Category Archives: Chester Bennett

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:


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:;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:

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


4February 1942 to May 1943.




8Wright-Nooth, 1994, 177.

9 Wright-Nooth, 1994, 186.

10Wright-Nooth, 1994, 186.




14Wright-Nooth, 1994, 187.

15 Sic.


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


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

‘Guaranteeing Out’: The Evidence of the Maryknoll Diary

Note: The diary of the Maryknoll Mission can be read online at

Some internees were able to leave camp through a scheme known as ‘guaranteeing out’. Emily Hahn explains:

There were around town quite a few British and or two Americans who had been, as we called it, ‘guaranteed out’ of Stanley by neutral friends. At one time Oda had had seemed quite eager to get as many people out of camp as possible, and if a Swiss or Portuguese or French citizen would sign a paper promising that his friend would not work against the Japanese and that his expenses would be met, these enemy nationals were permitted to come into town and live comparatively freely, as I did.[1]

Hahn goes on to say that most of these people were eventually arrested by the Kempeitai, some being released quickly, some held long term. I’ll discuss this claim in a future post.

Geoffrey Emerson tells us that about twenty people, including some Americans, left Stanley in April 1942.[2]  He notes another batch in the period after the June 30 repatriation:

 Following the American departure from Stanley camp, four Americans, one Dutch national and eleven British nationals were allowed to leave camp to reside in the city. They had guarantees from free neutrals.[3]

This second group must have included Edward Gingle, ‘Doc’ Molthen, and ‘Red’ Sammon(s) and Miss Dorrer, whose cases I discussed in a previous post.[4] They left Camp on August 5 alongside ‘some Britishers’, the group totalling 18 in all according to the Maryknoll  diary (Emerson’s tally is 16). The April group noted by Emerson is probably the one mentioned in the Maryknoll diary for April 17:

Two American women internees are called up on the “Hill” today and told that having been vouched for by someone in Hong Kong, they would be allowed to leave Camp within four days.

The Fathers themselves are keen to get out of Stanley as the first step towards reaching their mission posts in China:

Not to be outdone in the matter, we Maryknollers write a letter requesting that we be allowed to return to our residence in the Missions.

On April 20 they report:

A few Norwegians allowed to leave for Hong Kong; also the two American women previously mentioned.

Most Norwegians were treated as neutrals and allowed to stay out of Stanley until two of them escaped; the rest of them were sent into camp in February 1943. So perhaps these few Norwegians didn’t need to be ‘guaranteed out’ in the way Hahn describes. In any case, the diary for April 21 has four ‘neutral’ Maryknoll Sisters being allowed into town and going there about noon on the returning ration truck, which is probably the way most such people leftStanley.

On May 25 the diary reports two ecclesiastical departures:

His Excellency, Bishop O’Gara, finally gets permission to leave the Camp, as also Father Chaye, a Belgian M. E., and quite a crowd gather to see them off.

The Belgians were another group whose treatment varied: at first their bankers were held in the Sun Wah Hotel alongside the Allied nationals carrying out liquidation work for the Japanese, but they petitioned to be considered as neutrals and were allowed to live at places of their own choice as long as the Kempeitai approved of such residences.

The Maryknoll diary for June gives us the names of some more churchmen:

 1 — Father Haughey and Brother Bernard Toohill, Salesians, sign their papers and are allowed to leave Camp.

 5—Father Haughey and Brother Bernard and three Maryknoll Sisters, Sisters Clement, De Ricci and St. Dominic, leave Camp for Hong Kong and freedom, secundum quid.[5] Also six others.

On June 25 the Maryknollers are optimistic:

Rumor hath it that our papers or forms are now on “The Hill,” and that we may get final word any day now to pack up and leave for Hong Kong. Mr. Gunn, an American, and seven others, British and Portuguese, are advised they may leave Camp tomorrow.

 The Portuguese were another group who were usually treated as neutrals,  although they suffered terribly in a Kempeitai crackdown in 1943-44. Most of the Americans in town sailed away on the Asama Maru on June 29/30, so Mr Gunn must surely have left intending to stay in Hong Kong for the duration. One American who definitely did stay on after June 30 left camp on August 10:

Mr. Chester Bennett, our present Council Chairman, and three Britishers get permission to leave the Camp.

