Wednesday, May 17, 2006

 

Man's inhumanity to man

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The Standard
By Tony Banham
May 13, 2006





The cruel deaths of hundreds of British POWs, captured in Hong Kong and sealed by their Japanese jailers into a ship as it sank off Shanghai, is documented in a heartfelt book about the largely forgotten World War II incident, writes Adam Luck.

Stumbling across the deck of the badly listing Lisbon Maru, gunner Jack Etiemble dived for cover as Japanese soldiers repeatedly unleashed volleys of shots which cut through the waves of desperate British prisoners of war fleeing from the bowels of the ship.

The 19-year-old Jersey-born-and- bred soldier preferred to die out in the open beneath a flawless blue sky rather than be taken to a watery grave in the South China Seas along with his 1,834 trapped, dead and dying comrades deep in the holds of the fast sinking Japanese troop ship.

Some six decades after one of Britain's worst maritime tragedies, Etiemble is still alive to tell the incredible tale of the Lisbon Maru, but rather than revel in his own good fortune he can only recall the ghostly cries of his long dead comrades moments before the ship slipped beneath the waves on October 2, 1942.

Now 82, Etiemble, who lives in Market Weighton, England, said: "I was lying on the deck with bullets bouncing around everywhere but I could still hear the ladder from the hold give way, which meant that no one down there could get out.

"Down in the hold there was an Irish gunner and I heard him shout out `Give them a song, lads' and they started singing out It's a Long Way to Tippe
rary. That was the end of them.

"Two hundred died in that hold and probably half of them drowned there and then, trapped."

For those who managed to escape the ship as it sank off the coast of Shanghai, their ordeal had only just begun. Unimaginable horrors would follow.

At least 800 servicemen are estimated to have died during and immediately after the sinking of the Lisbon Maru in October 1942. By the end of the war, only 748 would make it back to home shores.

Yet the torturous tale of the Lisbon Maru has, until now, been largely forgotten, submerged as it is beneath the waves of history, which washed over the world and Britain with the traumatic fall of Singapore and the remorseless rise of Hitler in Europe.

Now, The Sinking of the Lisbon Maru: Britain's Forgotten Wartime Tragedy by British author Tony Banham will be published this month and it comes allied with the decision of the Chinese government to build a large memorial close to the site of the sinking in honor of those who survived and those who did not.

The brainchild of the local Zhoushan city government and the Hong Kong Ex-Serviceman's Association, the HK$5 million landmark, designed by a leading Chinese artist, is based on a funnel sinking stern down into the sea and will be placed on one of the main islands that make up the Zhoushan archipelago.

Survivor Maynard Skinner, a signalman with the Royal Corps of Signals, believes the book and the memorial - expected to be completed later this year - are a fitting tribute to those who died, but also a debt of duty to a barely remembered part of Britain's military history.

Now 85, Maynard, who lives in Dorset, said: "The whole show out in the Far East was not given much attention back in Britain either during or after the war. The European war was the main thing and you have to remember that those of us who survived out there were rescued by the Americans, who paid a high price. We should not forget that.

"When the Japanese attacked Britain's strategic interests at the beginning of the war we did not stand a chance. Hong Kong did not have an earthly."

What all the men on the Lisbon Maru shared was the misfortune to be trapped in Hong Kong when the Japanese launched their Pacific campaign of conquest with the simultaneous attack on Pearl Harbour and Hong Kong on December 7, 1941. By Boxing Day, the last remnants of British-led resistance had finally surrendered.

Etiemble said: "I was the bugler. When we were told it was over I had to sound retreat followed by the Last Post. I then threw the bugle on the ground and flattened it. I decided that was going to be my tradition! I did not want the Japanese getting anything."

What the survivors got, however, was nine months hard labor with meager rations and POW camps ravaged by disease.

The news that they were going to board the Lisbon Maru that September for Japan was met with relief by the POWs.

Etiemble said: "I thought the conditions could not be any worse in Japan than Hong Kong. A lot of us were glad to be getting away because the food was awful and death rate so high.

"They stopped sounding the Last Post after each death because they thought it too demoralizing - there were so many."

The men were split between three holds, with about 360 naval personnel put in the front or first hold, more than 1,000 mainly army personnel going in the middle or second hold and another 360 men from the Royal Artillery in the third, roughly in the center of the boat.

Alfred "Nobby" Hunt was one of those in the second hold when it set sail on September 27.

Now 86 and living in Birmingham, Hunt said: "There were too many people in the first hold so they put a few of us navy people in the middle hold. I was on sacks of sand. They stank of urine and there were rats everywhere with men overlapping one another. It was extremely unpleasant."

But in the morning of October 1 the men heard an explosion in the rear of the ship, closest to the third hold.

It was a torpedo attack launched by American submarine Grouper, which had no idea the Japanese troop ship they were attacking was carrying British POWs.

With 780 of their own troops on board, the Japanese had not bothered to inform the Allies.

Etiemble, who was in the third hold, said: "The Japanese handed us down a four man hand pump and three candles and told us if we wanted to live we had better get pumping. We were stood on wooden boards and we could see the water filling the bilges beneath our feet.

"At first we managed 15 minute stints on the pump but people were collapsing. Then they battened down the hatches. We spent the next 24 hours pumping by candlelight with the water washing over our feet. That's when we realized we had to get out at all costs."

The Japanese troops had battened down the hatches with wooden boards and canvas effectively sealing the men into airtight chambers before abandoning the boat with just a skeleton crew of guards left in their wake.

After 24 hours, the POWs - barely able to breath - were swimming in their own excrement listening to the cries of their sick comrades as they died one by one.

Royal Scots bandsman Dennis Morley, from Stroud, was in the second hold: "It was completely black. You could not see anything. When we asked for water they sent us down a bucket of piss. It was horrendous: like being trapped in a sewer."

Increasingly desperate, the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel "Monkey" Stewart ordered two officers to try and break out from the second hold. They eventually succeeded and helped free the men from the first and third holds.

Etiemble said: "When we went into the water there were Japanese patrol boats shooting at anybody.

"One of my best mates, gunner Thomas Childs, was 50 meters in front of me when a patrol boat came alongside him. They went as if to pull him out of the water, but when his head was level with the side of the boat they kicked his face in - literally - and then pushed him under. He died there and then.

"I think the only reason we survived was because Chinese junks were in the area and the Japanese realized there were witnesses.

"When we were lined up by the Japanese at Shanghai afterward, the interpreter said to us: `None of you are supposed to be here. You were all supposed to die like rats in a trap.' I thought that was a really friendly greeting."

Many of those who had not drowned were shot or bayoneted as they struggled to survive in the water. Others were deliberately run down by the Japanese boats.

Many of the survivors were saved by Chinese fishermen after hours spent in the sea and others were eventually rescued by Japanese naval boats. Hundreds, however, were lost on the vicious tidal currents that mark out that area.

The survivors - including Skinner, Hunt, Morley and Etiemble - were all eventually interned in Japan until Emperor Hirohito surrendered in 1945.

Etiemble reflected: "What the Lisbon Maru taught me was man's inhumanity to man. What the Japanese did - there was no need. There was no reason to batten down the hatches ... 900 plus people died as a result not of the torpedoes but because of what happened afterwards.

"I think it is good that we will now have something to remember these men by."

The Sinking of the Lisbon Maru: Britain's Forgotten Wartime Tragedy, by Tony Banham. Hong Kong University Press, 2006. Go to www.lisbonmaru.com to find out more or contribute towards the memorial fund.

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