72 years ago: August 1945 and the end is in sight

Seventy-two years ago: our wartime diarists knew the end of the war was in sight, but would they live to see it?

The good news

They had two good reasons to believe the end of the war was coming. First there was the steady advance of the Allies as they fought their way from island to island across the Pacific. The local newspapers in Hong Kong emphasised the Allied losses at each stage, but it was clear the Japanese were in retreat. By April the Allies were attacking Okinawa, less than 400 miles away from the Japanese mainland. Barbara Anslow, interned in Stanley Camp, wrote about the attack in her diary entry for 6th April:

"Newspaper is full of landings on Lu Chius made on Sunday morning"

(The modern name for the Lu Chius is the Ryukyu Islands, and the largest of the Ryukyu Islands is Okinawa.)

But the big news came next month: Germany's surrender, ending the war in Europe. Here's Barbara again, writing on the 10th of May:

"Armistice signed 2.41pm on 7th May; the German people asked by Hitler's successor to keep calm and try to help dispel the feeling of hate.

We all seem to take the peace so much for granted here, because it has never seemed real to us, but I try to imagine how it is - no blackouts, children coming back from overseas, no more the dread of something happening - and the prospect of being able to settle down to proper family life again.

If it were the Japanese who had surrendered we would feel differently; as it is, we are praying that she will surrender and thus save more useless bloodshed (including perhaps our own).

Dr Talbot gave me aspirins - have headache with styes."

Plenty to worry about

Barbara's second diary entry above ends with a mention of "styes", abcesses that form on your eyelids. Most people get a couple of styes during their life, but Barbara was getting them again and again. The years of limited rations in camp left her and the other internees weak and susceptible to illness. Conditions in the city and the prisoner-of-war camps were even worse. If the war dragged on, they wondered if they'd survive another winter.

Malnutrition patients
Malnutrition patients at Stanley after liberation, by Duncan Robertson

 

So it might seem that an early arrival of allied forces to liberate Hong Kong would be a better option but, as Barbara notes, that had its own risks of "useless bloodshed". If the Allies attacked Hong Kong, the Japanese were unlikely to surrender without a fight. On islands like Iwo Jima and Okinawa they'd developed a strategy of defence using caves and tunnels to protect themselves from the Allies' fire-power. In the fierce fighting that followed, attackers, defenders and civilians all suffered very high casualty rates.

The internees at Stanley had seen the Japanese making similar preparations. R E Jones' diary mentions them on several occasions:

"Japs doing lots of blasting locally." 26th Feb

"Blasting going on all night & day." 27th Feb

"Japs still blasting holes all over the hills & around the beaches locally." 17th Mar

"... blasting going on." 31st Mar

That's his last mention of blasting, but the work continued:

"More stuff being transported up the hills by Japs." 15th Jun

So if there was going to be a prolonged defence of the island, the diarists worried they'd get caught up in the fighting. At least there was a chance of surviving that, but there was a worse option in the back of their minds. If the Allies attacked Hong Kong, would the Japanese simply massacre all the prisoners before the fighting began?

The diarists remembered the massacres committed by the Japanese during the fighting in 1941. And though the diarists didn't know it, the Japanese didn't expect any of their citizens would survive an Allied attack. In the war-crime trials after the war, a senior Japanese official described the Japanese war memorial in Hong Kong, saying "it had been planned that the Japanese would retire there to commit mass suicide."

Nobody expected

The diarists started August with these conflicting hopes and worries. What actually happened that month took them all by surprise - indeed the Americans' use of the atom bomb took the world by surprise.

You can follow the events of August 1945 through the diaries of people who were in Hong Kong at the time. Click here to sign up, and each day you'll receive an email with photos and diary entries from the same date seventy-two years ago. It's free, your details stay private, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

New on Gwulo this week...

Siobhan Keleher wrote in asking for help to locate her brother's grave in Hong Kong. He died in 1973, just a few days old, but none of the family could identify where he was buried. Well done to everyone who replied to Siobhan, and who've now helped her find her bother's grave.

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