Documentary uncovers truth of sunken WWII ship, shares moving story of British POWs’ rescue by Chinese people
Unsinkable friendship
Published: Jun 16, 2024 10:42 PM
Promotional material for documentary The Sinking of The <em>Lisbon Maru</em> Photo: Courtesy of the production team

Promotional material for documentary The Sinking of The Lisbon Maru Photo: Courtesy of the production team

Thunderous applause erupts as the film ends. The cinema lights slowly brighten, illuminating the faces of audiences, many of whom have tears glistening in their eyes.

A highlight of the 26th Shanghai International Film Festival, the documentary The Sinking of The Lisbon Maru held its premiere in Shanghai on Friday. It was the first screening to kick off this annual festival for global moviegoers. 

It is a story interwoven with the cruelty of war, the tragedy of thousands of British prisoners of war (POWs) and their families, the brutality of Japanese fascists, as well as the courage and humanity of ordinary Chinese people.

In August 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping replied in a letter to the families of the survivors of the Lisbon Maru, a Japanese transport ship carrying POWs that was sunken by a US submarine. In the letter, Xi encouraged them to continue to be actively committed to China-Britain friendship, and expressed his expectation that more British friends would make contributions to bilateral relations.

What is The Sinking of The Lisbon Maru about? Why is the "Lisbon Maru" incident worth remembering? Over the weekend, the Global Times ­conducted an exclusive interview with the documentary's director and producer Fang Li, and its history consultant Tony Banham, as well as talking to several relatives of the POWs. They, along with the moving film itself, together restored a heart-stirring historical event that had been forgotten for decades.

"[Making this film] is the most important-ever thing that I've done in my life," renowned Chinese filmmaker Fang told the Global Times.

A relative of a British POW shakes hands with Chinese fisherman Lin Agen (with hat) who helped rescue POWs during the sinking of the <em>Lisbon Maru</em> in 1942, in October 2019.  Photo: Courtesy of the production team

A relative of a British POW shakes hands with Chinese fisherman Lin Agen (with hat) who helped rescue POWs during the sinking of the Lisbon Maru in 1942, in October 2019. Photo: Courtesy of the production team

Long-buried truth

30°13'44.42" N, 122°45'31.14" E.

This is a coordinate that always appears in the most prominent places on the posters for The Sinking of The Lisbon Maru. It marks the location where Fang discovered the sunken ship Lisbon Maru in 2017 - the waters near Dongji Island in the East China Sea.

Discovered along with the ship were the remains of 828 British World War II POWs, who rest in the deep sea there.

The Sinking of The Lisbon Maru reveals the long-buried truth of the 1942 sinking of the Lisbon Maru, an armed Japanese cargo ship that participated in World War II. In October 1942, the Lisbon Maru transported more than 1,800 British POWs from China's Hong Kong toward Japan, without bearing a sign indicating it was carrying POWs - a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

After being struck by a torpedo from a US submarine, Japanese soldiers, instead of trying to save the POWs, cruelly battened them down below deck, left them to drown, and even shot at them, leading to the deaths of 828 prisoners.

When the ship went down off the coast of Zhoushan Islands in the East China Sea, 384 POWs were fortunately rescued by the local Chinese fishermen who risked their lives to pull the POWs from the water.

For decades, the Japanese authorities seldom acknowledged their atrocities committed in the Lisbon Maru incident, as the sunken ship had never been found, and most survivors of the incident were reluctant to talk about this miserable experience.

By chance, renowned Chinese filmmaker Fang Li, who is also an expert in geophysical exploration and marine technology, heard the Lisbon Maru story from Zhoushan fishermen in 2014, and later thought about making a documentary for it.

"I wanted to share with the world the event, which had been submerged under the sea and denied by the Japanese military all these years," Fang told the Global Times in an exclusive interview on Friday. "I was eager to save this precious piece of history."

Since then, Fang has devoted himself to bringing the forgotten story of the Lisbon Maru to the big screen. He led professional teams to search the sunken ship in 2016 and 2017, and eventually found it on the seabed - 36 kilometers away from an incorrect coordinate in historical records. Fang's team thereafter started to travel around the world seeking related historical documents, as well as the POWs aboard the ship and their families.

