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News: Chinese Heroes Who Saved British Servicemen In 1942 To Visit Britain

Published 25 August 2011, 17:17

The Chinese fishermen with Brigadier (Ret’d) Christopher Hammerbeck, Chairman of the Royal British Legion (Hong Kong and China Branch) during a visit to Hong Kong in 2008. (Courtesy of the Lisbon Maru Association)

Four local Chinese fishermen who, as young men, rescued Allied prisoners of war who survived of the sinking of the Lisbon Maru on 1 October 1942, are to visit the United Kingdom, writes Martin Mace.

On Christmas Day 1941, the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Mark Young, surrendered the British colony to the Japanese. Some 10,000 soldiers became prisoners of war, of whom more than 5,000 were British.

In September the following year 1,816 of the British prisoners were selected for shipment to Japan to act as slave labour. Along with 778 officers and men of the Japanese army, on 27 September they were embarked upon a requisitioned cargo ship, the Lisbon Maru, bound for Tokyo. The prisoners were placed in the ship’s three holds, each containing around 600 men. No.1 Hold, forward, mainly held sailors of the Royal Navy and some infantry. The prisoners in No.2 Hold, amidships, were mainly from the Royal Scots, and those locked in No.3 Hold, aft, were mainly from the Royal Artillery. Contrary to international convention the Lisbon Maru carried no markings to indicate that it was carrying PoWs.

On 1 October 1942, as the ship’s route took it to the sea off Dongji (Qingbang Island), Zhoushan, China, the Lisbon Maru was hit by no less than five torpedoes from the American submarine USS Grouper. The ship immediately began to take on water but rather than allow the prisoners to come on deck the Japanese tried to contain the PoWs (claiming that it was too difficult to control such a large number of men) by battening down the hatches.

The Lisbon Maru limped on with water still leaking into the holds, the prisoners taking it in turns to man the pumps, some apparently dying of exhaustion in the cramped, fetid conditions. It was not until early the next day, 2 October, that the ship finally began to sink, with several Japanese destroyers arriving to take off the Japanese troops. As the Lisbon Maru was going down some of the PoWs managed to organise a break-out, but were shot at by Japanese soldiers as they jumped for their lives into the sea. 

Local Chinese fishermen, watching from the shore as the horror of this tragedy unfolded, immediately took to their flimsy fishing boats and, undaunted by the Japanese rifle fire, rushed out to save as many of the PoWs as they could and took them to their homes. At the time China and Japan were at war and the Chinese knew that they were risking severe reprisals for their actions. Altogether 1,006 of the original 1,834 on board survived the tragedy; 384 had been saved by the fishermen.

The Japanese troops went to the island to track down and arrest the British prisoners, the vast majority of whom were caught and returned to captivity. Despite the Japanese search, three British men, Johnstone, Evans and Fallace, were hidden by the local fishermen and eventually escaped via Chongqing and returned to the UK.

Four of the Chinese fishermen are still alive, now in their 90s, and two of them will visit the United Kingdom in 2012. Their visit will be hosted by Major Brian Finch who served with the Middlesex Regiment, men from the 1st battalion of which were on the Lisbon Maru.

Major Finch is intending to walk from coast to coast across Devon along the 117-mile Two Moors Way in October 2011 to raise money for these heroes of the Second World War. The money raised by the walk will go to the Lisbon Maru Association, based in Hong Kong, which works to keep alive the memory of this tragedy and helps to support some of the surviving fishermen.

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