70th anniversary of Japan's WW2 surrender

Never forgotten: Six veterans who lived through conflict remember lessons of the second world war

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 September, 2015, 3:26am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 September, 2015, 12:34pm

Captain 'Winkie' Ho Weng Toh

Captain 'Winkie' Ho Weng Toh, 95, went from being a student in Hong Kong to a bomber pilot with the famous Flying Tigers in China

"The intel was clear. There were Japanese cavalry near Nanyang in central Henan province. My mission was to search and destroy.

I was excited. But I had to make sure I could get there and find the Japanese. Thank goodness, I succeeded. I saw the cavalry, the horse, up by the river. Hallelujah, target was found! Now, I had to deliver. I had to make sure I did a good job. Such opportunities did not come by easily. I went down low, only about 80 feet [24 metres] from the ground, had another look and started strafing. I had to go low for it to be effective.

Horses limped, the Japanese dispersed and there was all-round panic. Things were moving so fast. I had to keep going, circled and came back for another round. There was gunfire from the ground but it was limited. We had a lot of machine guns and firepower. They were easy targets.

The enemies were caught unprepared and the damage was significant. It was one of my most satisfying missions.

That was in early 1945. I was flying the Mitchell B-25, a medium bomber, as part the First Bombardment Squadron of the Chinese-American Composite Wing. We were a subsidiary of the Flying Tigers, famous for shark-faced nose art. You could say our aircraft became an icon of the war.

I was trained by the Americans in Arizona for a year and I was a bomber pilot flying missions to stop the Japanese advancing in China.

They had already conquered a few parts of China and wanted more. Our job was to curtail them. My usual targets were warehouses, assembly depots and troops. The aim was always to disrupt their movements.

Sometimes we did high-level bombing from above 4,000 feet and in other instances, we went low like in the Nanyang attack.

Missions were erratic and intel was patchy. But each mission meant so much to me. Would I return from the missions? I felt so strong about our cause that it didn't matter. It was so strange. If I got killed, if I got hurt, it didn't matter one bit to me. I was prepared to die.

By the time I started combat in 1944, we didn't meet air attacks. The Japanese air force was very weak and concentrating on the Pacific war.

But there was still a lot of ground fire. We called it flaks. And our own facilities posed a danger to us. We had crashes at take-offs and landings. My fellow fighters lost their lives.

Those days, unfortunately, the runways and facilities were below par. Every take-off and landing was a challenge. It wasn't Changi Airport, with big runways that are all paved with good lighting! No such thing. It was very primitive. It was war.

I was very fortunate. I never met a serious accident in all those years of flying. You could say I'm almost without a scratch.

It is quite something for a boy from Ipoh, Malaya. I was just a university student in Hong Kong when the war started. When the Kuomintang advertised for pilots, I responded. It was a lifeline to survive and get food and shelter. It was also a chance to do something for my country. I was an overseas Chinese, but I was brought up by a father steeped in Confucian values and a follower of Sun Yat-sen's ideas of Chinese nationalism.

To me, China was my country and I wanted to fight the Japanese. To join the air force was a golden opportunity.

When the war broke out, I was holding a passport as a British Protected Person. I wasn't even a citizen. It was a lousy passport and a lousy status. When I joined the air force, I was given a China passport. Suddenly, for the first time, I had nationality.

So when the war ended, I wanted to stay in China. I believed my future was there and I became an instructor with the Chinese air force.

But unfortunately, the civil war started and our friend Mao Zedong started moving. The KMT wanted me to attack the communists. I wasn't happy. I said: 'Wait a minute, the war is over. Fighting the Japanese is okay. Fighting your own people - no doubt communists have a different ideology - is different.' I had to find a way out.

I figured this was a good time to go home to Malaya to see my folks. I became a commercial pilot and settled in Singapore.

It is 70 years since the war ended. All my buddies are gone but I'm still kicking and still telling stories. Maybe I'm destined to live so long."

