Carolyn Phillips – a child POW of the Japanese

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Dave Lovell, Chair of Trustees, The Online Memorial and Museum of Prisoners of War. 06/09/2023

Interview with a child prisoner held by the Japanese during WWII.

Can I have your full name and date of birth?

I am Carolyn Agnes Carson Phillips, born on 23 June 1941.

Where were you born?

I was born in Hong Kong.

Tell me a little bit about your parents.

My parents: my mother came from Northern Ireland, my father came from Sussex and my father, when he was about to leave school, wanted to travel, wanted to see something of the world and was almost an early backpacker really. So he took himself off to what was then Malaya and took any work he could find – rubber planting, anything – and after a spell there he moved on to Hong Kong where he ultimately set up his own stock-broking business.  His father had been a stockbroker in London, so he carried on the tradition. During this period of time he came home on leave and my mother and he met on a train in England.

My mother was younger than my father by about seven years and she had left school in N. Ireland. Her grandfather believed in girls having some sort of training, so she came over to England to do what was called domestic science. Having done her training in London, she then went up to Edinburgh to do her teaching certificate in order to teach domestic science in schools or wherever.

I do not know where my father was travelling to and from nor where my mother was going but she was coming from Scotland, probably down to Liverpool to get a ferry back to N. Ireland and they met on the train and got talking as people do sometimes. They got on well and when the first one got off they exchanged names and addresses and said they would keep in touch, which they did.

My father went back to Hong Kong and they didn’t meet again on that trip. They corresponded which, in those times, was letter writing.  The next time he came on leave, he looked her up and they met up. They got on well and he asked her to marry him – just like that!  Very bravely, I think, she said she would which meant she gave up her job and travelled, on her own, to Hong Kong to be married. That all happened.

At that time she had a job running what was called a “finishing school”. It was near Malvern in Worcestershire and it was still going until quite recently.  She was teaching girls from upper crust families on how to arrange flowers, how to do a dinner party etc.; you know, all the sort of details of smart living, including all the damask cloths.  She was asked once in the prisoner of war camp, “Well, you were taught domestic science and are probably good at coping with food and such,” but she said there wasn’t much call for damask table napkins!

So she gave up her job, travelled to Hong Kong and they were married in the cathedral in Hong Kong and set up home there – a long way from home for her.

Presumably her family were not there when she married.

No, no-one was there. My father had local friends but she had nobody.  They were married in the mid 30s. My father had been there for some time. They set up house there. They hoped to have a family but my parents were a bit older when they got married and a little bit of time passed and then my mother realised she was expecting me, which they were pleased about, but it was unsettling times by then and there had always been a threat from the Japanese to Hong Kong. I think the British largely chose to ignore the threat, with the Japanese encroaching on their territory, but in fact that is exactly what happened.

I was born in the June and Hong Kong fell to the Japanese in December 1941, so I was six months old, and that was it. The Japanese conquered us and they were taking prisoners and all the Europeans that were in Hong Kong at the time were rounded up and put into, what was called, Stanley Camp.  Unusually there were men, women and children. There was a separate camp for the forces which was called Sham Shui Po I think. Obviously I don’t remember as I was a babe in arms. Initially, they didn’t think it would last too long but it ended up being until 1945 when they dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I was four when we came out.

As a family unit, you stayed together in Stanley Camp?

Yes, we did.

Did your father have to work?

No, we were very fortunate there. We were more fortunate than in a lot of the camps there.  He did work in so far as the Japanese left the running of the camp entirely to the inmates.  They were not prepared to make anything easy for us; they were there just to guard us. So yes, we all stayed together which was very unusual.  Usually women and children went to one camp and the men went to another to work, but that did not happen to us.

Are you able to describe what life was like for you in camp?

Yes, up to a point.  We were originally told to leave our homes in Hong Kong and assemble on the waterfront harbour where the Japanese were waiting for us and we were marched to Stanley, an area outside the main town, and we were actually put in what were the prison quarters for the island. They were fairly basic and as we arrived they put the prisoners out and we went in and were told to take a room or whatever we could find and that would be where we stayed.  We were put in batches in rooms that would probably house 6 prisoners and there were 12 to 15 of us, so it was very much communal living, with very basic hygiene, cement floors and no privacy.  No preparations were made and my father was sent with men to try and get some cleaning utensils to clean it up a bit and people had to settle down as best they could, so it was not easy.