Chester Bennett carried out his official duties as a food purchaser while )muggling money back into Stanley and providing information to the British Army Aid Group. He was executed on October 29, 1943. (See )

On August 20 the Maryknollers signed their papers:

Seven months in Camp today and at last the good news has come: we get our call to sign our papers on “The Hill” at 9:30 a.m. These papers merely say that we shall do nothing against His Imperial Majesty’s Japanese Government if we are paroled, and we gladly accede to such a request. Accordingly, promptly at the appointed time, we:13 Maryknoll priests, Brother Thaddeus and two of the remaining four Maryknoll Sisters, Sister Dorothy and Sister Henrietta Marie, sign the required papers and are informed  that we may leave in a “few” days. Fathers Meyer and Hessler, with Sisters Eucharistia and Christella, will remain in the Camp to look after the Catholics.

 But things don’t happen as they expect them:

{August} 25—Usually after signing one’s papers for release, one is allowed to leave within four days, but to date we have received no further word, so we sit and wait until the Foreign Office gets good and ready to allow us to walk the streets of Hong Kong as free men again.

They have to wait until September 12 for the celebrations to begin:

What a day! We are to be released from our confinement and go back to civilized life! We toted our baggage in the morning down to the American Club Block A-4, and there at 10:00 a.m. it was examined, not too minutely, by the gendarmes. Nothing was confiscated, however. At about eleven o’clock the truck which brings the food out to the Camp backed up and the first group, consisting of Fathers Toomey, Troesch, Downs, Keelan, Siebert, Walter and Knotek, Brother Thaddeus and Sisters Dorothy and Henrietta Marie, got in. At the Depot were many of our friends to see us off and to wish us well. At 2:30 in the afternoon the second group, consisting of Fathers Tackney, Madison, Moore, McKeirnan, Gaiero and O’Connell, and most of our baggage, left.

 My guess is that their description of how they felt would apply to most others in their position as well:

 As we in the first group sped out of the Camp and on our way over the familiar winding road to Hong Kong, it was hard to analyze our feelings. We regretted leaving our many friends in Camp, yet were glad to get out to freedom. What would we find in Hong Kong?

But even now things don’t quite go according to plan and there’s what must have been a heart-stopping complication:

All went well until our truck reached the top of the Wongneichong Gap on the Happy Valley Road. Here there was a barrier and we were stopped by a gendarme, who demanded that we get out of the truck and have our baggage inspected and examined.

We were preparing to do this, when Mr. Yamashita, the young Japanese gentleman in charge of Camp affairs, who was sitting with the driver, got down and tried to explain the situation. It seems that the gendarmes had not been informed by the Foreign Office that we were being released, and the officer in charge of this post gave Mr. Yamashita an unmerciful tongue lashing while he, Mr. Yamashita, being a civilian, stood at attention, bowed repeatedly and never answered back a word. At length, when the officer ran out of breath, we were allowed to proceed, without having our baggage examined.

According to some reports that was the gendarme post at which Dr. Harry Talbot was searched on his way back into Stanley in February 1943. He’d been getting X-rays at the French Hospital and was smuggling money back into Stanley. The discovery of his cash – some say hidden under his bandages – led to the arrest and imprison of the bankers Grayburn and Streatfield, and the eventual death of the former from malnutrition.[6] But the Maryknollers get through safely, and we’ll follow them a little further to see the final stage in the process of being ‘guaranteed out’:

We then went into the city, stopping finally at the Queen’s Road entrance to the former Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building, one of Hong Kong’s newest and most imposing structures, and now occupied by the Japanese Foreign Office.

 Here they are given passes which will enable them to move with some degree of freedom around Hong Kong. Those passes secured by Dr. Selwyn-Clarke for the Protestant missionaries Mr. and Mrs. Collier said (in translation)  that the bearer was  ‘an enemy of good behaviour and therefore permitted to go about on the streets’.[7] The Maryknollers then have ‘tiffin’ at the Holy Spirit School – they’re overwhelmed at eating at a real table with real dishes – and then proceed to their new home, Bethany,[8] the establishment of the French Fathers at Pokfulam, where they meet the Belgian Father Chaye again. What was probably a pretty Spartan establishment seems luxury itself after Stanley:

Ourrooms were all prepared and we lost no time in getting under realcovers and settling down to rest, after such an exciting and memorableday.