As told to Peh Shing Huei

Hau Pei-tsun

At 96, the former Taiwanese premier reflects on his experience on the front lines of the second world war and the conflict’s legacy today

"I was still a military academy cadet [aged 17] before the Marco Polo Bridge Incident [July 7, 1937]. Six months after the start of the eight-year war, I graduated earlier than scheduled from the Whampoa Academy in Wuhan and was assigned to the artillery division in Hunan where I served as a platoon leader with the rank of lieutenant. We had two new German 150mm howitzers in two battalions - the best we had at that time. Our two battalions were later stationed at the Humen fort in the mouth of the Pearl River south of Guangzhou [in early October, 1938]. But after we arrived, the Japanese landed at Daya Bay, east of Hong Kong. We then retreated to Guangzhou [to defend the city from an attack by land to the east].

When we were almost there, Japanese warplanes found us and strafed our column while the Japanese tanks assembled in the Dongjiang [East River] district. Our company commander who was leading us to Guangzhou was killed in a Japanese bombardment. A comrade who was next to me was also killed by Japanese warplanes. I suffered a head injury. When we finally made it back to Hunan, we had lost most of our men and weapons, including the two howitzers. They were left behind when we had to blow up a bridge in Qingyuan to slow the enemy's attack from behind.

During the winter offensive in 1939 - the year when the second world war started in Europe, our artillery was sent to Wannan, in Anhui province. We had to march more than 1,000km all the way from Guangxi . In Qingyang county in Anhui, we fought the enemy for more than a week. We made some progress, but had to stop after Japanese reinforcements approached us from the Yangtze River. We later returned to Guangxi. I later joined the Chinese Expeditionary Force and was sent to India in 1942, a year after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. I was sent to India as a part of a back-up force. I stayed in India for a year as a company commander. In 1944, I decided to advance my studies at the Republic of China Military Academy where I graduated two years later on May 5.

I went to Taiwan in January 1950, shortly after Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek headed to Taiwan from Chengdu on December 10, 1949. The civil war aside, the Kuomintang had three major accomplishments for the Republic of China. First, it overthrew the Manchu dynasty, ended the despotic rule and established the Chinese republic. Second, its victory allowed it to nullify all the unequal treaties signed with the foreign powers [by the Qing government in the 19th century] and won international recognition. Finally, it ended military rule in Taiwan in 1988 after the death of Chiang Ching-kuo. This allowed Lee Teng-hui, Chen Shui-bian and Ma Ying-jeou to be elected as presidents.

Generalissimo Chiang was a strong-willed leader who should be credited for his unshakable firmness in deciding to carry on fighting in the eight-year war. This was despite backstabbing by the Chinese Communists and attempts by Japan to persuade him to set up a puppet Chinese government before and after the Marco Polo Incident. Were he to have conceded, the fate of China would have changed.

Without the leadership of Generalissimo Chiang, we would not have been able to win the eight-year war, and without the victory, China would never have been able to enjoy its international status today. People on both sides of the Taiwan Strait would never have enjoyed its wealth. The Chinese Communist Party says there were two leaderships during the eight-year war [in order to glorify its role in the war] but that is nothing but a lie. During the war, all leadership came under Chiang.

Although Taiwan was not involved in the eight-year war of resistance, the war still had a strong impact on it. The victory freed Taiwan from Japanese rule - Taiwan was able to establish a democratic republic and elect its presidents."

As told to Lawrence Chung

George Peterson

George Peterson, 94, of the Winnipeg Grenadiers, a Canadian regiment that defended Hong Kong. Along with his twin brother, he became a prisoner of war who was shipped to work for Mitsubishi in Japan

"We arrived in Hong Kong just before my 21st birthday, on 21 February, 1942. We had been in Jamaica for 16 months before then, and we felt we were just going to another place like that. It turned out to be very different. We landed on the Kowloon side. I remember that, lining the streets, there were people watching us come in.

The British propaganda at that time was that there were only 5,000 Japanese at the border, and that they were poorly trained and couldn't fight very well at night because of their poor eyesight.

The truth was very, very different. It was an army of 16,000 veteran troops who took part in Nanking.

On December 8, we heard about Pearl Harbour. Pearl Harbour was bombed three hours before they bombed us.

Then they tried to march in. Our first line of defence was in the New Territories, which was supposed to be able to hold them back for three weeks. It fell in just 36 hours.

