On 9 June 2018, Mary Monro’s moving book, Stranger in My Heart, was published. Mary spoke about the book at our Leeds workshop in March 2018. Here, Mary describes how she learned of her father’s wartime experiences, including his escape from Hong Kong, and her own journey to retrace his steps and all that it uncovered.
Stranger In My Heart by Mary Monro
It’s the silence that gets us all started isn’t it? This is how I unlocked my Dad’s silence, 30 years after he died, and in the process how I learned much about who I am. The Dad I knew was a Shropshire farmer, horseman, watcher of the TV news. We received a letter from his old Chinese interpreter every Christmas, but he never said a word about his 25 years in the Royal Artillery or about his experiences in the Second World War.
Major John Monro, 1942; © Mary Monro
Battle of Hong Kong
Dad fought at the battle of Hong Kong in December 1941 and kept a diary. This gave me an eyewitness account of the battle, which I could cross-reference with official reports and the accounts of other combatants.
Imprisonment at Sham Shui Po
After the surrender on Christmas Day 1941, 5000 – 6000 Allied troops were imprisoned at Sham Shui Po Barracks on the mainland. It was clear that they were in for a rough time. They faced the awful dilemma of staying for an unknown period in terrible conditions or escaping into territory patrolled by the Japanese and inhabited by potentially hostile Chinese, where they didn’t know the country, couldn’t communicate and couldn’t hide. Senior officers in the camp were against escape and the Japanese Commandant promised that escapes would result in reprisals for those left behind. But Dad was determined to go, and it later turned out that reprisals were more than offset by the boost to morale generated by escapes.
Escape From Hong Kong
Dad travelled 1200 miles across China from Hong Kong to Chongqing, a destitute refugee in a nation of destitute refugees. It was hard to understand his escape route which seemed to be a crazy zig-zag across the map. I had to learn where the Japanese forces were; road, river and rail links; the location of British Military Missions, and so on. Chongqing, China’s wartime capital, turns out to be the preferred destination for escapers and so I was able to compare his account with those of other escapers.
Major John Monro’s Escape Route, 1942; © Mary Monro
Plan to Liberate Hong Kong PoWs
In Chongqing Dad was made Assistant Military Attaché and remained there until the end of 1943. Searching his diary I stumbled across a barely known piece of history.
November 26th 1942: “Cooper came to lunch today. Afterwards we had a long discussion on the intelligence he required and the steps to be taken to prevent news of American Airforce movements on the Kweilin airfield leaking to the enemy. Finally Cooper, Ride and I went out onto the balcony for a long talk. As a result of this Ride and I stayed up most of the night concocting a plan”.
There is a lot of information in those 4 sentences. Col Lindsay Ride was founder of the British Army Aid Group, a humanitarian organisation set up to support PoWs in Hong Kong. Dad had a plan to evacuate all these PoWs with the help of the American Airforce. This meeting was to firm up the plan with the Americans. Col Merian Cooper was Chief of Staff to General Claire Chennault of the US Air Force, and was a pioneering aviator, movie producer and creator of King Kong.
Chennault and Cooper were forward thinkers, keen to use air power to attack Japanese supply lines in China. A co-benefit of this plan would be the liberation of the Hong Kong PoWs. But Chennault reported to General ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell, a traditional infantryman who was determined to have a land-based war in Burma.
Chennault and Stilwell presented their opposing plans to Roosevelt and Churchill in May 1943. Chennault’s plan was approved but Roosevelt omitted to sign the directive and Stilwell’s buddies at the War Department ensured that the error was never corrected. Thus Chennault never received the supplies he needed. This was catastrophic for Dad’s plan and for the multitude who lost their lives in Asia as a result of the subverted strategy.
I was becoming frustrated by the written word and decided to retrace Dad’s escape route across China. But would I gain anything from visiting a country that has seen huge changes over the last 70 years?
I started in Hong Kong, touring the battlefield sites and visiting the military cemetery at Stanley. It brought my grief to the surface but it also made me feel close to Dad. I took the train to Shaoguan, where dad had stayed for 10 days writing reports about the conditions for PoWs back in Hong Kong. I continued to Guilin with its stunning Karst landscape and learned more about the conquest of the city by the Japanese. Guizhou, a haven for many of China’s ethnic minorities, is relatively undeveloped, so I felt I was seeing it through Dad’s eyes. In Chongqing I visited Stilwell’s offices, preserved with furniture intact and giving a sense of the dramas that must have unfolded in those rooms. My trip still left me wanting more.
Stilwell’s office in Chongqing. © Mary Monro
I started writing, using Dad’s diaries, reports and letters and filling in the background however I could. I hired researchers in the UK and the USA. I found that Roosevelt’s entire presidential archive is available online for free, so I researched that from home. I studied as many books on Hong Kong and China’s war as I could find and pestered friends for any other sources they might have lurking at home.
Unbound is publishing my book and will bring this story to a wider audience. I felt morally bound – and keen – to try and contact the descendants of the people whom Dad mentions. Their responses were truly heartwarming and I felt an immediate sense of community. We all wanted to honour and remember our relations. We were all floundering because of the silence. But for me, the silence had broken, opening to a greater understanding of China, my father and myself.