Hong Kong's second world war history

Book review: Escape to Pagan - a Hong Kong family’s amazing wartime survival tale

Jack Devereux was shot in the head in Hong Kong by the invading Japanese army but lived; meanwhile, his wife, son and mother-in-law sought an ancient refuge in the Burmese jungle. Incredibly, it’s all true

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 March, 2016, 7:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 March, 2016, 10:16am

Escape to Pagan: The True Story of One Family’s Fight to Survive in World War II Occupied Asia

by Brian Devereux


4.5/5 stars

This pulse-pounding Hong Kong war memoir hinges on a stunning event: the felling of the protagonist, Royal Scots Regiment sergeant Jack Devereux, shot in the head after leading an attack against the Japanese on Golden Hill in 1941.

When a Japanese officer prepares to finish the job with his samurai sword, Devereux sees red. “Anger welled up in the Sergeant’s shattered head; he could be a volatile man when roused. His wounded brain struggled back to consciousness. He desperately wanted to extend his life even for a few moments longer, despite the pain of his wounds,” writes his son, Brian.

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Miraculously rallying, Jack shoots his wannabe executioner dead. Nonetheless captured by the Japanese, he must deal with the maggots that infest his injury and much more strife.

“If Sergeant Devereux believed that his worst problems were over, he was greatly mistaken,” Brian writes. A voyage aboard the doomed Japanese “hell ship” Lisbon Maru, South China Sea sharks, Nagasaki’s mines, even the atom bomb await.

Meanwhile, back in Mandalay, desperate to evade the advancing Japanese, his wife Kate, her baby son – the author – and her mother, Harriet, leave home in a rush with what they can carry. Roaming the jungle, the formerly well-to-do family unit forages, posing as members of the Mon Burmese tribe fleeing the Chinese army.

The formidable Harriet, who speaks Japanese, leads the straggling team towards its destination: the empty, mysterious medieval city of Pagan – modern-day Bagan – deep in the forest. En route, they face lethal dangers ranging from starvation to vipers.

But Japanese troops, who can force-march 35 miles a day, pose the most disturbing threat. In the story, Chinese prisoners are subjected to live bayonet practice, among other atrocities, which their captors find amusing.

“The Japanese soldiers often sent pictures home of these events; a ‘wish you were here’ kind of thing,” writes Devereux: an acerbic source with an eye for irony, whether addressing messy events in the jungle or on the South China Sea, where the prison ship holding his father was downed by a United States submarine after several misses.

Like German torpedoes, American and British ones were defective – while escorting an Arctic convoy to Russia, one British destroyer suffered the indignity of sinking itself. “It seems the torpedo did a lively U-turn!” Devereux writes, adding that the Japanese model, the “Long Lance”, was far superior.

Had the Japanese Navy shared the technology with Germany, Britain and the Allies might well have lost the Battle of the Atlantic. “In one sense we are lucky that the warriors of Nippon did not like sharing anything – apart from the clap,” Devereux writes.

Another cutting observation he makes concerns the belief that the Japanese were natural jungle fighters with extensive jungle training behind them.

In fact, many Japanese feared the jungle, because the climate in Japan, China, Formosa (Taiwan) and Manchuria presented the wrong environment for acclimatisation.

Their success actually stemmed from toughness and discipline. The emperor’s men had another advantage: the Japanese army operated as a meritocracy. On conscription, even a tycoon’s son would start as a second-class private.

Promotion came from valour instead of connections or wealth, according to the author, who was born in Burma in 1940 and spent his early years there, as his outstanding yarn recounts.

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For 25 years, Brian Devereux worked freelance in the film industry. As a stuntman, the avowedly wayward author once doubled for Michael Caine, performing the “deadfall” in the film of that name.

Escape to Pagan comes hot on the heels of another high-stakes Hong Kong memoir, Escape from the Japanese by Ralph Burton Goodwin, who breaks out from the same Kowloon prison camp where Jack does time, Sham Shui Po.

The Devereux saga is tremendously gripping and gory. It serves as a reminder that, in war, victims often fail to die cleanly and continue in a grossly agonised state, maggots and all.

Escape to Pagan is also a story of hope. When he feels a tremor that he discovers was caused by the A-bomb, Jack has the sense to stay underground in his last prison, a Nagasaki mine. Liberation follows.

Then, the Devereux family reunites, sort of. Naturally, the sensational, true-life tale that raises the question of why anyone bothers with novels has one more twist. Thrilling.