Tag Archives: India

Aunt Pat and the Hong Kong Civilian Internees

Account introduced by John Reynolds

This account was written by my Aunty Pat, army nursing sister E.G.M. Reynolds. Born in 1903, she trained as a Queen Alexandra’s nurse and first saw WWII duty in 1939 at No.5 Casualty Clearing Station in N.E. France. With France having fallen, her next posting was to India where she nursed for five years until ordered in late 1945 to leave for Hong Kong.


Nurse Reynolds (Aunt Pat), in the tropics, 1930s (© J.Reynolds)

At the close of the Japanese war I was matron of a very large hospital in India (2000 beds) and was given 24 hours warning to pack and hand over my hospital and proceed to Madras. There I collected 11 nursing sisters QAIMNSR [Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (Reserve)] and TANS [Territorial Army Nursing Service] and embark on HMT Highland Monarch (Royal Mail Lines). We proceeded to Hong Kong via Rangoon and Singapore to collect as we thought service ex-PoWs [prisoners of war] and were told that they would be all men.


On arrival at Hong Kong we found that all the service men and members of QARANS [Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Service] and QAIMNS had already left and that we were to bring home all the civilian internees, women and children and a few men.


The ship was bare and comfortless, a very small saloon, very few cabins but many large dormitories. The O/C troops was a very young and shy lieutenant colonel aged 23. The SMO [Senior Medical Officer], a Pole who spoke little English, and the captain and ship’s company – rather tough types who had very little to do with women in an official capacity – the captain was quite terrified at the thought of 1500 women and children on his ship. The four stewards on board said they just could not cope.


A conference was held on board at which the ADMS [Assistant Director of Medical Services] and some Air Force officers from Hong Kong attended. During this conference I was called to the captain’s cabin and told that, from that time on until we arrived in the United Kingdom, I was to take complete charge of the women and children and the O/C troops would be in charge of the men.


I then collected the 11 nursing sisters and told them my story and they started work at once making the dormitories as comfortable as possible – the Australian Red Cross were most helpful with extra food, clothes and blankets, and even provided toys for the children. The goods arrived by the ton and I had two holds to store them in – the ship was short of such things as milk, tinned fruit, sweets and chocolate, honey, lime juice and had no baby food at all. These were all provided by the Australian Red Cross and more baby food was waiting for us at Singapore and Colombo on our journey home.


Five nursing sisters did dormitory work and five hospital work and changed duties half-way home – I did all the catering and Red Cross, and the usual matron duties – I was also responsible for the women and children for life-boat drill.


The chief steward was a charming man and was most kind and cooperative. We worked out menus a week ahead and gradually got the passengers on to ordinary diet, from small four hourly meals to ordinary breakfast, lunch, tea and supper, and were very satisfied at the progress they made – there was little sickness among the passengers, except the poor souls who were ill when they came onboard as a result of starvation and hardships during captivity, and only one of these patients died. On arrival in the United Kingdom we were able to let all but 10 go to their homes. The 10 went into the local hospital and I learnt later they all recovered.


The passengers could not understand that we were nurses as we were wearing khaki and they had not seen women in khaki before they had been taken PoW, so most of them called me the Chief Stewardess and the sisters Stewardesses – but before the end of the voyage we were Matron and Sisters.


By the time we arrived in Colombo I had found out (identified) that those women and girls who were fit enough to help look after the young children, and we had the port side of a deck fitted and boarded as a nursery. Two women and two girls did one-hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon or evening each in the nursery. The carpenter made a seesaw, a swing and a wonderful rocking horse. These were in great demand, and at night after the children had gone to bed many of the grownups used to have great fun in the nursery.


Later on some of the women volunteered to help with the dormitories and by the time we had arrived in Aden we had morning school for the very young and morning and afternoon school for the bigger children. An Anglican nun gave religious instruction to some of the children every day and the RC Padre also gave daily instruction.


We used to find small portions of food hidden in all sorts of strange places, especially under the mattresses and under chairs etc. These poor folks could just not realise that there was food for them at the next meal and these small packets were a habit of the internment camp – they still happened until the end of the voyage.


On arrival at Port Tewfik (Egypt) we had to disembark our flock in batches of 50 at a time to an enormous centre where they were given good warm winter clothes which were all new and fashionable. The women and children were delighted with their first new clothes for many years. The many young children at first did not take kindly to their strong shoes but when they did it was hard to get then to remove them for bathing and bed.


After eight weeks we arrived in Southampton and had a wonderful reception, bands playing, relatives reuniting and so on. And then the Customs – I asked a customs official to get me through quickly and he thought I was an ex-internee, said I looked well after my long period out of England, marked all my boxes and wished me a happy journey and a good holiday with my loved ones. As I had been overseas for five years, I did not disillusion him about not being an internee but was very grateful he asked no questions about my luggage.


The 11 nursing sisters and me had a most charming letter from the directors of the Royal Mail Line for all the help we had given them with the women and children on the voyage.


I must say I enjoyed every moment of the voyage and still hear from many of the ex- internees.