Did you only have the clothes you were standing up in?

We were told, prior to us being summoned to the harbour, to pack one small suitcase each and no more than that. My mother packed her case mainly full of things for me and anyway, if you don’t know where you are going and for how long, what do you pack?  So they packed a few basic things. Some people packed a blanket or sheet which they could put on the floor because there were no beds.  There were futons if you were lucky, so you literally had to get on and make do for what turned out to be three years and nine months.  My mother kept the little clothes she made for me in the camp, because a baby of that age, although starved, still grows between the ages of 6 months and 4 years so she had to equip me with things to wear.  She unpicked thread from adult garments where the tops had worn out on dresses but the skirts still had some material. She would barter or beg for material. She took in one sewing needle, which she said was her domestic science training! When I give a talk people really enjoy these visual things. I have them there and everyone likes the clothes.  They are very ancient now, but there was a lot of love and care put into making them – anything just to try and have normality.

Food was very scarce. They fed us on rice twice a day.

Your mother didn’t have to prepare food at all?

Yes, she did. Not to a great extent. Most of the food was prepared in the prison kitchen and the men were asked to go and help with the food.  All it really was, was a portion of rice per person which was put into a vat and boiled and boiled until it became a very thin porridgy mess, not really like rice at all.  In the early days they would add in a little chicken or fish and vegetables to make it more palatable but as time went by there was none of that and it was just rice. They did provide milk for babies.

The Japanese were fond of children and they did not like being in charge of a prisoner of war camp as it was a very menial job for soldiers and my father said they really despised us for allowing ourselves to be captured.  They would rather die, even by their own hands, than do that, so you had that mixture of emotions going on.  They did not recognise the Geneva Convention so food parcels and certain amount of calories per day, which were the rules, were completely disregarded and loss of life through starvation was pretty high.  My father weighed six and a half stone when he was released.

So there was no interaction with the International Committee for the Red Cross?

No, they wouldn’t allow that.  Parcels were sometimes sent by the Red Cross but my mother said they did not get to us and were intercepted by the Japanese.  Occasionally they got through and you would have a few things such as chocolate or tins of meat, but otherwise no. It wasn’t like Germany. I gave this talk to a group in Brighton and a man came up to me afterwards to say he had been a prisoner of war in Germany and he said, “We all knew that you in the Far East suffered more than we did.”  I think it was true, but I have no personal recollection as I was too young. I have read a lot about it since, and my parents talked about it, and it is recognised that the Japanese did not abide by the rules really.

And the Germans didn’t in respect to the Russians.

No they didn’t.

I have been to the camp where my father was a prisoner of war in Poland, but it was of course occupied at the time.

What was that like?

It was eye opening primarily because I just naively absorbed what American made films had portrayed, so my mental image was a wire compound with ten huts in it, The camp my father was in had 48,000 prisoners of war and my father was an evangelical Christian and he would talk about his experiences as a prisoner of war but only to re-enforce his religious conviction. He told me that no-one ever escaped from the camp he was in because it was so remote. A few years ago I bought a book specifically about his camp and 3,259 prisoners escaped and that stimulated a mental conflict for me; my father wouldn’t have lied because of his religious convictions, then one day I thought, “That’s three times the population of the town I lived in at the time and I didn’t know what happened in the next street, let alone across the other side of town,” and that sort of put me at peace as he really would not have known.

We were similar in Hong Kong. The Japanese were paranoid about people escaping.  We were behind barbed wire and it was guarded, but they were very nervous.  There would be collaboration with the Chinese who would come to the camp and try and sell bits and bobs to the prisoners. They did not intern the Chinese – they were left to get on with it and actually had a tough time of it.  They thought the Chinese could assist people to get away, but my father used to say, even if you get out of the camp, where would you go?

Whereas, if you got out of a camp in Poland, you could go in all sorts of directions.  Quite a few succeeded.  In the same sense that your story and your parents’ story is remarkable, there are remarkable stories about what was achieved there.

