Memories of World War II

By Henry d'Assumpção

It was a great feast-day, celebrating the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. For me, then seven years old in Hong Kong, it was a holiday from school, for my older brother a half-holiday. So breakfast was leisurely that morning when our father announced solemnly: "War can start any time: next month, next week or even tomorrow." In fact, it started that morning.

This is a potpourri of memories of World War II - some my own, many passed on from my parents and others.

My parents were Portuguese who had moved from Macau to Hong Kong in the 1920s. Macau had been a Portuguese settlement and then an overseas territory for some 450 years. In its early days it had enjoyed a monopoly of trade with China and Japan and was fabulously wealthy, a European jewel in the Far East. But by the 19th Century it had degenerated economically, completely overtaken by Hong Kong with its magnificent deep-water harbour; thousands of Portuguese left Macau to seek employment in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

My family had settled - as had many other Portuguese - in a new suburb of Kowloon called Homantin. There were some large and impressive homes there but my father was on a modest wage and we lived in a small rented 3-bedroom apartment - my parents, three children1 and our devoted amah (Chinese servant).

Let me introduce you to a couple of our neighbouring families, because they feature in this story. Behind us lived the Gosanos2. Mrs Adeliza Gosano had been widowed tragically in 1923 and had to raise not only her own nine children but also four orphaned nephews. Those were the days before social security and I cannot imagine how they coped, but cope they did. The older boys left school at the age of 14 to work to support the family and give the younger children an education. Old Mrs Gosano was tough and devout; one of my earliest memories was of her urging me to pray: "You can pray anywhere", she said, "even when sitting on the toilet."

Just a few houses away, also at the back, lived the Yvanovichs3Ours was a close community. This is a photo of a birthday party for my brother in 1936, with me at the centre back in the arms of one of the Yvanovich girls (Alzira). Life seemed to me secure. True, there was some crime but the environment was safe enough for me to be allowed to walk unaccompanied to and from school a kilometre away. They were Portuguese but with their name from an ancestor from Dalmatia (in today's Yugoslavia).

Ours was a close community. Shown here is a photo of a birthday party for my brother in 1936, with me at the centre back in the arms of one of the Yvanovich girls (Alzira). Life seemed to me secure. True, there was some crime but the environment was safe enough for me to be allowed to walk unaccompanied to and from school a kilometre away.

Invasion

But in 1941 war threatened: Japan had already occupied Canton (Guangzhou) just across the border in China and preparations were made in Hong Kong for likely hostilities: there were air-raid wardens and practice blackouts and we had been trained on what to do if bombed: crouch under a table, lock your hands over your head and open your mouth wide so that the blast would not burst your ear drums. My father had stocked up the larder with food in anticipation.

At 8am on December 8th, not long after breakfast, the Gosano men on their roof at the back pointed out Japanese planes attacking Hong Kong airport. So war came to us in Hong Kong just six hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Hurriedly we took shelter in the underground garage of our neighbours the Houghtons4. I was not at all worried and sat on the floor reading a comic book; it was left to an older boy to shove my head down when we heard bombs fall. I was told later that the Japanese were attacking a railway bridge just 200m from our apartment5. I can remember clearly the shrill whistle of bombs, sliding down in frequency. Now that I know a little physics, I understand that that changing Doppler frequency meant that the bombs would miss: if the frequency had remained steady, the bombs would have been heading straight for us.

Surrender

The Japanese invaded Hong Kong with overwhelming military superiority, launching three Divisions against two Brigades of Commonwealth troops, with complete dominance of air and sea. It took only a few days for them to overrun the defences of Kowloon and drive the British in retreat to Hong Kong Island which surrendered on Christmas day. All British men, women and children were put into concentration camps. We were Portuguese nationals, and Portugal was neutral in this war, but many Portuguese men were in the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps - British subjects who were conscripted but also Portuguese citizens who had enlisted; these too were imprisoned. I shall return to the fate of these Portuguese prisoners of war shortly.

