August 1945 - "It won't be long now" | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

August 1945 - "It won't be long now"

Last month we read Barbara Anslow's memories of liberation as the Japanese surrendered in August 1945. In this passage, Graham Heywood remembers August 1945 and his liberation from the Prisoner of War camp at Sham Shui Po.

August came in with beautiful days; towering white clouds drifted gently over the hills on the south wind, and we would lounge on the terrace in the afternoons basking in the blazing sunshine. Everything seemed utterly peaceful; there was no sound or movement in the town around us.

And then one day the news filtered in, and was whispered around the hospital, that Russia had invaded Manchuria. We heard nothing more until Thursday, August 16th. This was a very curious day, in the morning the Japs were observed to be burning their documents in the incinerator ... the first sign of changes to come. Rumours were circulated of a landing at Osaka, then that fighting had ceased. A sentry coming from Sham Shui Po in the evening informed us that the band had been playing and the prisoners making merry all day. Another said “you very happy; I too very happy; soon go back to my house in Formosa.” But evening muster took place as usual; Capt. Saito, the Japanese medical officer in charge of the hospital, was in a vile temper, and refused to say a word.

What was really happening? Was Hong Kong to be handed back without the horrors of another invasion? Was this only an armistice, or had Japan surrendered? There were some very sick men in hospital, who could be saved by good food, and for their sake particularly we trusted that the rumours were not false. We could hardly believe that our three-and-a-half years of imprisonment were really ending; the whole atmosphere was so completely vague and quiet and undramatic. We went to bed in a mood of subdued optimism, but bubbling with impatience to see the outcome of the next few days.

At breakfast the following morning I was so far convinced that the end was at hand, that I unearthed my “siege rations”, and distributed some of them around the ward. These consisted of a tin of powdered milk, a small tin of biscuits, and a tin of bully beef, which I had set aside from my Red Cross parcels in case the food supply failed during the hope-for invasion, or I had been forced to try to escape. It had needed considerable self-control to refrain from eating them during the last few hungry months; I had kept them at the bottom of my kit-bag, stuffed all my winter clothes on top of them, shut up the kit-bag in a cupboard, and tried to forget about it.

This day, August 17th, also passed quietly. It was rumoured that a relief convoy was on its way to Hong Kong. Time and again we looked towards Lyemoon Pass, but the water lay blue and still, and no ships appeared. A big Union Jack was taken from its place of concealment, and made ready for hoisting. That was most heartening, for never since we had been captured had we been allowed to keep Union Jacks (much less fly them), or to sing the National Anthem. A wag went round hospital shouting “Upper berth for you, cabin number so and so, D. deck! ... Yes, sir? Would you like to sit at the captain’s table?”

During the day two strangers were brought into hospital, with no belongings save the clothes they stood up in. They turned out to be American spies, who had penetrated into occupied China from Yunnan a year previously, and had been captured about a month ago. Miraculously they had not been executed. We did not care to press them for details of their story, for they were obviously weary, but we gathered a little news about the outside world. Evidently it was a great mercy that Hong Kong had been spared another invasion, for they told us that the place was strongly fortified and that the Americans were prepared to launch an overwhelming attack on it. Our position would have been a most uncomfortable one.

That evening there was no muster for the first time for years. And lights were allowed; a lighted room looked strange and unreal after groping around after dark for so many months. We held an impromptu sing-song in the school hall, which enabled us to blow off some of our suppressed excitement in cheerful noise.

Nobody in our ward thought of going to bed. We were chatting on the verandah, when we heard a call from the barbed wire fence on the far side of the drive. One of us climbed over the parapet and walked across the road to investigate; a few seconds later he came running back out of the shadows with another figure, small and active, who he helped on to the verandah. She slipped into our ward to be out of sight of any prying Japs, and started asking after various friends in the hospital and camp. She was an internee from a nearby camp, and finding that restrictions were relaxed she had very pluckily slipped across the fields to visit us.

Our visitor disappeared again into the night, and we noticed that the Japanese guard were also departing with all their belongings. Saito was still with us. He was taking things with very bad grace; in spite of repeated requests by the Colonel, he had refused to give us a word of information, and now we could hear him smashing windows in his quarters in the far wing of the building. Some of us slipped out into the garden and armed ourselves with picks and spades, in case he turned nasty. At last, at about midnight, he walked away down the drive, looking neither to right nor left, with his sword drawn and his left hand on the butt of his revolver.

