THE GREAT ESCAPE
The dramatic story of how Chinese guerillas rescued Donald Kerr, a young US pilot shot down over wartime Hong Kong, will soon be released as a movie. met with Kerr’s son to hear about his father’s dangerous journey home.
For Dave Kerr, the discovery of two nails in the wall of a small kiln, or “charcoal cave”, in the mountains of Hong Kong was a revelation.
“A charcoal cave is where wood is burned to make charcoal. Only one being used to hide someone would need a blanket as a door,” the North Carolina native said. “My father wrote about the blanket in his memoir and although he did not mention the nails specifically, I can think of no other way to hold the blanket over the door except to use nails.
“Finally, there’s the proof — proof that my father once spent some of the most memorable days of his entire life in this place, inside this small, round room with fire-glazed walls.”
On Feb 11, 1944, Kerr’s father Lieutenant Donald W. Kerr, took off from an airbase in Guilin in South China in his singleengine P-40 fighter plane.
It was 10 months before the end of World War II, and Japan still controlled a large part of China and the Pacific region.
Kerr, who had been sent to China after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, was a member of the US Army’s 14th Air Force, partly formed from the remnants of the legendary “Flying Tigers” squadron.
His mission was to bomb Hong Kong’s Kai-Tak Airport, which had become a Japanese airbase after the city fell on Dec 25, 1941.
“The Allies sent 32 planes, including 20 fighters and 12 bombers,” said Liu Shen, a documentary director-cumamateur historian who has spent more than two decades unearthing the lesser-known wartime history of Hong Kong and the surrounding area.
“It was the fighter pilot’s job to protect the bombers. Lt. Kerr had just shot down a Japanese fighter plane when his plane was hit by incendiary bullets and caught fire.” His memoir
With no other choice, Kerr parachuted. As he later wrote in his memoir, “pictures flashed through my mind like that of a drowning man”.
The memoir, which has never been published, is believed to have been written in the days immediately following Kerr’s rescue. It was first brought to his son’s attention in 1982, five years after Kerr’s death at age 62.
“Rather than falling to the ground in Kai-Tak to ‘a circle of angry J-boys’, my father landed in the mountains to the north of the airport because he steered his ‘chute away from Kai-Tak, aided by a southern wind,” Dave Kerr said, quoting the memoir.
“However, as he jumped, he was struck by the tail of his own plane, which broke his shoulder. In addition to this were the severe burns he suffered on one leg and on his face in the very short time that he was in the burning plane.
“People who visit Hong Kong today might think it would be very easy to hide in the dense forests in the mountains, but at that time all the trees and bushes had been cleared for firewood. The land was very barren and there were very few places to hide,” he said. “When my father landed, he realized that he didn’t know which way to run. He also knew a lot of Japanese soldiers were looking for him because he could see them.”
That’s when the US pilot met his first savior, a small boy who looked up “from under a mansized, store-fresh hat” and gestured for Kerr to follow him.
That desperate dash for life is powerfully evoked by one of the true-adventure cartoons Kerr drew, depicting how the boy “pattered along on his rubber-soled shoes with no apparent effort” under the hot sun, followed by Kerr who “stumbled and staggered”, “puffing like a freight train”.
That event forms a crucial part of Liu Shen’s documentary, Take Me Home, the first to tell the story, which took eight months to make and will have its premier in Beijing in August.
Liu is familiar with every verifiable detail of Kerr’s escape.
“After hiding the pilot in a foxhole left by the British, the boy, a member of the local guerrilla organization East River Column, went to a local’s home, where he chanced upon a fellow guerrilla member, a lady called Li Zhaohua,” Liu said. “Li went to Kerr’s hiding place that same night.”
Kerr’s memoir describes Li as “a smart girl” who was “no country lass”.
“I saw a Chinese girl dressed in a tattered lot of rags and carrying a pole over her shoulder, with faggots of twigs standing from each end,” he wrote. “She whispered ‘friend, friend’ in English, put down her burden and moved my careful camouflage aside. She crawled in, replaced the branches and began to talk.”
Li Zhaohua died in 1999, at age 75, nearly 10 years before the search for his father’s was determined to join her native country’s fight against the invaders,” Jiang, a retired policeman, said.
“She became a member of the East River Column, a guerrilla force, led by the Communist Party of China, and was sent to Hong Kong soon after the island’s fall in 1941. Her main job was to gather intelligence and raise donations for the army. The silent heroine
“My mother never talked about her meeting with Donald Kerr or the rescue until very late in her life,” the 63-year-old said. “She took him to another hiding place and eventually asked two of her colleagues to go there and find him.”
One of the men was Deng Bin, the father of Deng Liping. The younger Deng, a successful exporter, provided muchneeded financial support for the documentary.
“Neither of them understood English, so they took a handdrawn map of the area, with a line of English words written at the bottom: ‘ Come here, sir, I bring you go home now!’ ” he said, quoting the scribbled message. “For the pilot, that must have been the real turning point. That’s why we called our film Take Me Home.”
