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Mary Leckie and Hudson Felgate - with Marjorie Lee - at the reunion (left), and as they were in Yangchow camp in 1945 (above). Top (from left): sisters Jean Raitt, of Hastings, and Kay Postuma, of London, who were together at Weihsien camp; Father Paul Edwards, of Mid Sussex, (Footung Camp); Jacqueline Bates, of Virginia, (Lunghwa Camp); reunion organiser René Cumberbatch (Lincoln Road camp)

Guests of His Imperial Majesty

A reunion of ex-internees who were trapped by the Japanese invasion of China

Fiona Eberts reports:
Sunday Times, 23/10/1988

LAST weekend, at a hotel in Weybridge, 360 people gathered - some from as far as Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the United States and South Africa - for a reunion which united many of them for the first time in 43 years.

The ties which brought them together go back to pre-war China, where they formed part of a far-flung European community of doctors, missionaries, teachers, administrators and traders, whose centre was Shanghai, the "Paris of the East" and, by 1939, the world's fifth largest city.

This colourful era came to an end in the early hours of Monday December 8, 1941, when the Japanese army marched unopposed into Shanghai and the Rising Sun was hoisted over much of China. Caught in the net were approximately 10,000 foreign civilians.

One of them, Mary Louise Newman, then a 25-year-old second-generation "Shanghailander" recalls: "We awoke to find the Japanese in control of everything. They'd sunk the British gunboat Petrel in the Wangpoo river, taken over the wireless, telegraph, offices and banks.

"All our accounts were frozen and travel halted. I had planned to book a berth for Singapore that day, to join my fiancé. Luckily I could not, as we would either have been torpedoed at sea or captured when Singapore fell and put in one of those camps shown in the television series Tenko."

Instead, everyone holding an allied passport was ordered to register with the Japanese.

"They gave us red armbands, which we wore at all times. It was very orderly and no-one panicked. We knew we would be interned eventually but it was between 15 to 18 months before we actually went into camps.

"The Japanese established about 15 Civilian Assembly Centres, some up north in Chefoo, Weihsien, Tsingtao and Yangchow. Others (like the former Chinese University at Lunghwa - which provided the background for the J. G. Ballard novel and Spielberg film, Empire of the Sun) were around Shanghai."

Within the overcrowded camps, people from all strata of China's foreign community found themselves in unaccustomed proximity. Captains of industry and clerks, missionaries and madams, the new-born and the elderly. With space, privacy, possessions and food in limited supply the key word became "make-do".

The day-to-day running of the camps was left to the prisoners themselves, many of whom had been administrators in Shanghai's well run "taipan oligarchy".

It became a source of fierce pride to present a disciplined, well-organised front, as much to keep "face" with the Japanese as for their own morale.

Hospitals, libraries, theatre groups, and schools were started and with so many educators interned, a high standard of education was maintained.

By August 15, 1945 most people had spent an average of 2 years as "guests of His Imperial Majesty" sharing an experience which created deep bonds.

Early last year, while in hospital nursing a shattered hip, René Cumberbatch (née Yates), an ex-internee from Lincoln Road camp, reflected on those ties. "After the war, some of us stayed on in Shanghai and some of us came home; we were busy rebuilding our lives, with jobs and families to look after. Then, at a certain age, many of us felt a strong need to get in touch with our past ... to meet people with whom we shared a unique experience.

"I'd heard that Yangchow camp have a reunion each year. I thought, why not have a reunion for all the camps while there are still some of us left! So, when Lunghwa had their first in 1987, they passed out my notice about this one, suggesting that people contact anyone they knew who'd been interned in China. Then the bush telegraph went into operation and the response was incredible."

Eighteen months and two heart attacks later, she and her committee found themselves hosting a reunion which united ex-internees from eight camps for a weekend of nostalgia and emotion.

Past displays of memorabilia, photos, camp cartoons; people searched the lobby of the Weybridge hotel, trying to match faces with memories.

For Australian Eddie Weidman it was a charged moment. "I had three favourite ladies in camp and here are two of them," he said, with a broad grin, and an arm around both.

By lunchtime reserve had been replaced by laughter and memories, remembering how they had stirred the breakfast rice gruel at 4 am, bank managers on latrine duty, the Russian lady's wail "For why I am in this constipation camp!", the Japanese signs separating "married women, attached woman and loose women", the way demoralised men at the all-male Footung camp spruced up at the arrival of the women inmates, and on and on into the afternoon.

Internment was not the only common tie. "Far from the truth," said Yangchow internee Ken Flemons at the mention of J. G. Ballard's book. But was it not a stated work of fiction? "Then he shouldn't have used people's real names and if he was going to use real events, he should have got his facts straight," was the crisp, much echoed reply.

Stella Sollars (Barrs), from Kansas City, mounted a one woman press campaign against the film. "We were deeply offended. At the end, the boy says that camp taught him that ‘people will do anything for a potato'. Of course it wasn't paradise on earth but there was great discipline and dignity.

"The Japanese were generally pretty reasonable as well. Ballard and Spielberg traded any obligation to the truth for box office and bucks."

One unexpected result of her attempt to set the record straight was a heartfelt letter from the Lunghwa Commandant, Mr Tomohiko Hayashi, now 84, promising to visit the United States to thank her in person.

For American, Hank Behrens, captured with the USS President Harrison, the main surprise going into Lunghwa was the kindness shown him by complete strangers.

"My mother is Irish and I never heard one good thing about the British. Turns out I never met a more decent bunch of people in my life."

The consensus appeared to be with Mary Louise (Newman) Leckie: "I feel camp made me a less selfish, more tolerant person of me, and apart from learning never to judge a book by its cover, since it was often the people you least expected who showed up best, I saw that when they have to, people can do just about anything."