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Lisbon Maru heroism remembered by grateful families

By XING YI in Gloucester, England| chinadaily.com.cn| Updated: February 26, 2024 L M S


Zheng Zeguang (center), China's ambassador to the UK, and participants at a commemorative event for the Lisbon Maru incident hold hands as people sing Auld Lang Syne in Gloucester, England on Saturday. [Photo by He Tingde / For chinadaily.com.cn]

Three descendants of fishermen who rescued United Kingdom prisoners of war during the Lisbon Maru incident 82 years ago visited the UK and met children and relatives of some of the survivors at a commemorative event in Gloucester, England on Saturday.

"My dad always told me that if it hadn't been for the Chinese fisherman, he too would have died," said Denise Wynne, daughter of Dennis Morley, the last of the survivors, who passed away in 2021. "He always spoke about the Chinese fishermen being true heroes … I've met three (of their descendants) and I'm just so happy to be able to do that and I know my father must be looking down on all this."

The Lisbon Maru was a cargo ship that the Japanese used to transport POWs at the height of World War II. In October 1942, while carrying 1,800 British prisoners off the coast of East China's Zhejiang province, the ship was torpedoed by a United States submarine.

The Japanese guards tried to lock the POWs in the holds, intending for them to go down with the ship, but some prisoners eventually broke out before the ship sank.

Having spotted the sinking ship, fishermen on nearby Dongji Island, in Zhoushan, Zhejiang province, went out on small boats to rescue the drowning British soldiers. More than 800 prisoners died in the incident, but around 380 were saved.

Wu Buwei, grandson of the late fisherman Wu Qisheng, recounted the heroic rescue during the commemoration.

"My grandfather was one of the main organizers of the rescue efforts … I was told of their story when I was a child," said Wu, 63. "Men and women, the old and the young, everyone in the village was mobilized. They rowed their small fishing boats out to carry the British soldiers ashore, and then clothed and fed the soldiers with fish, sweet potatoes – all that they had at home.

"Regardless of the danger of being found out by Japanese soldiers, my father and some others also escorted three British to a safe place, and had a very precious photo with the three British soldiers.

"I'm proud of the courage of my grandfather and people from Dongji. My descendants also like to hear me talk about this story – I'm very happy that this rescue has forged a special friendship between China and the UK."

Zheng Zeguang, China's ambassador to the UK, said President Xi Jinping had noted that the incident was an important testimony to China and the UK fighting shoulder-to-shoulder as allies against fascist aggression during World War II, and he said he hoped the Lisbon Maru families will continue to work for the advancement of friendship between people from the two nations.

Brian Finch, convenor of the Lisbon Maru families, said: "At the moment, everyone who knows about the story remembers it, relatives are very keen, but the vast number of people in the UK do not know about it. What we need to do is to make maximum publicity within the UK and internationally to get the story widely known."

During the event on Saturday, Wu Xiaofei, granddaughter of another now-deceased rescuer, Wu Qilin, gave Wynne a painting she had done of the fishermen from Dongji Island. And British artist Paul Christien, who was moved by the story of the rescue, reciprocated by giving to Wu a woodblock painting he had done based on the Lisbon Maru incident.

"It's important for us to get together culturally, and have contact with each other, even though the survivors have sadly died off through time, to keep that memory going," said Christien.

Liu Tao, mayor of the Dongji township, said a museum dedicated to the Lisbon Maru rescue had been built in 2009, and historical artifacts and oral history had been added to it in recent years.

Kathy Williams, mayor of Gloucester, said she was very moved by the story, and by seeing the people who attended the event.

"If it hadn't been for the Chinese people's rescue, that room of people wouldn't have been here," she said. "It's a very moving thing, and a beautiful thing that happened today."

Williams said that she plans to get in touch with the Royal British Legion and try to get the Lisbon Maru's families to join the Remembrance Day parade in London on Nov 11, where they could lay a wreath at the memorial, to let more people know the story.

"We look forward to more events like this, so that this touching story of friendship can live on and be carried forward. The friendship between our two peoples can be further deepened," Zheng added.