Laura B Ziegler's wartime memories: View pages | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

Laura B Ziegler's wartime memories: View pages

((In November 1941, Mrs Ziegler was living in House #29 on Cheung Chau Island. Her husband, (Rev. Albert H. Ziegler) was a Missionary in the China interior. Two of the older boys were in the USA, while the six younger children were with Mrs Ziegler at house #29.))

On Tuesday morning, December 2, 1941, Mrs. Buuck and I went to Hong Kong to get the American Council’s advice about staying on Cheung Chau Island. He advised us to move off the island at once because he felt, as did also the British, that if the Japanese did anything at all they would blockade the colony and try to starve the people into surrender. If so, our island would be cut off from the rest of the colony and we would be without supplies or connections with the rest of the world. He also advised me to make the bookings for the U.S.A. and take the children home. I did make bookings for December 15, if the company would put up cots, otherwise the first I could get was the end of March. He said I might be able to take a plane to Chungking so that we could go and live with Rev. Ziegler in Wanhsien but because of the children, he wasn’t sure if this would be possible.


Buuck’s rented a nice flat on the Hong Kong side which was only six or seven blocks from the main street. We moved into Hongkong ((Kowloon)) on the following Thursday and Friday ((ie 4th & 5th December)). The children and I went to Phillips House, a boarding house mainly for missionaries on the Kowloon side of the Harbor. I had sent most of our big things and the little furniture we had to Buuck’s flat.


It was 8:30 am on Monday, December 8th 1941. ((Because of the International Date Line, this was Dec. 7 in the United States.)) We were about ready to go down for breakfast. While we were waiting, Laurence and Laura Lou went out on the small veranda overlooking the city. While here we saw and heard a group of airplanes approaching.

The rest of the family came out and watched 21 of them flying in perfect formation toward the airport. We had heard that a group of British fighter planes was expected to arrive in the colony. We took it for granted that they were British planes. We changed our minds, however, when the air raid sirens began to blow and we heard bombs exploding in the distance. We knew then that they were not British planes but Japanese raiders.

We rushed downstairs and found everyone excited and talking at once. The radio was reporting the bombing of Hong Kong Airport by Japanese planes, destroying or damaging all planes on the field. Minutes later we heard the report of the attack on Pearl Harbor and that the United States and Britain had declared war on Japan. All shopping was stopped at once. Here we were stranded at a place only 15 or 20 miles away from a large Japanese army. A Canadian troop ship had arrived a few days before with reinforcements for the British, but their equipment wasn't due to arrive until the 10th of December. The Japanese had an air force and the British didn’t have a single fighter plane in the colony.

Most of the next three days and nights were spent in the ground floor basement where the manager had fixed a room for us. It was low and dark, so there was nothing to do but sit around on the trunks and boxes stored there and wait for the all clear, while the Japanese were bombing different buildings or ships anchored in the harbor. Our hotel was only a block from the water’s edge so we got plenty of noise and concussion. The big guns and exploding shells made the most frightening noises.


On Thursday afternoon (Dec. 11th) one of the men had been out to try to get some news because the radio and telephone were out of order. He came back about 5PM with the news that the British were retreating and they were evacuating Kowloon ((where we were)) and that the last boat would leave for the Hong Kong side in about 25 minutes. If we wanted to escape capture by the Japanese, we must leave at once.

Everybody went up to their rooms, gathered a few belongings and rushed to the ferry landing about 9 blocks away. There had been no shooting for several hours and all was strangely empty and quiet as we hurried along. As we passed the bus terminal, the British police and soldiers were wrecking the busses so that the Japs would not be able to use them.

We crossed in safety but the boat that left a few minutes after ours was not as lucky. The Japanese soldiers arrived before it got far enough away from the wharf and shot at them. Several people were wounded. ((Doris remembers seeing dead bodies floating in the water and that Mother tried to shield my eyes from the scene.))

We arrived on the Hongkong side safely, but it was dark which added much to our hardship. We wanted to go and find the Buuck’s but although I had the address, I did not know exactly where it was. There were no coolies from whom we could ask for help.

After walking several blocks a British police officer asked if we had a place to live. He took us all the way to the home where the Buuck family lived. They were glad to see us because we hadn’t heard from each other for two days.

A few hours later we were all in bed and we wondered what would happen next. We slept in the basement here because we felt it would be the safest place to be. The homes on Hong Kong Island are built on the mountain side facing the harbor. The Japanese put up their guns across the harbor on the water front and other places facing us, and the British guns were on the mountain behind us and some below us. During the fighting the shells came from both sides.


