Veterans of Hong Kong battle feel forgotten on anniversary

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 August, 2010, 12:00am

When the second world war ended, Maximo Cheng Chi-ping, a former member of a British Indian special force known as the Chindits, was in Calcutta on a Chinese intelligence course provided by the British Army. Briton Dennis Morley was a prisoner of war in Japan. What these two men have in common is that they both fought in the defence of Hong Kong.

Yet when Morley finally arrived home in Britain at the end of 1945, the nation had moved on and the role of soldiers fighting in East Asia had been forgotten.

'When we got back, they didn't want to know us,' says Morley, 90, a great-great grandfather, who returned to Japan in 2007.

Next weekend marks 65 years since the Pacific war ended, a date that will be commemorated by a wreath-laying ceremony at City Hall in Central.

Ron Taylor, who is helping to organise the event, feels the people who fought for Hong Kong have also been forgotten by the government.

'The 65th anniversary is important and has been marked earlier this year in Europe by royalty,' said Taylor, the chairman of the Royal Hong Kong Regiment (The Volunteers) Association, who is assisting the Prisoners of War Association with next week's event. 'Next time, it will be 70 years and the chances of anyone being around who fought in the second world war are much reduced. This is probably the last opportunity. But that's not being recognised in Hong Kong, I'm afraid. We invited the chief executive, but were turned down. The chief secretary can't make it, nor can the secretary for home affairs. The assistant secretary for home affairs is coming, and while we are delighted she is, I feel Hong Kong should really ... send someone more senior.

'It is seen as colonial history, yet what is generally missed is that there were a large number of locals who fought and died here.'

Cheng, now 88, fought the invading Japanese as a member of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps. He was at Stanley Fort with other volunteers when he was taken prisoner in December 1941. He remained a prisoner for 10 months, until being freed along with 200 other local Chinese. He headed north to Waichow, now known as Huizhou , in Guangdong, where the resistance movement, the British Army Aid Group, had been set up. Cheng became a Chindit - a member of a British Indian special force - and fought in highly dangerous jungle conditions with a Gurkha unit in Burma, now Myanmar. 'I was in Calcutta training for Chinese intelligence when I heard that the war had ended,' he said. 'I was so happy to be back in Hong Kong. For years I had not known if my family was alive.'

Morley, who had fought alongside the Royal Scots Regiment, meanwhile, was shipped out of a prisoner of war camp in Sham Shui Po aboard the Japanese troop ship Lisbon Maru, which was torpedoed with 2,000 prisoners on board. More than 800 died. Morley survived and worked as a prisoner in the Kobe and Nomachi docks, which is where he heard of the surrender.

'We were all paraded ready for work, but when we got there, there was no one about. We asked an interpreter and he said Hirohito had made a speech,' he said, referring to the emperor. 'We knew it was over.'

The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and Nagasaki, three days later, accelerated the end of the Pacific war and, taken by surprise, the British navy was nowhere near Hong Kong. The territory, by then, was part of the American theatre of war. There were fears in Hong Kong that not being keen fans of the British colonial model, the US would hand Hong Kong to Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists.

But that particular option was stymied by two men. Frank Gimson, a senior government official who arrived on the day of the Japanese invasion in Hong Kong, declared himself acting governor out of a Stanley internment camp. Another civil servant, Arthur May, erected a British flag on the Peak. Both moves helped Admiral Sir Cecil Harcourt, who arrived two weeks later and received the Japanese surrender.

Just in time for it all to be reported in the South China Morning Post in its first edition in four years.