Marcus da Silva had come to think that the enterprise was always doomed:

I believe now that it is impossible for Europeans to conduct espionage successfully by themselves in a predominantly Oriental community occupied by other Orientals…It is too easy for them to check your associates and torture them into giving you away.[14]

Before they received a reply as to their three point plan, both men were in prison.  At 7 a.m. on May 14, 1943 Marcus da Silva was arrested at his residence,[15] and later on the same day the Gendarmes came for Chester Bennett.   In his 1945 radio broadcast Mr. da Silva said a little about his experiences as a prisoner, held in a tiny cell in Mongkok Gendarmerie:

In May 1943 the Jap gendarmes took me in as a political suspect for a period of two months and they gave me everything they had in the way of tortures and beatings.[16]

He wasn’t exaggerating; to start with, he was whipped and accused of getting false Portuguese papers for his neighbour George van Bergen (also arrested on May 14) so that he could remain at large and act as a British spy,[17] a charge the solicitor denied even after the war. Howard Torr – a notorious Chinese assistant of the Kempeitai – tried everything he knew to break Da Silva, but he refused to admit to anything or to incriminate anyone else.[18]

He was also accused of being a British spy himself and in contact with Colonel Lindsay Ride; when he denied everything he was burnt above the right knee with a hot poker and subjected to other hideous tortures. When Torr threatened to bring in his younger brother Carl and his (Marcus’s) family, da Silva pointed out that he and Carl had been friendly with Torr before the war, and that the Chinese had even been an ‘occasional client’ of his.[19]

It was his religion – presumably Roman Catholicism – that kept him going during this unimaginably dark time. In his 1945 broadcast he said that in his suffering he almost came to feel that there was no God – ‘almost’ because without that belief ‘it would have meant sheer madness, the madness and insanity of blackest despair’. There are, indeed, a number of accounts of people driven to insanity by the squalid cells, the meagre rations and the brutality to be found in a Kempeitai prison. Others sought refuge in death.

Mr. Da Silva won his freedom in a remarkable way; unfortunately the details are not fully clear, but the general picture can be pieced together from a number of accounts. Boyle’s is the most straightforward: after all efforts to break him had failed, a Chinese Gendarme – presumably Torr – offered him his freedom for $5,000. The solicitor smuggled out this information to his wife, who approached Mr. Hattori, the Japanese head of the Foreign Affairs Department, who ordered da Silva’s release and the arrest of the Gendarme.[20] Colonel Noma, the head of the Gendarmerie at the time, gave a different version at his post-war trial for war crimes: he claimed that he’d ordered da Silva’s release because of insufficient ‘proof’, and that he refused an application for his re-arrest for the same reason. He took responsibility for the escape of this ‘very important spy’ and said so in a report to the Governor General.[21]

Another piece of the jigsaw is supplied by American author Emily Hahn in her autobiographical China To Me (1986 ed.,  417-8) Ms. Hahn, writing originally in 1944, tells us that she can’t give the full story, and it seems that Marcus da Silva’s name might have been one of the things she left out. In her account, Howard Tse (aka Torre/Tore/Tau/Tse Chi – I think the accounts that use these names are all about the same man), the Chinese Gendarme who tortured Mr. da Silva, had been terrorising the Portuguese community by arresting men and making their families pay bribes to get them out. These releases did actually happen, except in two cases in which Hahn thought Tse/Torre harboured old grudges – perhaps something had occurred to annoy him during the social and business encounters mentioned above, or perhaps Hahn was wrong and Torr knew that, unlike most of his other victims, Mr. da Silva really was a member of the resistance. In this account, it was Hahn who took details of Tse’s activities to Hattori – the Portuguese were the charge of the Foreign Affairs Department – and urged him to act.  Hattori was a decent man who did what he could for those he was responsible for, but he was understandably scared of the Gendarmes. Hahn pressed him and eventually, with great reluctance, he ‘went to bat for the Portuguese’, steadfastly staying at the wicket until the match was won. Tse fled and ‘his little private extortion prison’ was emptied. My guess is that both Mrs. Da Silva and Emily Hahn urged Hattori to act, and that Noma’s account, self-serving although it undoubtedly was, is probably also true: Hattori was a civilian with zero authority over the Gendarmes, who were a branch of the Army, and only someone as senior as Noma could have released Da Silva against the will of Tse’s Japanese ‘patrons’ in the Kowloon Gendarmerie. In any case, it seems that Torr ended up in prison, where he nevertheless continued his pro-Japanese activities.[22]

Whatever the details of his release, in November 1943 Marcus da Silva fled with his family to Macao. I don’t know if his escape had been planned long in advance, or if it was a response to the assault on the Portuguese community that began at that time: Charles Henry Basto was arrested on charges of spying on November 1 (he was executed the next year) and Portuguese bankers began to be seen by the Stanley internees in the grounds of Stanley Prison some time before Christmas.[23] In any case, his flight came just in time. The Japanese soon realised they’d made a mistake in releasing him and sent four agents to Macao on a fruitless mission to kidnap him and bring him back.[24] Eventually, the solicitor made his way to the safety of Free China.