The next day ((ie the 12th)) we barricaded ourselves the best way we could in the ground floor basement. We strapped boxes of books and trunks into the window sills and doorways. We hoped this would stop shrapnel, but we also knew there was little or no protection from a direct hit. We also nailed quilts over the windows, fastening only the top side, leaving the rest loose. This would also stop shrapnel and the concussion of a bomb if one would burst close at hand.

We slept on the army cots which we had taken along from Cheung Chau. We never dared to undress during the war because we didn’t know when we might be asked to move on and retreat with the British army.

During the day each one of us knew exactly where to go and what to do in case of a bombing. There was very little we could do during those winter days. It was quite dark in the basement most of the time because the windows were covered. We were not allowed to have lights of any kind so we went to bed as soon as it was dark.

We had one side window which afforded us a little something to do. We would crowd around it for an hour or more at a time watching the shells burst on the mountain side and counting the number of explosions in an hour. We were often rudely interrupted by a bomber flying overhead on some deadly mission to bomb an object close by.

One afternoon a supply truck was passing our place when they were spotted and a bomb was dropped. It left a deep hole in the road 50 feet behind our place, but the truck went on unhurt. A few days later a group of soldiers was repairing that road and a plane machine gunned the men. They flew so low that some of the bullets even landed on our back porch and in the houses.


I would go to town every other day to buy food, and Reverend Buuck would go the other days. Each family had a ration card, but we could only buy for our own family, so when I went down I could only buy for the 7 in our family and Reverend Buuck could only buy for five. In this way we had enough of the rationed foods for 7 one day and 5 the next. This was made to last the 12 of us. We would leave the house in the morning with a prayer for our own safety and also for the loved ones left behind. There would always be heavy shelling or a bombing or two while being gone. The children were always excited to see what was in the basket.

The bombs and shells fell within 100 feet of all sides of us, plaster fell and glass broke in every room of the house. We also found pieces of shrapnel and bullets in the house but none of us were hurt. During a heavy shelling or an air raid we all had our certain places to sit, so that there would be no confusion. Our family sat in one corner of the basement and the Buucks in the other so we would not be in direct line with a window or door. Here we sat and prayed for the lord’s protection. We are certain that if we had not been protected by the Lord during these air raids and the bombardments we would not be here today.


A bomb hit the road behind us about December 19, and broke the water main leaving us without water. Our fears were short-lived however, because in the afternoon a large shell broke another pipe in a culvert across the road. The precious liquid trickled slowly from the shattered main. We considered ourselves very fortunate to have water so close at hand. Naturally, it was dangerous to go and get water because we never knew when the next shell would come or where it would land. Some people had to walk for many blocks to get a pail of water. A person learns to value a little water in a time like this.

One afternoon the shelling was very close and it kept on for more than an hour. After the firing stopped one of our little girls said, “Mamma, I prayed that God would send his angels to stand between us and shells so we wouldn’t be hit. If a shell came for us I prayed that the angel would push it into the ground so we wouldn’t be hurt.” We opened the front door a little for fresh air after the firing and there in the front was a shell that had landed in the lawn and hadn’t exploded. Ruth was certain that the angels had protected us and caused this shell to land in the ground. If this shell had come 10 feet higher, it would have come right into our room and injured or killed most of us.


On Christmas Eve we brought in a potted tree and trimmed it. The children had memorized a few hymns with Reverend Buuck’s help. They had also learned some recitations, so on Christmas Eve we had a short children’s service. The children had decorated a house plant with tinsel and called it our Christmas tree. This “tree” was in the hall or entry. Mother had a candy bar for each of us and the Buuck’s also had a small gift to be placed under the tree. Rev. Buuck was delegated to place the gifts in their proper places mainly because his cot was nearest the door.


Before dawn on Christmas morning, I heard little Elaine Buuck say, “Mother, Santa Claus is out by the tree.” Her brother, Leonard, told her to be quiet lest she frighten him away. My young children had heard him too, making it very trying to have to remain in bed for an hour or more before it was light enough to see anything. It never took us long to dress during the war because we only took off our shoes at night.

When the blanket on the side window was drawn back, Laura Lou found her gifts of a candy bar, a new dress for her doll, a glass of jam and an old lady’s purse. We all got food of some kind which made us all happy because we already seemed to realize the value of food. 

Christmas day we tried to have our Christmas service three different times, but we were always disturbed by bombs or shells. There was usually a lull for about half an hour just before dark so we decided to have our service at that time. We had just taken our places and Reverend Buuck drew the quilt away from the window to read a sermon when we heard an airplane power dive above our heads.

