Feature stories

Memories of World War II

BY Henry d'Assumpcao 18/05/2020

It was December 8th 1941, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, one of the ten Holy Days of Obligation. For me, then seven years old in Hong Kong, it was a holiday from school, for my older brother Carlinhos a half-holiday. So breakfast was leisurely that morning when our father announced solemnly: “War can start any time: next month, next week or even tomorrow.” In fact it started about an hour later that morning.
This is a potpourri of memories of World War II – some my own, many passed on from my parents and others.

My parents had moved from Macau to Hong Kong in about 1930, along with thousands of other families seeking jobs.

We lived in Ho Man Tin, the suburb developed by Anthony Correa’s great-grandfather. There were some grand mansions there but we lived in a small rented 3-bedroom apartment — my parents, three children and our devoted amah. Let me introduce you to a couple of our neighbouring families, because they feature in this story.

Behind us, on one side, lived the Gosanos. This is a picture of the family taken after the war. Mrs Adeliza Gosano had been widowed tragically and had to raise not only her own nine children but also four orphaned nephews. Those were the days before social security and I cannot imagine how they coped, but cope they did. The older boys left school at the age of 14 to work to support the family and give the younger children an education.
Old Mrs Gosano was tough and devout; one of my earliest memories was of her urging me to pray: “You can pray any time, anywhere”, she said, “even when sitting on the toilet”. The Gosano boys were famous in the Portuguese community for their prowess in a variety of sports — soccer, cricket, athletics, baseball, rowing and swimming.

Also at the back lived the Yvanovichs, Portuguese but with their surname from an ancestor from Dalmatia.

Ours was a close community. This is a photo of a birthday party for my brother Carlinhos in 1936. You may know some of these people: Calau Yvanovich and Chappy Remedios; Therese Remedios between Gerald and Shirley Van Langenberg (Arthur’s brother and sister); Frank and Bosco Correa, Anthony’s father and uncle; and me in the arms of one of the Yvanovich girls.

Life seemed to me secure. But in 1941 war threatened: Japan had already occupied Canton (Guangzhou) and preparations were made in Hong Kong for likely hostilities: there were air-raid wardens and practice blackouts and we had been trained on what to do if bombed: crouch under a table, lock your hands over your head and open your mouth wide so that the blast would not burst your ear drums. My parents had stocked up the larder with food in anticipation.

At 8am on December 8, not long after breakfast, the Gosano men at the back called to us from the roof of their house to point out Japanese planes attacking Kai Tak airport. So war came to us in Hong Kong just four hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hurriedly we took shelter next door in the Houghton’s underground garage. I was not at all worried and sat on the floor reading my comic book. An older boy — Danny or Bobby —shoved my head down when we heard bombs fall — I do not know where — but they could not have been too far away. I can remember clearly the shrill whistle of bombs, sliding down in frequency. Now that I know a little physics, I understand that that changing Doppler frequency meant that the bombs would miss: if the frequency had remained steady, the bombs would have been heading straight for us.

The Japanese invaded Hong Kong with overwhelming military superiority, launching three Divisions against two Brigades of Commonwealth troops, with complete dominance of air and sea. It took only a few days for them to overrun the defences of Kowloon and drive the British in retreat to Hong Kong Island which surrendered on Christmas day.

All British men, women and children were put into concentration camps. We were Portuguese nationals, and Portugal was neutral in this war, but many Portuguese men had enlisted in the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps; they too were imprisoned. I shall address their fate shortly.

In the short interregnum between the retreat of the British to Hong Kong Island and the Japanese occupation, there was a collapse of law and order in Kowloon followed by widespread looting. For safety we, with 393 other Portuguese citizens, took refuge in the home of Frank Soares, who was the Acting Portuguese Consul.

We were all crammed in and sleeping on the floor. (I cannot imagine how toilets were managed because there was no sewage system.) Of course we had to pool our resources, so my father’s carefully hoarded food supply was shared with the many who had not prepared, and was soon gone. No one knew how we would be treated: would the Japanese respect our neutrality? Would the women be raped?

Fearing for her safety, my Aunty Bachay made herself as unattractive as possible, even dusting her hair with ashes. In the event, the Japanese did respect our neutrality and we could return home.