File:HK Béthanie Front.JPG

Image: Wikimedia (see also

 To sum up: as our main source has been the Maryknoll Diary, not surprisingly most of the names of people ‘guaranteed out’ are ecclesiastical, and all of them are American. The secular names are Gingle, Molthen, Sammon(s), Dorrer and Bennett: Chester Bennett was executed on Stanley Beach on October 29, 1943 for his courageous and wide-ranging resistance activity and Gingle ended up re-interned, this time at the smaller and slightly more tolerable Ma-Tau-wai camp in Kowloon. I don’t know what happened to the other three, but Mythen and Sammon survived the war, as they are reported either attending or sending wreaths to Gingle’s funeral in 1960.[9]

But what of the non-religious of other nationalities – it is possible to identify any such people ‘guaranteed out’?  I’ll take up this issue in future posts.

[1] Emily Hahn, China To Me, 1986 ed., 388.

[2] Emerson, Hong Kong Internment, 1973, 63.

[3] Emerson, 1973, 64-65.


[5] ‘Secundum quid’ refers to a type of logical fallacy. The Fathers are suggesting that the ‘freedom’ in Hong Kong was strictly qualified.

[9] Accounts of Gingle and of his funeral are to be found in the China Mail editions of June 20 and June 23, 1960.


Filed under Chester Bennett, Hong Kong WW11

The Reign of Terror: Conclusion on the Stanley Peninsula

Thomas would never have claimed to be a master of words. Back in England after 1951 his main reading matter was a daily paper, at first The Daily Mirror  – later, as he grew more right-wing and the Mirror was dragged down by competition with the Sun, he switched to the Daily Mail. Otherwise, he contented himself with occasional copies of the Reader’s Digest bought at jumble sales, never opening a book.

 But he also knew it was not his grasp of language that was the reason for his inability to express his thoughts and feelings about October 29, 1943. On that day he was with Mrs. Florence Hyde while her husband was being beheaded on Stanley Beach, and the way he told his son about it, some time in the first half of the 1960s, conveyed both his continuing anger and his sense that some human experiences are beyond words.

Given the vast  gap between bankers and bakers in Hong Kong’s hierarchy-obsessed social order, it’s not likely that he knew the Hydes personally before the war. It’s just possible that Thomas and Mr. and Mrs. Hyde got to know each other during the period (January 1942–April 1943) when they were all part of the small contingent of Allied nationals left in Hong Kong– just over 100 men and a relatively tiny  number of women and children. Although they weren’t by any means able to move around as they wished, they were allowed some freedom: Emile Landau, owner of the Parisian Grill, saw Mr. Hyde regularly at Sunday lunch, for example.[1] However, it’s more likely that Thomas’s acquaintance with the family began when he and Evelina, Mrs Hyde and her five year old son Michael were all assigned to Bungalow D (in the Edgars’ case on May 7).[2]  They were there because Charles Hyde had been arrested.

 ‘Ginger’ Hyde was one of those bankers kept outside Stanley to help liquidate their own banks, and he’d had been taken by the Kempeitai on suspicion of a whole raft of ‘crimes’. He was, to his immense credit, guilty of them all: he’d been raising money to provide extra food and medical supplies to be smuggled into Stanley to help meet the desperate needs of the internees. He’d been listening to an illegal radio with another banker, Mr. L.  Souza, and probably passing the news around the community of uninterned Allied civilians. He’d been ‘running’ Chester Bennett and the Portuguese solicitor Marcus Da Silva, two of the most effective of the British Army Aid Group’s[3] agents in occupied Hong Kong. And he himself had been in contact with the resistance.[4]

According to John Stericker, Hyde was arrested on May 3[5], although other sources givean unspecified date  in April.  Marcus da Silva and Chester Bennett followed him into custody on May 14.[6]  During this brutal interrogation, Mr. Hyde became so weakened that the Kempeitai called in a doctor to examine him.[8]  It seems that he never named his two agents, as Marcus da Silva managed to convince the gendarmes of his innocence and was released, while Chester Bennett, according to da Silva, was executed purely on suspicion in the absence of either a confession or the kind of hard evidence that Hyde could have provided.[9]