We all rushed for our places but before we reached them the bombs burst around us. We heard three distinct explosions, one closer than the next. We were quite certain that at least one had hit our house and expected the house to fall on us any second. As the little ones ran past me I took one and leaned over her thinking that if the rafters would fall they would hit me and our smallest girl wouldn’t be so badly hurt. But when the dust cleared up a little, I noticed I had Reverend Buuck’s little girl and not my own.

I called the children asking if they were all right and when they all answered I was very thankful. Upstairs, there was such a cloud of dust. When it cleared we saw so much glass broken, plaster fallen and furniture broken upstairs that we thought our house had received a direct hit.

We then went outside to see if the Japs had used an incendiary bomb. They had been using them the last few days as we had seen several houses burning on the mountain side. We saw that our house was still standing but it was so dusty we couldn’t see where the other bombs had landed.

We had just gone back into the basement when two British police came in. They said they had been on the way up to tell us there was no need to worry about any more bombs or shells because Hong Kong had surrendered at 3 o’clock. This was hard to believe because it was already 6 o’clock. The big British gun below us kept firing for almost half an hour more, and then everything was very quiet except for occasional machine gun or rifle fire.

We expected to see the Chinese looters come in during the evening and steal our food and other things. We also expected the Japanese soldiers to come in sometime during the night. We tried to save some of our food by hiding it in different parts of the house. We also left something in the cupboard hoping that the looters would take what they found there and hurry on.

It was very quiet that night. It was almost midnight, and we decided that surely if the Lord could protect us during the war, he could also protect us from the Jap soldiers. So we had our evening prayers, asking for His protection in the trying and difficult days to come.


When we awoke the next morning ((the 26th.)) it was light in the basement because everything had been blown out of the windows the night before. It was 8:30 in the morning and we had heard or seen no one all night. The sun was shining brightly and we could go upstairs and eat our breakfast, which was a nice change from eating in the dark basement.

We went upstairs and helped clean the house. We could see now that the first bomb had blown the top floor off the house next door, also the corner nearest us. Nobody was living there at the time. The people who had been there had moved out a few days before because they were afraid of all the bombs and shells. They wanted to try to find a safer place to live. The second bomb had landed in the street in front of us and the third to the left of us, demolishing the house.

We saw the first Japanese soldiers at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, December 26, a group of officers came in and, after looking around, they came up to us and pointed at the door, and said, “Five o’clock out.” They seemed to know only three words. That gave us about two hours to move all our things and also find a place to move into.

Reverend Buuck and his boy went over to see a friend of ours living about a block away while the rest of us gathered our things together. Reverend Buuck came back in about a half an hour saying we could move in. 

We were glad to find a place so close even if it was badly shell shattered. The window and door frames looked like they would fall out any minute, and most of the glass was broken in the windows. Nearly all the plaster was down. We put cloth or paper over the openings. This kept out the cold somewhat.

While we were moving, the Japanese soldiers were swarming around in the house. One went to sleep on our bed. We were told we couldn’t take the beds, but they did let us take our army cots. They watched us work and laughed at us if we carried heavily, but they didn’t try to stop us. We were glad that we were left alone. (Doris remembers Eunice and she were hidden in the closet.)

The Buuck family and our family lived in the front room. Twelve people lived in this small room about 12’ x 18’, with a bay window on one side. Other people moved into the other rooms. For the next ten days this was our home.

We didn’t dare go outside because Jap soldiers were everywhere. We didn’t know what the Japanese would do with us. We put up our cots every night and folded them in the morning. We thought we might be interned, but we had no idea when or where, so we made rolls of our bedding every morning and tied it to carry easily. We also put some clothing and food into pillow cases. We tied two pillow cases together so that the children could carry them over their shoulders.

While we were living here the Jap soldiers could walk in at any time. They would usually notice the children first and start playing with them. They would ask the little ones if they could count the bullets in their belt and lift the gun. They told them to be careful not to cut their fingers on the bayonet. Most of them said they had children in Japan two or three years old that they had never seen. We are sure that the Lord protected us here too, because we were never mistreated by any of them.


((David: Although Mrs Ziegler gives the date as the 6th, all other diaries give the date the British, Americans & Dutch were sent to the hotels as the 5th, so that's the date I've used.))

About 11:30 in the morning on January 6, the neighbor called us and told us he had just received notice that all British, Americans, and Dutch in the colony would have to be down to the park six blocks away, by noon to be interned. We were allowed to take what we could carry.