So we were left, no longer hemmed in by armed men, once more under the command of our own officers. It was a queer situation, and an uneasy one. Two or three thousand British ex-prisoners and internees were scattered about Hong Kong in the various camps, unarmed and physically in poor shape. The Japs were still in charge of the Colony, and responsible for law and order. Presumably their country had surrendered, but they had not yet given up their arms; no doubt they were in a bitter mood. And there was a huge Chinese population, all hating the Japs, many starving and ready to take desperate measures to obtain food. We set a guard on the hospital, and longed more fervently than ever for the arrival of allied warships.

No one could sleep; the lights remained on in most of the wards, and people sat up talking. The orderlies raided the Japs’ garden for sweet potatoes. In the small hours of the morning there was a heavy shower, and as it cleared the setting moon threw a pale silvery lunar rainbow over Kowloon Bay. It seemed a good omen.

August 18th. All who could leave their beds fell in at 7.30 a.m. on the drive in front of the verandah. The Colonel called us to attention, and we saluted as the Union Jack was slowly hoisted. A chord was sounded on a piano inside the building; we sang “God save the King”, but our voices were shaky; it was a very great moment.

During the morning the more energetic of us experimented with our new-found freedom. I walked out through the gates as bold as you please, strolled down the hill and along the road, nodding affably to any Chinese or Indians who looked friendly, and cutting any Japs dead. It was very strange, and I wished my legs felt as lively as my spirits.

I visited some Eurasian friends of mine, who told me something of the heartrending experiences of those who had remained at large in the town. The Japanese rule had been a grim and a terrible one.

Back to hospital for lunch. Plenty of food was now coming in, and we could stuff ourselves to repletion at every meal ... a delightful experience. There was a constant stream of visitors to the hospital throughout the day; old friends, some of them sadly aged in appearance, were greeting one another. Everybody was swapping experiences, or retailing news and rumours. A party from Sham Shui Po told how the flag had been hoisted there, how Honda had been cheered and the Fat Pig booed, and how our Liaison Officer and some of his satellites had been put under arrest.

Some American fighter planes came over in the afternoon and dropped leaflets. From these we learned authentically for the first time that Japan had capitulated; the Japs were to remain in charge until allied forces arrived to take over, and meanwhile a Red Cross representative was on his way. It was rather a formal and chilling message; it did not even say “It won’t be long now!”. When would those ships turn up?

During the next few days we began to realise that we should have to wait patiently a little longer; vast numbers of prisoners and internees were scattered all over the Far East, and we could not all be sorted out in a week or two. In order to avoid any unfortunate incidents in the town, the Colonel issued orders that no one was to wander without leave beyond the immediate vicinity of the hospital. A couple of Japs appeared with a message from the Governor of Hong Kong politely requesting us to refrain from flying the Union Jack; it could be seen from many parts of the town, and might incite the Chinese to make trouble. The latter had been forbidden to fly Chungking flags. We compromised by saying that our flag would in any case be lowered at sundown, and we would not fly it on the morrow. So nobody lost face.

And still no allied warship appeared in Lyemoon Bay.

The time passed quickly enough for me, for I was put on to a fulltime job as an orderly in an officers’ ward. Here, late one evening, we received a draft of about twenty “convicts” from Canton. These were the survivors of a number of Hong Kong prisoners and internees who had been convicted of communicating with the Allies, attempting to escape, and so on. A few had been executed, some had died in Stanley gaol; the remainder had been transferred to a military prison in Canton, where they were serving long terms of imprisonment when the war came to an
end. Only the previous day they had been taken from their cells and sent by train to join us at Hong Kong.

With their shaven heads and pale faces they looked in worse shape than we. But most of them were fairly fit ... certainly no thinner than the rest of us ... for their rations seem to have been rather better than ours. The mental stain must have been severe; every day they had to sit for long hours facing the blank wall of their cell; if they moved or spoke, they risked a beating from the sentry who prowled around the prison in stockinged feet, peeping in at each cell as he passed. They were allowed out for ten minutes’ P.T. daily.

The Chinese and Jap prisoners there fared even worse; so strict was the discipline that, when out on working parties, they even had to ask permission to wipe the sweat off their brows!

The British party came out undefeated and undismayed by their long ordeal. They were talkative and cheerful, and touchingly grateful for any help we could give them.

Theirs was not the only story of courage and endurance we heard. Amongst the visitors to the hospital were many of the brave people who had remained loyal in the town, refusing to take jobs under the Japs, and endeavouring to help prisoners and internees in various ways. They were under suspicion, and lived in constant fear lest one day the Gestapo car would “pick them up” with no word of explanation. They somehow managed to exist by selling their valuables bit by bit. When Hong Kong returns to normal, I hope these citizens will not be forgotten.