Interregnum

In the short interregnum between the retreat of the British to Hong Kong Island and the Japanese occupation there was a collapse of law and order followed by widespread looting in Kowloon. My parents told stories of Chinese policemen changing into civilian clothes, keeping their revolvers and joining the looters. For safety we, with 400 other Portuguese, including some who had become British subjects, took refuge in the home of the acting Portuguese Consul6 just 100m from our apartment, all crammed in and sleeping on the floor. Of course we had to pool our resources, so my father's carefully hoarded food supply was shared with the many who had not prepared, and was soon gone. No one knew how we would be treated: would the Japanese respect our neutrality? Would the women be raped? An aunt of mine made herself as unattractive as possible, even dusting her hair with ashes.

One of my uncles7 stayed on in his apartment with his family when looters came to the front door. This door had a small square glass peep-hole through which the looters caught sight of his young children. They threatened to harm them unless he let them in. Now before the war everyone was supposed to hand in their hunting rifles to the British authorities but my uncle had retained his. He raised his rifle up to the peep-hole, fired and heard the looters scamper away. A little later he noticed some liquid under the door and thought someone must have urinated, but it turned out to be the blood of a looter he had just killed.

Executions

This anarchy did not last long: when the Japanese took over, order was restored, instantly and ruthlessly. Looters were lined up on the waterfront and machine-gunned. One day my father chased and caught a petty thief whom he turned over to the Japanese. He later regretted his action because he saw the poor fellow, crestfallen, being led away in a party of criminals, no doubt to his death.

There was another story about a family friend who was taking a walk through the hills when he came across a Japanese execution party beheading prisoners. He was ordered to help and was given a sword. He started by holding the sword in one hand above his head but they corrected him: the proper way, they instructed, was to grasp the sword in both hands and bring it down.

Japanese in our apartment

One hears so many accounts of Japanese atrocities during the war but we also saw their humane side. Japanese soldiers came to our apartment demanding my mother's sewing machine. She begged them not to take it, offering instead to repair their clothes herself. So they brought their torn and bloodstained uniforms to her and made themselves at home while my mother did the mending. They repaid us with some food: I can remember a delicious hot tray of corned beef from their canteen.

The Japanese soldiers were fond of us children and obviously enjoyed being again in a family environment. I had some American comics about US pilots fighting in China with the Chinese against the Japanese and was terrified when they started to leaf through them, but was relieved when they only laughed. One of our visitors was a Japanese officer. I have heard that a samurai sword is never unsheathed except in anger, but this officer drew his sword from its scabbard to show to me.

One evening these soldiers came to our apartment armed with bayonets and took my mother to a back room. I can imagine today the turmoil in my father's mind, but it was needless. It turned out that there were some drunken Korean and Formosan (Taiwanese) non-commissioned officers on the rampage looking for women. The Japanese soldiers were protecting my mother!

That was one side of the Japanese. The Yvanovich family were not so lucky. The father, whom we called Uncle Pito, had been travelling to and from Macau on business; he was also smuggling innocent letters from British prisoners-of-war in Hong Kong to their families in Macau. One day he was caught, imprisoned as a spy and tortured by the Kempetei (the Japanese Secret Police).

One of his daughters, Lolita, for several weeks made trips to the prison on Hong Kong Island to bring food parcels for him, until a kindly guard finally let her see her parcels, neatly arrayed along a wall, untouched: her father had died some time ago, tortured to death.

His oldest son Philip was a member of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps and, with many other Portuguese, had fought in the battle of Hong Kong and was interned as a prisoner-of-war (PoW). His younger brother Avichi was only 17 when he was imprisoned and tortured. He was eventually released to his family, broken physically and mentally.

Life in Hong Kong

Portuguese citizens were encouraged to leave Hong Kong but some families, like the Yvanovichs with sons in PoW camp, chose to stay in Hong Kong for a while. Lolita Yvanovich told of their hardship. She and her mother and sisters sold their jewellery to buy food. At one stage they had nothing to eat but bran. They would spread newspapers on the floor, put a pile of bran in the middle and wait. After some time, weevils would crawl out of the bran onto the newspaper and could be scraped away. The bran tasted awful; the Yvanovich ladies had some empty chocolate wrappers and would sniff them before taking a mouthful of bran.

To neutral Macau

In late January or early February 1942 my mother took us children and our amah - who was like a member of our family - by boat to stay with her parents in Macau. My father followed us shortly afterwards, bringing some furniture with him to the wharf. Now the Japanese had forbidden the removal of furniture. A Japanese soldier shouted at my father and slapped him around. But when my father uncovered our bedheads to reveal the carved images of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, the soldier waved him on.

