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My parents' unlikely love story in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp

British soldiers march in the streets of Hong Kong, 1937. Photo/Getty Images

Conceived in a PoW camp in Hong Kong, Kiwi war baby Ian Gill tells of the misfortune to which he owes his life.

On October 25, 1945, I was delivered at Lower Hutt Hospital, one of the first “war babies” to be born in New Zealand after World War II. It was an ordinary enough event, but it took decades for me to unravel the complicated backstory.

I don’t recall exactly when I learnt from my mother, Louise Mary “Billie” Gill, that I had been conceived in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Hong Kong. She raised me as a solo mum and would tell me – and others – my father was Arthur “Paddy” Gill, her Irish soldier husband with the British army, who had died in the war. (In fact, Paddy survived, and he and Billie divorced amicably after the war.)

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It was not until I was 17 that she thought I was ready to be told that Paddy was not, in fact, my biological father. They had married in Hong Kong in January 1940, but he had soon been posted to Europe – the brief marriage had not gone well and, although she was carrying their child, he had told her not to follow him.

The Japanese attacked Hong Kong on December 8, 1941. After the British surrender, Billie and her son, Brian, then 17 months old, were taken in January 1942 to Stanley Internment Camp, with some 2800 civilian PoWs, mainly British, American and Dutch. Though ethnically Chinese, Billie was a British national.

Billie Gill. Photo/Ian Gill family collection

She waited until 1975, when I was 29, to tell me the fuller story; she wanted me to understand it in context. She was working for the United Nations in Geneva, I was a journalist in Wellington and we met in Hong Kong. She introduced me to people from her past, including her school chums from Shanghai, where she had been educated in British schools after being adopted by an English postal commissioner and his Chinese wife.

Mum took me to the southernmost peninsula of Hong Kong Island where she showed me around the school and grounds that had been Stanley camp. At the cemetery next to the former camp, we stopped at the gravestone of her first-born, Brian. She told me I had been “two sons rolled into one”, a remark I didn’t fully understand.

Billie was 28 when she entered Stanley. Looking after Brian, a calm, sweet-natured child, in a teacher’s bungalow shared with 50 people was challenging, but it gave her focus in a world of constant hunger, disrupted sleep and endless queuing for rations of watery rice, or the bathroom.

Billie would bathe Brian in a Cow & Gate powdered milk tin with water heated over a charcoal chatti. She tried to soothe him when he cried out for nourishment.

Ian’s half-brother, Brian. Photo/Supplied

A visit to the beach

On May 9, 1944, after Billie and Brian had spent two years in captivity, two women offered to give her a break and took Brian to Tweed Bay beach, which the Japanese had recently opened to the internees.

Billie was playing bridge when she looked up to see a friend, Stephen Balfour, a tall Englishman, in the frame of the door. He looked serious and pale. He said, “Billie, please come with me.”

Billie asked, “What is it, Stephen? Is it Brian?” But Balfour would only repeat, “Please come with me.”

It was quite a walk to Tweed Bay, ending with a long flight of steps down to the beach. As she struggled to keep up with Balfour’s strides, she prayed harder than she had ever done in her life.

A gathering of onlookers parted to make way for her. Billie saw Brian in a woman’s arms and thought he might be sleeping. But he had been found lying face down in water and had never regained consciousness.

Billie had little recall of the days and nights that followed, but camp-mates said she would cry out her son’s name and was prone to fainting spells. One friend, George Giffen, an English journalist, realised she was close to a breakdown and visited her more frequently, sometimes catching her as she stumbled.

Air-raid wardens perform a drill just before the Japanese invasion, December 1941. Photo/Getty Images

George wrote a poem for Billie about her loss. This is an extract:

My dear, no human heart can swell,

So much as mine, no tongue can tell,

The words that are themselves too weak,

To touch the chords where grief may wreak,

Her muted anguish for a loss like yours,

Such sorrow where recompense implores,

The babe that from your womb,

Has gone, too young, to mortal tomb,

Bore all the marks of happiness and joy,

The promise of a man was in that boy.

George’s gift moved her deeply and they began to see each other daily.

English journalist George Giffen in Hong Kong, before World War II. Photo/Supplied

The missing detail

In a Manila hotel in 1999, Mum gave me the critical part of the story. “When I lost Brian, it was a terrible, terrible tragedy,” she said. “I couldn’t live with myself. I wanted another child. George knew my situation. He knew if I didn’t have you, I’d go out of my mind.”

