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The run up to the war and the closure of La Salle College

 

The college archives recall, “In reviewing the events of 1939, should we not begin with what occupied the minds of people on all sides, namely, the converting of our buildings into concentration camps.”

Right from the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War in the summer of 1937, we had occasional visits from high ranking officers of Great Britain in the Far East.

We were given to understand that they were planning to set up a hospital in the college for war casualties, gas victims in particular.

“But towards the end of July, their visits became more frequent and it was soon evident that the original plan was being shelved, and then, without warning, they decided to open a concentration camp at the college.”

Although in its early days, it was a happy place to be interned, this was to change and a tighter regime was introduced in the camp, with security considered to be of utmost importance.

With all but the annex of the school requisitioned by the military, the now more than 1,000-strong school body had to be divided into shifts when classes reopened in 1940, and the daily timetable rotated classes to ensure maximum use of time and space, in much the same way as when night school was in full swing from the 1960s to the 1990s.

However, the school was returned in May 1940 and by September things were back to normal, except for one thing.

Frederic Silva recalls, “In those days the whole school was covered with patriotic propaganda posters to boost morale. There were excerpts from Churchill’s stirring speeches, Battle of Britain photos—Spitfires and Hurricanes. There was defiance and determination against the German and Italian enemy.”

But by December 12 the following year, Brother Cassian remembers, “We were saddened, even humiliated to see Japanese soldiers filing past the school, on their way to take possession of Kai Tak Airport.”

By that evening, Japanese officers had arrived, asking the brothers to surrender half the college as accommodation for their troops.

The brothers had no option. The school also became a relief hospital for all comers, including Japanese and British, the science laboratories became clinics and the verandas, hospital wards.

Brother Felix Sheehan recalled at the 1960 speech day that on the evening of 12 December 1941, as the Japanese troops prepared their assault on Hong Kong island, they were entertained at an impromptu concert in the school hall.

On the following day, the Red Cross flag was ordered to be taken down and replaced by the Rising Sun, but moments later, it was hit by a stray shell from the island and the officer in charge asked for an even bigger Red Cross to be flown in its place.

On 17 January 1942, the Japanese informed the brothers they had to move out and, in February, a decision was made to take all the whole community to French Indo-China.