The escape was organised by BAAG operative Mr. William Chong, who took him out along with another prominent Portuguese citizen, probably Leo D’Almada, Marcus da Silva’s old boss:

They both are very famous people in Hong Kong which I never met them before, I don’t know who they are because I wasn’t in Hong Kong long enough to know them, so I brought them out…to safety but I, my job, I never ask them for their last name. I never tell them who I am or what I am doing. All they know about me is “Bill” and they, ah, I don’t know this person is Leo and the other one’s Marcus da Silva… So they are very important people in Hong Kong. They were…captured by, tortured by the Japanese, and they escaped, and my job, I brought them home[25]

After his escape, Marcus da Silva sent a messenger to Mrs. Bennett suggesting she accompany him to the safety of Macao, but she declined, and was arrested in 1944 on suspicion of continuing her husband’s activities. She survived, and both she and Mr. Da Silva acted as witnesses in war crimes trials.

Mr. da Silva returned to Hong Kong from Kunming on September 9, 1945 and joined the British Military Administration as Prosecutor on behalf of the Crown in the cases of those accused of treason and collaboration. He had worked as a one-man practise since 1933, and he resumed this a few months after his return. At the time of his arrest in 1950 he’d built up an extensive practice with twenty staff [26]

In February 1946 he was given the honour of leading for the Crown in the committal proceedings that launched the Colony’s first war-related trials. Six men were involved, including the notorious George Wong (executed), J. J. Richards (15 years), and a Swiss man, a Red Cross official to boot, [27] – the accusations against a neutral European made the case an international sensation at the time (charges against this man were withdrawn under an amnesty, but Mr. da Silva, again appearing for the Crown, made it clear that he was still considered guilty, and the next week he was deported for life from Hong Kong). Two Chinese Gendarmes, So Leung and Tsui Kwok-ching, were accused of a number of outrages, including taking part in da Silva’s own torture.

As this and the subsequent trials – both for treason and for war crimes – proceeded, Marcus da Silva played a prominent part as prosecutor and as witness.  And then, in the strange reversal with which I began this account, he appeared in the dock himself, accused, along with film director Shao-Kwai Tam, of conspiracy to bribe a witness to give false evidence in the case of an actress, Cheung Dik-chan, accused of manslaughter as a result of a driving accident. The trial opened on July 24, 1950.[28] Appearing for Mr. da Silva was H. G. Sheldon, once a thorn in the side of Franklin Gimson in Stanley Camp, but now a pillar of Hong Kong’s legal establishment. The man Mr. da Silva was charged with attempting to bribe was disgraced Hong Kong policeman William Henry Cowie – variously described as a rogue, a rat and a man of evil reputation[29]– and Sheldon seems to have had little difficulty in destroying his credibility as a witness, and with it the Crown’s case. It seems that Marcus da Silva had a number of influential enemies in the legal world, or so Sheldon suggested, hinting that his client had been set up. Perhaps that had something to do with his hot temper: at one point he apologised to the court for a former outburst,[30] and I get the impression of a man of huge energy and dynamism who might seem rather intimidating to anyone standing in his way. It’s sad that the last years of Mr. da Silva’s life were darkened by this allegation, but the trial ended with his complete vindication and the resumption of his distinguished post-war career.

Marcus da Silva became ill at the end of 1955, but insisted on carrying on his work.  He died at St. Paul’s (‘the French’) Hospital in Causeway Bay on Monday, February 20, 1956. Two days later tributes were paid at a special sitting of the Full Court. The sub-headings of the China Mail report speak for themselves: Able Advocate-Sheer Hard Work- Great Courage-Penetrating Mind-Strong Personality-Wonderful Man-Rare Combination.[31] Acting Attorney-General Arthur Hooton, who had prosecuted him in 1950, said that no man ever worked longer hours – 80 hours were not a full working week to him – and that he never came into court unprepared as to either facts or law.

He was a man of indomitable courage, who had insisted on carrying on the fight during the war even when he knew the odds were completely against him. It’s not surprising he always expected to beat his illness and get back to work.


[1] China Mail, Saturday, August 5, 1950, page 1.

