How to make sense of history when memories of an event differ subtly? Escape of Hong Kong POWs with help of a violinist is a case in point
- During the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, four soldiers escaped from the Sham Shui Po prisoner of war camp, helped by a violinist who played musical warnings
- The differing memories of participants highlight the challenges posed to historians when dealing with oral accounts of something that happened long ago
Competing versions of the past are perennial working challenges for historical researchers. Minor-but-telling accounts must be carefully sifted through until the most accurate possible version of “what happened” emerges. If that proves impossible, various versions must coexist, with appropriate cautions for each.
When personal testimony is involved, the process becomes additionally difficult. Oral accounts are often related many years after the events described. Memory fades over time, and a natural desire to believe that personal testimony must be completely right – after all, the individual telling the story was actually there – also comes into play.
But what occurs when specific remembered details are all materially the same, yet slightly different in emphasis or sequence? Some versions may have “improved in the telling” over the years, as any good anecdote has a tendency to do, and in due course, become “true” to the people telling them.
No deliberately invented falsehood exists; everything actually happened, just a bit differently to each participant. An amusing minor example of this conundrum revealed itself during a project that was researched long ago.
The group was led by a young Royal Artillery officer, Lieutenant Douglas Clague, who would go on to enjoy a meteoric business career in post-war Hong Kong.
Another participant, Lieutenant Lynton White, hailed from a wealthy background; his family owned the Timothy Whites & Taylors pharmacy chain, a rival to Boots in Britain. Therefore, White was considered reliable for an IOU and in the weeks before the breakout, he quietly traded these for seemingly innocent escape kit items, such as empty water canteens to be used as flotation aids and a rubber-coated groundsheet to keep everything dry.
With the prison camp fence closely guarded, the only plausible way out was through underground sewer pipes and into the harbour through the discharge point. From there, the party would float across to Lai Chi Kok, at that time on the coast northwest of Sham Shui Po, then head for the hills.
Reconnaissance had indicated that route was viable, if deeply unpleasant; one man later recounted that several flushes worth of toilet bowl contents had washed past him during that preliminary investigation.
Everything had to happen quickly. To prevent detection by passing guards, a few trusted individuals were positioned at key points where they could see any approaching danger. Another bystander would immediately replace the metal manhole cover, as soon as the last man disappeared.
Working out what actually happened as the escape party passed through the sewer becomes problematic. Until his death in 1981, Clague adamantly insisted the tune Stormy Weather meant Japanese guards were nearby, and Happy Days are Here Again signified the coast was clear.
Bosanquet maintained that violin music could be periodically heard, but he was otherwise too anxious to note anything about it; Pearce and White had no firm recollections, either way.
Solly said that he was, naturally, so terrified of dire consequences for everyone should the escape party be discovered, that he just played random snatches of whatever tunes came into his head, with no internal logic for their selection or sequence. Others noted that aspect alone was uncharacteristic; he usually played with great finesse.
And so, the answer revealed itself. Noise equalled danger – and silence was safety. And as the man who personally played the violin, Bard’s version must prevail.