Recollections of Ted Harris 1941-1945
[Bob: I am in possession of a multi page document written by one of the younger Harris sons (Ted - his wartime memoirs written in 1997) which I am posting here. Ted's widow has given me permission to share Ted's memoirs.]
At the age of 17 plus, I had matriculated from my studies, but I was becoming aware of impending threats to the colony of Hong Kong, so in mid-1941 I joined the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) because I was advised by their headquarters I was not old enough to join the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps. At the time I was living with my mother when I was not at boarding school. We had some time ago left our large home in Kowloon Tong and Mother had secured a position as manager at a small hotel near where we lived, in a flat in Carnarvon Road.
The Japanese by then had conquered certain parts of Burma, attacked Pearl Harbour, Formosa, Thailand, controlled Indo-China, Kota Bahru, Penang, Sarawak, Mindanao and continued their advance to attack the British colony of Hong Kong by land as well as by air on December 8, 1941.
My first recollection of the severity of the situation, was when I was asked by a friend to help carry a suitcase to the godown (wharf) - little did I know that he had some prior knowledge of the imminent invasion by the Japanese. I was soon to find out and at this stage I tried to ‘phone my Mother, but the phones were disconnected, to tell her that she had better pack a suitecase for herself and my young sister Rosalie and to get down to the ferry terminal as soon as possible, but she must have heard the news on the radio herself and hastened to the terminal. I met her at the Star ferry terminal but because of my responsibilities as an air raid warden, I was not able to join her and Rosalie, which of course upset my mother immensely.
I made a hurried trip to my home at Carnarvon Road, Kowloon, collected the most basic of needs which fitted into a small rattan case, i.e, toilet gear, towel, change of underwear and I was carrying a small amount of money. That was the last time I saw our comfortable flat and possessions.
There was pandemonium at the terminal - British, Australian, Dutch, American - all ex-patriots endeavouring to board a fleet of ferries to cross the harbour to the Island of Hong Kong because at this stage we were being shelled by advancing Japanese troops. I recall it was late in the same day before I was told it was time I, too, left Kowloon and I had no knowledge as to the whereabouts of my Mother and young sister.
I met many people on the ferry who I knew and they all had plans as to where they would stay, but I had no idea for myself so I went straight to ARP headquarters on the island as I felt it was my duty to continue my services with them. That night I slept at ARP headquarters on the floor and not a light showed in the blackout. The next day I met a European lady doctor who asked if I would help her at her small private hospital. This, I was happy to do voluntarily and I remained there for a few days doing general dogsbody work... messages, cleaning up after operations on patients when they had been injured during the shelling etc etc., until I met a friend, John O’Sullivan, who suggested I stay with him, his two sisters and his mother. This I did for about a week and dear Mrs. O’Sullivan treated me like her own son. I shall never forget her. They were devout Roman Catholics and upon my departure in search of my mother and young sister, Mrs O’Sullivan gave me a Roman Catholic medallion of Saint Christopher, and said ‘this will protect you wherever you go”. It still remains one of my treasured possessions.
The shelling by the Japanese continued from the mainland for about a week which kept me busy at the hospital. Casualties mounted and the good doctor was kept extremely busy, both day and night. She never asked me to work at night, but when morning came there was plenty of cleaning up to do.
Whilst the shelling was going on the Japanese also organised landing parties across the narrow isthmus of Lyemoon Pass infiltrating onto the island but of course the defence forces did not realize this until it was too late. Also, whilst the shelling was going on from the mainland Kowloon, I learned very quickly that when you could hear the whistle of the shell coming overhead, it was ok. It’s the one you don't hear that does the damage. Intense fighting ensued; the gun emplacements all around the Peak area were destroyed by Japanese shelling and after eighteen days of fighting, Hong Kong finally surrendered on Christmas Day 25th December 1941. In my opinion the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps who were in the front line, performed far more gallantly than some of the resident British troops.
Recalling an incident of being told that I was too young at 16 or 17 years of age to enlist in the HKVDC, I actually saw a contingent of Canadian troops who had just arrived in Hong Kong about a month before the outbreak of war and who I am sure were little more than 17 years of age. They had little training, did not know the terrain of the island and sadly, they were immediately captured and placed in prisoner of war camps.
After the surrender and prior to meeting up with my mother and Rosalie I had learned that all the P O.W’s were located, particularly the HKVDC at Sham Shui Po barracks in Kowloon so I decided I would see if I could locate any of my friends. There was no transport, so it meant walking there - as I recall a very long walk! The place was surrounded by barbed wire and Japanese guards I was amazed to see just how many allied soldiers were captured - a hellavalot!
