George Vincent BROOM [1904-1983]
From an audio tape by L T Ride:
‘A New Zealand engineer off a Hongkong-owned ship, probably chartered on war work when the Japs attacked Hongkong, got in touch with the authorities in India to see whether he could be given permission to go into China in order to find out whether it was possible to get his wife out from Hongkong. Obviously she was not interned, and was therefore either Chinese or a third national. He was willing to get leave from his company and spend it in China helping in any way he could.
‘This most unusual request was sent up to the Military Attache in Chungking, because this sort of thing had to be strictly controlled in order to ensure that it did not endanger any of our official operations. It was cleared with our Advanced Headquarters, the husband came into China, and the wife was contacted by one of our agents. This was achieved by sending the husband down into the forward area where personal messages could be exchanged between him and his wife in a relatively short time. At the same time, I changed the escaping route from Waichow to Macau and Western Kwangtung so that if there had been any leakage of information the Japanese would not have been led to Waichow and any of our operations disclosed to them.
‘The operation was a complete success, and today there is, somewhere in New Zealand, a family that owes its integrity and happiness to the efficiency of B.A.A.G. agents and their organisation, to a trusting and brave wife, and a devoted husband.’
Extracts from a letter from Vincent Broom, May 1982:
‘… After escaping from Singapore … I joined one of my company's steamers as Chief Engineer. At sea October 1942, [I] heard on the radio war news US planes had bombed the Hongkong Electric Power House not half a mile from our home, so decided that with limited funds I would try to make the family rescue.
‘On returning to Sydney at the end of an eight month trip I visited the Chinese Consulate and spoke to a Vice Consul - he told me my plans might succeed and gave me his brother's address in the Calcutta Consulate. … I…booked a passage on the B.I. vessel Quirimba to Bombay. The Bay of Bengal was closed to allied shipping at the time - and I arrived in Bombay in due course. Went to the railway station and bought a ticket to Calcutta - no questions asked by the authorities and I did not approach them in case they were difficult. … In Calcutta…I found the only civilian air route over "The Hump" was CNAC still operating. Went to their booking office and was told only Service Personnel and VIP's could be carried. Thought of my letter of introduction to the Chinese Consul's brother and went to see him. In the course of our talk I told him I was a sea-going engineer - he said put on your uniform and try again. I was in Kunming the next day. By great good fortune [I] sat next to Mr Keswick (Jardines)…He looked me over and asked what I was engaged in. I told him of my plans. (He, of course, knew my Hongkong employer, S.T.Williamson, well.) He told me his firm had offices in free China and if I ran into financial difficulties I could draw on them. (Talk about the luck of a Chinaman.) This was a great help to me later on when my limited funds were running low. I have never seen him since to thank him for his great thoughtfulness.
‘There was heavy cloud over "The Hump" and the plane had to fly much higher than the 17,000 feet. This K.O'd the passengers, who were without oxygen - I could not lift my arm off the arm rest of my seat. Fortunately we were soon past the Hump area and came down and recovered except for headaches which took time to go away. Landing in Kunming no questions were asked of uniformed personnel, fortunately. Here I met Ronnie Whitehead…ex Flying Tigers. He knew most of the answers about Kunming and saved me time in making enquiries….
‘From Ronnie Whitehead I learned the Post Office ran a truck from Kutsing to Kweiyang. To get permission to travel on this truck I went to call on the Post Master in Kunming. This world is full of surprises. I could see at once he was a Eurasian and told him who I was and what I was planning. On hearing who I worked for in Hongkong, he asked me if I knew Mr Smith in my company and of course I did. He was an engineer, with many first names so he was called Alphabetical Smith, so I landed on my feet again. I left Kunming on the railway that comes up from Hanoi in Indo China and then through Kunming and on to Kutsing. Contacted the Kutsing Post Office and was told the truck leaves at 5 a.m the next morning. Made sure I was there and was given the seat in the cab with the driver. Truck fuel was a local distilled alcohol and gas mixture and caused a lot of carbon deposits, necessitating some stoppages for servicing. Pm on the first day on the truck we went up the spiral road to Annam, a long slow dangerous grind. Spent the night at Annam, only hotel was full and slept on a Chinese straw mattress until attacked by bed bugs - moved to the truck cab for the rest of the night. Next morning we made the spiral descent from Annam and reached Kweiyang same evening.