However, before going home, Kerr was forced to hide in a variety of places, including a cave at the top of a mountain, where he spent nearly two weeks protected around the clock by five guerrillas, and was told that the Japanese had put his parachute on display in a shop window in central Hong Kong.
In his memoir, Kerr dutifully recorded the “variety of emotions” he felt when he saw some of his pursuers from the hideout. “… fear, hunger, and a crick in my back,” he wrote. “As usual, my gun was ready – and just as usual, I was desperately hoping that I wouldn’t have to use it.” Beginning of the end
The anxiety ended on a starless night in early March, more than 20 days after Kerr jumped from his burning plane.
“He was given a boat ride across a rather secluded bay, from Sai Kung in Hong Kong to Nan’ao on the Chinese mainland,” Liu said. “There were two boats, one carrying the pilot, the other loaded with dynamite.”
This unusual arrangement didn’t go unnoticed, according to Dave Kerr: “My father asked, and was told that they were no match for the Japanese in terms of either speed or gun power. One guerrilla told my father, ‘If the Japanese try to capture our boat, we’ll wait until both are together, then explode the bomb. Everyone dies’. My father was very humbled that they would take such risks to help him escape.”
Shortly after arriving in Nan’ao, Kerr was sent to Tuyang about 10 kilometers away, where the East River Column was headquartered. He stayed there for a few days, before embarking on a 10-day journey to Guilin, escorted by a member of the British Army Aid Group, a paramilitary organization for British and Allied Forces in southern China during WWII founded by an Australian, Lieutenant Colonel Lindsay Ride, after being rescued from a Hong Kong POW camp by Chinese guerrillas.
Kerr arrived at the base in Guilin on March 29, 1944, after extensive travel by train, ship, truck and even bicycle.
“My father only told me the full story once, when I was about 10,” Dave Kerr said. “After his death, my mother typed his handwritten memoir and before I got married, at the age of 28, I made my wife promise that we would to go to China someday.”
He first visited China in 2005 after his company was purchased by a Chinese business, but in 2008, he found himself standing in the East River Column Memorial Hall in Pingshan, Guangdong province, face to face with his father’s cartoons and thank you letter. He recognized the drawings immediately because the family owns several others that depict the escape.
Dave Kerr was also given contact numbers for the East River Column Family Association, of which both Jiang Shan and Deng Liping are members.
He and his family visited Deng Bin, Deng Liping’s father. “In the summer of 2009, my then 87-year-old father pointed out the rock cave on the mountaintop to Dave,” Deng Liping said.
“Before Dave came, I knew nothing about the rescue, which, frankly, is a shame. That’s why I decided to go ahead with the documentary – to pay tribute to our forefathers, to their cooperation and heroism,” Deng Liping said.
“What impressed me most during the entire shooting process was how meticulous Dave was with all the details. Every time we were in the mountains of Sai Kung, he pinpointed everything by use of a compass, and refused to believe anything – for example, the specific location of a hiding cave – unless there was concrete evidence.
“Everything about him, including his decisiveness and his strong sense of direction, makes me think of the US lieutenant I never had the opportunity to meet,” he said. ‘The small boy’
In early 2009, Dave Kerr and his elder brother Andy visited a retirement home in Mongkok, Hong Kong. There, the brothers placed a Flying Tigers’ insignia in the hands of Li Shi, “the small boy” of their father’s memoir.
“Li had had a stroke and couldn’t speak. But when he saw my brother Andy, who closely resembles my father, he started to cry,” Dave Kerr said. Li died later the same year.
The journey also took Dave Kerr to the cemetery in Guangdong where Li Zhaohua is buried.
“He has visited twice, the last time was in February,” Jiang said. “I gave him a photo of my mother, which he now carries in his pocket. It’s a talisman for his family – that’s what he said.”
Referring to black- andwhite photos taken during his father’s stay at Tuyang, Dave Kerr said: “Before my father’s military stint, he was a commercial photographer, having mastered the tricks of aerial photography. While his flying skills brought him to China in time of war, his experience with a camera made sure the story was recorded in images.” Discovery
In December 2009, Dave Kerr visited the “charcoal kiln” for the fourth time, accompanied by his daughter Jeannette, who was on her first trip.
“Up until that moment, I had been 99 percent certain that we had located the correct cave. That’s when Jeannette spotted the nails,” he said.
Deng Liping witnessed the moment. “They went into the cave and didn’t come out until about 30 minutes later,” he said.
It was a profound moment for Dave Kerr. “I was in the same place that had given my father such security,” he said.
“Looking back, there’s a remarkable parallel between my father’s escape and my search to find the people who rescued him: Neither dad or I knew how to reach our destinations, but in both cases, the people of China came forward to help.” Contact the writer at email@example.com
Lieutenant Donald Kerr with his rescuers at the East River Column headquarters in Tuyang, Guangdong province.
A file photo of US pilots and a P40 fighter plane bearing the shark-face logo of the Flying Tigers. The aircraft was the same type that Donald Kerr flew to bomb a Japanese air base in Hong Kong in 1944.