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Lisbon Maru victims, heroes remembered at Chinese embassy event

By XING YI in London | | Updated: 2023-02-22 01:59
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The Chinese Embassy in the United Kingdom has hosted an event to remember and honor the victims, survivors and heroes of the 1942 Lisbon Maru incident.

A Chinese New Year reception and memorial event was held in Gloucester, England, on Sunday for nearly 150 relatives of British prisoners of war, who were on board the Lisbon Maru ship, which sank in the East China Sea, during World War II.

Zheng Zeguang, Chinese ambassador to the UK, gives a speech to remember and honor the victims, survivors, and heroes of the 1942 Lisbon Maru incident. [Photo provided to]

Zheng Zeguang, Chinese ambassador to the UK, said the Chinese New Year is an occasion when people hold family reunions, and that the memorial event was an opportunity for all present to remember a special bond between the Chinese and British.

The Lisbon Maru, a Japanese cargo ship that was carrying more than 1,800 British prisoners, sunk off the coast of China's Zhejiang province in October 1942, after it was hit by a torpedo, fired by a United States submarine, the USS Grouper, which was unaware the prisoners were onboard.

More than 800 British prisoners died in the incident, but around 380 were saved by Chinese fishermen, from Zhoushan, Zhejiang province, who ferried the drowning soldiers on small boats to nearby islands.

The embassy noted that many of the attendees at the event are second-generation relatives of the survivors. It was the first time they had all met, with many traveling from all over the UK, including some from Scotland, to be there.

Dennis Morley, the last survivor of the Lisbon Maru, died age 101, two years ago. In his last years, Morley and his daughter, Denise Wynne, set up a memorial for the incident in the National Memorial Arboretum.

With the help of friends, Wynne wrote a letter to President Xi Jinping, expressing the idea of building a similar memorial in Zhoushan, to recognize the heroic story of the Chinese fishermen.

Denise Wynne, daughter of a survivor of the Lisbon Maru ship, shows the letter she received from President Xi Jinping. [Photo provided to]

Quoting from her original letter on Sunday, Wynne said: "Fishermen from Zhoushan risking their lives to rescue hundreds of British prisoners of war on the Lisbon Maru is a valuable asset in the relationship between the two countries.

"My father once said that all prisoners of war on board would have lost their lives if they had not been rescued by the local fishermen, nor would he have gone back to the UK to build a happy family of five generations."

Wynne said she was surprised to receive a letter of reply last year, in which the president encouraged her to "carry forward her father's legacy" and "continue to work for the advancement of friendship" between China and the UK. 

"President Xi's care about this matter is a testament to China's consistent policy and efforts to promote mutual understanding, friendship and cooperation between the Chinese and the British people. History should be remembered, and the history of great cause should never be forgotten," said Zheng.

Zheng said despite ups and downs, the people of China have always cherished the friendship with the British people, and that people-to-people exchanges hold the key to sound and productive state-to-state relations.

He told the audience that China has undergone great change since the end of World War II, and Zhoushan, once a small fishing village, has become a city of vitality that would welcome them as visitors.

Zheng Zeguang, Chinese ambassador to the UK, talks with relatives of British prisoners of war who were onboard of the Lisbon Maru cargo ship in 1942. [Photo provided to]

At the event, Graham Saxby, son of Steve Saxby who was a royal engineer aboard the Lisbon Maru, and who died in 1998, presented the ambassador with an ink painting depicting the sinking of the ship and three British soldiers drifting at the sea.

Saxby said the picture was drawn by his artist friend Paul Christien, from the perspective of his father, who, along with three others, escaped from the hold of the Lisbon Maru. They jumped in the water and claimed to have played cards while hanging on to driftwood, but said a Japanese destroyer tried to run them down several times.

The survivors' tale is an inspiring and positive example of the human spirit, said Saxby. "This is a story that I could (only) tell because the Chinese fishermen came out and rescued them. Whatever your cultural background and political position, when you see people at sea that need help, you help them."

Christien said that before now he didn't know the fishermen's side of the story, adding that he now felt inspired to create another painting from their perspective.

Hilary Hamilton, daughter of Geoffrey Hamilton, who survived the incident and died in 1988, came to the event with a small book written by her father in 1966. "My father told me the incident when I was ten or eleven," recalled Hamilton. "He wrote the book so that more people could know of the story."

Many of the fishermen who participated in the rescue also died, and some of their children have also passed on the memory of the incident. One of them, Liang Yindi, is now a guide for a museum dedicated to the Lisbon Maru incident, located on Dongji Island, Zhoushan.

Liang's father Liang Yijuan, who was only 13 during the rescue, helped some of the British soldiers to hide in a cave of the small island to avoid being recaptured by the Japanese army. Liang told Chinese media in an interview last year that although her father has since died, the example of bravery and kindness would never die.

"We will do our best to tell the story of Lisbon Maru to more people," she said.

A group of musicians perform Chinese traditional music at the Chinese New Year reception held in Gloucester, England, on Sunday. [Photo provided to]

Video by Brian Chang.

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