Tag Archives: Rangoon

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

Post VJ Day 1945 – Returning home from Thailand and Burma

By Martin Percival

My father, Frank Percival, was called up in December 1939. He was 21 years old. After initial Army training at Seaton Barracks in Plymouth, he was posted to Bradford before heading to Gourock in Scotland to embark on 30th September 1941 on the troop ship ‘Empress of Canada‘. The troops onboard thought they were heading to North Africa – in fact they were enroute for Singapore, disembarking on 28th November 1941. After the short lived Malayan campaign, along with 80,000 plus other Allied military personnel, he was captured in Singapore by the Japanese on 15th February 1942. 

Frank Percival, September 1945. (Courtesy of Martin Percival)

The next 3.5 years saw my father engaged in railway and bridge construction work in Thailand and Burma and by the summer of 1945 aerodrome construction work for the Japanese. Soon after his return home from the war in November 1945 the story of his experiences was published by the local newspaper where he lived in North West London – the Willesden Chronicle and Kilburn Times. This was very unusual. The military had made it clear that they didn’t really want the men returning home to talk about their experiences. My father died in December 1982 and I only discovered the newspaper cutting when I was moving house in 2004. I was both delighted and sad to read it. The whole piece can be found here; https://www.far-eastern-heroes.org.uk/Your_Gods_Stronger_Than_Ours/

Here’s an extract from the article on what he had to say about the period from VJ Day up to his arrival back in the UK: 

“On the night of August 15th 1945. all the Japanese in our camp were drunk. We thought nothing of this, as it was a fairly frequent occurrence. The working party for the aerodrome paraded for work as usual at 8 a.m. on the morning of the 16th, but no Japanese sentries came to take them to work. At 10.30 a.m. the Japanese Commandant made an announcement to the effect that he was going away for a few days and upon his return hoped to have some very good news for us. In the meantime outside working parties would cease. The camp immediately went mad with joy and few slept that night.

On the afternoon of August 20th, a British parachutist major arrived in the camp, gave us details of the cessation of hostilities, said that he and a number of colleagues had been in Siam for some months and arrangements were under way to get us out of Siam as quickly  as possible. He advised us to ignore the Japanese as at that time there were less than 1,000 Allied troops in the country and there were over 100,000 Japanese yet to be disarmed.

The majority took this wise counsel, being loath to prejudice their chances of recovery after having endured so many hardships. Siamese gendarmerie replaced the Japanese guards in the prisoner-of-war camps, and were placed there only for the protection of the ex-prisoners.

We moved down to Bangkok by rail on August 31st and were given wonderful receptions by the Siamese people at every station en route. We departed from Bangkok the following day by Dakota aircraft for Rangoon, and it was not until we were actually on the planes that we felt ourselves out of the clutches of the Japanese.

Our new-found elation was dimmed, however, by the memory for many hundreds of our friends left behind in Siam. They would never again see the shores of England as a result of the bestial treatment meted out to them by their Japanese captors.”

Unlike some of his peers, my father didn’t hate the Japanese. He felt that was pointless. However he never forgot his war time experiences. The war had held a number of lifetime firsts for him. His first time leaving the UK was onboard the ‘Empress of Canada‘ troopship on 30th September 1941 and his first time on a plane was on the Dakota that airlifted him from Bangkok to Rangoon on 1st September 1945. From Rangoon he headed home on 21st September on the troopship Orduna, arriving in Liverpool on 19th October via Colombo and Port Said. Like many returning home the news that greeted him was not all good. His father had died in August 1944 – the letters sent informing him of this sad news eventually caught up with him many months after getting home. Family members have told me that he didn’t talk about his war time experiences during the 1940s and 50s. However by the 1970s and 80s a lot of time had passed and he would talk about his war time experiences to my brother and I. I suspect he found it therapeutic. I am very glad that he did talk.