Hilary’s father (Brian Baxter) was a Prisoner of War (POW) in Hong Kong during the Second World War. In the planning of this gap year we included Hong Kong so that Hilary could visit for the first time where he was held captive and where so many of his colleagues died. Here she writes about this experience…
As I knelt by the Memorial Plaque, I reflected on what might have been. If my father had succumbed in the POW camps to starvation or malaria, I wouldn’t be here today.
First some background.
On 8th December 1941, the Japanese launched their invasion of Hong Kong. My father, who had been working as a civilian in Hong Kong since 1937, volunteered to join the Hong Kong Dockyard Defence Corps along with some 180 other civilians. They had just one afternoon of training on how to use a gun.
The fighting was swift and savage with heavy casualties on both sides; the Allies losing 6,113 men and women. The Japanese made three offers of surrender terms, the third of which, to avoid further casualties, was accepted on Christmas Day 1941.
So my father was put in two POW camps for the next 3 years and 8 months of his life.
Dr Tony Banham is the acknowledged expert on the battle of Hong Kong and the experiences of the POWs, and author of three excellent books: “Not the Slightest Chance”, “We Shall Suffer There” and “The Sinking of the Lisbon Maru”. Luckily, we were able to meet up with him, and his work superimposing the old 1945 camp layouts on the landscape of today, (see http://www.hongkongwardiary.com) took us to where my father’s two camps, Sham Shui Po and Argyle Street, actually were.
Today nothing remains of the camps, but there is a poignant memorial plaque at Sham Shui Po Park in Kowloon. As I knelt beside it for a photo, it was moving knowing that my dad had been here, suffered and survived.
Dad was always quite positive about his POW experience, since he said that although they suffered starvation and neglect, and 20% of the prisoners died, they weren’t abused like those in the Japanese POW camps where the death rate was much higher.
Since my father was one of the youngest (and presumably fittest) civilians, my key question for Tony was “Why hadn’t my father been sent to a Japanese POW camp?”. Tony said that the Japanese had a consistent selection process, which was simply to choose those who were the fittest on the day. My father had ongoing bouts of malaria, so presumably he must have been suffering from this when the six selection times came, possibly saving his life.
Tony has since let me know that Dad, after liberation, sailed home to the UK on the USS Joseph Dickman, which left from Manila and came into San Francisco in October 1945. He then took a train across the Canadian Rockies, which Dad told me was the journey of a lifetime, before a ship back to Southampton.
Suffice to say my father, who died 14 years ago, never held anything against the Japanese. He saw the end of the Pacific War when over 10,500 of his comrades died from fighting or disease, and he went on to make a real success of his life in naval architecture.