My Uncle Assau had taken the decision to stay on in his apartment in Kowloon with his family. I remember that his front door had a small square glass peep-hole through which one could look out, and also look in. When looters came they saw his young children through the peep-hole and threatened to harm them unless they were admitted. Now before the war everyone was supposed to hand in their hunting rifles to the British authorities but Uncle Assau had retained his. He raised the muzzle up to the peep-hole, fired and heard the looters scamper away. A little later he noticed some liquid under the door and thought someone must have urinated, but it turned out to be the blood of a looter he had just killed.

This anarchy did not last long: when the Japanese took over, order was restored, instantly and ruthlessly. I was told that looters who were caught were lined up on the waterfront and machine-gunned.

One day my father chased and caught a petty thief whom he turned over to the Japanese. He later regretted his action because he saw the poor fellow, crestfallen, being led away in a party of criminals, no doubt to his death.

There was another story about a family friend who was taking a walk through the hills when he came across a Japanese execution party beheading prisoners. He was ordered to help and was handed a sword. He started by holding the sword in one hand above his head but they corrected him: the proper way, they instructed, was to grasp the sword in both hands and bring it down. (This image shows the execution of Australian commando Sgt. Leonard Stiffleet in Papua New Guinea.)

One hears so many accounts of Japanese atrocities during the war but we also saw their humane side. Japanese soldiers came to our apartment demanding my mother’s sewing machine. She begged them not to take it, offering instead to repair their clothes herself. So they brought their torn and bloodstained uniforms to her and made themselves at home while my mother did the mending. They repaid us with some food: I can remember a steaming hot tray of corned beef from their canteen.

My first impression of the Japanese soldiers was their odd boots, with split toes.

The Japanese soldiers were fond of us children and obviously enjoyed being again in a family environment. I had some American comics about US pilots fighting in China with the Chinese against the Japanese and was worried when they started to leaf through them, but was relieved when they only laughed.

Here is a photo of me with Gilberto da Silva and two Japanese soldiers in our apartment. I didn’t want to be in a photo with the enemy so I cut it in half. That was the action of a seven-year-old which today I regret.

One of our visitors was a Japanese officer. I have heard that a samurai sword is never drawn except in anger, but this officer unsheathed his sword from its scabbard to show to me.

One evening these soldiers came to our apartment armed with bayonets and took my mother to a back room. I can imagine today the turmoil in my father’s mind, but it was needless. It turned out that there were some drunken Korean and Formosan (Taiwanese) non-commissioned officers on the rampage looking for women. The Japanese soldiers actually were protecting my mother!

That was one side of the Japanese. The Yvanovich family were not so lucky. Uncle Pito had been travelling to and from Macau on business. On suspicion that he was a spy passing messages to the British, he was arrested and tortured by the Kempeitai (the Japanese Secret Police).
One of his daughters, Lolita, brought a precious food parcel to the prison every week for three months, until a kind Taiwanese guard finally let her see her parcels, neatly arrayed along a wall, untouched: her father been tortured and died months ago.
His older son Philip was a member of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps and had, with many other Portuguese, fought in the battle of Hong Kong; he was interned as a prisoner-of-war. The younger son, Avichi, was only 17 when he, too, was imprisoned and tortured. He was eventually released to his family, broken physically and mentally.

Portuguese citizens were encouraged to leave Hong. To enable British subjects to escape internment, Frank Soares, the acting Portuguese Consul, issued hundreds of travel documents — illegally — to Portuguese who had become British subjects, thereby saving them from incarceration. After the war he was punished by Portugal for his actions and deprived of his diplomatic pension.
Most Portuguese left Hong Kong and took refuge in Macau; however, some families, like the Yvanovichs, with husbands or brothers in PoW camp, chose to stay on in Hong Kong. Lolita Yvanovich told of their hardship. She and her mother Aunty Palmira and sisters sold their jewellery to buy food and managed to survive on vegetables grown in their garden. At one stage they had nothing to eat but bran. They would spread newspapers on the floor, put a pile of bran in the middle and wait. After some time, weevils would crawl out of the bran onto the newspaper and could be scraped away. When cooked the bran tasted awful; the Yvanovich ladies had some empty chocolate wrappers and would sniff them before taking a mouthful of bran.

There were other innocent civilian victims. You will no doubt know the case of Carlos “Henry” Basto, the President of Club Lusitano, who was sitting idly in the Club one day scribbling notes for a theoretical game of bridge when the Japanese Secret Police, raided the club; convinced that his notes were some secret code, they arrested and beheaded him.

In late January or early February 1942 my mother took us children and our faithful amah – who was like a member of our family – by boat to stay with her parents in Macau.