I was on the island then, doing physical training. We woke up and realised we were at war.

As part of the reinforcement company, we went to several hotspots, but mostly we were guarding Magazine Gap Road.

The Japs landed on the island on the December 17, in the evening. It was just chaos.

It was just too hard for me to describe...I cannot. It brings back too many memories. I had nightmares for years. I don't want to talk too much in detail.

I remember seeing one of the Jap soldiers walking past with his bayonet over his shoulder - with the knife at the end. And stuck through the knife was a baby. He walked down the street like that.

There was also a little girl who had her hands tied behind her back. They threw her into the water and the soldiers took shots at her.

They were inhuman.

Those are the parts I don't want to remember. … I saw too much.

In 17 days, the battle ended, but then the real battle was afterwards - how to stay alive.

Two hundred and ninety of us were killed in action and 264 died as prisoners of war.

The first job we worked on was extending the runways at Kai Tak Airport. We had to move a large hill with just pitch and shovel. That lasted quite a while.

But we were able to do some sabotage. When we were cementing the tarmac, we threw some clay in it. The first plane to land went through the runway, and the Japanese engineer was blamed.

We were just going from one hellhole to the next hellhole. Most of the time we were afraid of doing something to make the Japanese get mad at us.

If any of them were in the vicinity, we had to stand to attention, no matter if they were the lowest private or the highest one. If they didn't like the way you did it, they beat the hell out of us.

The middle of 1942, I took sick with dysentery and malaria at the same time. I passed out. Next thing I knew, I woke up in the military hospital on Hong Kong Island. I was there for seven weeks. Then I was returned to North Point camp. Next time I was in for another seven weeks, malaria again.

When we were liberated, I weighed 110 pounds [50kg] ...at 5ft 91/2 inches [1.75 metres]. My lowest weight was when I was in hospital. When I was able to stand on the scale, I weighed only 78 pounds.

Overwork and starvation are the worst. When we were working in Hong Kong, I don't think we ever got any more than 900 calories a day. Normally for a person it should be 3,000 calories a day, and we were doing hard labour.

In the last few years I started telling some schoolchildren a little bit about what we went through. A lot is said just between me and the man upstairs.

Only 25 of us are left now.

Wars never solve anything. Everybody is a loser in war. Why can't people just sit down and talk things over?

Have we learnt anything? I doubt it very much. We should, or else it'll occur again and again until we wipe everyone out."

As told to Jennifer Ngo

Robert Kuok

Robert Kuok, 91, is chairman of Kerry Group. He was studying in Singapore when Japan invaded

"My parents migrated from Fuzhou in southern China to Johor Baru in Malaya early in the 20th Century. I grew up very attached to my mother. From her, I heard many stories about the sufferings of the people in China - at the hands of soldiers of imperialistic foreign nations from the Opium War to the bullying of China by eight foreign nations at the time of the 'Boxer Rebellion', and by corrupt government officials, bandits and the invading Japanese army from 1931 to 1945. I thought I would go to China to enlist in the army to fight the Japanese aggressors. For 11 years I had been studying in Johor Baru's English-language schools and therefore I was under-equipped in knowledge of the Chinese language.

In 1939, at age 16, I enrolled in a Chinese-language school and studied Chinese for one and a half years. By this time the Japanese army had entered Vietnam and Thailand, and my father told me to go and further my studies in Singapore. In May or June 1941 I joined Raffles College in Singapore.

On December 8, 1941 the Japanese attacked Malaya and Singapore. It was the first day of second term exams, and I had stayed up until two in the morning studying. I had barely fallen asleep when I heard a sound none of us had ever heard before: bombs falling. School was closed immediately to allow students from North Malaya to hurry home. However, many of them did not make it home as they were cut off by the rapidly advancing Japanese army.

There followed three years and 10 months of having to live under the heels of the Japanese invaders. For all Malaysians and Singaporeans life was tough and raw. We lived from one day to another, each one trying his or her best to stay alive and healthy.

There were many accounts of Japanese brutality and savagery. In the big towns, they would establish a Military Police or 'Kempeitai' building which always had torture rooms. Many whom the Kempeitai suspected of being their enemies were tortured with quite a number of victims perishing in the process.

