Monday 13 February 2023

Archibald and Frances Cook - their story of a family separated by war

In December 1941, forty-three year old Scotsman, Archibald (Archie) Cook was employed as the captain of the Hong Kong-Canton steamer the SS Fatshan. He had been working on the China coast for some twenty years. He was married to Frances, an American from a missionary family who had been born in Shantung and spent much of her life in China. The family lived at Felix Villas near the intersection of Mount Davis Road and Victoria Road on Hong Kong Island. The outbreak of war in the Pacific would see the family split up. The three oldest children, Calvin (14), Luther (13) and Athene (10) were in Chefoo northern China where Frances's mother lived. The three youngest children, Clyde (6), Celene (5) and Van Dyke, still an infant born in 1941, were in Hong Kong. Frances and her three youngest children were interned at Stanley Camp. Archibald Cook had sailed his steamer up to Canton and was there when war began. His vessel was seized and he was placed under house arrest. The family survived the battle and were eventually reunited again in Lourenco Marques in August 1942. Their reunion was all too brief because Archibald Cook, a master mariner, was called back for sea-service in the South Pacific. This was at a time when merchant navy officers were in short supply. This is their story of war and separation on the China Coast against the backdrop of the Pacific War.

SS Fatshan plying the river route from Hong Kong to Canton (Source: Wikipedia)

Captain Archie Cook (Source:

Archie Cook's Story
The sabre rattling and tension between Japan and the West (USA and UK) increased in November/December 1941. In November Canadian reinforcements, consisting of two battalions and a Brigade HQ, arrived in Hong Kong. Brigadier Wallis, commanding the Mainland Infantry Brigade, had his three infantry battalions in their battle positions on the Gin Drinkers Line by mid-November. During Archie Cook's sailings up and down the Pearl River he  had seen the extent of Japanese military and maritime movements. He realised that war was imminent although many in Hong Kong still thought that the Japanese were blustering. After Cook arrived back in Hong Kong from Japanese occupied Canton on 3 December 1941 - he enquired from his employers, China Navigation Company, whether given the increased tension, he should sail as planned for Canton on Saturday 6 December. He was told that the Royal Navy  would decide on commercial sailings in and out of Hong Kong. The Royal Navy movements officer approved the sailing and Cook left his home at Felix Villas early on Saturday 6 December to take the SS Fatshan up river to Canton. As the steamer sailed out of the harbour, passing Mount Davis, he could see his family waving from the verandah at Felix Villas. The next day, Sunday 7 December, a state of emergency was declared in Hong Kong and on Monday morning while the Fatshan was still at Canton the Pacific War began. 

As the ferry approached Japanese controlled waters she passed a Japanese gunboat riding at anchor. The Fatshan, in keeping with maritime practice dipped her ensign and the gunboat returned the salute. The Japanese gunboat then weighed anchor and followed the British vessel up river. At 1100 hours they entered the narrows known as the Boca Tigris Channel (the Mouth of the Tiger). Here, as usual, they embarked a Japanese military harbour-pilot to take them up river to Canton. Further upstream they stopped and anchored for standard quarantine and health checks. On Monday 8 December, Archie Cook was up at the crack of dawn. He noticed a grey naval launch with Japanese marines aboard heading out towards his ship. He guessed that this meant that war had started. In a matter of minutes the launch drew alongside and an officer and a party of marines boarded the vessel.

"I went to meet the boarding party and stop any possible incidents. Our Indian anti-piracy guard of six Sikhs immediately threw a cordon around me. They were willing to give their lives, if necessary, to save me. I motioned them aside and told them not to interfere with the Japanese. The boarding party was led by a Naval Reserve officer, a former Nippon Yusan Kaisha (NYK) Captain of a merchant man." (1)

The Fatshan was taken into Japanese custody and marines were posted as sentries at various points around the vessel. The passengers, mainly Chinese, but with some foreigners, were disembarked.  They were transferred to a barge and taken to Shameen. The Chinese were released and the European passengers including Archie Cook were corralled in the gardens of the British Consulate, registered and assigned to various residences on Shameen Island. Archibald Cook was assigned  to a house with Lytton Bevis Wood, a partner in Deacon & Co, a long established trading company. Wood had been on the ferry from Hong Kong. They were held under house arrest at Lytton Wood's place of residence for a period of four months. In March 1942, all the foreigners (British and American), were ordered to leave their place of residence/business and assemble at the nearby Victoria Hotel which acted as a temporary internment centre. 

