Many of you may have read Carolyn’s story “Surviving Stanley” in the November 2008 edition of BN5. Others may have been fortunate to hear her personal account at various talks she has given to local clubs, schools and organisations, such as the WI. This more factual account of her life and amazing experiences focuses on some high (and low) lights of her story. More details may be found in Issue #26 of BN5.
Possibly because of Imperialist arrogance, the British garrisons and bases in South East Asia didn’t seem to take the threat posed by the massing Japanese forces very seriously. All that changed in December 1941 with the infamous attack on Pearl Harbour and the subsequent surrender of the British Colony in Hong Kong on Christmas Day. At that time Carolyn Phillips, only child of “CC” and Mollie Blake, was 6 months old. Her father was a stockbroker and her parents had, up until then, been enjoying a comfortable expatriate lifestyle. They had met in the 1930s on a train travelling from Scotland to King’s Cross, married and moved to Hong Kong before war broke out.
Carolyn had only just been christened when, along with over 2,500 others, she was herded into Stanley Camp – an ex-prison camp – for what turned out to almost 4 years of internment. Stanley was one of 52 such camps operated by the Japanese in South East Asia, and whilst perhaps not the most stringent, the regime was very harsh. Fifteen people lived in a hut that 6 prisoners had occupied; the contents of one suitcase was all that internees were allowed to bring with them; and the diet was basically a small bowl of rice between 5 people – the equivalent of about 800 calories a day.
The Hong Kong British community comprised quite a spread of professional people, ranging from bankers and businessmen, to doctors, diplomats, clergy and teachers. Some of these were tortured for what they knew, though it should be stressed that this treatment did not extend to children. The prisoners soon realised that, though US and Canadian families were being repatriated, this was unlikely to happen to them, so they prepared for a long stay. They created their own infrastructure of school, surgery, church and theatre. But with nowhere to shop, resources were minimal and had to be begged, borrowed, stolen or improvised.
Mollie had brought a single needle in her suitcase, and with this and thread un-picked from adult clothing and blankets, and material thrown away by their guards, she managed to make clothes and shoes for the family – see examples of Carolyn’s “wardrobe” in the Picture Gallery. School books were made from scraps of paper – even discarded cigarette cartons – and the level of education attained was sufficient that some of the older children were able to enter directly into UK universities when they eventually reached home.
Sadly, many internees never got that far. The Japanese did not adhere to the Geneva Convention, and though Carolyn and her mother and father did survive, both parents were literally shadows of their former selves, and at 4 years old, Carolyn weighed a mere 24lbs and suffered from severe calcium deficiency. Less than a third of the original prisoners lived to see that day. But the survivors all knew something had changed in August 1945, when the attitude of their guards softened overnight. The atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had produced their devastating effect.
In a lighter moment, once the US Navy arrived to relieve the situation, they quickly realised that food was the greatest priority, and started to drop food parcels. After one plummeted through the roof of their hut, Mollie remarked that it would have been ironic to survive their ordeal, only to have been killed by a tin of peaches. The long sail home provided opportunity for the detainees to adjust to their new freedom – and to learn how to eat proper food again. Initially the Blakes lived with Mollie’s father in Northern Ireland, where they received a letter from the King and, as compensation for their ordeal, a cheque for £47!
Following recuperation, and as they had no other means of support, Carolyn and her parents returned to Hong Kong until, aged 9, she returned to attend boarding school in the UK. Various moves, and eventually marriage, brought her to Hove, from where Carolyn moved to Henfield in 1985. The contrast between this and life in Camp Stanley is something that most of us can scarcely begin to imagine.