I think in our camp, a lot of people remember a TV series called Tenko and my mother could barely watch that as she said it was quite true to form, except they were too argumentative. Because they were generally lacking in food and nourishment, they were too weak to fight. Also they were all women where we were mixed.

Have you been back?

Not recently, but I went many years ago, and I rather wish I had gone back again.  I used to belong to an association called ABCIFER (Association of British Civilian Internees Far East Region), but I did not know about it until a cousin told me about it not that long ago. Sadly it’s closed now but they used to run trips back, and I have friends here who have been back, and have been to Stanley where there is a memorial to the people who died in the camp.

I am not sure I want to go back there now. No, I’m not sure I want to go back now. I went a few years ago; we stopped there on the way back from Australia for a week or so.

Did your mother talk about their experiences to you as a child?

Not a great deal to me.  We struggled, getting weaker and more unwell towards the end of the war, and we were lucky, we survived.  The Japanese did not like to lose face, and they didn’t say they had lost the war but, on 15 August 1945, which was when the bomb was dropped, all the remaining prisoners were summoned outside to what they used to call Tenko, which was roll call. The Japanese commandant made an announcement; he just said, “His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor of Japan, says you may go free.”

Nobody knew why, or what was happening, because we had no means of getting news.  My father had a small radio in the beginning and had followed the news up to a point (I know this because he kept a diary) but eventually it packed up.  We used to have to bury it in the ground as the Japanese used to come and search the rooms and they would have certainly shot him for having it. Once that went we had no way of following events so, when we were told we could go free, we knew something must have happened but not what. We soon found out, and the dropping of the bomb is what released us. As awful as it was for the Japanese, my father said we would have never got out [if the bombs had not been dropped].  They had plans to kill us and themselves.

I would say that they did not talk a great deal about it.  After the war, when we had recovered, we came home and stayed with my grandfather in Ireland.  My parents had lost everything. During the period in the camp, the house was bombed and looted and there was nothing there afterwards.  This was the same for everybody, nothing was left.  They lost their homes, possessions – everything. So we came back.

We were repatriated by the Americans – they took the surrender – and they eventually found us.  They knew there was a civilian camp there and came in with food parcels etc. My mother said the men looked huge. They weren’t, of course, but all the inmates were skeletal by then.  Once they had done all that, they made plans for us to be taken away from Hong Kong back to our countries of origin, or where we chose. Quite a few people chose to go to Australia.  Of course we had lost all our paperwork etc. Actually I think my father took our passports in with him, but mostly people lost all of that.

It took a long time; the end of the war was 15 August and we didn’t get away for at least a month because they had to arrange where we were going to go.  We had to have family or friends who were willing to take us in.  We went to my grandfather in Ireland and got medical attention but then my father said he had to earn some money, and he would go back to Hong Kong to do so, which I think my mother was not keen on doing.  He went ahead and we followed and then I went to school in Hong Kong. (I was 4 when the war ended.)

After a couple of years I was sent home to boarding school, so I hardly knew my father.  I was 9 when I came home first to boarding school.

Where did you board?

I went to a prep school first from 9 to 12 years of age, near Windsor; it’s gone now, right next door to Holloway College. Then I moved from there to Cheltenham from 12 to 18.  I saw my father when he came home on leave and I was flown out for a couple of holidays and then he died when I was 17 which, as time has gone on, I realise what a big loss he was. Probably, at the age, I was beginning to want to know more. My mother really did not want to talk about it much.  She did a little but it had been an horrific experience and I think that generation were a bit like that.  My father said that no-one offered them any help at all. They got us back home and said, “Get on with it.”

Do you know your route home?

We came by sea because that was the way we all travelled.  We came home on what I think was an old P & O ship.  We were packed onto this. My mother travelled with P & O many times after this because flying did not really come in much until the 60s.  My father flew home on one of the comets later on, but she travelled by sea, and she said the trip home after the war was pretty grim. Everyone was in poor shape.  They were very good on the ships; they had medical staff, kitchens with proper food, so they did everything they could to get us back in good medical shape.  It took nearly 5 weeks to travel back, and as far as I remember we did the usual stops.  I did it again a couple of times as a child and you stop at all sorts of places en route.  In latter days it’s very luxurious but after the war it was a question of getting as many people home as they could.