I walked along the road but was kept at a distance from the barbed wire by Japanese guards and suddenly I heard a shout ‘Ted, Ted!” And on looking up I saw my brother-in-law Nobby, Ruby’s second husband beckoning me from inside to move further down the barbed wire fence and he proceeded to walk in the same direction. He then threw what appeared to be a stone over the fence, by which time the Japanese guard was aware that some contact was being attempted. I picked up the stone, which in fact had a message for Ruby wrapped around it The guard yelled at me in Japanese and took aim with his rifle as I ran away from the scene. I had the forethought to weave as I ran by which time shots were being fired. Luck was with me and I got away unhurt but very frightened. I was later to learn that my brother, Eric Thomas and my brother-in-law Richard were to spent the rest of the war years in Sham Shui Po prisoner of war camp.
At that time the Japanese had not begun to round up ex-patriots such as Australian, American Dutch, British but at that stage I did not know where Ruby was - in fact not until we were rounded up for internment did I meet up with her. It was then that I gave her the message and for my thanks I was chastised by her for taking such a risk. She was very angry that Nobby should have exposed me to such danger.
On reflection, an interesting sidelight was the great number of Japanese living and working in Hong Kong prior to hostilities. There was no “declaration of war” as such but when Japanese forces invaded Hong Kong, these same people immediately donned their Japanese military uniforms and performed accordingly. They were, therefore, aware of all the locations of gun emplacements and the strength of armed forces, including a contingent of Gurkhas.
The Japanese did not declare war on Britain when they invaded Hong Kong - nor did they declare war on America when they bombed Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941. Going back even further they tried to conquer China and were successful to a point until they were pushed back by Chang Kai Shek and his troops.
Before the Japanese invaded the British Colony of Hong Kong my mother was advised to return to Australia with Rosalie and myself, but always looking on the bright side and feeling she had supposedly influential senior government servant friends, she chose not to do this because she believed the Japanese would be defeated and that life would soon return to normal. Unfortunately, this was not to be and the Japanese proceeded to bomb Hong Kong frequently before the invasion from the mainland, advancing through the New Territories, and capturing Kowloon.
My sister Hazel spent the war years in Kowloon with her parents-in-law, who were Portugese and neutral, and my sister Dorothy, married to an Englishman, Cecil Haynes had heeded the warning and returned to Australia alone. My older brother, Eric, was taken a prisoner of war and spent those years imprisoned in Hong Kong’s Sham Shui Po p.o.w. camp It was in this prison that he contracted tuberculosis, from which he survived, but was ultimately to die from a heart attack in a Sydney street at 29 years of age - the end result of life in a prisoner of war camp.
It was only a short time before we were advised that all allied civilians were to assemble at the Murray Road Parade Ground. There would have been about 2,800 people and it was at this parade ground that I again met up with my mother and young sister. Emotions ran high when they saw me there having feared for my safety.
We were then taken by lorry in convoy, and some by launch, to Stanley where we were interned for the duration of the war. Stanley, which had comprised a civil gaol with accommodation for warders, British officers of the gaol, a small cemetery, St Stephens school and a small hospital, which by the time we arrived had been looted and was deserted . My mother, Rose and I were allocated space (about 8ft x 8ft) in a classroom of the college and it was here that we lived for the next three years and nine months and were reunited with my older brother, George, and his family, and my eldest sister Ruby and her family. Ruby and her sons, Pat and Robert, were allocated space next to us for that length of time. We lived, slept and ate in that space.
My older brother George and his daughters, Pearl, Grace, Joyce and Evelyn - his sons, Fred, Ron, and Bernard were billeted in what was known as the Indian quarters, some distance from us. George was a widower - his wife passed away giving birth to Bernard just prior to the war.
My first activity once we had been allocated space was to deposit my small rattan case and go scrounging for anything I could find which would be of use. We were the proud owners of three mattresses I had found which we laid on the floor. Later on we found some “Mimi Lau” (concrete blocks) and a base which enabled me to provide a bed for Mother.
On my search for anything of use to provide for the basics I stumbled across what appeared to be a pair of boots, but on closer inspection I discovered that the boots belonged to a partially covered dead body, possibly belonging to a member of the HKVDC. Debris and rubbish was everywhere - the war had been fought, the residents evacuated, and those that remained faced a pretty bleak future.
In 1942 the Japanese had introduced their own currency - The Military Yen at the rate of 1 Yen to four Hong Kong dollars thus making it illegally equivalent to the American dollar. Throughout the next three years this was our only currency (should we have been lucky enough to buy some). They were quite well printed notes but without serial numbers. Its purchasing value rapidly fell, for example, by 1945 black market duck eggs were Y.37 each.
“Humiliation” by the Japanese masters seemed to be the operative word at the time. It was expected of prisoners to bow when in their presence, which of course we were not accustomed. Failure to do this resulted in a slapped face or to be butted by their rifle, sometimes on the head or other parts of the body, wherever they felt like it. Degrading treatment by the guards was common until such time as a senior Japanese commandant was appointed.
Friends of mine, Cyril Osborne and his father, were allocated a small room in Stanley on the other side of the passage from us. Cyril told me that his female cousin was pack raped by Japanese soldiers after the Colony had surrendered. No doubt this happened many times to many women, but this was first hand information given to me.
There were perhaps one or two Japanese guards who would on occasions stop and talk to the internees and offer a cigarette.