‘Here I heard a base for the BAAG (British Army Aid Group) was maintained and went to see the one and only officer in charge. His premises was an abandoned Mission Hospital. He was delighted to have company and offered me a place to sleep. I think my bed was the disused operating table. I was tired enough to appreciate it. He had two vehicles (Chinese civilian drivers) leaving for the rail-head (the lines from Kweilin through Luchow being built towards Kweiyang). I had a fellow passenger - the Chinese Dean from the Canton University who spoke English and we got along well together for the trip. That night we stopped at a village where the Dean procured dinner for us both (a tortoise done in thick gravy and rice). Probably there was not much else to be had. We slept in the truck and off again early the next morning, reaching the rail-head pm. Here was one of the great surprises of the trip. The track was all second hand rail uprooted from the coastal area and no great speed could be attempted. On it stood two units of the famous Blue Train that had been brought down from the North to escape the Japanese. The Dean soon fixed for us to travel to Kweilin - the most elegant carriage seemed so out of place in this area with thousands of coolies working on the track extension towards Kweiyang. We travelled in elegance throughout the night at about 20 miles per hour due to the second hand track, passing through Luchow and on to Kweilin next morning. Here I found a hotel room (Lake Side Hotel) and contacted the BAAG and your father.
‘My main point in keeping my movements secret was…that if authorities found I was doing what most people thought was a waste of effort, I would be prevented from carrying out my project. I only told people who were helpful to my plans and I had managed to reach Kweilin without hindrance. Here for the first time I was issued with an official pass in Chinese and English with photo attached to establish my identity. I still have this.
‘I spent several weeks in Kweilin, as after your father in our discussions decided to use his facilities on my behalf, it took time for his runners to make contact with my wife. This was done by two runners each using different routes in case they were stopped. One went through Waichow, and the other through Samfou and Macao. One carried a miniature message from me, no names but a word used that my wife would know could only have come from me. I was also ill for 2 or 3 weeks and in the Mission Hospital run by the Church of England with Doctor Elizabeth Bacon and Matron Rhoda Watkins.
‘It was then decided I would go down to the escape point, Samfou. The local river running through Kweilin was in flood, so we took advantage of this. A Portuguese member of the staff, (Anthony?) and I hired a sampan and rocketed down the swollen river, joined the West River, and on to Woochow - Shuihing and then a little further to a portage point. We slept on our sampan and started on our hike early the next morning - very hot summer weather, I wore a sweat shirt, shorts, sandals and a Chinese umbrella. The Portage had tea stalls about every five miles and as the water was too risky to drink this was very necessary. Also at strategic points there was an alleged guard posted in a shelter on an hillside overlooking the track. He held an ancient blunderbuss that shone in the sun, and had a little basket on the side of the track for donations. I made sure he saw my contribution in case his gun went off. We hiked overland first day about 30 miles, then on next day another 30 miles. Going over rises and falls on the track we saw a party of three going the opposite way all in white shirts. Pre-war my company carried Indian Radio Officers on the ships…I was speechless when we met that one was the ex Radio Officer of a ship I was on before Japan entered the war. We were so surprised we just stood with our mouths open looking at each other, then wishing each other the best of luck we were on our way. We came to a river that runs down to Samfou, hired a sampan and slept on it then down river to Samfou to meet China [Shiner] Wright who was the BAAG Captain stationed there. He put me up in his flat and I was there 73 days (arrived 23rd July 1943)…
‘Present were Capt. Wright and Anthony and a cook boy and amah. During my long stay in Samfou I made many runs assisting - to Toi Shan where I met Dr Raymond Lee who had established a hospital in the basement of the Catholic Church (Fathers Omelia and O'Neill, Maryknoll Fathers from the USA). Also did trips back to Shui Hing to collect and deliver BAAG parcels etc...BAAG ran a soup kitchen for the elderly people left behind when this area was given the scorched earth treatment. We boiled daily in an empty 44 gallon oil drum congee made with rice, vegetables and any fats we could obtain, and issued a daily bowl each to between two and three hundred destitute people, mostly old women.