There had been obstacles to her yearning. Many women in Stanley, including Billie, had stopped menstruating as a result  of poor nutrition. They even coined a word for their condition: “malnutrited”. In September 1944, however, the Japanese allowed in Red Cross parcels for the first time. Each internee received three Canadian packages that included corned beef, sardines and meatloaf. For Billie, her natural fertility cycle resumed.

The couple lacked privacy but, in 1975, as we walked along a leafy path to the cemetery, Mum pointed out a spot among the trees, saying that had been their “arbor”.

In May 1945, when her pregnancy was confirmed, “we were the happiest couple in Stanley”, she said. George’s reaction was tempered by their circumstances. In a letter to Billie on her 29th birthday on June 14, 1945, he looked forward to the baby’s arrival “with an equanimity only disturbed by the lack of suitable food for you, the difficulty a birth may be to you and the bearing the forcible liberation may have on your state of mind and physical condition”.

Billie with Ian outside Lower Hutt Hospital, 1945. Photo/Supplied

He went on: “There is so much to be said about love. We have had a great deal of each other and have meant a great deal to each other and we have consummated a union that was greater than friendship, if a little below the greatest passion, in a way that is not given to all, be they blessed by church or not.”

A few weeks later, in August, the Americans dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered, and Hong Kong was liberated.

George was one of the first to leave Stanley camp as he and a colleague went to regain control of the South China Morning Post from the Japanese. He also had to rethink his future, as he had a wife, who had been evacuated to Canada before the war, and a daughter he had never seen.

He fretted over Billie, who remained in camp during the transition period before the arrival of the British navy. On September 7, he wrote: “I got your last chits when I returned to the hotel at 8.30am. I can understand how upsetting all the changes must be to you.” He was referring to the uncertainty of repatriation arrangements for internees.

Ian and Billie at Brian’s grave. Photo/Supplied

A hurried farewell

That same Friday, believing her ship would not depart until the following Tuesday, he said he intended to borrow a car to visit her early on Sunday. He did not make the trip. On September 10, he wrote: “A hurried note to say farewell. Goodbye, my dear, for now. Don’t regret Stanley and think not too harshly of me who have [sic] done you so much harm and brought so little happiness to you.”

A dejected Billie sailed on a troopship to Manila, where she transferred to a converted New Zealand hospital ship, the TSS Maunganui, which took her to Wellington. After I was delivered by caesarean section, George sent Billie a telegram: “I am proud of you. You have only your own strength to call on, my dear girl, and you have plenty of it. If you will fight for Ian and yourself, you will win easily. I am not a tower of strength, even to my own family.”

Although a single mother again, Billie was buoyed by the kindness she met in New Zealand. In Wellington Harbour, the emaciated PoWs walked off the ship to a reception with a brass band and the Governor-General telling them they were welcome to stay as long as they liked.

“The staff at Lower Hutt Hospital were wonderful and during visiting hours, strangers would pour into the ward and put presents on the bed for you and me,” she recalled. “Every day was Christmas.”

Ian and his father, George. Photo/Supplied

Meeting George

The last piece of my jigsaw fell into place in September 1985, when I met my father for the first time at his home on Denman Island, off Vancouver Island, Canada. George and his wife were welcoming. “Where have you been all this time?” asked their elder daughter. “You were the son he always wanted. You look, speak and move so much like Dad it makes my scalp tingle. You even became a journalist like him.”

Over the next 20 years, I saw quite a bit of George. Although of modest means, he was known for his generosity, sometimes impetuously giving away household appliances that his wife had to reclaim later. Ironically, he had known little kindness himself. George had been given away at a young age by his mother, a housekeeper who had been impregnated out of wedlock by a footman. He had been raised in foster homes, some of them cruel. He had worked on several newspapers in England before arriving in Hong Kong in 1933.

Both my parents had been reproved by wagging tongues for their wartime relationship, but few realised he brought my mother back from the abyss and that I was the result of their need and compassion during a harsh and lengthy captivity.

In 1999, my wife, Jean, gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. I named the boy Brian after the half-brother to whom I realised I owed my life. When Billie saw Brian for the first time, she wept.

Billie and George retained positive memories of each other, but never met again. They died within months of each other in 2006, she in Geneva on February 22 at age 89, he in Vancouver on December 23, aged 95. My half-sisters asked me to deliver the eulogy for Dad. All went smoothly until I mentioned his kindness – and I choked.

This article was first published in the February 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.