My father followed us shortly afterwards, bringing some furniture with him to the wharf. Now the Japanese had forbidden the removal of furniture. A Japanese soldier shouted at my father and slapped him around, but when my father uncovered our bedheads to reveal the carved images of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, the soldier waved him through.

No one knows how many refugees moved into Macau during the war, but there were hundreds of thousands, almost all Chinese. We saw many examples of disease and starvation. I remember a poor old man begging daily in the street; one day he was gone, presumably dead. Once I was walking in a street eating a banana when a young man ran by, grabbed it from my hand and continued running, desperately stuffing the whole banana into his mouth, skin and all.

The Government of Macau did its best to look after the thousands of Portuguese refugees from Hong Kong and Shanghai — feeding and housing families and educating children, even selling off antique cannons as scrap to buy rice for them, but the Chinese were left to fend for themselves. Our family was comparatively well off: my maternal grandfather, who had come from Portugal, was now retired with his military pension. He had built a spacious house with what was for Macau a large garden in which he grew fruits and vegetables and raised chickens, turkeys and rabbits. We stayed with him for probably a couple of years. My father managed to get a job as a waiter in a Portuguese club. My mother contributed substantially to the family income by knitting clothes for wealthy Chinese, using wool unravelled from old garments.

There was ample food for those who had the money but there were many dishonest and desperate practices. To increase weight, tiny stones were added to raw rice; you could easily break a tooth on them, so one of our daily chores was to spread rice out on a tray and laboriously separate stones from rice, grain by grain.

You would see all kinds of meat for sale including, if my memory serves me right, rats. People were dying in the streets. At one time the police were mystified to find corpses with chunks of flesh removed. It turned out that the chef at a prestigious hotel had been serving human flesh to his customers — including, one imagines, to senior members of the government. When he was caught he never went to trial because — so the story goes — he “died of cholera”. Justice was rough and ready.

For us children life was fairly normal and secure – we went to school, did some chores, played and occasionally even went to the movies. We never really wanted for anything essential but many items were in short supply. For toilet paper we used either newspapers or “chou chi” (a coarse paper made from grass). I still remember the pain of having a molar tooth pulled out without anaesthetic by the dentist with pliers.
The Portuguese refugees sympathised with the British and a handful managed to sneak out of Macau through Japanese lines to join the British Army Aid Group in Southern China to gather intelligence information and facilitate the escape of prisoners of war.

We children experienced nothing of the violence of war. A couple of times late in the conflict we could see, in the sky in the distance, tiny silver dots which were US and Japanese planes engaged in dogfights. In January 1945 US planes from the aircraft carrier Enterprise bombed Macau’s aerodrome — just 300m from my grandfather’s house — because it housed fuel that could have been passed to the Japanese.
Thus the war years seemed to pass quickly for us until it all ended suddenly when Emperor Hirohito surrendered in 15 August 1945. The Pacific war had begun on one Holy Day of Obligation and ended on another, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Let us return now to the fate of the Portuguese who fought to defend Hong Kong. By my reckoning there were 239 of them, of whom 25 died. The survivors were incarcerated in the Sham Shui Po Camp where they formed a tightly knit community. PoWs were put to work as slave labourers and suffered hardship and deprivation. There were serious health problems – dysentery, tuberculosis, scabies, beriberi and diphtheria, and a painful disease they called “electric feet” — neuropathy caused by vitamin deficiency. The Japanese had captured large quantities of medical supplies but kept them for their own use. The army prison doctors worked wonders, operating with razor blades and knives; for drugs they used salt and peanut oil. One of them — Albert Rodrigues (‘Tito’ Rodrigue’s father) was knighted after the war for his services.

Some prisoners were assigned jobs as carpenters, bricklayers, cooks or toilet cleaners; others were sent out on work parties doing hard labour — enlarging the airport, moving munitions, transferring equipment and digging tunnels for ammunition storage. However, they were still able to poke fun at themselves, as these cartoons show.

Elderly or unfit prisoners were given light duties. Officers did no work; each had a batman to look after him: make his bed, draw and serve his meals, wash his clothes and so on. There was an active black market, trading in cigarettes, medical drugs and food. To get medicines prisoners sold to sentries all they had, even their gold teeth. The families of prisoners were allowed to bring them parcels once a week but there was also smuggling. Philip Yvanovich used to say that, dressed only in a fundoshi loincloth, he could sneak anything past the prison guards.Many food parcels were sent by British and Canadian Red Cross but they only received them on six occasions.

