Hong Kong’s Dark History – Part Two: Dad, and my Uncle – POWs in Japan

In 1944 thousands of allied POWs were transported to Japan to work as slave labour. They embarked from the bamboo piers of the Sham Shui Po POW camp, where they had been surviving for the last three years.

They boarded the SS Soong Cheong on the 15th December, 1943 which took them to Kaohsiung, Taiwan, which in those days was still known as Formosa, arriving on the 20th. On arrival in Kaohsiung they were transferred to the Toyama Maru, which departed the same day, and arrived at Moji, Fukuoka Prefecture on the northern tip of Kyushu on the 5th January, 1944. On board were 204 HKVDC (Volunteers), 194 British regulars and 98 Canadians. The prisoners were sent to various sites including Narumi, Nagoya, Osaka, and Omori. The convoy, was part of what has become known as ‘Hell Ships’.

The ‘Hell Ships were so-called because apart from the horrific conditions, many of them were attacked by allied submarines.  Japan had refused to follow the Geneva Convention with regard to the treatment of POWs (or anything else for that matter) and failed to identify the convoy as one transporting prisoners. This could have been done quite easily by painting large white crosses on the sides of the ships. In their absence, the allied submarine skippers thought they was firing on enemy cargo vessels.

With regard to Japan’s participation in the Geneva Convention: 

Standards for the “humane treatment” of POWs were established in 1907 at an International Conference at The Hague, Netherlands. In 1929 the Geneva conventions Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War was signed by 47 governments. Japan signed the 1929 convention but failed to ratify it. Excerpt from: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/bataan-japan-pows-and-geneva-conventions/

The following YouTube presentation Shot Down Over Japan – the Treatment of American Airmen reveals the total distain Japan had for international conventions. Shocked by the audacity of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo on the 18th April, 1942, Japan passed legislation making it a crime punishable by death to carry out bombing raids on the country.  Any allied airman caught on a bombing raid over Japan was tried, without the benefit of defence counsel, and either imprisoned for life, or executed. 

On the subject of the delivery of Red Cross Food Parcels, the following is taken from Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Cross_parcel:

In 1942, permission was granted by Japan for a diplomatically neutral ship, after Japan refused to permit a Red Cross ship to be deployed, to be dispatched to distribute the parcels. A Swedish vessel, the MS Gripsholm delivered 20,000 Red Cross parcels from Canada, America and South Africa and in addition a consignment of 1,000,0000 cigarettes. A second voyage was refused.[22]

The Japanese government in August 1942 announced that no neutral ship, even a Red Cross ship, would be allowed to enter Japanese waters. Red Cross parcels intended for Allied POWs in Japan were accordingly stockpiled in VladivostokSoviet Union, and a single ship was ultimately permitted to transport some of these to Japan in November 1944, which, in turn were carried by the Japanese vessel Awa Maru, carrying Red Cross markings, in March, 1945, to Singapore. How many of these actually reached the POWs is not known, and the sinking of the Awa Maru on the return trip by a US submarine prevented any future shipments from being made.[29]

At the Changi prison camp run by the Japanese in Singapore, an average POW received a fraction of one food parcel in the three-and-a half years that the camp was open.

My Dad, Charles (Chucky) McConnell Sloan and my Uncle, John (Sconny) Kane Sloan, both being engineers, were sent to Nagoya, to work in a heavy engineering plant manufacturing steam locomotives. Every morning they would be marched to their places in the factory and set to work. Uncle Sconny later told me that he feared for my father’s life, as on several occasions, when he was sure that guards were not watching, Dad would drop pebbles, sand and old ball bearings into the boiler tubes. Fortunately he never got caught as the penalty was sure to have been an instant and painful death. 

Occasionally they were allowed to watch the locomotives leaving the plant and Dad watched in fascination as the big steam engines chuffed past them without any difficulty, pebbles, sand, ball bearings and all. It was the first inkling Dad had of the robustness of Japanese engineering. 

Initially, life in the Japanese POW camp was little different to that of the one in Hong Kong. However, as the war started drawing to a close, and the Americans came closer, supplies became scarcer and the gaunt faces of the Japanese soldiers and civilians more noticeable. 

For the POWs, surviving on the rations handed out by the Japanese guards was an impossible task and on one occasion, as they were being marched back to the camp after their shift, Dad saw what he thought was a potato, lying by the side of the road. He scooped it up and held it tightly in his hand, fearing that if the guards saw it, they would take it. As they entered the camp gates the prisoners had to raise their hands above their heads. Dad did so and the guards were too short to see the potato he was concealing. 

Dad told me that something that did happen frequently was earthquakes. He never forgot the fear of the first one and the sense of helplessness that overcame him. It did not matter what rank you were, a beggar or a king, the earthquake claimed the lives of anyone in its path. Anything up to 150 men would make a bee-line for the nearest doorway, the safest place to be in a tremor. Several times the camp was destroyed and had to be rebuilt by the prisoners.

In the coming months, what the earthquakes spared was destroyed by the Americans who, with incredible accuracy, map bombed the factories. Dad and his fellow POWs would watch, and admire the symmetry of the bomb clusters, knowing full well that within a few days they would be clearing up the rubble and rebuilding the factory. 

Very little news reached the camp from outside but something was definitely happening. There was something in the air and within a few months it turned out to be American fighter planes.

