As the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Hong Kong is marked this month, Ardarragh Temperance LOL 765 recently held a dedication service in memory of the late William Wilson - a lodge member who played a role in the defence of the then British colony before being taken POW by the Japanese.
Addressing the gathering at Curley Orange Hall, Mrs Florence Graham spoke of the bravery of her father who was born in Curley, outside Rathfriland, in 1910.
William worked on the family farm along with his brother Jack, and joined Ardarragh LOL 765 in July 1930. Both men were also members of Ardarragh Flute Band.
At the age of 21 William joined the Royal Ulster Rifles a move that would find him posted to Hong Kong, before going on to join the Royal Naval Dockyard Police there. When the Japanese launched their attack on the city, the Naval Police were mobilised and William found himself fighting in the defence of the Dockyards.
After 18 days of fierce fighting with no respite, the Allied command in Hong Kong surrendered on Christmas Day.
Florence said: “One thousand five hundred defenders had been killed in the battle. Two and a half thousand would die in captivity in the following four years.
“Daddy’s life, along with many thousands of others was to change forever.”
William spoke very little of his war experience, but through research Florence and the family have been both touched and horrified to learn of his ordeals.
Florence said: “After the surrender, the Japanese soldiers went on the rampage carrying out many atrocities. Christmas Day 1941 became known as Black Christmas.
“The horror of the next 44 months was just beginning.
“The captured British, Indian and Canadian soldiers became Prisoners of War along with thousands of civilians who were also interned. The treatment they received from the Japanese guards, was barbaric. They did not adhere to the Geneva Convention.”
Cramped conditions meant 200 men were held in huts designed for 30 and the whole place was infested with flies, ants, bed bugs, and fleas.
“Food consisted of rice which was of an inferior quality and almost always infested with worms and parasites. The prisoners received two small bowls a day, a sick man got even less as the Japanese regarded them as worthless.
“Inadequate nutrition in combination with hard physical labour took its toll on the prisoners and disease became rampant.
“Drugs that might have alleviated some of the suffering and saved lives were stolen by camp commanders and sold on the black market.
“Red Cross parcels were stockpiled by the Japanese and used for themselves, many men only received one parcel in almost four years.
“The only form of clothing the Japanese issued them with was a loin cloth.
“Many prisoners were tortured in the most horrific ways and others executed for the slightest offence. An attempt to escape, resulted in not only the beheading of the individual, but also 10 of his comrades and the already meagre food rations would be cut for the whole camp.
“On top of this, the Japanese detailed men for work parties. At first Daddy was sent to work on the expansion of Kai Tak airport, which involved the movement, by pick and shovel, of a small hill into the sea, to expand the runway. If a man was sick but was able to stand up he was still sent out on the work party.
“The Japanese appointed a British Engineer to oversee the work and of course the men sabotaged the concrete mix, causing the first Japanese plane to crash. The engineer was punished by torture and beheading.”
It was the dropping of the atomic bombs by the Americans on mainland Japan that brought an abrupt end to the war in August 1945.
“Liberation had come slowly and after 44 months in captivity Daddy weighed just over four stone,” said Florence.
“Many including Daddy would return home with their health broken and lives forever changed, shaken by their experiences and the extreme hardships they had endured.
“The whole time Daddy was in captivity, his family back home didn’t know if he was dead or alive. My Granny was distraught, I was told she used to walk the fields around the farm calling his name.
“I am sure there must have been great rejoicing when the news arrived that he was still alive and when he finally arrived home in Curley after his long stay in hospital.
“Daddy suffered ill-health for the remainder of his life, spending long periods in hospital and losing one of his lungs and half of his second lung. The doctors in Musgrave called him the Miracle Patient and said it was an answer to the prayers of many people that kept him alive.”
In February 1952 William married his childhood sweetheart, Jeannie Wilson and they set up home in the countryside near Warrenpoint.
“Daddy transferred back to his old Lodge and Band at Curley and remained with them until his death in May 1975 at the age of 64,” said Florence.
“At his funeral his friend, Andy McAleese, who had stuck with him throughout the years of captivity, recalled how on three occasions he had taken Daddy from among the men who had been thrown out for dead. Andy told us he witnessed Dad’s hand moving and knew he wasn’t dead - he brought him back to the hut and looked after him.”
Of the battle of Hong Kong, Florence said: “It is a story that deserves to be better known among those of us who have benefited from the sacrifices of those who suffered and died. The Far Eastern Prisoners of War deserve a place in our history books and we, their families hope their story will live on and that they will never be forgotten.