[2] August 1, 1950, pages 3, 4 and 13.

[3] China Mail, February 22, 1956, page 10.

[4]Hong Kong Telegraph, December 19, 1930, page 14.

[5] China Mail, September 24, 1945, page 2.

[6] China Mail, September 24, 1945, page 2.

[15] China Mail, June 26, 1947.

[16] China Mail, September 24, 1945, page 2.

[17] China Mail, June 6, 1947, page 2.

[18] China Mail, March 8, 1946, pages 1 and 5.

[19] China Mail, March 8, 1946, page 5.

[21]China Mail, February 12, 1947, page 3.

[22] George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 260.

[23] G. A. Leiper, A Yen For My Thoughts, 1982, 189-190.

[26] China Mail, August 1, 1950, page 3.

[27] China Mail, February 20, 1946. For the withdrawal of charges see China Mail, April 18, 1946 pages 2 and 5, and for the deportation, April 24, 1946, page 2.

[28] China Mail, July 25, pages 3 and 11.

[29] China Mail, August 2, 1950, page 3.

[30] China Mail, August 3, 1950, page 11.

[31] China Mail, February 22, 1956, paged 10.

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

Into Stanley

This is the American reporter Gwen Dew describing her feelings on arriving at Stanley after a relatively short time in occupied Hong Kong:

 I had dreaded this minute for so many weeks that I couldn’t quite understand the feeling of release that was flooding up inside me. I was entering jail, and yet I suddenly felt freed. It was not until I had more time to analyse this that I realized its meaning: from the time I was captured, on December 23, on through the months,  had been in constant contact with the Japs, my enemy; we were prisoners  in a small hotel and surrounded; when the others went to camp, I was directly in the hands of the Japs, with only a few other white people free in the city of a million; I was under constant surveillance, and there was always the danger that I might be jailed, mistreated, tortured or even killed on the street, and no one would know what had happened to me. Before, I had been one lone American among thousands of enemy Japanese; now I was among friends and allies. (Dew, Prisoner of the Japs, 122)

Thomas and Evelina arrived in early May and I think their initial feelings must have been very similar to those of G. A. Leiper, a banker who was sent to Stanley a month or two later. Certainly, Thomas’s first letter home is marked by the same admiration for the organisation of Stanley Camp:

(W)hen the banking contingent arrived at Stanley in the middle of 1943, we found a highly-organised community whose morale was high. We were told that, apart from a state of perpetual hunger and some anxiety regarding what might happen should the Americans or British mount a counter-attack on Hong Kong, life was at least bearable as long as one was sustained by the firm belief that liberation would come one day. (G. A. Leiper, A Yen For My Thoughts, 178)

Leiper adds that those who’d fared worse, or even died, were those who’d given up hope.

Thomas and Evelina must have been even more relieved- Leiper notes that many of the bank staff in his hostel would have been happy to be sent to Stanley in October 1942, when they expected such a move as punishment for the escape of two of their number (Leiper, 162) and, Thomas and Evelina, in the equally dangerous situation of people connected to Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, had also probably been longing to get out of  Hong Kong for many months before they were finally interned with the other enemy nationals.

For one, thing the food situation in Hong Kong was getting desperate.

At first, it had been reasonable enough, at least by the grim standards of occupied Hong Kong:

In some ways the position of these uninterned British residents was fairly tolerable. Every European…was allotted a monthly flour ration of 7lb – the same quantity as had been set aside for the privileged Indians... (Philip Snow, The Fall Of Hong Kong, 240).

But:

By the end of 1942 the food situation was dangerous; by the middle of 1943 it was desperate. People with bloated faces dragged themselves about on swollen feet, and the  corpses of some 300 famine victims were found on the pavements each morning and hauled off in carts….Some of the corpses lying on the pavements had their buttocks and thighs suggestively lopped off, and rumour insisted that the meat which bubbled in the woks of the roadside hawkers might well be human flesh. (Snow, 167)

Other accounts also testify to the occurrence of cannibalism as early as 1942 (Snow, 398; Leiper, 132-133).

Leiper states that the there were more methods of supplementing rations in the bigger community than in Stanley (Leiper, 142-143); in any case, one of the main advantages – perhaps the only advantage by the spring of 1943 – of life outside Camp had all but disappeared.

No wonder that diarist George Gerrard reported that Thomas and Evelina’s group were’ glad to be in here as conditions in town are pretty hopeless’ (entry of May 8, writing about arrivals on May 7).