Then, American fighter planes were seen buzzing over the camp. What could be happening? There was as much fear as there was elation as the behaviour of the guards was erratic at best. 

Then one day, completely without warning, the camp commandant called for assembly. In front of the entire camp he explained that Imperial Japan had come to an ‘agreement’ with the allied forces and that he was surrendering his sword to the senior British officer. After the initial elation the guards were rounded up and placed under arrest. Exactly how that was done I will leave to the reader’s imagination.

After a few days more and more fighter planes buzzed the camp. The prisoners had put huge sheets over the barracks identifying their compound as a POW camp for fear of being fired upon. It was at this stage that the beneficence of the American pilots came into question. When confronted with hundreds of skeletal POWs rushing out to wave at them, they decided that the one thing these people needed more than anything else in the world was boots. They somehow managed to fly their planes whilst taking their boots off and dropping them to the prisoners. 

The allied forces were still some miles away but the reports of the fighter pilots left their commanders in no doubt as to the desperate need for food and medical supplies. Very quickly bombers came over with crates containing food stuffs and medicines, and boots, which they dropped with parachutes. 

Unfortunately some of the parachutes had not been affixed properly and where previously the POWs had sheltered under the attack of Japanese bombs they were now sheltering under the attack of American largesse. 

One day Dad and Uncle Sconny, wearing their new boots, went out, each armed with a tin opener and a spoon, determined to eat the contents of the first crate they found. 

Dad told me it was peaches, whereas Uncle Sconny was sure that it was strawberry jam. Regardless, apart from vanilla ice cream, I never once saw my father eat anything sweet. 

Finally the allies arrived and proper medical facilities were made available. With this came the churches, Catholic, Protestant and Baptist, each vying to save the souls of the POWs. Dad told me that in order to attract new members or converts each church offered a free meal. Dad became a Catholic in the morning, a Protestant at lunchtime, and a Baptist at dinnertime. 

It was around this time that the prisoners were allowed to go out foraging in the local areas and it was then that Dad found sacks full of Japanese Yen. Thinking that it would be worth a fortune at some time in the future he carried them all back to the camp. 

Eventually the prisoners were moved to the coast where hospitals ships waited to complete their transformation from living skeletons to relative normalcy. They were told that due to the trauma they had endured they were not expected to live for more than ten years. Dad told me this in 1966; 20 years later as we were sitting in his car at a Stubbs Road look out. 

Dad and his companions were told to pack up their meagre belongings and report onboard a hospital ship for a complete check up and, among other things, a delousing. Once on board they were told to strip and leave everything on deck. They were taken below, washed, shaved, fed and medicated, given fresh uniforms and then allowed back on deck where they found that all their belongings had been thrown overboard. Dad watched sadly as millions of Yen floated away on the morning tide. 

The allies had an enormous job, feeding, housing, clothing and evacuating thousands of POWs and this was done using every possible means. The fittest POWs were given space on anything movable and in Dad and Uncle Sonny’s case, this was a hospital ship which delivered them to the Philippines. 

In some cases the transportation consisted of stripped out bombers. On one particular flight the atmosphere on board must have been was joyous and the men were singing, shouting and doing just about anything they could think of to express their joy at being alive. Then there was an electrical fault, and the bomb bay doors opened without warning. Four prisoners were lost over the Sea of Japan before anyone even realised what was happening. Four men who had endured the horrors of the battle for Hong Kong, deprivation, starvation and torture in Prisoner of War camps in both Hong Kong and Japan were lost in a split second before the helpless eyes of the men with whom they had endured those horrors.

Dad and Uncle Sconny also had some adventures in the Philippines. One of which was when they left the camp and headed into the town in search of whiskey. They were met by a very large American soldier, who, according to Dad, had an equally large machine gun. The American suggested in no uncertain terms that they, ‘Git’. Dad told me that he and Uncle Sconny promptly ‘Got’!

Eventually the POWs were shipped across the Pacific to the West coast of Canada where they boarded trains and travelled the width of that country. On the east coast they boarded another ship which delivered them to England. There, anyone with connections to the various colonies were told to return to them at the earliest possible opportunity. Dad and Uncle Sconny returned to Hong Kong and their families. The war for them was finally over.

I hope you found this post interesting. As the title suggests, it was a dark and terrible period in Hong Kong’s and my family’s history, but, as mentioned previously, I believe that it is important to remember these events, if only to ensure that they never happen again. This post would not have been possible without the assistance and input from my sister, Carol, and my cousin, Alan.

Published by stewartgoeswalkies

Happily married man to a wonderful lady. Living in Hong Kong. In my younger days I enjoyed hiking, camping and rock climbing. I've trekked in the Himalayas and climbed Mt. Kinabalu in East Malaysia.

3 thoughts on “Hong Kong’s Dark History – Part Two: Dad, and my Uncle – POWs in Japan

  1. I enjoyed reading about your Dad and Uncle very much. My Dad, Richard Keays, was with the Royal Rifles of Canada, He was assigned as a runner to Brigadier Lawson and he was captured at Wong Nai Chong Gap on Dec. 22, 1945 when the group he was with in the bunker were ordered to surrender to the Japanese. He was sent to Japan in January of 1943 and was at the camp in Toykyo 3d and later at Ohasi to wards the end of the war. It was a tremendously difficult time for our fathers to endure, and survive.

    Like

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