‘Samfou (Three Cities) is where the river up from the sea at Kongmoon forks. The town stands over the river junction, the river dividing the town into three parts…In Chung Sha, the biggest part, the main road runs along the river side with a few small branches running back away from the river. Just turning off the main road about the centre of the town area is a lane and the second or third building on the right was a three floored block of flats and China Wright had the second floor, the local police station was a little further along…There was no meat in the area at all and an occasional tin of beef was a great treat. The local power house ran from darkness to about 10.30 p.m. only, as fuel supplies were running out.
‘Marie and our four children, plus two amahs, arrived p.m. on the 3rd October 1943 - that very day we had word from Dr Raymond Lee in Toi Shan that Father Omelia had had a serious haemorrhage and only a milk diet would help him to recover...Wright, who spoke Cantonese fluently (pre-war Chinese Maritime Customs Official), managed to buy 3 tins of pre-war sweetened condensed milk for $1,000. I was to deliver this to Toi Shan and was away when Marie and the family turned up at Samfou - there was an ancient field telephone worked by a treadle and China got Marie to the police station next to his flat and called me through the Toi Shan police. I could just hear her but could not talk clearly but knew they had arrived. Returned to Samfou (13 miles) by foot the next morning to find the family all well, in fact in much better shape than I was.
Extract from a letter from Marie Broom, May 1982:
‘When the Japanese crossed the harbour from Kowloon to Hongkong on the night of the 18th December, I was in our pre-war flat, top floor, 36 Fort Street, North Point, at the back of the Hongkong Electric company. Next morning we found our area was already occupied by the Japanese. The family were later on registered by the Japanese as Third Nationals (being born of a Portuguese father in Macao this was partly true, but I had held a British passport since my marriage). The family were allowed to remain in Fort Street and were not put into an internment camp. …
‘The first runner sent to make contact arrived after dark and knocked on the door. He said he was from Free China, and I asked him who he was looking for...he spelled out the word Broom, then he asked for Mrs G.V.Broom, then Mrs M.A.Broom, and lastly Nasty. I told him all three names were the same person and he asked where is this person. I told him I was that person. He said he had a message from my husband, but he had given it to someone for safe keeping, but did not give me this person's name. Promised faithfully he would give it to me the following day which happened to be a Monday, which is the day we go round to Argyle Camp. On the ferry crossing to Kowloon I happened to be sitting in front of Emily Hahn. I overheard her saying to her friend something about Nasty. As we were leaving the ferry on Kowloon side I approached her and told her I heard her saying something including the word Nasty (the name Vincent used when we first met). She was quite taken aback and said she did not realise she was speaking that loud. I told her I am Nasty and asked for the message. She told me she had not got it for she was so frightened at the time that she tore up the message and others and flushed them down the toilet in the Hongkong Hotel. I asked her what the message was and she said she could not be involved and did not read it. Just at that time the Japanese were rounding up all sorts of people, Doctor Selwyn Clark was arrested at this time. Back home late in the day the runner arrived again - I told him he did not have the note. He gave me his name which I have now forgotten. He also told me that if I saw him in the street I was not to recognise him. I did see him once at Sincere's Department Store when he did come up and speak to me - next time he was with a high Japanese official in the Dairy Farm restaurant.
‘The second runner arrived a few days later and came in the evening, there was a knock on the door and I opened the small window which had an iron grill, and there was this fisherman standing there. He also told me he was from Free China. I opened the door, and before I realised what was happening someone came running up the stairs and into the flat. He gave me his name, now forgotten, but I remember him saying he used to work for Leo D'Almada's legal office. He did give me a slip of paper no bigger than the size of a match box taken from the fold of his Chinese jacket sleeve. The message read "Follow the instruction in my first letter" and was signed Nasty. The first letter was the one that Emily Hahn had flushed down the toilet - no one can duplicate Vincent's handwriting and with the signature Nasty I knew it was genuine. This second runner said he would like to have some proof from me that he had contacted me, so I gave him a little picture of the four children taken by the Japanese for identity card purposes. I asked him how safe he was, he turned around and said he was quite safe and that he had blown up the Fanling Bridge that afternoon. Needless to say I was so frightened I did not want to see him again in my home for I was not to involve the lives of the four children. …
It had all happened on a Monday, Camp day, and I remember when we all got to the Star Ferry on Kowloon side we were stopped and told it was Martial Law - the news and whispers were circulating that the Allies had blown up the Fanling bridge. We (the people who delivered food parcels to Argyle Camp on Mondays), did not care how long we stood as long as some damage was done. We were kept waiting only half an hour.