Senior British government officers gradually assumed a similar role within the confines of the camp and an office was established for the Colonial Secretary, Sir Franklin Gimson and his staff. His role was to communicate and endeavour to negotiate with the Japanese aided by an interpreter. Gimson had been unfortunate enough to arrive in Hong Kong on transfer a bare two days before the Japanese invasion, which was a great start to his diplomatic career!
During the earlier part of my internment I was approached by two very nice ladies Miss Watson and Miss Elliott. They asked me if I would assist them in a tiny office where prospective patients would then be referred (or otherwise) for further attention by a medical officer. My duties were to weigh and measure Wesson cooking oil from large containers into patients’ receptacles. These quantities could measure between one quarter to one half a pint which would then be taken by them with their meals. It was supposed to help reduce bowel problems etc., and hopefully help to balance their diet and was not distributed to everyone, only those who were seeking medical aid. This particular chore took up most of every morning.
Whilst working with the Misses Elliott and Watson, I managed to convince a Chinese driver to buy a pair of barber’s clippers so that I was able to cut my own hair and ultimately others, when asked. I did this free of charge and I had about eight or ten regular customers, including Professor Forster whom I had met once before at the University prior to the outbreak of war when I was registering to do a three year full time course on Electrical Engineering There was also Clifton Large and Ralph Dormer, my old scout masters amongst my clients. The clippers lasted the whole term of internment and I still cut my own hair, with the use of two mirrors and pair of clippers! I should say I did have some competition in the camp - an Englishman, Curtis by name, but he charged two cigarettes for a haircut! Only Chinese cigarettes were available through the black market at an exorbitant price, but the Japanese guards discovered very quickly the source of the cigarette supply and put a stop to it.
In the afternoon I was rostered by internal staff to help carry firewood for cooking - logs about 8 inches in diameter and a meter long, from the Stanley jetty up the hill to the kitchen, a distance of approximately 700 yards - no mean task as I was then about 17 or 18 years of age and a lightweight. Inevitably there were a lot of bludgers in the camp as indeed there were a great number of fine people who were prepared to do more than their fair share of the work required. There were many in the camp who refused to assist in these necessary jobs but were all too eager to be in line to receive their meal when cooked. Of course, many were unable to help because they were too ill, frail or unfit and, it was very heavy work An afternoon of hauling logs by hand up to the camp took its toll.
I think the Americans interned numbered about 60; they remained with us for some months after which they were repatriated back to the States on a prisoner exchange programme. Understandably, as there were few, if any Japanese either in Britain or Australia at the outbreak of war, we were not fortunate enough to be involved in any such exchange programme. As the weeks and months wore on consideration was given to the education of the youthful.
Education ... Within the confines of the camp we had an impressive collection of academics - some of whom were Professor Forster, Professor Brown and a list of teachers who were very willing to help conduct classes.
These senior classes would commence at 9 am. I studied Electrical Engineering conducted by Professor Brown and Mr. Finnie. I also studied English Literature conducted by Professor Forster. The actual course of subjects I completed were: English, Maths, Applied Maths, Strength of Materials, Electricity, Heat and Heat Engines, Machine Drawing, Modem Industry. Unfortunately, I was to learn on my repatriation to Australia that the certificates I had received within the Camp were not valid here and further years of study lay ahead of me to be accepted in this country as an Electrical Engineer.
Although it was not compulsory to attend the classes in camp, they were well attended - about 10 in all. We had no text books, educators relied upon memory; we had little or no paper to write upon; paper was one of the most valuable commodities in the camp. We used every scrap of paper we could scrounge, including empty cigarette wrappers but there was nevertheless a spirit of enthusiasm with all who attended the classes.
Scouting, which had always been my love, was banned within the camp for obvious reasons - we were not allowed to practise the normal things, such as semaphore, morse, hold camp fires - imagine planning a hike in an internment camp ! And besides, the gathering of groups was prohibited.
I decided to have a go at forming a youth group which became very popular, i.e a club with about 10 members. We became very enthusiastic and had some wonderful speakers from the wealth of talent and experience within the camp. We had Professor Forster, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Literature, Hong Kong University, Dr. Rhys-Jones, Medical Doctor lectured on health and medicine, Mr. Finnie, manager Taikoo Dockyard and Engineering Co., Professor Brown, Professor of Mathematics, Dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering, Hong Kong University, Professor Byrnes, Lecturer of Electrical Engineering, Hong Kong University. We also had lecturers such as Captain Jackson, Mr. Munton, Mr Gilbert, Captain Awcock, Mr. Stevens and Mr Russell - all academics.
We also arranged debates, quizzes, smells, observation, games, which created much hilarity and a boost to these young people who were deprived of normal day to day activities. There were also classes provided for primary children, staffed by volunteers and George’s children attended these along with Ruby’s two sons, Pat and Robert.
