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Confronting history
By Zhao Xu (HK Edition)
Updated: 2008-12-17 07:58


Banham interviewing a World War II veteran for Researching POW History, an organization dedicated to the researching of the experiences of ex-Far Eastern prisoners of war or internees. Courtesy of Banham

For Tony Banham, who has spent the past two decades studying the history surrounding the Battle of Hong Kong, there is a fundamental difference between that battle and the much bigger ones in Europe, China and the Pacific - not least from a research perspective.

"What makes the Battle of Hong Kong unique was its scale. This was no battle of Berlin with millions of men involved," he said. "Instead, just 14,000 defended Hong Kong."

Over the past 20 years, Banham has given himself to uncovering the stories of those men, many of whom were caught in fighting involving no more than 100 men.

"If it's 100,000 individuals, then they are purely numbers. But if it's 40 people who died, you tend to ask the question of who they were and how they died," he said. "The fact that war in Hong Kong was a relatively 'small affair' has allowed me to study it on a human level and to understand it much better."


Tony Banham has penned two books: Not the Slightest Chance - the Defense of Hong Kong 1941 and The Sinking of the Lisbon Maru. Edmond Tang

So far, the research has spun off two books. The first one, Not the Slightest Chance - the Defense of Hong Kong 1941 was published in 2003 and amounts to a phase-by-phase, hour-by-hour, death-by-death account of the battle. ("Not the slightest chance" was Winston Churchill's April 1941 estimate of Hong Kong's prospects in the face of a Japanese assault.)

The second book, The Sinking of the Lisbon Maru is more narrative in style and documents the fate of all those aboard Lisbon Maru, a Japanese freighter used as a prisoner-of-war transport between China and Japan during the war.

When a US submarine sunk the ship on October 1, 1942, she was carrying a large number of Allied prisoners of war captured after the fall of Hong Kong in December 1941.

A third book is on its way. We Shall Suffer There, which could be published in February, focuses on Hong Kong POWs and Internees. The title is taken from the same assessment made by Churchill in 1941, when he said, "if Japan goes to war there is not the slightest chance of holding Hong Kong or relieving it. It is most unwise to increase the loss we shall suffer there."

The actual fighting did not last very long but many of those who took part in the war remained as POW for years, said Banham.

"I'm just as interested in what happened after the end of the fighting as I'm interested in the fighting itself."

He has also started work on a fourth and a fifth book, which will follow families evacuated to Australia prior to the war and people who escaped from concentration camps and later fought the Japanese in various regular and irregular units.

"In 1940 right before the war started, the families of the British men in Hong Kong were evacuated to Australia," said Banham. "Only the wives and the children went. And they were forced to do so by the British and the Hong Kong governments - the move was hugely unpopular at the time."

According to him, many of them eventually settled in Australia and created a new life there. But that was not before all hopes had been lost.

"During the war, the wives heard rumors that their husbands had been killed. But the information was so vague and the rumors could never be confirmed," said Banham. "As a result, they lived in agonized expectation."

To research for the book, Banham searched archives on the evacuation that are currently kept either in Hong Kong, Britain or Australia. He also managed to get hold of copies of memoirs, diaries and letters corresponded between the husbands and their families.

"Many evacuated children are now in their 60s and 70s and they are still in relatively good shape to talk about the experiences," he said.

It may be hard for readers of a singular book to see the pattern, but all five books are actually intended to form a series. And together, they capture Banham's "humanistic approach" towards history writing.

"Initially I focused on the fighting. After the fighting, the same men were sent to POW camps. Some of them were later put on the ship, which becomes a story of itself," said Banham. "Then I realized that a man in isolation is just not realistic - he's got to have a family and that family was an ever-present part of the picture."

"And when those men in the POW camps escaped, many of them joined the British Army Aid Group, which was established at the outbreak of the Battle to gather military intelligence for the Allied Forces."

According to Banham, the goal is to trace the entire journey made by those men between 1941 and 1945, when Japan officially surrendered.

"This is a small group of people studied from so many angles - as soldiers, POWs, family men and escapees. Their stories are human stories that are often overshadowed by the war itself," he said.

One thing that Banham had no way of imagining when first starting the project was to get involved in the lives of the people portrayed in his books.

One of them is Dennis Morley, a member of the British Garrison Forces in Hong Kong. After the war, he was taken to a POW camp in Shamshuipo, then on the Lisbon Maru, and then to Kobe House (concentration camp) in Osaka, Japan, and finally to the Nomachi POW Camp from which he was liberated by the Americans.

"I began talking to him five or six years ago," recalled Banham. "At one time I felt so bad bringing back all the terrible memories for him: A friend of his was executed by the Japanese while trying to escape; he himself was put on the ship - the ship sunk but he survived, only to end up in the earthly hell of the POW camps."

But talking, like writing, is cathartic. Eventually, the man got to a stage when he felt that he was ableto face his past.

In 2007, Morley went to Japan and visited Kobe House. In a letter to Banham he wrote: "On visiting the site my war had gone full circle and I am now putting it all behind me."

The old man has also given Banham his hat badge, which he had held on to as a badge of honor.

In another case, the amateur historian helped to make a family reunion, fifty years overdue.

Two years ago, he received an email from the daughter of a veteran British soldier whom he had interviewed for one of his books. In the letter, the woman from Australia asked about her father's experiences during World War II, which she had never been told before.

"I sent her an email and at end of it I said to her, 'your brother was asking me similar questions.' She immediately replied saying, 'Thank you, but sadly I don't have any brothers.' Then I realized what had happened," said Banham.

According to him, the POW experiences were hard and the people desperate to leave all those painful memories behind. After the war ended, some of them made a deliberate decision to cut themselves completely from the old life and started fresh somewhere else without ever getting into touch with their relatives from the "old life".

One was a British soldier named Jack Butterworth, who went to Australia after the war, got married and had one daughter. Neither the wife nor the daughter knew about his previous marriage, let alone the son he had had from that marriage.

For his family, which had stayed behind in Britain, the man was forever lost, a loss they had endured for more than half a century.

But now, with both the son and the daughter e-mailing Banham for their father's stories, the painful secret was finally out.

"I had no choice but to put the two people in contact," said Banham. "Initially I was very worried about their reactions. But then the Australian family decided to visit the British family. And they discovered many common experiences."

"Of course the son was a little bit upset having been abandoned by his father, but the daughter was very happy to have suddenly found an old brother."

At the time, the old man and his two wives had passed away. But for the children, that was the ending of a life-long search, for a father they never really know.

And that's what matters to Banham.

"If I have furthered the science of history in some small way, that is good," he wrote on his website. "If I have helped people come to terms with the experiences of their fathers and grandfathers, then that is surely better."

(HK Edition 12/17/2008 page4)