I remember that very early in 1942, after Singapore fell, a fellow Raffles College student by the name of Fam Pau On said 'yes' when questioned as to whether he was a member of the Singapore Volunteer Corps. He was taken away, and one day marched to Changi Beach together with other prisoners with their hands barb-wired behind them. They were executed on Changi Beach.

While studying in the Chinese school I came to know a family of girls and boys. Their father was a prominent businessman and a member of the 'China Relief Fund' Committee. The Japanese rounded up the family. The girls were raped, the men and boys butchered and all were killed. They were buried in the open field of the Johore Civil Service Club, and I believe their remains are still there.

From the war, I learned the following lessons:

One: No one has the right to invade and pillage other people's homes or countries. Every one and every nation should observe this rule.

Two: Wars bring out horrible evil in bad people, and it is so ugly and cruel that it makes one wonder how human beings can become so inhuman. War has to be prevented or nipped in the bud.

Three: Aggressors invariably ignore the 'Code of Conduct' - 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' Bestial acts by men will bring retribution, and, as was the case in the last world war, enormous damage and destruction was rained down on innocent civilians living in the cities of the aggressor nations. It does not pay to be the aggressors.

Four: Mankind should proscribe wars and instead strive to advance human civilisation and encourage civilised behaviour.

I support the decision of China's leaders to hold the Victory Parade in Tiananmen Square, Beijing on September 3, 2015, to remind us of the great battles and heroic sacrifices made by the Chinese people, as well as to strengthen their resolve never to allow a repeat of the cruel and savage acts of aggression by foreign powers."

The Kerry Group is the controlling shareholder of SCMP Group, publisher of this newspaper

Professor Wang Gungwu

Professor Wang Gungwu, 84, former vice chancellor of the University of Hong Kong

"For me, in a personal way, the war really started in 1937 when the Japanese attempted to conquer China. It didn't start in 1939 in Europe.

As a Chinese growing up in Ipoh in Malaya, you could not miss the fact that China had been invaded and was about to be conquered because the Kuomintang forces were being overwhelmed everywhere.

That was when the world started to change. That was when my world started to change. I was seven years old.

The invasion made it impossible for my parents to return to China. A year before that, in 1936, they had made a big decision. They wanted to return home to Jiangsu province. But my grandfather, who was still in our hometown in Taizhou , said no. War with Japan was about to come, he said. Somehow, even though he was not in Manchuria or up north, he already knew.

Why was my grandfather so certain? It seems everybody in China knew Japan was just waiting for an excuse to attack.

My parents belonged to that generation which never intended to live in Southeast Asia.

They came to this region for work because there was tremendous demand for educated Chinese to be clerks, teachers and journalists. The local people were too busy making a living, doing business and making money!

My father was a university graduate, which was rare at that time. He was a teacher and high school principal in Surabaya, before becoming an inspector of schools in Perak in Malaya.

Like many young people in China, he was encouraged to believe it was his duty to go educate the overseas Chinese and make them more Chinese.

These people were very conscious of what was happening in China and were very patriotic. They were not migrants like we call migrants today. They were sojourners.

When war came in 1937, my family decided to not go back. My father eventually died in Johor Baru in Malaysia. The turning point was the war.

When the Japanese invaded Malaya in 1941, the war was new to most Southeast Asians. But for the Chinese in Southeast Asia, the war was already four years old. Many of the Chinese had helped China from 1937 to 1941 so in that context, they were already involved in the war for four years. For the Japanese to come down here, it was a pretty fearful thing. It was an extension of their war in China. It was a war against the Chinese.

My father refused to work for the Japanese and so he had no job. When my school began to teach more Japanese, he took me out. I didn't have school for three years. He taught me Chinese at home.

We also had no place to stay. We became like gypsies, moving from place to place, usually staying in one room with other people. Fortunately I have no brothers and sisters, so one room was enough. Yes, the one-child policy started with me!

But I was at a really lucky age when the war came to Malaya in 1941. I was 11. If I were much younger, I wouldn't know a thing and then I would have nothing to tell you!