In April 1942, a group of fifty British and American civilians were taken on a Japanese coaster to Shanghai to await a repatriation vessel as part of a civilian internee exchange. In May 1942, Archie Cook was repatriated and first went to Shanghai. On 5 August he sailed out of Shanghai on the repatriation ship Tatsuta Maru accompanied by a second repatriation ship, the Kamakura Maru. The Tatsuta Maru had started her voyage at Yokohama on 30 July. In Japan, she took aboard some 60 British internees including Sir Robert Craigie, the former British Ambassador and his diplomatic staff. The passengers included  diplomats from a number of other countries including the Belgian Ambassador and the Australian and Dutch Charge d' Affairs. The two repatriation vessels made port stops at Saigon and Singapore taking on a few more civilian refugees at each port. The two vessels were carrying nearly a thousand repatriates each but they were the lucky ones as most British internees remained in concentration camps until the Japanese capitulation in August/September 1945. The Tatsuta Maru arrived in Lourenco Marques in Portuguese East Africa on 27 August. The British and other repatriates were disembarked and exchanged for Japanese mainly diplomatic repatriates from UK, Australia and India. The British and other non-Japanese repatriates boarded the SS El Nil and the SS Narkunda bound for Liverpool. The Tatsuta Maru left carrying the Japanese internees loaded with 48, 818 Red Cross Parcels for Allied prisoners of war and civilian internees. Some ten days after Archie Cook arrived in Lourenco Marques on the Tatsuta Maru, the SS City of Canterbury arrived from Melbourne carrying Japanese internees  including Kawai Tatsuo the Japanese Ambassador to Australia. The Ambassador carried four small white boxes in which were the remains of crew members of the Japanese midget submarines that were involved  in the attack on Sydney Harbour. 

Archie Cook's family had been separated for some nine months. The three oldest children at boarding school in Chefoo had boarded the Kamakura Maru in Shanghai. Frances and the three youngest children, Clyde, Celene and Van Dyke had been interned at Stanley Camp. They were repatriated with the American nationals from Hong Kong in July 1942 on the Asama Maru. Lytton Wood heard  from a British diplomat at Lourenco Marques that Frances and the three children had arrived several weeks earlier and were still in town. After leaving the ship and heading for the agent's office Archibald ran into Frances and the children on the street. At the shipping agent's office there was a cable from the shipping line in London waiting for Archie and ordering him to take passage to Sydney and report for sea service in the southwest Pacific. 

Frances Cook's Story
Frances recalled that on Saturday morning, 6 December, the family rushed to the verandah to wave to Archie as the SS Fatshan sailed by heading for the Pearl River. It was a beautiful sunny day as the steamer sounded its siren. It had been a hurried good-bye that morning when Archie left home. Frances caught a glimpse of him on the bridge and that was the last they saw of each other  until August 1942 when they were reunited in Portuguese East Africa. Their home at Felix Villas was below Mount Davis with its battery of three 9.2-inch coastal defence guns. The battery became one of the most bombarded locations in Hong Kong. When there was a break in the bombing the two older children would collect the bomb splinters and sometimes the propaganda leaflets dropped by Japanese aircraft. Their neighbour was a French lady by the name of Germaine. Her husband was a doctor who had just passed his medical examinations. The bombing and shelling around Mount Davis eventually forced them to leave and she stayed with her friends Doctor Harry and Mrs Winifred Clift at their home near the university. On 20 December 1941, Frances decided to make a trip to Felix Villas to bring back some of their possessions. Their home was a mess with all the window panes smashed and the floors covered with dirt and debris. When Frances heard of the Christmas Day surrender she could hardly believe it. 