During the information collection and filmmaking process, Fang gradually found how tight the clock was at the time as probably only two POWs and one Chinese fisherman who participated in the rescue were still alive. Through the efforts of Fang's team, the three men all appeared in the documentary and talked about their experiences in person, providing a precious first-perspective narrative for the film. Sadly, they died a few years later before the film hit screens.

Their passing now means there are no more witnesses to this tragedy.

A relative of British POWs pays tribute at the site where the <em>Lisbon Maru</em> sank in 1942, in October 2019.  Photo: Courtesy of the production team

A relative of British POWs pays tribute at the site where the Lisbon Maru sank in 1942, in October 2019. Photo: Courtesy of the production team

Sincerest human feelings

To look for more people who were directly or indirectly involved in the little-known Lisbon Maru incident, Fang once spent a great deal of money publishing advertisements in three major newspapers of the UK.

"A full-page advertisement for a full weekend page cost some 20,000 pounds [$25,372]," Fang recalled. "We constantly published full-page ads in the three newspapers for about a month."

That move caused wide attention across the UK at that time, leading BBC Radio 4 to invite Fang for a global live interview in July 2018, during which he was asked why a Chinese man would spend so much effort in seeking British POWs.

"All those boys were detained there against their will, that's why I feel so sad today - they are still detained on the sea floor," answered Fang. "In my personal opinion, they are on the Chinese sea floor in a Japanese jail. Shouldn't we free them and send them home?"

With the support of various parties, Fang's team was lucky enough to reach more than 300 relatives of the POWs, and he visited some 110 of them. The stories told by the relatives as well as the related objects they have carefully preserved not only restored the tragic historical moment but also vividly showed the deep bond between the POWs and their loved ones.

In the documentary, there are more than one close-up shot of Fang's tearful eyes. One comes during a conversation between Fang and Lindsey Archer, niece of Lisbon Maru victim John Weaver. 

Archer reads a very special letter before the camera. It was a letter Weaver wrote to his mother, before he was taken aboard the Lisbon Maru as a POW by the Japanese army in September 1942. Perhaps with a bit of nervousness and excitement, Weaver told his mother that he had fallen in love with a young local woman in Hong Kong. Her name was Leung Sou-kam.

"I made a home for her," he wrote. "I love her more than ever. It is the only thing I can do."

Archer appeared at the documentary's premiere in Shanghai, bringing a profile photo of Leung. At the back of the photo is the handwriting of Archer's mother, "my sister-in-law." This suggests that Weaver and Leung were already married before they parted forever.

A heartbreaking scene may appear in the minds of the audience: Maybe shortly after the new couple got married, Weaver kissed his wife goodbye and boarded the Lisbon Maru. Days later, when the sinking happened, Weaver struggled to get out of the ship, but was then shot dead by the Japanese army at the young age of 24.

Speaking of Leung, Archer said she was a kind and warm woman from Hong Kong, China. Archer mentioned that there was once an opportunity for "Mrs Weaver" to claim a pension, but Leung declined, and asked to transfer the pension to the mother and sister of her late husband.

Archer said she has thought about Leung for years, although she has never personally met her. "I've always thought that I got a Chinese aunt somewhere, lovely," she told the Global Times.

Behind each POW family there is a heavy story filled with sadness, longing and love. "I cried quite often in the days talking with the POW relatives," Fang said. "I was overwhelmed by the most sincere human feelings."

It's nonetheless not easy to select from the numerous touching stories for a two-hour documentary. British historian Banham was one of the early experts to research the Lisbon Maru incident. As the film's history consultant, he said that they tried to find a representative sample of every possible experience among the 1,816 POWs on board, which was a big number to start with though.

"And also to be fair, not everybody who's interviewed was a good speaker. Some people, even if they had a good story to tell, they were just not the natural narrative," Banham told the Global Times in an exclusive interview. "So in practice, we ended up focusing on the people with good stories, and the ability to tell them in a very human and approachable manner."

'Pure kindness, care truly touching'

Besides Archer, some other relatives of the POWs aboard the Lisbon Maru participated in Friday's premiere. They planned to leave Shanghai for the Zhoushan Islands, where Dongji Island is located, after the ceremony to visit the seaside village where the fishermen did everything possible to rescue the POWs at sea.