Life in Macau

The Government of Macau did its best to look after the thousands of Portuguese refugees from Hong Kong and Shanghai - feeding and housing families and educating children, even selling off antique cannons as scrap to buy rice for them. Our family was comparatively well off: my maternal grandfather, who had gone from Portugal to the Far East as a soldier, was now retired with his military pension. He had built a large house with a magnificent view out to sea in a fairly isolated area, with what was for Macau a large garden in which he grew fruits and vegetables and raised chickens, turkeys and rabbits. We stayed with him for probably a couple of years, after which we and our amah moved into a one-roomed accommodation over a shop. My father came from one of the more influential families in Macau and was able to get a job as a waiter in a Portuguese club. My mother contributed substantially to the family income by knitting clothes for wealthy Chinese, using wool unravelled from old garments.

Starvation

No one knows how many refugees moved into the tiny peninsula of Macau during the war, but it is estimated there were hundreds of thousands, almost all Chinese. There was ample basic food for those who had the money but many succumbed to disease and starvation. I remember a poor old man begging daily in the street; one day he was gone, presumably dead. Once I was walking in a street eating a banana when a young man ran by, grabbed it from my hand and continued running, desperately stuffing the whole banana into his mouth, skin and all.

One would see all kinds of meat, including rats, for sale. At one time street-cleaners reported that someone had been cutting off flesh from the corpses that littered the streets in the poorer quarters of the town. The police eventually found that the culprit was the chief cook of one of the prime hotels in Macau, who was serving it to his guests. He never went to trial but "died of cholera". Justice was rough and ready.

Vibrations from the war

For us children life was fairly normal and secure - we went to school, did some chores, played and occasionally even went to watch American movies. We never really wanted for anything essential but many things were in short supply. Tiny stones were added to raw rice to increase weight; you could easily break a tooth on them, so one of our daily chores was to spread rice out on a tray and laboriously separate stones from rice, grain by grain. For toilet paper we used either newspapers or a coarse paper made from grass. I still remember the pain of having a back tooth extracted without anaesthetic.

The Portuguese refugees sympathised with the British and a handful managed to sneak out of Macau through Japanese lines to join the British Army Aid Group in Southern China, to gather intelligence information and facilitate the escape of prisoners of war.

We children experienced nothing of the violence of war. A couple of times late in the conflict we could see, in the sky in the distance, tiny silver dots which were US and Japanese planes engaged in dogfights. In January 1945 some US planes from the aircraft carrier Enterprise bombed Macau's aerodrome - just 300m from my grandfather's house - because it housed fuel that could have been passed to the Japanese.

Thus the war years seemed to pass quickly for us until it all ended suddenly when Japan surrendered in August 1945.

Sham Shui Po PoW Camp

Let us return now to the fate of the Portuguese who fought to defend Hong Kong. By my reckoning there were 239 of them, of whom 19 died. The survivors were incarcerated in the Sham Shui Po Prisoner-of-War Camp in Kowloon where they formed a tightly knit community. At least five Portuguese prisoners of war documented their experiences.8 In addition, the talented artist Company Sergeant Major Marciano "Naneli" Baptista MBE produced many beautiful drawings while in PoW camp.9

Prisoners of war were put to work as slave labourers and suffered hardship and deprivation. There were serious health problems - dysentery, tuberculosis, scabies, beri-beri and diphtheria. The Japanese had captured large quantities of medical supplies but kept them for their own use. The army prison doctors worked wonders, operating with razor blades and knives; for drugs they used salt and peanut oil.

Some prisoners were assigned jobs as carpenters, bricklayers, cooks or toilet cleaners; others were sent out on work parties doing hard labour - enlarging the airport, moving munitions, transferring equipment, digging tunnels for ammunition storage. Elderly or unfit prisoners were given light duties. Officers were housed in a separate camp and did no work; each had a batman to look after him: make his bed, draw and serve his meals, wash his clothes and so on.

There was an active black market, trading in cigarettes, medical drugs and food. To get medicines prisoners sold to sentries all they had, even their gold teeth. Occasionally the prisoners managed to steal food and tools from Japanese stores; Philip Yvanovich used to say that, dressed only in a fundoshi loincloth, he could sneak anything past the prison guards.

