By Mary Monro, author of Stranger In My Heart (Unbound, 2018)
We naturally focus on the long, terrible suffering of the FEPOWs. But what if there could have been an earlier end to the war? This is the question that struck me when I uncovered my father’s part in trying to liberate the PoWs in Hong Kong.
Major John Monro RA escaped, with two colleagues, from Sham Shui Po PoW camp in Hong Kong in February 1942, making their way 1500 miles across China to the wartime capital at Chongqing. In August 1942 he was made Assistant Military Attaché there, where his chief role was liaison with Col Lindsay Ride, founder of the British Army Aid Group (BAAG), a humanitarian and intelligence organisation supporting the Hong Kong PoWs.
My father also had close links with US Air Force Chief of Staff, Col Merian Cooper, who served General Chennault of Flying Tigers fame. Cooper had long been a pilot and he was also a film maker, creating and co-directing King Kong. He flies the plane that kills the beast in the final scene.
In autumn 1942 the Japanese seemed to be an unstoppable force and competing strategies were being considered by Allied Command. General Stilwell, Commander of Allied Forces in China, was an infantryman and land war proponent. Chennault was a forward thinking airman who believed that retaking control of China’s airspace and major ports would enable the Allies to attack Japanese shipping, disrupt their supply lines and ultimately attack the Japanese islands themselves.
Part of Chennault’s analysis was the intelligence supplied to him by BAAG, giving him confidence in his plan to retake Hong Kong. My father saw an opportunity to liberate the PoWs as part of this plan, knowing that they were now too weak and sick to escape. He put his idea to Cooper and Ride and they hammered out the details.
At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 the air war strategy was approved and reported in the press – an interesting read for the Japanese! Chennault and Stilwell travelled to Washington for the Trident Conference in May 1943, where they put their detailed and opposing plans to President Roosevelt. He was in favour of the air plan, as was Churchill, who famously said ‘going into swampy jungles to fight the Japanese is like going into the water to fight a shark.’
The air plan won the vote and Roosevelt wrote a directive for the War Department. He showed it to Chennault to check that it included everything he needed, but omitted to sign it, ‘FDR’. The War Department was headed by land war and Stilwell supporters, who ensured the error was never corrected. Chenault never received the planes, pilots, ammunition and fuel that he needed. The land war in Burma went ahead, with huge suffering and loss of life. Had Chennault’s plan been properly resourced, perhaps the war in the Far East would have ended early. Allied resources would have redeployed to Europe, shortening the war there. As many as 9 million lives might have been saved.