'My dad was there when the Japanese signed for peace'
Saturday, August 15, marked the 75th anniversary of VJ Day and the end of the bloodiest conflict in human history. Revd Eileen Harrop tells her family’s incredible story in the Far East
THE anniversary of VE Day in May brought bunting, socially distanced street parties and national tributes to Europe’s war dead.
This weekend’s VJ Day commemorations were a little more subdued. But for many people, the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in the Far East was no less significant.
None more so than for Revd Eileen Harrop, who grew up in Singapore and whose father witnessed the atrocities wrought by the Japanese army in those terrible years and was present at the official signing of Japan’s surrender.
Ms Harrop, vicar at Gainford and Winston, recorded a poignant online message to parishioners via YouTube to tell her family’s story.
She said: “There were always conversations [in our family] about the Japanese occupation in south China, Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore.
“My maternal grandfather was killed by bombs dropped in south China and the trauma of his passing never left his mother.
“My father resolved to become a medical doctor after witnessing Singapore’s general hospital’s mortuary piled high with war dead.”
Winston Churchill had described Singapore as an impregnable fortress but it was bombed in the early hours of December 8, 1941.
“Chinatown bore the brunt with thousands injured and hundreds of deaths with bodies having to be laid outside the hospital’s overfilled mortuary. The bombs missed my father’s home, landing in the school next door hardly 500 yards away,” she said.
The Japanese took control of Singapore two months later, shocking and embarrassing the British Empire.
During the occupation, Ms Harrop’s grandfather, Dr Benjamin Chew, was head of the medical unit at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, where he gave the first penicillin injection in Singapore in 1945 as the wonder drug was being trialled.
The doctors and their families lived a 15 Akyab Road. Eager to hear news of the war’s progress, they installed a secret radio. It was a risky move.
Two doctors kept watch, while the rest gathered round the radio, but the Japanese were watching. Ms Harrop’s father, Chew Chin Hin, was just 11 years old.
He recalled to the Strait Times in 2015: “One day, the men standing guard spotted a man climbing a coconut tree with a pair of binoculars to see what was going on inside the house. One of those on guard quietly went inside and told the rest to conceal the radio.”
His father started playing the piano and the others gathered round and sang. It was enough to fool the coconut tree spy. If they had been caught, it would have meant the torture chamber.
Ms Harrop said: “Thankfully, the Japanese never did find the transmitter.”
She explained that many people felt let down by Churchill as the British prioritised winning the war in Europe. However, she added: “But such an extensive and grave war is bound to find the best of human effort wanting.
“In their darkest moments, my family and everyone oppressed by the horror of war wondered when that nightmare would end. Civilians, POWs and the military still fighting wondered where victory would come from.”
But victory did come. The US detonated two nuclear weapons over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, and Japan surrendered to the Allies on August 15.
However, formal surrender was only signed on September 2 in Tokyo and on September 12, when five Japanese generals and two admirals led a delegation that before Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten in Singapore. It marked the end of the Japanese occupation in South-East Asia.
“My father was among family members invited to witness this signing in Singapore Municipal Hall, a stone’s throw from Singapore’s anglican cathedral, St Andrew’s,” said Ms Harrop.
Her parents still live in Singapore and her father can recall the Japanese occupation and the moment he witnessed peace.
Ms Harrop said: “I spoke with him last week when he said they went aboard HMS Sussex which brought Lord Mountbatten to Singapore for the signing.
“My father is still active in medical circles in Singapore with the Civil Aviation Medical Board.
“He founded the National Medical Ethics Committee, and is the oldest remaining Master of the Academy of Medicine.
“He puts his medical career down to his experience in the war and a vow to dedicate his life to medicine. I am very blessed.”
On Saturday, the bells of Gainford church chimed once for ever year since war in the Far East came to an end.
In her online message, which can be seen at https://youtu.be/_6-Jz-vgLM4, Ms Harrop urged people to be “sincere in their resolve to keeping peace”.