While the grim process of interrogation and the gathering of evidence was going on, life continued more or less as normal for the other internees – except, as Jean Gittins later wrote, a Camp that had been stagnating under the twin curses of confinement and malnutrition, now found that it was pervaded by an ‘intense and nameless fear’.[10]

In August Thomas began collaborating with his old ‘boss’ Doctor Geoffrey Herklots;[11] together they managed to grow yeast cultures and hold up the rise of cases of beri beri, caused by lack of the B vitamins, in Stanley. Ironically, while this battle was being won, the husband of one of the other women in Bungalow D was dying of vitamin deficiency in the prison just outside Camp.

A Stanley internee Dr. Harry Talbot had been caught – probably about March 3 – trying to smuggle money back into Camp after being allowed out for treatment at the French Hospital (where Thomas and Evelina had been living at the time). After a few days of pressure from the gendarmes, Sir Vandeleur Grayburn, the most senior banker in Hong Kong, perhaps in the whole of Asia, confessed that he had been the one who provided the cash, claiming that he had wanted it divided amongst some of the Camp nurses. After a two week delay – probably to ask for permission from Tokyo to arrest such an important man – on March 17[12] the Gendarmes took Sir Vandeleur to Happy Valley Police Station.

 C. M. Faure – a former member of the editorial staff of the Japanese-run Hong Kong News, who some believe had used his position to signal to the prisoners as much of the truth about the course of the war as he could – had been arrested on February 18 and was in the Happy Valley station when Grayburn was brought in. He testified that Sir Vandeleur was detained in a dirty ‘cage’: you had to crawl on all fours to get into it, there were sacks on the floor – presumably as bedding – and each prisoner was given just one bowl and one blanket. There were ten people to a cell, and the stench was so bad the warders had to hold handkerchiefs to their noses when they entered. There was not enough light to catch the lice that infested every individual. Washing facilities were always inadequate and at times there was no water at all. The food provided was so scanty that Faure estimated he lost half a pound in weight every day. Grayburn and his assistant E. P. Streatfield (who had also confessed) were held in a ‘similar’ cage: the only difference was that at this stage the two bankers were allowed to receive food from outside.[13]

Grayburn was badly beaten, but he obviously managed to convince his interrogators that he wasn’t involved in anything like spying, as there is no record of him having been given the ‘water treatment’, which was generally used on people suspected of espionage, and he was eventually sentenced to 100 days in prison, about as light a penalty as the Japanese ever gave.

Stanley internee George Wright-Nooth saw him, being brought into Stanley Prison on April 13, handcuffed to E. P. Streatfield, and other internees sometimes saw him taking exercise in the yard. Lady Grayburn either went to Stanley voluntarily or was sent there soon after her husband’s arrest and she too was assigned to Bungalow D, from which she conducted a vigorous campaign on her husband’s behalf, and sent him in extra food and vitamin tablets. George Wright-Nooth, working with a Chinese agent, smuggled both letters and vitaminized chocolate into the prison for the banker.[14]

The food given to prisoners was not enough to live on: those Chinese who had no families able to support them died slowly of starvation. Survival depended on two things: having people outside with the money to provide extra rations, and the willingness of the prison authorities to allow the prisoner to receive them. The smuggled rations, and whatever food sent in openly that the Japanese actually passed on, were not enough to maintain Sir Vandeleur’s health. He was admitted to the prison hospital, a hideous place where many people were sent simply to die unattended, where there was no attempt to maintain even the lowest standards of hygiene, and where the rations were still smaller – Streatfield later estimated they were about two thirds of the ‘normal’ prison ration[15] – to discourage ‘malingering’.

An Indian warder, Kader Bux,[16] made repeated requests for medical attention for the prisoner, but was always refused. Eventually Bux – who understood better than anyone what he was risking – took Dr. Talbot (the man whose arrest had started the whole chain of events and himself serving a hundred days for his role in the affair) to examine the patient. Talbot saw him twice. The first time he had a high fever and was slightly delirious: the courageous Bux smuggled sulphonamide drugs into the prison. The next day Grayburn was comatose and seemed beyond help. He’d been admitted to hospital suffering from boils and because of insufficient dressing he was squeezing them out himself, which, in Dr. Talbot’s view, had given him septicaemia. Without drugs Talbot could do nothing.

