Slice of Life

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 August, 2009, 12:00am

A front-page story on August 3 hailed the return of HMS Amethyst after making a lucky escape from the communists. Officials planned a 'salvo of thousands of Chinese firecrackers which will be exploded from some of the principal buildings along the Praya ... Ships in the harbour will fly the signal 'Q.K.L.' which means 'well done', while others berthed at more distant points will signal 'well done' with Aldis [signal] lamps and their whistles will sound victory. Star Ferry launches will be dressed,' the report said.

But it was not until page 12 that the ship's heroic escape was described. 'The men of the Amethyst took what they thought was a 100-to-one chance of escaping when they made a [140-mile] dash for safety down the Yangste River. But every one wanted to take that chance. And they were ready and willing when they were told only two hours beforehand that the dash was to be made. [The crew] admitted that the food supply was getting short towards the end, that conditions under the blazing sun were becoming uncomfortable without fans and radiators, and quarters cramped through damage caused by the original Communist shelling. One of the greatest troubles was the increase in rats because the ship was out of rat poison. The ship's cat, Simon, did excellent work.'

The ship slipped astern of a Yangste steamer when HMS Amethyst began its dash for safety, but it wasn't smooth sailing. 'Batteries fired star shells and we knew they had seen us. For half an hour we were under shell-fire from both sides of the river. But by good luck they turned fire on one of their own gunboats.' (HMS Amethyst was on its way to Nanjing to replace HMS Consort, which was the guard ship for the British embassy due to the Chinese civil war. It was fired on and grounded. It was refloated but the Communists held the ship because the Chinese did not acknowledge any treaties so they insisted that it was illegal for the Amethyst to cruise on the Yangste.)

'During the three months that the crew were held, they were at first engaged in damage repair. After that they had a great deal of time on their hands. They spent a lot of time sleeping and playing tombola (a type of lottery), ludo and other games. Food was getting short but the rum ration for the men held out. Many of the men amused themselves by growing beards of all shapes and sizes.' They reached the mouth of the Yangste and their freedom after a nine-hour trip.

Rees Williams, under-secretary for the colonies, defended Hongkong's liberal tradition of freedom of the press in the British Parliament in a report on August 3. He was asked why the Chinese Communists in Hongkong had been given permission to continue publishing newspapers and pamphlets when the Communists had closed the British Information Service in Shanghai. 'It had been the consistent policy of the Hongkong government to permit freedom of the press and of publication to all shades of opinion - provided these activities did not violate the law or prejudice public security ... These limits had not been overstepped,' he replied.

This freedom was part of the traditions that 'goes back to the very earliest days of the Colony' when noted Chinese reformer Wang Tao-a found refuge in Hongkong from the court reactionaries, the report added. Mr Rees later quoted Dr Sun-Yat-sen, who proclaimed Hongkong and its university were his intellectual birthplace: 'I began to wonder how it was that foreigners could do so much ... for example, with the barren rock of Hongkong within 70 or 80 years, while in 4,000 years China had no place like Hongkong. We must do the same thing; we must learn by English examples.'

A report from San Francisco on August 6 said Iva Toguri d'Aquino, better known as Tokyo Rose, fell ill with intestinal influenza. 'Her treason trial has been recessed until she feels better. Her counsel ... notified Judge Michael Roche as the 23rd day of the trial was about to get under way, that the 33-year-old defendant was too sick to appear in court,' it said.