The Youngest Prisoners of War

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Born in an internment camp in Hong Kong in 1942, 75-year-old Barbara Laidlaw has begun making sense of her unusual childhood and is searching for others who share her unique story.

Barbara has flashbacks from the war years, but never really understood what her parents lived through. Several years ago, she returned to Hong Kong to meet other children who were born in Stanley Prison Camp or entered as toddlers. This helped Barbara piece together the story her parents wouldn’t, or couldn’t, talk about.
Barbara came into the world in usual circumstances. Her mother was a society belle and her father held several positions – he served with the British Defence, was a member of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corp, worked for the Police and Health Department and studied medicine. Barbara was born in Tsan Yuk Hospital in Stanley Prison Camp and when the war ended in 1945 her family repatriated to Australia.

Barbara was overwhelmed to discover the story of her birth and proud of her parents for surviving the war years. Barbara’s grandfather  was a sea faring captain working for Chinese Navigation in Hong Kong and when her mother Kathleen was 12 the family moved to Hong Kong to be closer to him.
The hospital ship arrivesThe hospital ship carrying Barbara's father arrives in Australia

After school, Kathleen worked for the Texas Oil Company and in 1932 met Barbara’s father (known as Tiny because he was 200 centimetres tall). They got married in 1936 and lived the high life in Hong Kong. Tiny’s job with the Police and Health Department entailed inspecting brothels.

As a member of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corp, Tiny was sent into the New Territories near the China border. The Corp fought for 17 days until Britain surrendered on Christmas Day 1941 (known as Black Christmas). Military personnel were interned into a camp called Shamshuipo on the mainland.

Approximately 3,000 civilians lived in Hong Kong at the time – 2,400 British (including Australian and New Zealanders), approximately 500 Americans, 100 Canadians and a small number of Dutch and Russians.

The Japanese assembled everyone in Murray Place while they decided where to put them. Eventually, many were marched through Hong Kong Island toward Stanley Bay and some were taken by boat. They were housed in cheap brothels, where many slept in hallways and corridors, with no facilities.

Many Chinese people risked their lives to bring them rice and water. Finally, they reached Stanley, where the Japanese had cleared out the warden’s quarters of the civilian prison. They also took possession of the boarding house of St Stephen’s College and the library building, which had been used as a hospital for wounded troops from the New Territories.

In most cases, 15 people were allocated to one room (married couples and married women), eight to smaller rooms for single women and single men were housed in the boarding rooms of the school. There were no facilities, bare floors with nothing to sleep on, no eating implements and one toilet per 12 rooms.

By then (January 1942), Kathleen was eight months pregnant with Barbara. One month later, she and her obstetrician Sir Gordon King, who was interned with her, asked to be taken to a local Chinese hospital because she needed a caesarean section. Kathleen was sent to the hospital in a truck with nine Japanese guards.

After Barbara was delivered, Sir Gordon whispered in Kathleen’s ear that she would not see him again but advised her to drink as much water as possible to enable her to breastfeed. Kathleen later learned that Tiny also intended to escape with Sir Gordon and two other men. However, after hearing it would endanger Kathleen and Barbara, he changed his mind. 

The hospital ship

The Japanese threatened that if anyone escaped from either camp they would kill another prisoner. Barbara has since learned that a message written on rice paper was pushed into a tin of jam and smuggled into Shamshuipo camp, letting Tiny know that his daughter had been delivered safely.

Tiny asked a friend to sketch a portrait of his baby girl in a diary hidden in this cell wall. He also wrote poems in his diary – about love, his spiritual beliefs and some that were humorous.

Stories From A Recent Trip

On a recent trip to Hong Kong organised by Professor Geoffrey Emmerson, Barbara discovered more about how her family survived the years in Stanley Prison. At the reunion, while Barbara met other child internees whose parents also hadn’t shared details of those years, she also met some who entered the camp as toddlers and had better memories.

Some stories made them laugh, such as chasing cockroaches to add to their meals as a source of protein, while others detailed basic survival – parents grinding rice to get flour and rice milk for calcium. The daily ration was a bowl of rice and a spoon of stew twice a day.

The most important item missing from their diet was milk. When the Red Cross dropped food and clothing over the camp, the Japanese took what they wanted and left the rest for the prisoners. Fortunately, they didn’t like condensed milk so it was a reliable source of calcium for the children. 

Many professionals were interned, including doctors, nurses, teachers and dentists, and while there was no paper or pencils, children learned to count and recognise colours on an abacus constructed from twigs, threads from rice sacks and buttons from clothing left by those who died. They tried to preserve as much normality as possible, organising church services and meetings for Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and Freemasons.

But life at the internment camp was also brutal. Prisoners caught trying to build radios or make contact through the wire fence were executed and one prisoner was burnt in an oil drum. Children were forced to observe these terrible incidents.

Barbara learned that her mother was tortured, although she didn’t know the full details. A well-known author who interviewed experts on the subject told Barbara it was likely the specifics would always remain a mystery.

Barbara does know her mother had wax tapers put under her fingernails and lit when she could not answer the Commandant’s questions. Because she was born in Australia, they assumed she could provide information about Sydney buildings and Australian companies.

Kathleen was shown pictures of Japanese signs erected at Martin Place and special Australian money printed in readiness for Australia’s occupation. The type of torture carried out in Stanley Prison Camp occurred around the same time as the Battle of the Coral Sea, which represented a turning point in the Pacific campaign. 

Japan also tried to negotiate with Australia to release Japanese prisoners of war, many of who were pearl divers with a thorough knowledge of the Australian coast. Australia refused to negotiate and Australians, New Zealanders and British were not released, while Americans and Canadians were returned home. 

The only birth certificate Barbara holds is from the Emperor of Japan stating she is a “Daughter of the Emperor of Japan”. Fortunately, Sir Gordon King gave Kathleen a piece of paper stating Barbara’s date, time and place of birth.

The POW camp took its toll on Tiny’s health and, with the support of Lady Mount Batten, her family repatriated to Australia in 1945. Barbara was four when they set sail for their new home and she remembers her mother saying, “the fairies are coming”. Barbara was surprised to see women wearing gowns (they turned out to be ladies from the Red Cross) and she wore shoes for the first time in her life.