On Friday, August 6, one week before the end of his sentence, Sir Vandeleur died. He felt much better in the morning, and his appetite returned. After his evening ‘meal’ he spoke to Police Sergeant Morrison – who was in prison for attempting to escape – of his travels in Norway  and of his brother in India. But, according to Morrison’s account, as he was speaking, he seemed to age suddenly. He made two unsuccessful attempts to urinate, finally dropping the tin provided for this purpose and collapsing. The weakened Morrison helped him into bed as best he could. Grayburn’s last words – before falling into a coma – were, ‘That was very remiss of me’. [17]

Image: Wikimedia Commons

His wife was never told of his illness or brought to see her dying husband. His body was sent into Stanley Camp, where doctors performed the best post-mortem they could under the circumstances and decided that the cause of death was malnutrition.

Meanwhile the ordeal of those arrested earlier in the year was continuing, in Stanley Prison and elsewhere. Throughout the spring rumours appeared and disappeared  in Stanley Camp about the fate of these prisoners, but the full truth was not known until after the war.

Brutal torture, probably of all those arrested, began at once. A few names were given: George Wright-Nooth, one of those with most to fear, stressed no-one ever blamed those who were unable to resist, not even the people they implicated. All the more wonder that a man like John Fraser, a senior government official, who was singled out for continual violent interrogation because the Japanese rightly suspected he knew more or less everyone involved in ‘illegal’ activities, never gave away a single name. It’s a tribute to all these men that nobody named everybody: for example, the Japanese were eager to find evidence incriminating Franklin Gimson, the leader of the internees, but he was never implicated, even though he was the one who authorised most important ‘illegal’ operations.

On August 19 the Japanese prosecutor, Major  Kogi, decided that he had enough evidence to secure convictions of all concerned.[18] The torture that the unfortunate prisoners had been undergoing probably stopped, and Pennefather-Evans and Whant, two police officers against whom no evidence had been secured, were released. The remaining prisoners were kept in ’B’ block of Stanley Prison awaiting trial.

The trial took place on October 19. Those who were going to be given prison sentences had had their fingerprints taken two weeks before; this procedure was not carried out on those whose deaths had already been decided on.[19]

The trial itself was a farce, with a dozing and inattentive senior judge[20] and a guard who saw it as an opportunity for more brutality: the prisoners were forced to stand in a line throughout the proceedings and beaten if they made the slightest movement. Charles Hyde and the Canadian T. C. Monaghan were beaten with a sword scabbard for daring to talk.[21]

Fraser was a physical wreck by this time, but, according to the eye witness William Anderson, this is how he conducted himself in court:

Fraser replied boldly and clearly, his voice ringing resonantly through the courtroom, that he alone was responsible, that he acted solely on his own judgement.[22]

There was one session in the morning, another in the afternoon, and at the end the pre-decided sentences were read out: death for the majority, including Fraser, and long prison sentences for the four others.

There’s another amazing thing about John Fraser. Anyone who, as a very young man, had fought for two years and more in WW1 – he was awarded a Military Cross in 1916 and added a bar the next year[23] –  had later been singled out for repeated torture by the Japanese, and had just heard a sentence of death being passed, might well be forgiven for feeling that they’d had rather a raw deal in life. But, as the prisoners sat down to eat their midday ‘meal’ together, Fraser seemed unconcerned by all that had happened, chatting in a relaxed fashion, looking on the bright side, and showing not one ounce of self-pity.[24]

File:John Alexander Fraser.jpg

John Fraser: Image from Chinese Wikimedia

After the war, he was awarded a posthumous G.C. for his almost unbelievable fortitude. So was Captain Ansari, although the full story of this courageous soldier cannot be told here. I suspect that if all had been known about the conduct of the other prisoners, more  awards would have been made.

On October 29 a van was seen driving towards Stanley Beach by a group of British children.[25] A voice came from the van; the simple ‘Goodbye, boys’ was the final message from this group to their fellow internees.