It’s not certain how much freedom Thomas (and Evelina after their marriage) would have had to move about Hong Kong, as this varied between different groups. He tells us that after he was moved to the French Hospital on February 8, 1942. (British Baker article, viewable at https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2011/10/18/thomas-edgar-some-documentation/ ) he had to report back to his quarters by 6p.m. (and couldn’t leave them until 7 a.m).  At first the bakers were taken to and from the Qing Loong bakery by a Japanese guard, but eventually the American-British group of volunteer drivers who were already delivering the bread to the hospitals  were allowed to transport them. The same thing happened to the bankers who until July 1942 (see below) were escorted to and from work in what they called ‘the chain gang’ and were allowed very little opportunity to do anything without guards but then were allowed to march to and from work on their own and generally given greater freedom.

The bankers were sometimes able to escape Japanese control and visit friends at first, but after mid-1942 controls were tightened up (Liam Nolan, Small Man of Nanataki, 74) However, they were given ‘enemy national’ passes as a result of their good work and allowed to go to and from the bank unescorted, to shop in Central and to attend the French Hospital when in need of medical treatment (Leiper, 147-149 – however, as Leiper reports the movements of American bankers who had been repatriated by July this change might have come in June.)

All in all, there does seem to have been at least a small degree of freedom for most of those left in town. Emile Landau, of the Parisian Grill, reported seeing Charles Hyde (later to be executed) and other bankers at the grill for Sunday ‘tiffin’. (China Mail, January 8, 1947) and Emily Hahn claimed that, after the first months the Japanese relaxed their restrictions relating to enemy presence on the Peak and allowed free access to the (heavily guarded) Japanese-style tea pavilion close to the exit point of the funicular (tram).

All that is known about Thomas’s own movements is that on one occasion he was questioned by Japanese soldiers about his presence outside a place of interment; according to Evelina, they trusted his answer because he admitted at once to being English instead of claiming to be Irish. (The Irish were neutrals and so not interned.)

Leiper describes a development soon after he gained his pass in July that, if they became aware of it must have scared Thomas and Evelina: the Kempeitai began to stop foreigners they saw talking to each other on the street, separate them and ask them what they’d been talking about. If the replies were not in accordance with each other, they were taken away for further questioning (Leiper, 149).

Whatever freedom they had to move about Hong Kong was, in any case, always a mixed blessing. This is Gwen Dew’s account of the kind of thing likely to have been seen by the truck drivers who delivered Thomas’s bread in the first half of 1942:

They were free from camp – free to see two hundred Chinese die on the streets each twenty-four hours, from cholera, small-pox, dysentery, starvation, and Jap bullets.

Most of those left in occupied Hong Kong reported atrocities against the Chinese population. Soon after the Japanese victory, for example,  Gordon King, the dean of the faculty of Medicine at Hong Kong University, reported seeing six Chinese looters being lined up against the wall in Ice House  street and beaten to death one after the other  by Japanese soldiers with heavy bamboo poles. (Snow, 86). John Stericker saw looters tied together in such a way that, when they fell from exhaustion, they strangled each other. (John Stericker, A Tear For The Dragon, 138) Even when the Chinese weren’t subject to this kind of brutality, they were the victims of mass deportations, sometimes ending in abandonment on deserted islands and lingering death.

And there was also what Hahn calls ‘one of the cruellest of the occupation nuisances’ which eventually became ‘almost unbearable’ – the institution of ‘curfew’:

(F)or their own reasons the Japanese will suddenly call a halt to all traffic in a certain part of the city. You run into a policeman who tells you to stop in your tracks, and you do. There you stand until he tells you to move again. Or perhaps, if it is that kind of day, you don’t stand: you squat. Or maybe you have to kneel. (Emily Hahn, China For Me, 381).

It’s hard to believe that the streets of  Hong Kong could have given Thomas and Evelina much pleasure by the spring of 1943.  But the main reason for wanting to be out ofHong Kongw as the constant danger which was the lot of anyone working with Selwyn-Clarke. (See  https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2011/12/10/the-reign-of-terror-2-fear-in-the-french-hospital/). By February 1943 the Kempeitai were arresting people they thought might be brutalised into incriminating the Medical Director, and those ‘enemy nationals’ working alongside him were obvious targets. And on May 2, when Selwyn-Clarke and two or three other health workers living at the French Hospital were finally arrested, the remaining Allied citizens began the feraful ordeal of being held prisoner there until May 7 while the Kempeitai combed the premises for evidence of spying. In the short term, being sent into Camp meant that the Gendarmes weren’t going to arrest them at that time, but there still remained the question of what Selwyn-Clarke might tell them under torture. Thomas and Evelina must have felt both relief and continuing terror as they were driven down the once familiar roads through Happy Valley onto the Stanley Peninsula.