If I were older, I would have been in trouble. The Japanese would pay attention to you. Or you might take up anti-Japanese work and enter the jungle to join the communists, who were very active in Perak.

Some of my older schoolmates were caught up in that and died in the jungle. Some had to work with the Japanese. They were seen as collaborators and were later killed by the communists. I was horrified.

By sheer luck, I was in that in-between age group and I survived. We had very little money and very little to eat. I was undernourished and when you had a cut, it didn't heal. But that was the case for everyone.

In the last year of the war, my father was employed by a Hakka businessman to teach his children. Our lives improved.

The man's workers managed to put together a shortwave radio. It was illegal and dangerous. But they couldn't understand English.

Ipoh was a very Chinese town and I was one of the few who spoke English because I went to an English school. So my job was to listen to the news every morning and then translate it for them. By late 1944, we all knew that it was only a matter of time before the Allies would win.

We took it for granted that the Americans and Allies would win. When it came, we were of course very happy.

But we were not surprised. The Japanese surrender was expected."

As told to Peh Shing Huei

Ma Ningchang

Medic Ma Ningchang, a relative of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, survived the conflict with Japan only to be attacked for her KMT past

When she was in the army, the officers would ask Ma Ningchang why she fasted on August 18.

It was on that day in 1938 that Ma's mother was killed by a Japanese bombing raid on her hometown of Hengshan , in Hunan province.

Ma, now 93 and a cousin of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, said she was severely injured in the attack and sent to live with relatives of her father to recover.

"That bomb left me homeless; I had nothing left apart from 15 scars. I couldn't even find my mother's body. I missed her so much that I cried all day long," she said.

"When I saw a recruitment notice [for medical workers] on a city wall, I volunteered.

"I wanted to take revenge."

Ma was assigned to a field hospital of the Kuomintang's 6th Army Corps in 1939 and marched from Hunan to neighbouring Hubei province to help people injured in poison gas attacks.

"Then we received an order to move to the southwestern province of Guangxi because there were huge casualties in the battles there," she said.

"We had to set up a field hospital on the front line and worked from dawn to dusk, with no time to eat. I still remember one soldier who was a mess when he was brought to the hospital. I had to stuff his face with gauze to stop the bleeding so that he could survive the trip to the rear. I had a brush with death the next autumn when our car carrying nurses, injured soldiers and refugees from the battlefield to Guizhou ran off a road on Mount Guanyin."

A girl next to her died and Ma was hit on her head, barely able to speak when she climbed out of the car. She said she walked overnight on her own to the nearest field hospital to tell the troops and send help to the injured soldiers. She made it to the hospital, still bleeding. "Give me something to eat. Bandaging can wait," she said.

Ma said that after the accident, the command approved her application to attend a military medical school in Guizhou, where she met her husband, who was with the 8th Army Corps and recovering from a fever he caught while fighting the Japanese in the mountains.

"I was assigned to a hospital in Chongqing when the second world war ended. In September 1949, I also joined the uprising at the KMT-controlled hospital to help the Communist troops. But somehow it wasn't recognised by the authorities as going over to the communist side and our family was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution."

Ma tried to eradicate all evidence of her links with the KMT, burning most of her photos and identification documents, including her medical school certificate with Chiang Kai-shek's signature on it.

But then her uncle, Ma Ho-ling, the late father of Ma Ying-jeou, wrote from Taiwan in 1966 looking for relatives left on the mainland.

"My parents were jailed for several years [because of our KMT link] and the whole family was caught up in it," Ma Ningchang's son, He Yuchun, said.

Niece and uncle finally met during Ma Ho-ling's last visit to the mainland in 2005, about six months before he died in Taiwan. It is no longer taboo to be a KMT veteran on the mainland but He said this was not enough for his mother.

"The officials from the Taiwan Affairs Office and the United Front Work Department visited her this year. But that does not mean she has the same political status [as the communist veterans]," he said.

"My mother visited a second world war exhibition in Kunming earlier this year and told me, it wasn't the truth.

"She just hopes the [KMT veterans'] accounts of history will also be recognised."

As told to Andrea Chen