There is some disagreement as to what happened next. A number of sources claim the victims were shot, but what I think are the two best published sources claim they were beheaded. Hal Boyle, the American war reporter, writing in 1946, claims the beheadings were competently carried out and soon over, while George Wright-Nooth provides a graphic description of a process that, apart from in the case of the first three victims, was bungled and bloody.

Interned policeman Norman Gunning adds that some internees could hear the shouts with which the Japanese soldiers greeted each beheading.[26] Many sources claim that a number internees witnessed the scene – from Bungalow C,[27] from the cemetery, from close to the cemetery[28] –  but I have never come across the account of anyone who claimed to have done so themselves.[29]

Official confirmation didn’t come until November 22.[30] A short notice given to the Camp Secretary Franklin Gimson noted the punishments meted out with scrupulous ‘correctness’: there was not surprisingly no mention of the Chinese prisoners,  of the military man Captain Ansari, or of the civilians arrested in Hong Kong (the American Chester Bennett, the Canadian T. C. Monaghan and the – probable – Englishman Alexander Sinton) for whom Gimson had technically speaking no responsibility. Details were provided of the fates, whether prison or death, of all those arrested in Stanley Camp. It named those executed as John Fraser, Douglas Waterton,[31] Stanley Rees, Walter Scott, F. W. Bradley, and Thomas’s fellow Lane Crawford employee Frederick Ivan Hall. The notice also mentioned the fifteen year sentences given to the two (unrelated) telephone engineers James and William Anderson, and to the policeman Frank Roberts. The execution of Charles Hyde was also recorded, as was the ten year sentence handed out to D. C. Edmonston, as, although arrested in the city, their wives were in  Stanley.

No appeal was allowed in respect of those serving prison sentences, and the internees were forbidden any collective response to the tragedies, and no appeals on behalf of the prisoners were allowed. A few days later diarist George Gerrard summed up the general reaction to the news:

It was a terrific shock to everyone and the whole camp was depressed….[32]

Of course, diarists had to be careful: they would have been in enough trouble already if their records were discovered, without making things worse by expressing anti-Japanese feelings. Writing after the war, Professor Lancelot Forster, one of those behind Stanley’s sophisticated educational services, described the other side to the feelings in the Camp when the news was announced:

(W)e felt very deeply our utter inability, a that moment, to do anything about it. We had a sense not of defeat but of bitterness and anger….We felt that the Camp was a menagerie with wild animals as guards.[33]

Those same feelings of impotence and anger radiated from Thomas, who was more closely involved than most with the day’s events, when he spoke about them years later.

Marcus Da Silva, one of those who could easily have been amongst the victims on Stanley Beach, claimed the Japanese probably wouldn’t have executed Chester Bennett 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’.[34] I’m not sure who these men were, but da Silva’s theory seems plausible, as this group of prisoners seems to have been treated particularly harshly. Most of the messages smuggled in and out of Stanley involved health not military matters,[35] Grayburn, Talbot and Streatfield had previously escaped with 100 days in jail for their share in the ‘illegal’ activities, and the Japanese had radio experts who could have told them that the sets in Stanley were not capable of sending out messages, so that any contact with the resistance through such means could have been, at most, one way only. Seven civilians were beheaded, whereas only three soldiers were to lose their lives for offences similar in kind but much more threatening to Japanese interests.[36]

In less than a year Mrs. Hyde too was dead. She was killed not by a Japanese sword but by cancer of the bowel. Many internees would have agreed with Jean Mather, who wrote that she died of a broken heart.[37] Her son, Michael, was adopted by the widowed Lady Grayburn, so he stayed in Bungalow D.

Thomas remembered the events of October, 29, 1943 for the rest of his life. In their unspeakable awfulness they seemed to crystallise his experience of the Hong Kong war. It wasn’t, of course, that it was all as bad as that or even that there was nothing good about it. After the war had ended, Thomas’s feelings about this time were far more complex than that, as were those of most internees. But October 29, 1943 was the day on which Thomas most painfully experienced the dark world’s fire. He had  thrust on him yet again the fact of his own vulnerability and that of  those he cared about. He understood that some situations are beyond redress, and that it is not in human nature to be able to respond adequately to those undergoing extreme trauma. And he knew that he had been changed forever by the experience.