Neither Thomas nor Evelina were great country lovers, but surely even they must have responded a little to the beauty of Stanley and allowed it to contribute to their sense of relief at being away from the dangers of Hong Kong. This is G. A. Leiper again:

…Helen and I soon settled down to our new life in the bungalow. We revelled in the fresh air, the sun shine, and the beautiful sunsets, the birds, the fresh smell of grass after rain, and the sense of freedom, even although it was limited to the camp boundaries. The feeling of belonging to a large community of ‘oor ain folk’, where the Japanese were not so much in evidence made us feel relaxed, and we realised what a nervous strain it had been living for so many months in isolation in a city where everything had become alien to us and even menacing. (Leiper, 178)

All in all, it must have been a relief to finally be sent to Stanley, however worried they were about being incriminated by Selwyn-Clarke. But less than two months later the menace had followed them and the Kempeitai were arresting people again.

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Filed under Charles Hyde, Hong Kong WW11, Stanley Camp

Chester Bennett – ‘The American Hero of Hong Kong’

Note: My main source for this post is the work of the American war reporter Hal Boyle. In December 1945 Boyle wrote an article on the Japanese public prosecutor Kazuo Kogi in which he outlined Bennett’s story. He went on to write a seven part article on Bennett, under the heading ‘The American Hero of Hong Kong’, which was syndicated in the period January-March 1946. All seven parts are available on the internet, in different formats and from different sources. I provide a transcript of four of the articles here: https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2011/11/16/part-4-of-hal-boyles-series-on-chester-bennett/

I also use documents from the Ride Papers, which can be accessed at the Hong Kong Heritage Project, kindly sent to me by Elizabeth Ride.

 

Chester M. Bennett was born in California in the early 1890s, but there is some disagreement as to exactly when and where. One source says in San Francisco and on February 12, 1892,[1] while another has it on February 25, 1890. Oil City, a small town in the southern part of the state,  is given by another source as the place birth.

He studied law at the University of California, and practised for a short time, but then went to London as a commercial attaché with the American Embassy.[2] However, having started off on what might have seemed like a career of solid if somewhat unexciting professional activity he soon found ‘the movies’ more interesting.

Bennett’s career in film went back to at least 1917, when he acted in three short films and one longer one, The Lair of the Wolf.[3]  It’s possible he was an aviator in WW1;[4] if so, he returned successfully to his original career, directing 18 films between 1919 and 1926.[5] The last of these, a 50 minute effort called Honesty is the Best Policy was co-written by Howard Hawks, who later went on to direct Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and other Hollywood classics.

After gaining a technical grounding in film-making, he became a director for Vitagraph.[6] The 1920 US census already describes him as a ‘motion picture director’ and it also has him married and living in Los Angeles. In 1923 he was an active member of the Motion Pictures Directors Association.  He supervised the developing and printing of the films at his own laboratories. He was living in Hollywood and his hobbies included automobiles, golf and books.[7] He was divorced in 1924.

The 1930 US census describes him as lodging on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard. According to Hal Boyle, he arrived in Hong Kong in 1933 to look into the possibilities for animal pictures in the Far East.[8] However, one source claims he was present in Hong Kong in 1928, attempting to set up a production company with a Chinese partner; this came to nothing, so he launched his own business.[9] Given the 1930 census entry, either this source is wrong or Mr. Bennett visited Hong Kong in 1928, returned to California, and then went out to Hong Kong again.

Whenever he actually arrived, Bennett liked Hong Kong and made his home there, gradually building up a restaurant and juke-box provision business. He also worked for the brokers W. R. Loxley and Co. – although not mentioned by Boyle, this firm is given as his employer in the entry on the Jurors’ Lists for both 1939 and 1940, which also tell us he was living in the RuttonBuilding.[10] By the time of the Japanese attack December 7, 1941) he’d fallen he in love, with a Portuguese-Irish girl called Elsa Soares, whose father was a Justice of the Peace.[11]

After the fall of Hong Kong (Christmas Day, 1941), Bennett’s fate was the same as most of the rest of the Allied civilian community: at the end of January 1942 he was sent to Stanley Civilian Internment Camp to wait out the rest of the war. The rations sent in by the Japanese were neither calorific enough nor nutritious enough to maintain the health of the roughly 3000 internees, and it says a lot for Bennett’s standing in Hong Kong that, when the Japanese agreed that one person could return to the town to arrange the purchase of supplementary food with HK$300,000 that had become available to the internees, it was Chester Bennett who was asked to carry out this important task. His knowledge of the food business was one reason, but he must also have been completely trusted by the British administration and accepted by the internees as a man of integrity.[12] He was, it is said, ‘the man everyone in Hong Kong knew in peacetime’.[13]