On six occasions they received parcels of food from British or Canadian Red Cross.

Japanese discipline was severe but the prisoners were allowed some privileges. They were given equipment for sport: baseball, soccer, hockey, tennis, volley-ball and bowls. They were allowed one letter a month, food parcels once a week, access to a well-stocked library and even music and stage shows. There were at least 8 stage plays performed in 1943.

Portuguese PoWs in Sendai

Zinho Gosano, the youngest boy of the Gosano family, left us his autobiography. He and three of his brothers had joined the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps; three of them were imprisoned but one, Dr Eddie Gosano, managed to escape to Macau.

Zinho was one of 70 Portuguese prisoners transferred from Sham Shui Po Camp to Sendai, Japan, near where the Fukushima nuclear plant is today, to work in a coal mine. It is interesting that they were better fed in Japan than in Hong Kong.

He recorded three close brushes with death. The first occurred when he was defending a gun emplacement in Hong Kong: a Japanese bomb exploded nearby and hurled him out of a foxhole 25 metres down a hill; his shirt was shredded but he was otherwise unhurt. His sergeant, who was in the foxhole with him, was badly wounded and disfigured but survived. The second close shave was in the coal-mine in Sendai where, being young and strong, he was given the dangerous job of drilling for coal; one day the tunnel suddenly collapsed, nearly killing him. When Japan surrendered, just when they thought it was all over, he had his third close call. Zinho and an American sergeant had climbed onto the roof of a building to watch American planes parachuting supplies into the camp. One of the parachutes failed to open and the package killed the American and crushed Zinho's foot.

End of the war

So on August 15 1945 the war came to an end in the Pacific (coincidentally, on another great feast-day, celebrating the Assumption of Our Lady), and the Portuguese prisoners of war returned to their families. Many subsequently emigrated to other countries, mainly to the USA, Canada and Australia. Some lived to a ripe old age, the last one dying only recently.

Philip Yvanovich had contracted tuberculosis in PoW camp but survived. He and his sister Lolita moved to Adelaide, Australia, after the war. He died five years ago at the age of 90 in Canberra, surrounded by his loving family. Lolita died last year at the age of 96, in Wellington, NZ near her son and grandchildren.

After being wounded by the package from the failed parachute, Zinho Gosano was sent to convalesce in New Zealand where he stayed and later became a priest. This photo shows him marching proudly on Waitangi Day10 1995 wearing his medals.

There was an unpleasant sequel to all of this. After the war, the British Government gave generous military pensions and medical benefits to British prisoners of war but the Portuguese PoWs, who had fought bravely and sacrificed and suffered equally, received little. It was only about a quarter of a century later, when this bias was exposed in the media11 , that the Hong Kong Government was shamed into providing support - but by then they could well afford to do so because there were so few of the former Portuguese prisoners of war left alive.

Some of Naneli Baptista's sketches which he drew in tribute to Portuguese who had died in the defence of Hong Kong are reproduced here.

One cannot imagine the suffering of the Reed family who lost four brothers12 in the fighting.

For the Portuguese in the Far East the war changed everything, politically and economically, and there was mass migration - to Portugal, Brazil, USA, Canada and Australia. It was the end of an era.

May 2016

4     Marcellus and Marie Houghton with children Lionel, Robert, Doreen (Pereira), Denis and Yvonne
5     But Bosco Correa, who is very knowledgeable in the history of this period, asserts that Homantin was never bombed.
6     Francisco "Frank" Soares, Chancellor of the Consulate of Portugal in Hong Kong.
8     The Macanese Families website www.macanesefamilies.com reproduces accounts by Cicero Rozario and Zinho Gosano.
9     His drawings have been published in a splendid book Souvenir of Sham Shui Po by Dr Peter E Campos. Some of these drawings are reproduced here courtesy of Naneli's nephew Filomeno "Meno" Baptista.
10     Waitangi Day celebrates the signing of New Zealand's founding document in 1840.
11     In correspondence initiated by Frank Correa.
12     Edgar, Arthur, Steven and Francis Reed, four of the seven sons of John Amaro and Maria Rita Reed.