Hong Kong at Dawn. Painted by artist unknown and given to Matron Reynolds by Winifred Griffin C.M.S.(Church Missionary Society), one of the internees. The note which accompanied the painting has be reproduced below.

To the Principal Matron

Red Cross Hospital on SS Highland Monarch

Dear Miss Reynolds

You have been so very kind to us all on the ship caring for so many of our needs and indefatigable in your manifold services. I have no way of thanking you save by way of this little sketch of H.K. from which you came all the way to fetch us.

Thank you and all your staff for you care of our sick folk and especially of Sir Atholl.

Wishing you a joyful home coming.

Yours sincerely

Winifred Griffin      C.M.S.  (Church Missionary Society)

Colonel Reynolds (Aunt Pat), 1950s (© J. Reynolds)

Postscript

My aunts cousin, Miss E.B.M.Dyson ,also a QA nurse was stationed in HK at Bowen Road BMH at the outbreak of the Japanese War. She was a POW until late 1945 and remained a QA until the late 1950s when retiring as Colonel E.B.M.Dyson  OBE RRC

Nine lives and two tins

By Mike Appleton

To have almost no possessions except for the rags one stood up in, must have been a truly harrowing experience. This I believe explains the two tins shown below, which were with my father, Johnnie – Sgt J. G. Appleton 27 Sqdn RAF (pre-capture briefly attached to RAF HQ Communications Team) – throughout his time as a POW in Sumatra, as he moved from one jungle camp to the next. The fact that he brought them home and kept them all his life speaks volumes about their significance.

The discoloured tin held tobacco and matches. There were still shreds of tobacco in it when I was young. It also held a wad of occupation money. The Gold Flake tin held a Japanese toothbrush, with its bristles stained bright red from using tree bark as toothpaste (this has gone missing), some letters and his Japanese ID badge. On the right is his RAF insignia and on the left another badge which I don’t recognise, can anyone tell me what this is?

My father John Griffith Appleton (1917 – 2009) served in the RAF for 32 years (1935 -1967). During WW2 he was first stationed in India before flying down to Malaya. As the Japanese invaded from the north, he fled from one bombed-out airfield to the next and then, in a hazardous rush, to Singapore. During the invasion of the Island he was a key member of a team that, up to the last moment, kept open the communications links to India and Java.

On the night of 13 Feb 1941 Johnnie was ordered to leave with his team. They boarded the S.S Tien Kwang bound for they knew not where, and being exhausted, fell asleep on the deck. The next morning, they woke to the sound of low flying aircraft starting their bombing run and within moments the ship was holed, listing and there were many casualties. Another ship nearby the SS Kuala suffered a similar fate. Following the order to abandon ship, Johnnie managed to swim towards Pulau Pompong Island and being unhurt assisted in helping the wounded and disposing of the dead.

After several days and a hair-raising journey in a junk, he landed in the mouth of the Indragiri River on the East coast of Sumatra. There was then an arduous traverse of Sumatra to the West coast and Padang where it was hoped they would be taken off by a Naval ship. No ship arrived and instead they simply waited in limbo and trepidation for the arrival of the Imperial Japanese Army.

For the next three and a half years Johnnie was in a total of 10 camps in Sumatra, with progressively harsher regimes and ever-increasing levels of privation as the war progressed. The culmination of the experience was a year building the railway linking Sumatra’s east and west coast ports. This line was forged through virgin jungle with basic hand tools, in adverse climatic and disease-ridden conditions. The irony was that the track was completed shortly before the Japanese capitulated and was never really used thereafter. It is now in ruins and reclaimed by the jungle.

In 1999/2000 Johnnie compiled a detailed memoir describing his and fellow prisoners’ hardship and ill treatment. What is remarkable on reading his account, is not just that he survived, but that he did so with no lasting physical impairment and outwardly no mental issues. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did relate stories and describe events, in particular about living in the jungle and the various wild animals encountered – and eaten! His explanation for survival seemed to involve using the hard work and squalid conditions as a challenge. He had the determination that however bad he felt he must rise and work hard all day.

At one point a Japanese camp commander called him out from a daily parade and, instead of beheading him for some minor misdemeanour, which was my father’s expectation, awarded him a tin of sugar, a reward for having worked 100 days without a break. Other contributory factors he offered were, the responsibility undertaken for looking after the RAF contingent, prior experience of living in Asia, an extensive inoculation programme when he was being trained pre-war and, being a boy scout!

Towards the end of the war it is clear from his account that survival was very much in the balance as the effort to overcome extreme beriberi and starvation became overwhelming. The descriptions of the excitement experienced as SOE operatives literally dropped out of the trees and liberated the camp, is thrilling to read. It does also appear that the RAF, within the knowledge parameters of the day, re- PTSD etc., did do much to ease him back into fully operational service as a ‘regular’, and promoted him several ranks to make up for lost time and in recognition of the responsibility he had taken on in the camps organising his RAF colleagues.

For many years post-war Johnnie played a role in his local FEPOW branch and acted as treasurer.

Johnnie Appleton, carrying a FEPOW Federation wreath, Manchester Cathedral, late 1990s (©courtesy M. Appleton)