Japanese discipline was strict but the prisoners were allowed many privileges. They were given equipment for sport, were allowed one letter a month, access to a well-stocked library and even music and stage shows which the Japanese Camp Commandant and staff enjoyed. Here are some posters from their plays. There were at least 8 stage plays performed in 1943.

A number of people wrote about their own and other people’s experiences during the war, including Cicero Rozario, Philip Yvanovich, Frank Correa, Bobby Barnes, Luigi Ribeiro and Joyce Van Langenberg. Many of these accounts are on the Macanese Library (www.macaneselibrary.org) and Macanese Families (www.macanesefamilies.com) websites.

Zinho Gosano, the youngest boy of the Gosano family, left us his memoirs. He and three of his brothers had joined the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps; three of them were imprisoned but one managed to escape to Macau.
Zinho was one of 70 Portuguese prisoners transferred from Sham Shui Po Camp to Sendai, Japan, near where the Fukushima nuclear plant is today, to work in a coal mine. It is interesting that they were given better food in Japan than in Hong Kong. This is a photo taken when they were liberated. (To see all their names, visit www.macanesefamilies.com)

Zinho tells of three close brushes with death. The first occurred when he was defending a 9.2-inch gun emplacement on Mount Davis: a Japanese bomb exploded nearby and hurled him out of a foxhole 25 metres down a hill; his shirt was shredded but he was otherwise unhurt. Luigi d’Almada Remedios, who was in the foxhole with him, was badly wounded and disfigured but also survived.

His second close shave was in Sendai in Japan where, being young and strong, he was given the dangerous job of drilling for coal which other workers, the “shovellors”, carted away; one day the tunnel suddenly collapsed and could have killed him, but he just managed to jump away.

It was after Japan surrendered, when they thought it was all over, that he had his third close call. Zinho and an American sergeant had climbed onto the roof of a building to watch American planes parachuting supplies into their camp. One of the parachutes failed to open and the package killed the American and smashed Zinho’s leg, which was bent so that his foot touched his knee.

After the war the Portuguese prisoners of war returned to their families. Most subsequently emigrated to other countries. Some lived to a ripe old age, the last one dying only a few years ago. Philip Yvanovich had contracted tuberculosis in PoW camp but survived. He and his sister Lolita moved to Adelaide after the war. After being wounded by the package from the failed parachute, Zinho Gosano was sent to convalesce in New Zealand where he stayed and later became a priest. The 1995 photo shows him marching proudly on Waitangi Day, New Zealand’s National Day.

One of the Portuguese prisoners, Company Sergeant-Major Marciano “Naneli” Baptista (Fr Marciano’s uncle) was a talented artist who produced many attractive drawings while in camp, raising the spirits of the prisoners. An album of drawings, mostly by himself, is in a museum in Canada; I saw another of his albums, locked under glass, in the Hong Kong Museum of History in Tsim Sha Tsui (but was unable to inspect it). (After the war, Naneli was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire for his services.) Here are some sketches he drew in tribute to some of the 25 Portuguese who had died in the defence of Hong Kong. One Portuguese family made the ultimate sacrifice, losing four sons in the battle. We should not forget the sacrifices that Portuguese made for Hong Kong.

March 2020

Acknowledgements:
Unless otherwise noted, all photos are from the websites www.macanesefamilies.com and www.macaneselibrary.org and drawings are from Naneli Baptista’s album of war sketches.

Image from a draft book Stranger in My Heart by Mary Monro https://unbound.com/books/stranger-in-my-heart/updates/battle-of-hong-kong-anniversary.

http://www.mansell.com/pow_resources/camplists/sendai/sendai_2/sendai_2_main.html

 Peter Somerville taken by his father on 28 Nov 1945 http://www.mansell.com/pow_resources/

 Australian War Memorial, cited by https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-09-26/wwii-jika-tabi-boots/8988676

Drawing from Chinese Ink and Brush Sketches of Prisoner of War Camp Life in Hong Kong, 25 December 1941-30 August 1945, A. V. Skvorzov, 1945, cited in http://www.ient.org.uk/index.php?page=shamshuipo-camp; also in https://www.warmuseum.ca/collections/artifact/1015485/

Sketch by AK Skvorzov, Canadian Wara Museum https://www.warmuseum.ca/collections/artifact/1015495/