It dawned on us that our stay in Sham Shui Po had been a picnic compared with life in the town or in the Canton gaol.

We were greatly cheered when, on August 29th, British planes showing the markings of the Fleet Air Arm came roaring over the hospital, diving, zooming and waggling their wings. Staff and up-patients crowded the roof and tower, to wave and shout in reply. Clearly the Fleet was near.

Bored with uncertainty, I felt like taking a holiday, so put myself down for one of the organised parties which were being taken over daily to Stanley camp. The following morning I started on my jaunt, joining a large party from Sham Shui Po. We crossed in a ferry, and as our buses laboured up the hill to Wong Nei Cheong Gap, we looked back across the harbour, and saw ... joyful sight ... a British destroyer steaming slowly in, followed by a cruiser. They had come at last, and all the doubts of the last fortnight were over.

I spent a delightful day at Stanley, greeted by many old friends. Among them was Evans, who had given us up for lost that evening three and a half years ago, when Starbuck and I had failed to return from Au Tau.

Accounts of life in the internment camp differed widely. One friend, an enthusiastic biologist, was full of his doings; he had grown champion vegetables, had seen all sorts of rare birds (including vultures, after the corpses) and had run a successful yeast brewery. Altogether, he said, it had been a great experience ... a bit too long, perhaps, but not bad fun at all.

Another ended up her account by saying “Oh, Mr. Heywood, it was hell on earth”.

It all depended on their point of view.

In the afternoon, the camp was visited by Admiral Harcourt, the C. in C. of the relieving squadron, who had made it his business to see all the prisoners and internees as soon as he landed. The Union Jack and allied flags were hoisted, and fluttered gaily in the dazzling sunshine, while the Admiral spoke to the assembled internees. He explained why the taking over of Hong Kong had been delayed; the war in the Far East had come to an end unexpectedly soon, and his squadron had steamed at full speed all the way from Sydney to relieve us.

It was time to go. A jolly crowd of friends saw us off. People were happy once more; we were coming back to life. Darkness had fallen by the time we had reached the city; the Japs were still in charge, and their sentries stood at the street corner glaring nervously from side to side, their bayonets at the ready, their backs against the walls. They were in for an uncomfortable night.

Our buses were diverted into the naval yard, which had just been taken over by landing parties from the ships. Armed blue-jackets were everywhere; to us they looked simply enormous; their chests were huge, their muscles bulged, and they towered over the Chinese crowding round the gate. No wonder they looked gigantic — they were almost the first well-fed men we had seen.

They were so kind; they welcomed us, entertained us as best they could in the chaos left by the Japs, and finally packed us all off, sleepy and content, in a big motor boat to Sham Shui Po.

Things began to move. The next day the sick prisoners were taken on board a hospital ship; more warships and transports arrived; troops reinforced the naval landing parties. We began to hear stirring tales of the war; we learned of the bewildering technical advances which had been made; we were four years out of date ... back numbers. It was a strange and rather intimidating world into which we were emerging from chrysalises.

A few days later I left the now empty hospital to resume duty at the Observatory. Any essential-service men who were reasonably fit came back from the camps to their old jobs for a while, until the military administration was fully established.

The three of us — Evans, Starbuck and myself, strolled up the shady drive to the old place, and peered around our old haunts, remembering former days. The offices and rooms were in a mess, our household belongings were gone, weeds and creepers rioted over the gardens, but the buildings were undamaged, and the compound was cool and green and peaceful as of old.

It was the day on which Kowloon was re-occupied, and a guard of Marines arrived to take over from the handful of Japs who were stationed at the Observatory. We had the pleasure of watching the little men being politely but very firmly rounded up. A heavy shower had come on, and they were marched away, bent under their heavy packs, dripping and dismal. The circle of events was complete; the usurpers had gone, and we were back once more where we belonged.

This extract comes from the newly released book "It won't be long now", Graham Heywood's account of his wartime experiences. When war arrived on 8th December, 1941, he was working at the Observatory on Nathan Road. Heywood set off with a colleague to the New Territories to collect several instruments. Instead he was captured by the Japanese, and began three years and eight months of life as a prisoner of war.

Despite the hardships and suffering he describes, Heywood's book is an enjoyable read. His sense of humour and wisdom are present throughout:

It did not do to take too much thought for the morrow; better to try to live a good life each day for its own sake, and not for any vague rewards in some future existence ... anyway rather an unworthy motive, I had always thought. There was meaning to life, here and now, ... "love thy neighbour as thyself" ...

"It won't be long now", published by Blacksmith Books, is available for purchase at Commercial Press and Swindon Books, and can be ordered online at: