Forgotten boys: bid to take 828 PoWs home
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.”
An American sailor’s sketch of the sinking Lisbon Maru