‘The instructions for the escape came from the first runner, while I was looking at shoes in a shoe shop he came up and talked to me and told me that I should apply through the Japanese Foreign Office to go back to Macao with the children, saying I would have family support there. Permission was eventually given and we made the night trip to Macao as the ferries were scared of Allied air attacks during the daylight.
‘We arrived in Macao at 2 am and went to a flat arranged for by Pauline Elarte. Next day am went to Church. Outside, a man approached me and asked if I was Mrs. Broom and used the code name Nasty. He was Doctor Gonzano [Gosano] who I knew by sight and knew his family. He told me I was on no account to be seen anywhere near the British Consulate and that I must leave the flat and move into a Chinese hotel close to the waterfront arranged for by those organising the escape, he would send me funds for daily use. I did not see this person again. I was to stay in the hotel and would be contacted - eventually someone told me to go to a Chinese tea house where I was to sit down and wait until I saw someone in dark glasses and a dark Chinese suit going upstairs to the floor above. I sat waiting and it was surprising the number of people who arrived in dark glasses and dark suits, but eventually one passed upstairs and gave me a nod. I did not speak to him and that night there was a knock on my room door and I was asked to go to another room, where I met Leung. He told me Vincent was in Samfou and he was taking us out - with Macao inside the Japanese perimeter we still had to escape through their lines. We were to wait ready each morning at 5 am for him to come for us and we must have waited 8 or 10 days. …
‘Finally the moment of departure came. Leung and his second in command took us down to a sampan. Our very limited luggage had gone ahead so as not to be a hindrance. We were rowed out towards Wanchai Island. About midway a Japanese patrol boat stopped us - it was manned by Koreans who were prone to accepting bribes. They already had been paid off, but demanded more which made us very uneasy until Leung got the matter settled and we proceeded to Wanchai Island. The Koreans helped themselves to our small supply of food, leaving us to make the best of nothing. On Wanchai we hired taxi bikes and rode the length of the island stopping for a lunch break, but there was little available at the small village. We rode on until after dark when we stopped at a river and waited until a boat was arranged late pm. We boarded a snake boat (a smuggler's boat low in the water with a big crew rowing as fast as possible). The object was to pass two Japanese control points and get into the river mouth past Kongmoon before daylight. A small sampan went ahead keeping a quarter of a mile in front of the snake boat to warn if Japanese patrol craft was sighted. About 2 am, passing a Jap control point our youngest aged 3 woke and decided to cry - the sound carried so well over the water that the small craft ahead heard it and came back to demand silence. This was easier said than done and the crew were becoming apprehensive and threatening. I was very worried and they suggested strangling him to save the rest of the party from capture or being shot. I remembered I had a small bag of Minties hoarded from pre-war days - had a job finding them and just when things looked the worst popped one into Junior's mouth and he shut up at once.
‘Our snake boat crew carried on rowing fast and as we neared Kongmoon and the river mouth it was getting near dawn. Unfortunately our crew ran past the river mouth and had to turn and come back to it, just passing Kongmoon at crack of dawn. Fortunately the local Japanese patrol was a bit late that morning and we rowed up the river to mid afternoon when Samfou was reached. Soon we met China Wright and I was told of Vincent senior's trip to Toishan. Rested at China’s flat and spoke to Vincent in the evening on the phone. He arrived back at Samfou about noon the next day and we rested and made ready for our trip to Kweilin to start after three days' rest. From Samfou to Kweilin we had Jackie Lau as BAAG escort and all began to enjoy life after months of strain.