We were glad then that we had our things ready to move. We ate the dinner the cook had ready, while we were putting on our wraps. We were glad afterward we had eaten because the Japs were unprepared to give us supper. We marched to a Chinese hotel ((the New Asia Hotel)) about two miles away from the place we had been living.

My family was given a front porch with all the openings covered with canvas so we could not look out over the harbor. This also kept the cold winds out. The seven of us had one small room with only a davenport and chair in it. We slept on the floor.

We shared the wash bowl in the Buuck’s room, and all 70 people on the floor shared the one bathroom. The water was turned on a few times a day for a short time. How everyone scrambled to wash before it was turned off again. The Buuck family was given the adjoining room. (Ed. There is a discrepancy here about the room)

Some of the smaller inside rooms had no windows, but open lattice work near the ceiling to give a little air and light.

We were crowded and could not go out except on the fire escape in the back. We could speak to our servants through the barred main entrance, but they were not allowed to come in. We asked Buuck’s cook if he would bring us a kettle of oatmeal every morning since we were given no breakfast. He did this and the guard allowed it to pass. We also asked them to bring us more of our things, but the soldiers in the place we left would not allow them to take anything.

We were rationed rice and half spoiled meat, served in a scrub bucket, to be prepared by ourselves. We could use the stove only when the hotel servants were not using it. We had two meals a day, at noon and 5 or 6 in the evening. There was nothing to do but run up and down the steps or sit on the fire escape and look out into the dirty Chinese alley. Sometimes adults would tell a story. The doors were locked and nobody could go out.


On January 23, the Japanese put us into the hold of a ferry to take us (one hour trip.) to the internment camp they had prepared for us.

After we left the wharf the children and some of the mothers were permitted on deck. We could see a lot of destruction on shore and every fishing boat or ferry boat was sunk. We saw lots of masts above water or half sunk boats.

Finally, we reached the other end of the Island. Our ferry couldn’t get close enough to shore so we had to climb over the railing of our boat and the one drawn up against ours. People, bedding, boxes, bags and babies were all handed across the narrow gap. Upon reaching shore, we again walked the quarter of a mile to the camp where the gate was closed behind us.

This camp was on the Stanley Peninsula. This peninsula is on the southeast end of Hong Kong Island about 12 miles away from the city. The British had built a large prison here with modern homes for the prison wardens, a prison warden’s club house, and homes for the Indian police who guarded prisoners. The prison warden’s homes and clubhouse became the American quarters. The Chinese College Prison guard’s homes were the British quarters and one smaller building was given to the Dutch. The Japanese called us their B-A-D internees, (British, American and Dutch.

We were given a rather large former bedroom for our family. We had a double bed, a single bed and an army cot for the seven of us. We also had a wardrobe and buffet in the room. We were proud of the fact that we had so much furniture. Many people had nothing. Our dishes consisted of a frying pan, pie tin, a cracked vegetable dish and a collection of empty tin cans. One day Laura Lou found a granite cup in the garbage can which she was very glad to have because it did not leak. We each had a spoon to eat with, but some people made little paddles of wood and used them for spoons.

We were lucky and thankful to have as much bedding as we did as we had no mattresses. It gets quite cold in Hong Kong, for about six weeks in winter. During this time we were cold all the time as we had no fuel to heat our rooms. We had one window pane shattered by a bullet which also let in plenty of cold air.

St. Stevens College for Chinese boys was located next to the prison with the dormitories and professor’s homes. All these buildings, except the prison were enclosed with barbed wire entanglements for our camp. It was not large, about 3 blocks wide and 5 blocks long. There were about 2800 internees, about 425 American, 68 Dutch, and the rest British. No soldiers were interned with us. No Chinese or Japanese were allowed in camp except the ones who had charge of us.

We had running water all the time and in the beginning of March we had electric lights and the use of a few stoves.

We washed our clothes in the bath tubs, in cold water with as little soap as possible because we did not know when we would get the next piece of soap.

The Japanese sent us our food raw which we had to cook ourselves. Each person had about 7.6 ounces or ¾ cup of rice, 4 ounces of meat, and 2.89 ounces of vegetables a day. We had some flour, sugar, salt, soy beans and peanut oil.

For a while in March we had practically no salt, so some men risked their lives and went through the barbed wire fence to get ocean water to boil our food in.

The flour was increased in May to about 8 ounces. All weights were gross weight, that is including bone of meat and tops and dirt on vegetables. Before May, we each got about 5 small slices of bread a week, but after the flour was increased we got about 5 ounces of bread a day baked by our cooks in camp. This was good bread even without butter or jam. We seldom saw sugar because the cooks used most of it in food.