Eighty-one years ago today – on July 1st 1940 – 1,500 British women and children were boarding the Empress of Japan, the first of the evacuation ships to leave Hong Kong following threats of attack from Japan.
The word ‘evacuee’ usually evokes pictures of young children trailing in crocodile from inner-city school yards – names printed on luggage tags, pinned to coats – and tear-stained faces peering from train windows trying for a last glance at the faces of equally tear-stained mothers, left on the platform.
Pictures of the evacuees leaving Hong Kong – and of the husbands and fathers left on the dockside – are different, but no less poignant, as captured by the newsreel from British Pathé news Hong Kong and the Burma Road.
George Bearman’s wife, Hilda, and two sons – David and Edward – were among the passengers aboard the Empress of Japan that Monday morning.
The order for evacuation had been given three days before, on Friday June 28th, and left those leaving that Monday morning only the weekend to pack.
George writes in his first letter to Hilda, dated July 3rd 1940, “Oh, my dear, what a Monday that was. In fact what a weekend! But perhaps the rush was all for the best as it didn’t leave us a lot of time to think of ourselves.”
As the British Pathé newsreel said, “There are families being torn asunder – and who knows when they will meet again.”