Living with him in Bungalow D were now two women whose husbands had died in dreadful circumstances, and Hilda Sewlyn-Clarke, whose husband, whether or not she knew it, was matching John Fraser in his heroic refusal, whatever was done to him, to give away the names (and they almost certainly included Thomas’s) of those who had helped him in his humanitarian smuggling. The reign of terror was to claim the lives of three more British men, this time soldiers, who were shot on another of  Hong Kong’s beaches on December 18, and three more bankers were to be taken from a Bungalow close to D in January and February 1944. They were to come close to death through starvation and mistreatment in prison, but they survived, unlike their fellow D. C. Edmonston, sentenced to 10 years in the October 19 trial, who was to die in similar circumstances to Grayburn on August 29, 1944 (this time the wife was summoned, but arrived after her husband had fallen into a coma).

Although no-one could have known it at the time, the Kempeitai violence against the British civilians was  in fact diminishing after October 29, as it had achieved its aim of breaking the anti-Japanese resistance. But, as the months of  internment wore on two new fears became stronger and stronger: death from malnutrition as the food supply worsened, and the prospect of a final massacre which would wipe out the inhabitants of Stanley Camp completely.

[1] Emile Landau, the owner of a popular pre-war restaurant was one of those loaning money to the British through Hyde, and suffered greatly for it. George Wright-Nooth was, hopefully, not aware of this when he wrote the unpleasant section on him in Prisoners of the Turnip Heads.

[2] The Camp Log (IWM MISC 932) gives the Camp numbers as follows: Thomas 2430, Evelina 2431, Mrs. Hyde 2438, Michael 2439.

[4] Oliver Lindsay, At The Going Down Of The Sun, 121. See also

[5] Stericker, 181.

[8] Evidence of Frederick Tyndall at trial of Noma Kennusoke, reported in  China Mail, January 1947, page 2; see also the evidence of Rudy Choy.

[10] Jean Gittins, Stanley: Behind Barbed Wire, 134.

[11] For the August dating of this collaboration see Geoffrey Emerson, Hong Kong Internment, Kindle Edition, Location 2526; for their pre-war work see 

[12] Evidence of Edward Streatfield at the trial of Sato Choici, reported in the China Mail, April 2, 1947, page 3.

[13] China Mail, January 3, 1947.

[14] Wright-Nooth, 46-147.

[15] China Mail, April 2, 1947, page 3.

[16] Evidence of Dr. Harry Talbot at the trial of Sato Choici, reported in the China Mail, April 4, 1947, page 2. Wright-Nooth states that a warder named Gholum Mohammed did his best to comfort Grayburn; I don’t know if this is the same man.

[17]Morrison’s account is quoted in Wright-Nooth, 175.

[18] Wright-Nooth, 177.

[19] Wright-Nooth, 179.

[20] Lindsay, 126-127.

[21] Wright-Nooth, 183.

[22] Cited Wright-Nooth, 181.

[24] Wright-Nooth, 173.

[25] Stericker, 181. Some accounts just say ‘internees’.

[26] Norman Gunning, A Passage to Hong Kong, 111.

[27] Sewell, 122.

[28] Gittins, 144.

[29] During my childhood I believed that Thomas had watched the executions with Mrs. Hyde. I now regard this as most unlikely. I’ve noticed that later memory seems to recreate ‘big’ events much more than ‘small’ ones, and particularly those involving horrific scenes. I believe that in this case it was my memory at fault, not my father’s.

[30] Given in full in Stericker, 182.

[32] Entry for November 4, 1943. Gerrard’s diary is viewable by members of the Yahoo Stanley Camp discussion Group.

[33]Tragedies in Stanley’, 2/44. Part of: Lancelot Forster, Five Folders of notes, essays, documents, held at Rhodes House, (Oxford), Mss. Ind. Ocn. S. 177, 1/2/3/4/5. This essay is in folder 5.

[35]  Lindsay, 125.

[36] Ralph Goodwin, Passport to Eternity, 190-191.

[37] Jean Mather, Twisting The Tail of the Dragon, 72.


Filed under Chester Bennett, Hong Kong WW11, John A. Fraser, Stanley Camp, Vandeleur Grayburn

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:

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 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:

[20] ‘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.


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