How it all began
My dad, Lt Col John Monro, died in 1981 when I was 18. Throughout my childhood he never mentioned his wartime experiences – not the day to day life, the battle of Hong Kong, being taken prisoner, escaping, his epic journey, nor his experiences in China and Burma for the rest of the war. I was aware of a long letter that he wrote home about his escape but that was all. All I knew of him was his life as a farmer – his second career after retiring from the army in 1958. He had a penchant for Chinese food and his Chinese interpreter’s sons used to visit occasionally, but otherwise his previous life was hidden.
The battle of Hong Kong is only a footnote in the Pacific war but it is significant in that it happened at the very beginning – 8 hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor on the other side of the Pacific. Dad’s daring escape won him the Military Cross – he was just 26 but regarded it his duty as an officer to escape from POW camp. Dad’s story of the battle and his escape is now available at the Imperial War Museum.
Retracing Dad’s route across China
I decided to retrace his journey and set about figuring out how to do it. It’s not exactly on the tourist trail and all the standard itineraries didn’t meet my needs. It’s a shame he didn’t go via Xian or the panda sanctuary! Eventually I found a tour operator who would help me – My Odyssey Tours. I learned some mandarin (somewhat harder than French or Italian) but, sadly, all the characters look very similar to me so I was rather dependent on my guides.
China is very different 70 years down the line and the Chinese have little nostalgia for times past – much of it has literally been bulldozed out of existence. Still, I went at the same time of year that Dad travelled and I think rural China still held the essence of what he saw. After the escape Dad became Assistant Military Attache in Chongqing, but this is now a vast industrial metropolis that he wouldn’t recognise. I spent little time there, only visiting the offices of US General Stilwell.