01 Jun 1944, John Charter's wartime journal

Submitted by HK Bill on Fri, 01/07/2022 - 13:07

(Day 887 of captivity).      The beginning of a new month thank God. Time passes wearily along. One day is so exactly like another that it is extremely difficult to fix the dates of events in one’s memory. I suppose I may read this diary one day and it will bring back many things I have already forgotten about. Incredible it is to think we have been in this place for over 2 years 4 months now! If we are still here, (as I fear we shall be) by July 8th of this year, I shall by that day, have spent just half my sojourn in Hong Kong in this camp.

Since the beginning of this year there have been some quite radical changes in the camp. In the first place, this camp is no longer designated ‘Stanley Civilian Internment Camp’ but is now ‘The Military Internment Camp HK’. We are no longer under the control of the Civil Administration and Gendarmerie but under the control of the Japanese Army. We have no definite information concerning this change; I cannot think that the whole of HK is now under Military administration. It is thought by many that the change is due to a request made by the British Govt that we be treated as prisoners of war in order that we should enjoy all the privileges laid down in the Geneva Conventions appertaining to such persons.

I think I am correct in stating that we (the civilians here) are the first British subjects, in the history of the British Empire, to be interned in British Territory. Had we been allowed to live in HK in our own houses, I suppose the Japanese could not be held responsible for our welfare; now, however, that they have interned us we are their responsibility. But as this is the first time that civilians have been interned by an enemy power in their own territory, there is no precedent to follow and no international conventions to be used as guides as to the treatment of us by the Japanese. Actually, as the Japanese were not signatories of the Geneva Convention, concerning the treatment of prisoners of war, they deny any obligation to be bound by the convention although they have stated that, in actual fact, they are treating us according to the rules of the convention.

In reply to requests from Mr Gimson that our rations be improved the Japs have stated that we are receiving the same rations as the Japanese territorial soldiers. I presume this means the Japanese private. I cannot believe this statement to be true; or if it is, then God help the territorial soldier! It is true that the diet of the Japanese nation is more largely vegetarian than our own, but we can barely subsist on these rations, let alone fight on them.

One benefit that we have derived from this take over by the Military Authorities is that they have prior claim to all supplies entering the Colony and that though the rations are gradually becoming poorer and poorer, they would, in all probability, be poorer still were we still under the civil authorities when our rations were supplied by a contractor who obviously would not supply more than he could possibly help. So we derive what small comfort we can from that.

Following the change in administration here the Japanese gendarmerie were replaced by Formosan military guards. This change took place at the beginning of Feb and, as it is customary (evidently) in POW camps for the prisoners to salute their guards on meeting or passing them, the internees here were instructed by Mr Gimson either to say, “Good morning” (O-hi-o in Japanese) or raise their hats or make some gesture of salutation. This we endeavoured to do to start with, but the guards (especially the one stationed in the main road) seemed rather surprised at all this friendly greeting and grew so tired of acknowledging hundreds of salutations that the formality in a general way was soon dropped!

Another sequel to this take over by the Military was the declaration we were all obliged to sign on the 24th or 25th of Feb. We were ordered up the hill in groups, at specified times on those days and there we had to sign a form to the effect that, “I declare on oath that I will not attempt to escape or divulge any military information on my release by the Japanese Military Authorities”.

It further stated that any contravention of this oath would be severely dealt with and would, if necessary, include the sentence of death. We were informed that pressure would be put upon any who refused to sign and people would be coerced by such methods as being made to stand for an indefinite period holding, say, a weighty tome in either hand; or being made to sit up in a straight backed chair all night etc. Those refusing to sign would probably be kept in solitary confinement in the gaol. Gimson pointed out that no useful purpose could be served by refusing to sign and advised everyone to do so. Everyone did sign the declaration, though most, if not all, made the inward reservation that since we had signed under duress we were not morally bound to honour the oath.

This, I imagine the Japanese realise and the only object of the whole business is to give them some sort of right or excuse for imposing the death sentence, if they feel like it, should anyone try to escape. Actually they have no right to do this thing in the first place, or to sentence a person to death for attempting to escape in the second.

Bidmead, Fay, Morrison and Randall will have completed their 2 years imprisonment by 20th June and Maejima has stated they will then return to this camp. Poor devils, I’ll bet they are on their best behaviour just now. I also bet, like the other few prisoners who were lucky enough to get back here alive from the gaol, they will be forbidden, under penalty of dire punishment, to say anything of conditions in gaol. I believe when a prisoner is once convicted, he is handed over to the prison authorities, his treatment is infinitely better than while he is in the tender care of the Gendarmerie awaiting trial.

The bankers who went in some months ago, Foy, Cruickshank of the HK Bank, Leper and Camiage of the Chartered Bank, are still, apparently, awaiting trial. Selwyn-Clarke is in prison, for how long I do not know. The remand periods are generally very long, but they do not count towards the sentence.

