Japanese war camp prisoner who ‘risked execution’ by exposing crumbling Axis remembered

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Throughout Saturday events will pay tribute to the service personnel who fought and died in the war against Imperial Japan. The Royal Family will lead the celebrations with a two-minute silence held by Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall at 11am. Red Arrows will perform a flypast over the UK, visiting Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff and London and there is a full TV schedule dedicated to the anniversary, including ‘VJ Day 75: The Nation’s Tribute’ on the BBC, which Prince William will feature in.

For Iain Leighton, it will be an emotional day, as he remembers the stories his family told him of their time in Lunghwa – a Japanese-run internment camp based in Shanghai, China, during the war.

The ‘Civil Assembly Centre,’ which featured in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Empire of the Sun,’ was home to some 2,000 civilians from 1943 during Japan’s occupation of China in the Pacific War, as well as the wider Hongkew Ghetto which housed 22,000 refugees from Europe.

Mr Leighton’s grandfather, Walter Kerr, grandmother, Renate Hellwig, mother, Halesia Kerr, and aunt, Renate Annie, were just four of the people housed in similar camps across the Far East, including in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Speaking to Express.co.uk, the 68-year-old said: “The war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, but what a lot of people now, especially young people, don’t realise is that the war in the Far East went on for three more months until August.

“We had an enormous number of soldiers, airmen and sailors based in Singapore and Shanghai.

“But when Singapore and Hong Kong were captured by the Japanese these soldiers, airmen and sailors were put in Prisoner of War camps.

“They were awful, people were tortured and they were executed – they were forced to build railways.

“But you also had the families of these soldiers in many cases, or families just living there and they were living in internment camps.”

Mr Leighton, a retired lawyer, detailed the astonishing conditions that his family lived in for more than two years.

He added: “The Japanese were their guardians with their rifles, and when I look at the camp my family were in – Lunghwa – the Japanese provided food – but it was minimal.

“The conditions in the internment camps were certainly better than a Prisoner of War camp, but they were still very harsh.

“My mother died in December 2011, but all my life I’ve been fascinated by my family’s background.

“My great-grandmother (Amalia Rumberg) and her husband were of Baltic-German ancestry, were living in Vladivostok in 1917 during the Russian Revolution.

“She took her daughter to Shanghai because they were refugees.”

Mr Leighton, who now lives in Hampshire, revealed how his family were left in a unique position, as some of them escaped the horrors of the camp.

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He added: “Her husband had been murdered by the Bolsheviks and so she and my granny lived with the Jewish community in Shanghai.

“She (my great grandmother) acquired a German passport after remarrying – but my family was British because my granny was encouraged to marry an Englishman.

“So my English family were in camp, but my great grandparents were out of camp – they had a business renting out pianos.

“My mother used to tell me stories about how freezing cold it was because Shanghai gets very hot in the summer and as low as -5C in the winter.

“So from a very early age I used to sit and listen to all these stories of hardship and I think the one thing I always wanted to know is what happened on the day of the liberation.”

In an incredible anecdote, Mr Leighton told the story of his grandfather, Mr Kerr, who risked his life to keep his closest friends assured that the end was near in 1945.

He explained: “My grandfather was one of four people who knew how to operate a wireless radio to keep in touch with world news.

“That wireless was hidden in a pram, not a normal one, but a toy pram that the Japanese never looked in, but that’s where it was.

“They had to be very careful because they knew that things were very bad for Japan after the dropping of the atomic bombs.

“The commandant of the camp had lost all his family, but if my grandfather had ever been caught, he would have been executed.

“My grandfather knew what was to come, and there were a select few in the camp under the strictest secrecy he shared it with, but if the Japanese found out that the camp knew the end was coming, then they knew there was a radio somewhere in the camp.”

Mr Leighton recalled his mother’s memories from the day the camp was liberated.

He continued: “On August 15, 1945, my mother said she woke up and could hear voices so she went out, because normally there was a daily roll call, and you had to attend.

“But all the doors were open, there were no Japanese, they’d all run off in the night.

“Leaflets had been dropped from American planes to tell them to remain where they were until they were liberated.

“But my grandfather left that day to go and stay with friends who had helped him.

“But for the rest of them it was another seven days until they went home, my mother remembered that, but less from the day of the actual liberation.

“It’s an extraordinary story of fortitude, bravery and resilience for many people.”

In an emotional recollection for Mr Leighton, he told the story of a young Jewish boy who was sent to Shanghai in 1939 to escape the horrors of Nazi Germany in Europe.

He said: “Hans, a young boy, was sent to Shanghai to stay with his uncle when he was 12 because his parents didn’t have enough money for all of them to go.

“The little boy arrived in 1939 and he must have been quite cheeky, but he used his uncle’s bicycle to come out of Hongkew and sell little tins of boot polish and dusters.

“He would come to my family’s house because they all spoke German.

“It makes me emotional to remember it, but my great-grandmother would make a cake for him.

“He showed my mother a letter from his own mother to say his parents would be there in a few months’ time, and he was so happy, but they never arrived.

“When my mother told me that story I was 12 and I cried and I’ve remembered it a few times over the years and it is very touching.”

Hans’ parents would never arrive, they were killed in a concentration camp.

Mr Leighton says he wants to reconnect with as many people as possible who may have lost loved ones in a similar way.

But he says Saturday is about honouring those who fought for our freedom.

He added: “Saturday is for the people in the UK to remember all those who died during the war, in the war camps, everyone who suffered the appalling conditions.

“My little story is part of that, but I don’t want it to overshadow the importance of the anniversary.

“It’s going to be a sad day as I remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice.”

Mr Leighton, who plans to write a book about his family, has set up a Facebook page dedicated to those who have similar memories to him.

He explained: “My mother was a member of the Lunghwa Survivors Association, which sadly discontinued on the 60th anniversary in 2005.

“I thought at that time it was quite sad that the association was folding and I knew I had to do something.

“I mentioned to Miriam Margolyes, who is a very close friend, and she knew about my interest in Shanghai and the Jewish community.

“So I thought I’m going to set up a Facebook page and she became the patron of it.

“So ‘Shanghai Internees and Jewish Refugees Group 1945’ was established and I started getting a lot of interest, we now have 115 members.”

Today, the former internment camp is home to the Shanghai High School and its international division.

Satellite images show there are buildings on the site in the same location as 75 years ago, but it is now enclosed by housing.

Mr Leighton would like to see some kind of memorial built to honour those who survived the atrocities of the former camp.

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