When the POWs jumped into the sea from the sinking ship, some of them were shot by the Japanese soldiers on the surrounding warships. At that desperate moment, it was the Chinese fishermen from a nearby village who spontaneously rowed their boats over and pulled the POWs out of the water.

Despite the danger of being killed by the Japanese soldiers, 255 fishermen rescued a total of 384 POWs, brought them back to the village, offered them food and clothes, and even cut off their own quilts to make shoes for the barefoot survivors.

The impressive rescue story is also a highlight of the documentary. 

"The fishermen lived in extreme poverty during the war, yet deep down they possessed the simplest compassion," said Fang. 

"Their pure kindness and care are truly touching."

The humanitarian spirit of ordinary Chinese people warmed the surviving POWs and their families. 

"My dad always said that the Chinese fishermen were heroes. He was always very grateful to them," Denise Wynne, daughter of survivor Dennis Morley, told the Global Times in Shanghai.

"Without them, I wouldn't be here." 

Wynne said that when she visits the Zhoushan Islands, she wants to shake the hands of the relatives of the rescuing fishermen and express her gratitude to them. 

"I will be very emotional," she said.

Morley, one of the two survivors who appeared in the documentary in person, passed away in 2021 at the age of 101. 

And now Wynne has become his successor in continuing this precious friendship. In 2022, Wynne wrote a letter to President Xi, in which she expressed her appreciation to the Zhoushan fishermen for their bravery. She was later quite surprised and honored to receive Xi's reply that August.

In his letter, Xi pointed out that the touching story of heroic fishermen from Zhoushan coming to the rescue of British POWs on board the Lisbon Maru is an important testimony to China and the UK fighting shoulder to shoulder as allies against fascist aggression during World War II. He hopes that the families of the survivors will continue to work for the advancement of friendship between the two countries.

Inspired by the letter, Wynne said she looks forward to bringing the younger generations of her family to China in the near future to not only meet the people in that seaside village, but also travel around the country to learn more about China.

"I would definitely love to come back and continue the friendship and connect with Chinese people," Wynne told the Global Times.

'We will never forget'

Before being officially released on Friday, The Sinking of The Lisbon Maru had held special screenings at several theaters across the UK in August 2023. The theaters were filled with similar sobs and applause like in the Shanghai premiere.

Fang said he received more than 150 letters of thanks from families of the British POWs. 

"From the documentary, many finally learned what many of their fathers or grandfathers, whether they died in or survived the Lisbon Maru incident, had gone through."

The tragedy brought great pain to the survivors. Many rescued POWs suffered from severe PTSD after returning home. More often, they chose to simply keep silent and bury this unbearable past deep in their hearts.

Wynne recalled his father Morley would not talk about it until seven years ago, when Fang's team visited him.

 "I was very shocked and sad," she said. 

"I didn't know what he'd been through on that ship. I didn't know any of that. And even now, when I think back, I just think how terrible it was for him, and for all the other prisoners of war."

To Wynne, one of the most impressive parts of the documentary was the miserable situation below deck when the ship was torpedoed. 

"I think that will stick in my mind forever," she said. 

"There shouldn't be wars. Everything should be verbally spoken and come to a peaceful ending, instead of fighting and killing."

Fang said he hopes the documentary, which is based on a completely true history, can inspire its audience to build deeper understanding of the cruelty of war, and the importance of peace.

"War is a nightmare for ordinary people like us," he noted. "The main message we want most to express to the audience, particularity young people, is to cherish peace, family and love."

After the documentary's premiere, the relatives of the POWs left Shanghai for the Zhoushan Islands on Sunday, the Global Times learned. 

There they took a ship to 30°13'44.42" N, 122°45'31.14" E to mourn the 828 British soldiers resting there - including their loved ones.

On the ship, Jean Clements and Kathleen Birch, respectively niece and cousin of POW Kenneth Hodkinson, took a small gravestone with them to bury at sea. Hodkinson's name, rank and serial number are written on the gravestone, with a short sentence at the bottom: "We will never forget."