For­got­ten boys: bid to take 828 PoWs home

The Australian - - WORLD - DIDI TANG BEI­JING

The hor­rific story of 1800 Bri­tish pris­on­ers of war bat­tened into three cargo holds of a tor­pe­doed Ja­panese trans­port ship is so lit­tle told that the dead are known by his­to­ri­ans as the for­got­ten boys.

Some scram­bled to free­dom even as the Ja­panese guards shot at them. Many could not. In one hold, hun­dreds lost their chance of sur­vival when the only lad­der snapped. Sur­vivors re­counted hear­ing the singing of It’s a Long Way to Tip­per­ary as the boat sank.

Now a Chi­nese-Amer­i­can busi­ness­man is plan­ning to bring the re­mains of the 828 who drowned in the Lis­bon Maru to the sur­face. Fang Li, 64, has em­barked on a quest to find off­spring and rel­a­tives of those who went down with the 7000-tonne ves­sel in 1942 in the East China Sea.

He wants to re­mem­ber the dead and to know if there is sup­port for the sol­diers’ re­mains to be re­trieved. “It’s time the hun­dreds of souls that have been de­tained for nearly 80 years went home,” Mr Fang said. “They spent the last mo­ments of their lives try­ing to break out, but af­ter so many years they re­main in­car­cer­ated.”

A sur­vivor of the atrocity has spo­ken against the plan, say­ing that the site should be left alone as a war grave. Mr Fang has been en­cour­aged, though, af­ter rel­a­tives of those on board con­tacted him and ex­pressed their wish that the re­mains be repa­tri­ated. Many of the vic­tims died too young to have had chil­dren and have no di­rect de­scen­dants so Mr Fang is look­ing for great neph­ews or great nieces.

He first heard about the Lis­bon Maru in 2013 when his stu­dio, Lau­rel Films, was pro­duc­ing a film in the eastern Chi­nese ar­chi­pel­ago of Zhoushan. Fish­er­men told him that a sunken Ja­panese boat from World War II was rest­ing on the seabed off the islets.

Mr Fang said he had a keen in­ter­est in the war and was sur­prised that he had never heard about it. His in­ter­est piqued, he stud­ied the his­tory of the Lis­bon Maru. It was trans­port­ing to labour camps in Japan Bri­tish sol­diers cap­tured af­ter the sur­ren­der of Hong Kong when a tor­pedo from a US sub­ma­rine hit it on the morn­ing of Oc­to­ber 1, 1942, and the ship be­gan to take on wa­ter.

To pre­vent a re­volt, Ja­panese guards placed planks and a tar­pau­lin over the hatches of the holds but the PoWs forced their way out and the guards opened fire. The blood­shed on deck halted when Chi­nese fish­er­men ar­rived and started pulling the men out of wa­ter. One of the fish­er­men, now 94, is still alive.

Mr Fang com­mis­sioned un­der­wa­ter probes that cap­tured im­ages of the 140m ves­sel. He was “100 per cent” con­vinced he had found the steel-hulled Lis­bon Maru. Af­ter a chance en­counter with a Bri­tish sci­en­tist in Ber­lin, Mr Fang sug­gested the re­mains of the sol­diers should be repa­tri­ated, con­sis­tent with the Chi­nese be­lief the dead should al­ways re­turn to their roots upon death.

Den­nis Mor­ley, 97, be­lieved to be the last Bri­tish sur­vivor, how­ever, spoke against the plan. “It’s a war grave and that should be left,” the pri­vate in the Royal Scots dur­ing the war said last year.

Mr Fang has since re­ceived a mes­sage from a Bri­tish woman whose grand­fa­ther, Mon­tague Glis­ter, was lost with the Lis­bon Maru. She said her fam­ily would very much like to see the re­mains of her grand­fa­ther re­turned.

With­out con­sen­sus Mr Fang de­cided he should first reach out to more peo­ple and make a doc­u­men­tary to hon­our the dead. The film crew ar­rived in Britain last week to meet any­one who has knowl­edge about the vic­tims.

“With only two eye­wit­nesses left, we would lose the last op­por­tu­nity to tell their sto­ries and to re­mem­ber them if we don’t act now,” he said. “They at least de­serve a de­cent memo­rial.”

THE TIMES

An Amer­i­can sailor’s sketch of the sink­ing Lis­bon Maru

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