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Hong Kong: A Lost Battle Found

By John D. Lukacs
11/28/2011 • World War II Time Travel


On a rainy Sunday, I set out on the Wong Nai Chung Gap Trail, about three miles south of the island skyline. Fittingly, conditions are very similar to those in which most of the battle was fought. Hong Kong Island was once bisected by a single paved north-south thoroughfare, and the gap was a strategic chokepoint that linked feeder roads to the ports, reservoirs, and other key positions. Today, the Wong Nai Chung Gap Trail serves as a junction once more—of battlefield history and botanical beauty.

Beginning on an overlook where a battery of 3.7-inch antiaircraft guns once stood, the trail ascends to the strategic high ground of Mount Butler and Jardine’s Lookout, near the spot where Sergeant Major John Osborn of the Winnipeg Grenadiers earned a posthumous Victoria Cross—the highest medal for valor in the British Commonwealth—by throwing himself on a grenade to save his comrades.

Dodging joggers and dog walkers, I pass by lush flora, flowering white gordonias, palm and camphor trees, and rounded prewar cement catchwater channels as I walk up fog-shrouded stone staircases that lead to the crumbling shells of turreted pillboxes. Then I descend Sir Cecil’s Ride, an old horse trail used by the Japanese as an approach to the gap following their amphibious landings on the island.

After a few hours of exploration, I exit near the bunker that was General John Lawson’s West Brigade headquarters, located on Wong Nai Chung Gap Road opposite the Hong Kong Cricket Club. According to an on-site memorial marker, when the bunker was about to be overrun on the morning of December 19, the brigadier stated his intention “to fight it out,” and charged forth, brandishing pistols in both hands. Immediately gunned down, Lawson was the highest-ranking officer killed in the battle.

Stanley Peninsula, where Hong Kong’s defenders made their last stand, protrudes into the sea from the southeast corner of the island, a 30-minute bus ride from Hong Kong’s Central District. The meandering route includes scenic sites such as Repulse Bay. At the end is Stanley Military Cemetery, a small graveyard perched on a green ledge between Wong Ma Kok Road and St. Stephen’s College. This was where Company D of the Royal Rifles charged with bayonets fixed to temporarily dislodge Japanese troops from bungalows at St. Stephen’s on the afternoon of Christmas Day—just hours after the ceasefire.

Strolling the grounds at twilight, I study the toll of suffering and sacrifice manifested in Portland stone, polished marble, and granite road markers—the latter pressed into service as headstones for civilians as deaths from disease and malnutrition rose during occupation. Stanley isn’t the main military cemetery and re­quires deliberate effort to find. But as I gaze about, I realize I’m not alone. Others have made their way here too—proof that 70 years later, Hong Kong can indeed be a lost battle found.

John D. Lukacs, author of Escape From Davao: The Forgotten Story of the Most Daring Prison Break of the Pacific War, is a writer and historian whose work has appeared in USA Today and the New York Times. He visited Hong Kong last year during an extended trip to the Philippines to conduct research for his upcoming book on the Battle of Manila in 1945. Visit johndlukacs.com.

When You Go
Hong Kong is accessible via all major international airlines. Public transportation—the Mass Transit Railway, bus, and taxi service—is affordable and extremely efficient. For those wishing to explore Hong Kong on foot, walkhongkong.com is highly recommended.

Where to Stay and Eat
Hong Kong is one of the world’s great culinary capitals, a city-sized Chinese buffet featuring countless opportunities to sample everything from Cantonese to haute cuisine. Luk Yu (24-26 Stanley St., Central District), with its creaky ceiling fans, scroll-covered walls, and brass spittoons, looks like one of the city’s oldest restaurants, and it is: the dim sum tea house dates to 1933. Or, take afternoon tea in the lobby of the “Grande Dame of the Far East,” the Peninsula Hotel (Salisbury Rd., peninsula.com/Hong-Kong/en/default.aspx).

What Else to See
The Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence (175 Tung Hei Road, Shau Kei Wan, hk.coastaldefence.museum/) is a modern museum featuring a scenic waterfront, gun batteries, and rare artifacts, as well as permanent and special exhibitions spanning six centuries of Hong Kong’s martial history, from the Ming Dynasty to today’s People’s Republic of China.

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