On April 27, 1942 Stanley internee Barbara Redwood recorded in her diary:

Japs have offered us HK$75 each, and we have made out lists of what we want to buy and it’s hoped they will let someone in to town to buy it soon.[14]

There is much disagreement in the sources as to whether this money actually came from the Japanese; Boyle is probably wrong to suggest it came directly from the internees, but it’s possible that the ultimate source was the American Red Cross.[15] The diary of the Catholic Maryknoll Order, many of whom were interned in Stanley alongside their secular American countrymen, tells us what happened next:

May 8: Mr. Bennett, American, chosen to act as purchasing agent for our allotment of food, goes to Hong Kong and on his return announces that while in the city he got himself married.[16]

Elsa Soares was a courageous woman who supported him in his relief work: later she’d pawn the jewellery he’d given her to buy food for Stanley, while they lived simply together.[17]  It sounds as if the Maryknoll diarist thought that Bennett was buying only for the Americans, but it seems as if even at this stage he was purchasing on behalf of the whole camp.  On June 2 he was elected chairman of the American council,[18] the first incumbent the controversial Bill Hunt having been transferred to Shanghai. This is another sign of the high regard in which he was held.

On June 30 almost all of the Hong Kong Americans sailed for home – their government had arranged a prisoner exchange with the Japanese. In an extraordinary act of self sacrifice, Chester Bennett stayed behind. The British Colonial Secretary Franklin Gimson, had asked him to do so to continue helping the internees.[19]

Bennett used his relationship with his former barber to get himself sent out of Camp on parole – Yamashita, who’d cut his hair every week at the Hong Kong Hotel, was now a commandant of Stanley Camp (opinions differ as to whether Yamashita enjoyed a dramatic promotion or had always been a Japanese officer working in deep cover as a spy!) Again, it tells us something about Bennett that he had obviously won a degree of affection from a man whose nationality and line of work would hardly have commended him to most ‘white’ Hong Kong residents in the pre-war period, when hierarchies of race and class seemed so important. On August 11 he was allowed to leave the Camp alongside three Britishers,[20] probably under the guaranteeing out system:[21] one British Army Aid Group (see below) document claims the ‘guarantee’ was given by Elsa Soares. In any case, it would seem that he went to live in his wife’s  home, perhaps with other members of her family (KWIZ/41/4).

In June 1942, just before the Americans left for home, agents of the British Army Aid Group, a resistance organisation founded by escaped Hong Kong University Professor Lindsay Ride, made their first contacts with occupied Hong Kong. Ironically their first news of Chester Bennett was that he was ‘suspiciously intimate with the enemy’.[22] This opinion was offered by the bankers Fenwick and Morrison, who escaped in November 1942. I think that Mr. Bennett had almost certainly begun to raise money for Stanley illegally by that time, and he’d almost certainly begun smuggling it into the Camp as well –  my evidence for this is that Marcus da Silva approached Bennett to offer his help in late 1942:

Chester, I want something to do. I want to help. I know you didn’t get out of Stanley for your health. Bennett gave him a grin and replied, ‘Marcus I’ve been waiting for you to come to me. I knew you would.’ And the big American businessman and the dark energetic little Portuguese lawyer teamed up to get money into Stanley. [23]

We don’t know how long the American had been ‘waiting’ but it seems highly likely that he’d begun smuggling before the escape but that Fenwick and Morrison weren’t aware of it; in which case, his ‘intimacy’ with the Japanese was for the purposes of his illegal as well as his legal (food-purchasing) activities. It’s even possible that he’d already started spying for the BAAG when Fenwick and Morrison made their report, but its operatives didn’t realise this as the information was being relayed through Bennett’s ‘boss’ in the resistance Charles Frederick (‘Ginger’’) Hyde,[24] another of the bankers who the Japanese had kept out of Stanley for their own purposes.

Hal Boyle gives us a picture of the money raising work Mr. Bennett carried out with Marcus da Silva:

They did it by having Chinese guards on food trucks entering the camp bring out promissory notes standing in the community Bennett and Da Silva would then take the promissory notes signed by internees of known standing in the community. Bennett and Da Silva would then take these notes to rich Indian and Swiss merchants and asked them to advance Jap military yen in exchange for promissory notes, pointing out that when Allies won they would be worthless anyway.[25]

The system of smuggling messages et. al. through the drivers (rather than guards) of the Kowloon Bus Company was uncovered by the Japanese in the spring of 1943, and it’s possible that this was what led to Bennett’s arrest. As we shall see, the Gendarmes knew about his smuggling into Stanley, but they never had conclusive evidence of his spying.