There was in the camp a gentleman named Viv Garten who took it upon himself to be the main instigator of entertainment within the camp. The occasional concert was held in the hall of St Stephens College. Here again we had some excellent talent and it certainly helped to boost our morale and cheer us up immensely. I expect permission would have had to be sought from the Japanese to hold these concerts, because as I have already mentioned, gatherings in groups were not allowed. If you were half fit enough to attend the concerts nothing would keep you away ! One of the happier highlights of camp life. And for my money, Viv deserved a medal after the war for keeping up the spirits of the internees for nearly four years.
I recall, Clifton (Cliffie) Large, my old scout master, came on the stage one night dressed up as the Colonial Secretary Gimson and spoke in perfect imitation of that gentleman. If you shut your eyes you would be convinced that it was Gimson speaking - even to the impediment ... and the audience howled with delight. But what Cliffie didn’t realize was that Gimson had quietly walked on to the back of the stage and stood there behind Cliffie while he went into his act! But it was all done in jest.
By and large, under the circumstances, the internees made the best of the conditions under which they found themselves. There were doubtless incidents with the Japanese In the early days of internment one of the internees made a wireless from parts smuggled into the camp. It was discovered by the Japanese and the poor fellow paid the ultimate price with his life.
There was a time when the Japanese thought there would be a mass escape so they rounded up all the men from 18 years upwards (myself included) and marched us into the Stanley prison. For some reason, possibly because I was barely 18 I was released but the rest stayed in the prison for a week - no doubt an exercise in high security or a warning of what would happen if an attempt at escape was made.
Note should be made here that if an internee died, usually in hospital, he/she would be wrapped in hessian (saved from the rice deliveries) from head to foot, laid in a crude coffin with a re-useable top, bottom and sides. The coffin was in two parts; the base was flat on which the body was laid and the top and sides were fabricated to fit over the base. When the coffin was used it was placed on a stretcher-trolley with two wheels and conveyed to the cemetery, which was often my job along with another fellow who was a health inspector before internment. During the burial service the whole coffin was lowered into the grave by the pallbearers. After the service when the mourners had departed the top portion of the coffin was lifted off by the ropes which were attached leaving the body lying on the base. The grave digger would then jump in, tilt the corpse and remove the base utilizing four separate ropes attached. Thus the complete coffin was reuseable for the next burial. The empty coffin was then returned to its storage space near the hospital in a recess under the Stanley prison wall. As we had no suitable timber we had no alternative but to use the same coffin for all burials.
Atrocities? Yes it happened, and punishment metered out to offenders, the main offence being attempts at escape which were frequent in the early days of internment.
The punishment for those who were captured would be to dig their own graves and when this was done, they would be forced to kneel in front of it, hands secured behind their backs and looking into the grave. They would then be executed by beheading and ultimately shot, just to ensure that they were dead. It then fell to the lot of the internees who were on undertakers duty to cover the victims with earth. This is an aspect of those years which took its toll of me for many years after the war when I suffered from horrible nightmares.
There was in charge of our kitchen an Englishman named Fred Shanks; he was to become one of the most respected people in Blocks 8 and 9 and the Science block. In the early days of internment, our food comprised one small handful of boiled rice, accompanied by a mean selection of vegetables. This was served late afternoon. The rice came in large hessian bags, used as mentioned above for shrouds. It was brought to the camp by Chinese drivers under the command of the Japanese and it was then divided into quantities for distribution to the various kitchens - about five or six, including the hospital.
Fred Shanks controlled the distribution of food for blocks 8, 9 and the Science block which was St Stephens College, as mentioned before, and was responsible for the preparation and cooking making it go a very long way. It was not the nice clean rice we know; it was infested with weevils and looked as though it had been swept up from the floor. Fred had the idea that by retaining a small portion each day, he could prepare a light meal for breakfast, known as "congee” which was like a thin gruel and then a small ladle of boiled rice with vegetables late in the afternoon. This way at least we could look forward to something in the morning to line our stomachs and not have to wait all day for some food.
We used wood in the fireplace for cooking, this as I have mentioned had been dragged up from the jetty to prepare the food; the ash from the fire was salvaged later to be used in the preparation of lye, an alkaline solution leached from wood ash. We boiled the ash to make the lye which we bottled, and then used it mixed with water in place of soap to wash our clothes. Fortunately, there was no shortage of water which had been connected pre-war to the original site.
All our meagre meals were prepared in huge woks set into the fireplace. It was very difficult to lift these woks in fact it was well nigh impossible, so they were never actually “washed up”. What happened was that they were cleaned in situ after use and thinking back, it is a great reflection on the people who staffed our particular kitchen, that in the time my family and I were interned we suffered no problems caused by food poisoning, such as diarrhoea, dysentry, et cetera.
In the early days of internment we formed a chain gang with every available and conceivable container and carried water from the sea to the kitchen where it was stored and used for cooking our food in place of salt Let me explain here, that we did use fresh water to cook with and added a proportion of sea water for flavour. It should be pointed out that our journeys to the sea for salt water were strictly under the control of Japanese armed guards in case any of us should attempt an escape.