Another inconvenience which we suffer as a result in the change of administration is a weekly parade and stricter rules regarding roll-calls. Roll-calls take place between 8.00 and 8.15 a.m. and at 9.30 p.m. every day at which time everyone must be in their rooms. The Block Representatives come round at those times to check up. Every Thursday at 8 a.m. the camp parades. This means that all internees form up outside their own blocks in groups – five rows of four people per row, then the next group. These parades were held at 2.00 p.m. at first, but at that time the sun was so hot that the Japs were prevailed upon to change it to the mornings. If it is wet the parade is held next morning or next. At these parades the Japanese from the hill come round and just check up the numbers. We usually sit and read for half an hour, except when the officer arrives, when we stand (unless he has had a good breakfast, when he motions us to remain seated!). It doesn’t take long but it is rather a nuisance.

The other great change that has overtaken the camp is gardening fever. Y and I started our garden last Sept and very glad we are that we did, for we are able to get some beds in the old Married Quarters Garden beside the prison. This garden was cultivated in the early days of camp by a squad of gardeners from these Married Blocks, with Cox in charge. All the communities had their various gardens at the beginning of camp and then, for various reasons, one by one they dropped off. Either there was no nearby water supply; or (as in the case of the Indian Quarters) the area was put out of bounds; or the stuff was stolen; or (as in our case) the gardeners were taken off the list of labourers receiving extra rations at the time when the IRC parcels had been finished and Jap rations were very bad, and the Block Committee decided to eliminate as many extra rations as possible in order to make the ordinary queue rations as large as possible. This question of extra rations has always been a thorn in the flesh, but of that anon. Our community gardeners, who had never received a great deal of encouragement, decided their efforts were not appreciated and decided to give it up.

The garden was, however, kept for Married Quarters people and Cox agreed to remain in charge as his piece of community work. He and the Committee drew up rules and regulations which were briefly: only gardeners were allowed in the area (no friends or children); no tools whatever were to be taken from the area; rules regarding the use of the tool shed etc. (Incidentally, the tool shed is used as the mortuary and the coffin is kept in the shed so we cannot use the tool shed on the day someone dies – all a trifle grim, but these things just cease to worry one in a place like this). Cox has kept a few beds for the community where he grows chilies for the kitchen and a few for residents if they like to pep up their own food. He also looks after the plantain trees – last year every resident received about three or four bananas during the year. There are some guavas but, without lots of sugar, these are not much use. There are some papaya trees there too and these fruits he distributes amongst the people who have gardens in this area. So far, we have had only two little green fruit which blew off in a gale, so we don’t look to this source for any great supply of edibles.

By about the end of last Oct all the available beds in the Married Quarters gardens had been allocated to private gardeners. We asked the Bidwells if they would like to join us in our enterprise, but they decided it was not worth while. However, by Nov they had changed their minds and as there was no space left in the MQ gardens, Mr Lammert selected a site on the hill above the old tennis lawn in front of this block and finding quite good soil there they proceeded to dig up the ground. Watering in the dry weather is their difficulty, and Harold has to carry water up the hill in buckets from a tap that has been laid onto the tennis court. By this time various other people had started cultivating patches of the hillsides.

Just before the end of the year the football committee finally decided that even if the IRC parcels did arrive, no one, would be fit enough to play football, and so it was decided to make this field (or most of it) available for gardens. It was divided proportionally between the three A Blocks and our four MQ Blocks and applications were invited for plots. People whose names were on the repatriation list were debarred from applying. In the end the whole plot was divided into about 120 small allotments measuring approx 9’ x 17’. Married people had double plots; families of four could have four adjoining plots if they wanted them. Then the ‘gold rush’  started. Such activity was never seen!  It was limited only by the scanty supply of spades and hoes available and the gardeners’ small reserves of surplus energy!

When these Prison Warders Quarters were built about 6 years ago, this lawn had been surfaced with about 1’ of black earth, or no lawn could have been produced; for most of the soil round about is just red, disintegrated granite. So these plots have comparatively good soil, though the beds are not really deep enough. In the mean time all the slopes round the Indian Quarters, St Stephens, the bungalows etc., began to change from scrubby hillside into little, terraced garden plots. In many cases the soil is very poor and water must be a problem. Many water pipes have been laid however. As none of the domestic water pipes in any of the buildings are used here, the pipes and the corresponding taps were stripped out of the buildings by amateur plumbers and were laid to convenient spots of the garden areas. In areas where no water is anywhere near, people have planted chiefly sweet-potatoes, which, in the summer, look after themselves. Anyway, there is usually enough rain in the summer weeks to make watering unnecessary, but from Oct to Feb, when hardly any rain falls it is the biggest and heaviest item in garden cultivation.

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