My mother was told a funny story from the kitchens: all the children looked so emaciated and they tried to give them good meals to get them going. If you’ve been starved, your stomach shrinks and you can’t eat much.  Gradually they were introducing more foods and they made a dish with chicken and rice as we were used to rice (although not rice like we had it), so it was nice and nutritious, but the children ate the rice and left the chicken because they didn’t know what it was!!

They helped us a lot on the way back and of course just being in fresh air etc., we felt a lot better when we reached our destination, but by no means fully recovered.  I think my mother suffered – her nerves and her whole mental state were quite fragile, because its only when you stop you think about what happened.  She used to pray that we would all die, our whole family such as it was, just the three of us. What she dreaded that they would go and I would be left on my own.

I have had a very interesting experience recently in that I was “found” here in Henfield [West Sussex, England] by somebody who shared the room in the camp with us.  It is a fascinating read.  His name is Chris Potter who lives in New Zealand, sadly a long way away!  His mother did something very similar to my mother. She was working in England as a young woman in her early 20s and she worked for a bank. She was asked if she would be interested in going to work for the Hong Kong and Shanghai bank (now HSBC) in Hong Kong. She was obviously adventurous and she thought that would be very interesting, so off she went on her own (it took her five days to get to Hong Kong) and she started working for the bank. In the fullness of time she met Chris’s father, who was an architect, and he too had just seen an advert in a paper and gone out to work there. They met, subsequently got married and, after a couple of years, she found she was expecting Christopher but things were really ‘hotting up’ there then (he is three months younger than me). Her husband was called up when the Japanese invaded, to try and put up an effort, but they were no match really and he got killed on Christmas Day during the last skirmish with the Japanese before Hong Kong surrendered.

She was left with a baby and, because she knew my mother and my mother had a baby, (she was called Nora Potter) she asked my mother if we could all share a room as, if one baby cried, it might has well be two babies crying! So we did share a room and we all survived and Nora kept quite meticulous diaries in the camp. She wrote on any old bits of paper she could get, like if they had a can of tinned food she would write on the back of the label.  However, when the surrender came, she chose to go to Australia because I think Chris’s godfather lived in Australia. She came back to England for a while as her parents lived in Broadstairs and some years later she chose to leave and eventually emigrated to New Zealand, she and her young son.  She and my mother kept in touch by letter and photographs of him and me growing up. My mother died before Nora but, when Nora died in New Zealand, she left all these notes and Chris found them all.

His wife said he ought to turn it into a book and, of course, he was reading through all my mother’s letters and he realised that he and I grew up together in the camp and he ought to try and find me.  He had a heck of a job because he traced me so far, but with my mother gone, there was no connection. Eventually he got a lead to Henfield.  He saw something in the County Times where I had been part of a friends’ group raising funds for St Barnabas Hospice. I was Chair of the group for a while and, on an occasion when we were presenting a cheque, my name and photo was in the paper. Somehow he found this (don’t ask me how) and suddenly realised this was the lead.  He could trace me until I was about 9 or 10 and then a bit further on when I got married at 23, then my sons who are twins and then my daughter three and a half years younger. My mother had written this all down in a letter to Nora, but they could not find me (I had moved around quite a bit). We used to have something called the ‘Henfield Hub’ here in the village, which was like a newsletter, and they put a notice on the hub asking did anyone know me. Because I had been here a little while, and done a few bits and bobs, people did know me and answered it.  There is a chap here called Steve Baily who ran the hub and he got in touch with me saying someone was looking for me (which was Chris). At that time I got in touch with him by email.  He rang me the other evening as it was his birthday.

It’s sort of a forgotten history and he has written this fascinating book which is particularly about Stanley Camp and my family are mentioned by name.  The book is called ‘My Beautiful Island’ by Christopher Potter which is about him and his mother going into the camp.  It starts with her life in England and then her travelling to Hong Kong. That bit is interesting as it is pre-war colonial living but, of course, the interesting bit for me is Stanley Camp.

It is very good read!

[End of interview]

There is a comprehensive list of British Civilians interned by the Japanese in WWII

COFEPOW provide a comprehensive resource covering prisoners held in the Far East


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