Once, to supplement the rations of my immediate family I knew that there was a small forest on the edge of the camp and in this forest were some birds of an indeterminate breed. I felt this could be one way to supplement our rations, so I decided to make a catapult and quietly took off for the said forest. I waited patiently and sure enough the birds came into sight. I took aim and fired, ultimately killing a couple of these poor little creatures. I took them back to the camp and my sister Ruby prepared and cooked them and we all had about a mouthfull each. It was a rare treat from rice and vegetables, but I felt terribly guilty and so ashamed of myself and didn’t indulge in this activity again. Desperation or hunger will make you do some totally foreign things.
Around about this time, I received a request from Fred Shanks to join his kitchen staff making me the youngest involved in that area, although there was certainly no “pecking order” and we worked as a team. I was still involved with my community work, hair cutting, undertaker, assisting Misses Elliott and Watson in the health centre, not to mention my studies, but I took up the offer to join Fred and I learned a great deal from him.
It was all menial tasks like washing rice and preparing vegetables, mostly Chinese cabbage and turnips and I was rostered on the kitchen staff every alternate day. We started at 6 am, working until the evening meal was served and all the cleaning up and hosing down of the benches and concrete floors was completed. This would be just before darkness descended, after which we would sit on the parapet outside the kitchen looking out to sea talking and reminiscing on the good times before the war, this was when we first learned an insight to our fellow kitchen hand and internee, Stutchbery - but more about him later.
Could I just mention at this stage that we became very adept at dishing out the rations. Let’s say for example we had approximately 31.5 lbs of rice per day with which to feed 367 people in Blocks 8 and 9 and the Science Block, this meant each serving weighed in the vicinity of 1.3 ozs. When the rice was cooked, which in effect was about a small handfull, we developed the art of firstly dividing the huge wok into four equal sections and then we would transfer one quarter at a time into a receptacle from which to serve. Using a small ladle we would scoop up a portion and then deftly run a knife over the top of the serving so that by this means everybody received level and equal portions, and thanks to Fred’s calculations there was never any left over. Should there ever be a surplus, which almost never happened, it would be saved until the next morning and added to the congee wok
On occasions, instead of working alternate days, I used to stand in for anyone who was sick - and this happened frequently. Although the work was hard and heavy going we all thought it was our duty to pull our weight. We had an obligation to look after the people we were feeding and to get them through these hard times to the best of our ability. We were a good team and felt it was a privilege to work with Fred Shanks at the helm.
I mentioned earlier how I had managed to throw together into my case the barest of necessities, toiletries etc. and it occurs to me now that I manage to make a toothbrush last about six weeks, if I'm lucky, can you imagine using the same toothbrush for nearly four years ? I should have kept that as a memento too. Another thing comes to mind at this juncture and that was when I began working in the kitchen for Fred Shanks it became necessary to have something suitable on my feet - I had only the one pair of shoes I stood up in - so I set to with a saw I had borrowed and “carved” myself a pair of Chinese clogs out of a piece of wood, using a strip of old leather for the uppers These served me well for those years, specially in the kitchen when buckets of water were sloshed about every night after the evening meal.
Toilet paper - we made use of Chinese newspaper whenever possible. When it wasn’t available we adopted the Indian method of taking a can of water with us to the toilet. I understand also that for the womenfolk in the camp, menstruation ceased due to malnutrition - which I guess in some ways was a blessing as there certainly would have been no provision made for this biological function.
As I have mentioned, one of the kitchen staff, by the name of Stutchberry, formerly a Lieutenant in the British army, had been sent out to Hong Kong to recuperate from shellshock after being involved in the evacuation of Dunkirk on May 26, 1940. Stutch didn’t talk about himself very much but from the little he told us things were terribly bad at Dunkirk and prior to it. So basically Stutch went from one disaster to another. After the war, he was stationed in Malaya, as it was then, as British Commissioner with his wife Norah. Sadly she was ambushed in her vehicle by Malayan terrorists. She was abducted and was later found with her body riddled with bullets and knife wounds.
Let’s speak about religion. Both Rosalie and I had received a formal Anglican upbringing, myself having attended Dioscesan Boys School as a border and Rose went to Dioscesan Girls School as a day student. It was in the camp that we came into contact with two American Maryknoll catholic priests - Father Hessler and Father Meyer. These two gentlemen were Christians in the truest send of the word. My mother was so impressed with these two priests that she was converted to Catholicism during her time in the camp, as was Rosalie. Mum was not a regular churchgoer but she retained her belief in the Catholic faith until she died.
I used to have bible studies in the camp with an Anglican priest and his wife, Rev’d and Mrs. Rose. He was a heck of a nice fellow and she was a gentle lady. I think my faith helped me in camp. I was a believer before I went into the camp and I left the camp with my faith intact In my school days I used to be a server in the school chapel assisting the Headmaster/vicar, the Rev’d Sargent. He was ordained a Bishop a couple of years before I left school and was immediately sent to Nanking in China to serve the European and Chinese community there. I deeply respected the two Maryknoll priests but I never felt the need to convert to the Catholic faith like Mum and Rose.
