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.

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

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 zhaoxu@chi­nadaily.com.cn

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

US pi­lot

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.

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