Here’s the rest of Boyle’s account of the smuggling technique:

 Da Silva would collect the money and put it in a small basket swinging from his arm – (figure illegible- perhaps 40,000) to 50,000 dollars at a time – and walk boldly past Jap soldiers to a book store around the corner. Bennett would be waiting in the rear of the bookstore. He would take the money to another rendezvous and they’d smuggle it into Stanley by putting it in the bottom of lard cans This went on for several months They got hundreds of thousands of yen in to helpless internees – money that was translated into food and kept them going.[26]

 Boris Pasco, a bookseller of Russian origin who’d been in Hong Kong for over ten years, was arrested and charged with allowing his shop to be used for spying, so it seems likely that it was his premises, Brewer’s, where the exchange took place.[27] Pasco managed to convince the Japanese of his innocence, and thus survived to give evidence at the War Crimes trials. Bennett was also helped in his Stanley work by the Chinese Stanley Camp supervisor Mr. Chan Kai Wai.[28]

 As a BAAG agent Mr. Bennett’s main work was gathering information about Japanese shipping movements and sending the details to agents in China.[29] American submarines were able to take a heavy toll of Japanese ships partly thanks to this kind of work.

 In spring 1943, Bennett and da Silva were informed of Charles Hyde’s arrest, and soon after were told by a Chinese agent that their names were on a Japanese blacklist and advised to go into hiding. They discussed the situation and decided their work was so important that they had to continue it.[30] They planned to tighten their espionage ring, with Bennett focusing on financial issues, da Silva on spying. They also devised an impressively ambitious three part programme of resistance: 1) the organisation of an intelligence unit to spy on ship movements; 2) the assassination of Indian and Chinese agents of the Kempeitai (Japanese security police) as a warning to others and the first step in inciting wider resistance; 3) the maintenance of British  loyalty amongst the 2,000 troops used  by the Japanese to guard the Hong Kong-Canton railway by raising the money to give them a small monthly cigarette allowance.[31]  In April 1943 they sent a messenger into China with details of these plans, hoping to get approval from higher authority. It was their last message; the British Army Aid Group received notice on June 8 of the arrest of 173 people, including Bennett and da Silva.[32] Bennett had been taken by the Kempeitai on May 13.[33]  His arrest was part of a broad Japanese strike-back, beginning in February, against a range of ‘illegal’ activities in Hong Kong and the Camps.[34]

Four Japanese ‘gendarmes’ arrived at the Bennetts’ home one morning. They managed to hide the radio – another of Bennett’s ‘crimes’ was passing on war news to others –  and some internee promissory notes and messages from the Colonial Secretary, Franklin Gimson. The Kempeitai were eager to find an excuse to arrest Gimson, and the quick action of the Bennetts probably saved his life, as well as sparing the signatories of the notes arrest and mistreatment. The four gendarmes found nothing, but still took Bennett away.

 Over the next months he was starved and brutally tortured but he never revealed a single name of all those who had helped him in his work. Rope burns on his leg became gangrenous and the Japanese would have amputated if he hadn’t been sentenced to death.[35]Boyle gives the trial date as October 26,[36]  but according to former internee George Wright-Nooth it was October 19, and Bennett was one of the second of three groups of defendants.[37] The trial was a farce, with the verdicts decided beforehand and no defence allowed. The prisoners were forced to stand in the same place for hours on end, and beaten if they made any movement.[38] The Japanese were never able to prove that Bennett had spied on them, but they were confident he’d been smuggling money into Stanley. Marcus Da Silva thought they probably wouldn’t have executed him just for financial ‘crimes, but did so because of the arrival in September of Japanese ‘thought police’ from Tokyo ‘who put the harshest kind of penalties into effect’.[39] I’m not sure who these men were – the Kempeitai were sometimes called ‘thought police, and they might have been Gendarmes with a new attitude – but Mr. da Silva’s theory is plausible, as the Japanese didn’t usually condemn men to death without a confession or at least strong evidence of spying. In any case, it’s worth noting that Charles Hyde, in spite of being treated with great brutality, obviously never revealed his connection with either man.