As you see, time never hung on my hands in the camp because I kept myself busy. There were of course others who suffered from total boredom because they never made any effort to be kept occupied.
My mother lost a lot of weight. Food was the main problem - only rice and poor quality vegetables. Hardly sufficient to sustain a healthy person and she ultimately developed beri-beri from malnutrition. Beri-beri is lack of vitamen B1 and the effects are swollen joints - abnormally swollen and extremely painful. It affected a lot of people in the camp, of course nothing could 6e done about it because there was no Vitamen B1 available in our diet. She was of pretty solid stock and survived the camp life, ultimately to suffer greater problems on her repatriation to Australia from the long term effects of internment, mainly terribly ulcerated ankles. She occupied her time in the camp by walking the grandchildren, particularly Ruby’s son Robert, whom she loved dearly, making friends with a lot of people. This basically was her life during those years.
I have special memories of my mother, who was determined that there was no way would she bow to a Japanese - her solution was to take Robert for walks around the camp, he was a toddler then of about 2 or 3 years of age, and she would make a point of strolling where she knew she would not encounter any guards.
Mum really couldn’t do too much during those years - her main determination was to survive internment, which she did and lived until she was 73 years - very much the matriach of the Harris family.
I do remember two ladies, twin sisters - Doris and Eileen Woods. They did not live in the same quarters as us, but in a bungalow housing approximately 50 or 60 people in the Science Block behind St Stephens. They commanded the greatest respect from everyone for their cheerful acceptance of what had befallen them. On the way to the kitchen each day to collect their rations they would greet everyone they met with a happy smile and a few words of encouragement. In fact, everyone loved them.
I recall we received only one Red Cross parcel for the whole duration of internment, the other parcels would have been intercepted and confiscated by the Japanese for their own consumption. Our allocation from this parcel per head contained all tinned food -soup, bully beef, sweet com, a packet of rock hard biscuits. When the parcel arrived we were extremely grateful and it certainly helped to supplement our meagre diet. Some internees sat down on receipt of the food parcel and consumed their entire ration. Others handled the situation with more caution making the contents of the parcel last as long as possible which was the wisest thing to do having been deprived of any food other than rice and vegetables for up to that stage, about three years.
One memorable day we heard planes flying overhead and also gunfire in the distance. We rushed outside to see what was happening and we saw two or three American fighter bombers, one plane was diving down to the camp and dropped a bomb about 200 yards from Block 9 which adjoined our Block 8. It partly demolished a bungalow accomodating 30 people of whom several were badly injured. I remember rushing out when I heard someone yell “St Stephens please help” so I joined a small group who went to the aid of these unfortunate folk but we could offer very little assistance because of lack of medical supplies. All we could do was to clear the debris from the victims and the injured were rushed to the camp hospital for treatment. One can only assume that the fighter pilot had mistaken the bungalow housing some internees to be the Japanese headquarters of the camp.
The next day I was curious to see if any other damage was incurred and discovered a bullet imbedded in the road. I managed to dislodge it by digging around it and I still have the bullet as a memento of that disastrous day.
Bearing in mind the close confines under which we lived, I was not aware of any great tensions or differences within the family units of Mum and Ruby. We had to make the best of things and we all tried. The only privacy we had depended on a curtain dividing the two families, Ruby and her family and Mum, Rosalie and myself. Apropos and interesting to note that the post-war years continued to show a strong family bond and remained that way until the ultimate deaths of Mum, Ruby and Rose.
It was around about this time that a romance began to flourish in the camp. That of Ruby and an Englishman, Chris (Jock) Scott. Jock was billeted in the Science quarters and became a frequent visitor. Briefly, Ruby’s marriage to Nobby floundered during the war years and Ruby and Chris were ultimately married at Wesley Church, Melbourne on their repatriation to Australia. From this marriage were two sons, Dennis and Chris.
Towards the third year of internment the Japanese agreed to give us permission to go down to Stanley Beach in groups of about 20 organised by two European police inspectors interned in the camp, Inspector O. F. Bower and another whose name escapes me. They accepted the conditions of the Japanese that if any escape attempts were made they would accept full responsibility, and they knew precisely what that meant, so I joined the group and although still accompanied by armed Japanese guards, it was great to be able to have a swim in the sea even though it was on a roster basis. It was by no means expected as an every day occurrence - it was a special favour, and not to be abused.
It was under these conditions that I achieved a temporary Royal Lifesaving Society Intermediate Certificate and Bronze Medallion for swimming, in October 1942 “for practical knowledge of rescue, releasing oneself from the clutch of drowning and for ability to render first aid in resuscitating the apparently drowned” which was ultimately sent to me in July 1948 under the auspices of the Chief Secretary in London.
The years had moved on to 1945 and there was a feeling pervading the camp that there was a light at the end of the tunnel - that the Japanese were being defeated, so let’s now think about the events of 31 August 1945 when we were told the war was over.
We had suspected something was happening when the Japanese began to move out of the camp in cars and lorries Officers in cars, other ranks in trucks. We were warned by the Colonial Secretary’s office in the camp not to leave the area under any circumstances as it was extremely dangerous outside and to wait until we were assured that it was in fact safe to leave.
During this time, I was so excited one morning I couldn’t contain myself any longer and decided to leave the camp, managing to commandeer a small car which had been left abandoned outside the barbed wire enclosure. It’s hard to explain the emotions I felt, and at that age one does not stop to wonder about the consequences of such an act. I was free!!
Fortunately there was a small quantity of petrol in the car. What happened was I drove towards the city (by myself) and witnessed quite a number of Japanese officers congregating at the entrance to the Naval Dockyard. With hindsight, how stupid and what a risk I took, as I approached one of these officers and asked him to give me his sword! He hesitated, and I asked him again; to my surprise he detatched the sword and scabbard from his belt and handed it to me. By then it was getting late in the afternoon so I decided to return to Stanley with my unexpected trophy, but I had very mixed feelings about showing it to my friends and kept it pretty much under wraps.
At this time extra food rations arrived at the camp - however, we were advised not to be too anxious to overeat as our years of frugal rations would have taken its toll. Had we indulged too much we could have made ourselves very ill. We all waited in the camp in a state of limbo for several days until the arrival of members of the British navy. I cannot sufficiently express my emotions or those of my fellow internees so I write in quote an except from the South China Morning Post and The Hong Kong Telegraph dated Friday August 31,1945.
“Scene at Stanley”
“Stirring Ceremony at Raising of the Flag”
The Navy Came in Haste”
(Our Stanley Correspondent)
“Hong Kong, lost to the British for almost four years, was recovered in August 1945. On the thirtieth of that month the raising of the Union Jack at Stanley Internment Camp officially signalised the restoration of British control”
Thus may some historians record yesterday’s ceremony, but as usual the history books will offer a dry-as-dust record of the most stirring ceremonies in the Colony’s history - certainly the most stirring experience in the memories of Stanley’s relieved internees numbering over two thousand, who were its witnesses.
Attended by a bodyguard, whose sturdiness was the admiration of the recently famished internees, Rear Admiral Cecil Harcourt, Senior British Naval Officer, China Coast, drove into the camp just before 5 p.m.. With him came Mr. F.C. Gimson. His Britannic Majesty’s Representative in Hong Kong, and other Government officials. Together Rear-Admiral Harcourt and Mr Gimson took their place in an enclosure distinguished by a tall flagpole and nine attendant flagpoles, against the lines of which crowded excited internees.
Quiet followed a call by Bugler J.D.Pester and the Union Jack was immediately raised to the head of the main flagpole After singing the National Anthem, the flags of the United States, China, Russia, Norway, Holland, Belgium, France, Greece and Poland were broken from the remaining flagpoles. For a few impressive moments the flags were then lowered to half-mast while the Rev’d E.W.L. Martin and the Rev’d A.P Rose commemorated the war dead in a short prayer.
The flags were then raised and Rear-Admiral Harcourt stepping forward called for three cheers for His Majesty. These were given exuberantly and Rear-Admiral Harcourt found himself the subject of three further spontaneous cheers. Three cheers were also accorded the Air Force before the gathering subsided into a decorous chorus of “O God Our Help In Ages Past” led by the Choir of the United Churches in Camp. The National Anthem was then repeated.
The people’s pleasure in the ceremony was capped by a few words by the Rear Admiral
“I just want to say how glad I am to have the privilege of attending this ceremony” he said “I am very sorry I have to go so soon, but I have to get around to the other camps as well.
“I only want to say one thing. The motive that has inspired all my men, all the bluejackets, to get here as soon as possible - which we have done - has been, really, you people”
One aspect of this ceremony, despite the journalist who wrote the preceding report, was that no great numbers attended the service, there was no “runner” within the camp to let the internees know that the Rear Admiral was about to make a speech - I was just lucky enough along with those others who were within the precinct of the Colonial Secretary’s office to hear him. In total about a couple of hundred were there at the time. Nor were there so many flags at their mastheads, perhaps three or four. Neither did Mr. Gimson drive into the camp with Harcourt - he, like us, had remained within the confines of the camp. I am also completely at a loss to know why this journalist mentioned three cheers for the Air Force - we had never even sighted them. Let’s assume the three hearty cheers should have been for the Navy. Very pedantic of me perhaps, but truth is all important.
Yes, it was a very emotional day - there was not a soul who would not have shed tears of joy.
At this stage we were told that transport would be provided over a period of weeks to take internees to points of departure. These arrangements were placed in the hands of the Colonial Secretary’s office and his administrative secretary, J. A. Stericker, who had a massive job before him. It involved weeks of work, but we, Mum, Rosalie and myself, along with about eight others accepted the offer to come to Australia and we were given passage on His Majestys Aircraft Carrier “Vindex”. Jock, Ruby and her two sons, Pat and Robert were allocated a passage on H.M.S “Striker”.