On October 29, 1943 Bennett, Hyde and 31 others – Indian, Chinese, Canadian and British – were taken to the hillside close to StanleyBeach.[40] Bennett’s walk was upright, and he only limped slightly, in spite of what must have been agonising pain from his gangrenous leg. To all outward appearances he was calm. Two lines of trenches had already been dug in the small clearing. Black execution masks (or perhaps blindfolds) were placed over their faces, and they were told to kneel.[41] The beheadings were begun by one Japanese soldier and continued by others when he flagged.  [42] Eventually all the bodies were in the trenches and Indian warders covered them up.[43]  It was claimed that potatoes were planted on one of these communal resting places as a last gesture of contempt.[44]

In Stanley Military Cemetery, a little above the beach where he was executed, there is a memorial to Chester Bennett. The inscription reads simply British Army Aid Group, and when the stone was created there was no-one available to provide Mr. Bennett’s date of birth.[45]

In January 1944, a woman (her name’s illegible in my copy) who’d formerly worked for Chester Bennett at the brokerage firm Loxley’s escaped from Macao and brought news of his death in prison. In fact, as we’ve seen, he’d been executed long before, but many of the BAAG routes into Hong Kong had been smashed by the Kempeitai, and it seems that they weren’t aware of this. Marcus da Silva responded by pointing to the ‘heroic’ record and ‘considerable’ service of a man he called his ‘close personal friend’, and asking if anything could be done to rescue Mrs. Bennett – again, he seems to have been misinformed about her exact situation, but to have been quite right in principle, as she was arrested a few months later. If no funds were available, Mr. da Silva offered to sign a chit guaranteeing to pay the cost of the escape after the war.[46]

Mrs. Bennett hadn’t been allowed to see her husband for the five months after his arrest. On January 14, 1944, she gave birth to a girl. Marcus da Silva managed to get himself released and promptly fled to Macao, from where he sent a messenger to help her join him, but she refused to leave with such a young baby, and in any case didn’t think the Japanese would bother her after having killed her husband. She was wrong; the gendarmes came in June. They searched the house but failed to find Bennett’s papers, which she’d hidden in the garden. They took her anyway, accusing her of carrying on the work of smuggling money into Stanley. She was brutally interrogated and at one point starved for five days. She had to wash in cold tea. She never told her interrogators where to find her husband’s papers.[47]

One of the first to visit her after liberation was the Colonial Secretary, Franklin Gimson, at whose request her husband had turned down the chance of repatriation.[48]  According to one source, she eventually went to live in Los Angeles.[49]  

 Between August 2 and August 9, 1946 two Japanese civilians and a Warrant Officer were tried for their role in the brutality meted out to Bennett, Hyde and others. One of the civilians was also accused of mistreating Mrs. Bennett. The verdicts were complex and nuanced, with the judges obviously trying to assess the responsibility of the defendants in every act they stood accused of, but they were all found guilty of something. In two cases, their sentences, although not severe given the gravity of the charges, were reduced on appeal.[50] This was very different to the treatment experienced by Bennett and his co-defendants after their arrests.

 While awaiting execution, Bennett had heard that his wife was going to have a baby, whom he of course would never see. He wrote a final message of love, and asked his wife to bring up the child in her family’s faith ‘in which I now believe’[51]– this almost certainly means Catholicism. The letter was taken out by a friendly guard, while a Chinese fellow prisoner smuggled out his last message to Marcus da Silva: ‘Marcus I kept faith. I didn’t talk’.

No, whatever was done to him, Chester Bennett said not one word to implicate others. He knew what was in store for them if he did. But now his actions speak clearly, telling us of selflessness, dedication and total commitment to the cause of the good, of an unbreakable spirit that, in the most extreme of circumstances, displayed courage beyond imagination.


[3] Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0071667/

[20] http://sunzi.lib.hku.hk/hkjo/view/4401414.pdf: ‘Mr. Bennett and three Britishers leave at 3:00 p.m.’.

[22] Ride Papers, NA/343/170.

[27] The first reference to him I’ve been able to find is in the Hongkong Telegraph, October 13, 1928, page 12.

[28] George Wright-Nooth, Prisoner of the Turnip Heads, 1994, 159. Wright-Nooth wrongly calls him Chester-Bennett.

[32] Tony Banham, We Shall Suffer There, 2009, Kindle Edition, Location 1849.

[34] Philip Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, 2003, 185.

[37] Wright-Nooth, 180. Tony Banham accepts the October 19 dating: We Shall Suffer There, Kindle edition, Location 2061.

[38] Wright-Nooth, 179-180.

[40] Geoffrey Emerson, Hong Kong Internment, 2008, Kindle Edition, Location 1758

[42] Wright-Nooth, 187.

[46] Ride Papers: Marcus da Silva, Letter to Ride, January 13, 1944.

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Filed under British Army Aid Group, Charles Hyde, Chester Bennett, Hong Kong WW11, Stanley Camp