Many Government servants had no alternative but to remain in the Colony and take up their former positions. My family and I had no wish whatsoever to remain in Hong Kong. Our home was gone, our possessions with it and my Mother, Rose and I were happy to be leaving to start a new life in Australia.
Jock and Ruby made a trip back to Sham Shui Po prior to boarding the “Striker” to see what had happened there. He told me the place was in utter ruin - totally wrecked., so Mum, Rosalie and I never had the inclination to see what, if anything, remained of our former home.
When the British forces landed, one of the first Proclamations invalidated all Japanese currency entirely. As it happened, large stocks of unissued notes were seized in the Naval Dockyards and a party of British sailors were detailed to dispose of them. Somehow, I doubt that their method of disposal precisely followed instructions because I was an amused spectator of wild scenes of excitement when large crowds of Chinese gathered on the outside of the Naval Yard fence, and were showered with thousands of brand new Japanese currency, millions of yen in face value.
I later learned the sequel of this, equally funny to look back on, but more than a little embarrassing for the British authorities, was when it was discovered that the consignment of new Hong Kong dollar currency could not be traced on any ship in the first convoy - so the demonetization of the Military Yen had to be postponed for a couple more days.
There were a number of British naval ships in port, standing by to repatriate the former internees, most of whom were heading for the United Kingdom but the first job the British Navy had before them was to clear the mines which the Japanese had laid in the harbour during the occupation. However, seventeen days later, on the 17th. September, we left Stanley and were taken by bus to the wharf where we boarded the “Vindex.” leaving the Far East on the 18th. September 1945 and I did not return there until 1983 with my wife, but that’s another story !
We were well looked after on the voyage. Our accomodation on board consisted of bunks and our food was the same as the crew. They were curious to learn about our three years and nine months of internment but we found it very hard to speak about. There was the fun time of crossing the Equator when Father Neptune dressed in all his glory performed the “Crossing the Line Ceremony” The men, particularly, were told to don their bathers or underdaks and we were dabbed with what seemed to be like kitchen refuse. Sounds ghastly, but it didn’t smell all that bad, after which we were tossed into a tank filled with water.
Time did not hang on my hands on board. Probably it did for my Mum - but we pretty much had the freedom of the ship. The only thing I regret about the time on board was the loss, or theft of my Japanese sword which was taken from my cabin. There was only one stop en route for Australia and that was Ponam Island in the Pacific to take on supplies. Ponam Island was a rather small island with a few huts, a few coconut palms and not much else and there was a small landing strip for aircraft, used by the Americans during the war. We were allowed to leave the aircraft carrier to visit the island which some of us did and I immediately headed for the only spot of interest which was the airstrip. There was a Yankee pilot who was kind enough to chat to me and when he found out where we had come from he offered me a flight around the island in his little aircraft - only for about ten minutes - but it was a great thrill after being incarcerated for almost four years.
Finally, came the 3rd. October 1945 and we sailed through the heads into Sydney Harbour. It was a wonderful sight to see the Harbour Bridge and to know that hopefully a new and peaceful life was ahead of me and my family. When we disembarked we were immediately taken by bus to a small hotel in Watson’s Bay where we stayed for a couple of days as a transit base, during which time we were each given a clothing voucher - remember we only had pretty much what we stood up in. Our worldly possessions amounted to a very small case each. The next day we made the most of our vouchers buying some new clothes.
From Watsons Bay we were taken to Lithgow in the Blue Mountains on October 8th where we were accomodated in barrack type quarters; the purpose of this being a period of recuperation where we were looked after by a team of carers. We had the freedom of the place and could come and go as we felt inclined. We ultimately left Lithgow on 1 February 1946 heading for Melbourne on The Spirit of Progress train.
Arriving at Spencer Street Station we were greeted by Mum’s long lost family - Uncle Bert, Aunty Doll, Aunty Lotte and my sister Dorothy. Mum and Rosalie went to stay for some time with Aunty Doll and I spent several years living at Yarraville with my Grandfather until he died and my Aunt Lotte who was so very kind to me over this period of adjustment, before Mother was successful in obtaining a housing commission grant for a home in Hampton. We, Mum, Rosalie and I then lived once again as a family until I married.
These are my thoughts about the formative years of my life, I have little doubt that there is much I have not written about which in time may come to mind There may well be future addendums to these pages, but this will at least give you some idea of how I spent my time as “a guest of the Japanese Emperor” between the years of 1941 and 1945.
I would have to record that it took many years after release from Stanley to even speak about these years of incarceration, but we are told that time heals all wounds, and maybe it has taken over fiftytwo years for me to come to terms with this view, so that I have now been able to put my thoughts into words.
My grateful thanks to Glad for her persistence, perseverance and patience in pursuing the history of my early life up until the age of 21.
Remember, on the 31st. August in 1945 we were released from internment and co-incidentally in 1957 exactly twelve years later on the same day I married Glad and we are now joyfully about to celebrate forty years of wedded bliss?? from which our greatest achievement, without doubt, are our two sons, Robin Eric and Peter Arthur who have brought us so much pride and joy.
August 31, 1997