We had been repeatedly told we would not surrender, but fight street by street. We were also told by radio every day that the situation  remained unchanged. The power station was latterly put out of action. There were no telephones or radios, but the news sheet was still printed and the news here was the same. The following day we saw the Japanese flag  flying from the Peak.

An old sea captain who returned to his home at Felix Villas told me in the internment camp... that at first  he had managed to live without much interference but later armed Chinese  looters came in hordes and he was forced to leave his home to them.

Our neighbour Germaine returned on December 26 and later her body was found on the road and taken to hospital for identification. Her husband, who had just passed  his final medical examinations in December, was killed at his post. Whether either knew the other was dead I do not know. They had been married about a year. (2)
On Monday 5 January 1942, all 'enemy nationals' were instructed to report for registration and internment at Murray Parade Ground. They were initially interned in various short stay hotels and boarding houses.  Mrs Clift, Frances and the children  were interned at Nam Ping Hotel. She recalled there were some 150 internees staying  in the hotel.They were joined by another lady, Molly Tyrell, in a room about 12 square feet on the third floor of the building. They were lucky because their room had a toilet and bath. On 21 January they were moved  by boat to Stanley internment camp. Although American, because she was married to a British citizen, she was interned with the British rather than the better accommodation enjoyed by the American internees. She and the three children moved into one of the staff bungalows at St Stephen's College. She was included in the US repatriation in July 1942.  She shared a third class cabin on the Asama Maru with thirteen other occupants. The exchange of prisoners took place at Lourenco Marques and the American repatriates boarded the SS Gripsholm a Swedish vessel. Frances and her three children were given permission to remain in Lourenco Marques to await the arrival of her husband and three older children on the Tatsuta Maru and Kamakura Maru respectively. 

The SS Fatshan
The vessel was built at Tai Koo Dockyard for the China Navigation Company a subsidiary of the Swire Group. She was named after the city of Foshan. The vessel with a displacement of 2,639 tons was completed in 1933. I believe she tied up at the Sheung Wan dockside which was not very far from the Coook's family home at Felix Villas. The Japanese, having commandeered the Fatshan and renamed her the Kota Maru and used her to make the round trip between Hong Kong and Canton under a Japanese flag. After the Chinese revolution in 1949 ships were barred from making port calls at Canton and the Fatshan sailed between Hong Kong and Macao. In 1971, she was sunk in a typhoon with eighty-eight lives lost and only four survivors. It is interesting to note from Archie's account that as late as 1941 she still carried an anti-piracy squad of armed guards.

Felix Villas
They were originally two low blocks of terraced houses on Mount Davis Road close to the junction of Mount Davis Road. They were built in the 1920s and named after the developer Felix Alexander Joseph. Felix Joseph was born in Hong Kong in 1890. He had UK nationality and died in 1949. A brother, Joseph Edgar Joseph was briefly in Stanley Camp but released to town (possibly guaranteed out).  The upper of the two blocks which comprised Felix Villas had ten terraced houses and the lower block which still survives had eight terraced homes. The upper block was demolished in 1995. The blocks were on either side of Mount Davis Road. There was a murder in December 1930 of a Chinese servant at the home of French national Rene Ohl the Manager of Messageries Maritimes. Rene Oil lived at  No 9 Felix Villas when the murder occurred  He later moved to No 2 Felix Villas. It is not clear who was the French neighbour (Germaine) living next door to the Cook family and how she died. Felix villas were used by the Royal Artillery at Mount Davis for accommodation after the Battery Plotting Room had been destroyed by Japanese artillery and again for accommodation after the surrender.

Residents of Felix Villas in 1941
Archibald & Frances Cook (House No. n/k)
Cyril & Mollie Blake No. 15.  (Interned at Stanley Camp with infant daughter)
George& Marguerite Boulton (House No. u/k)   (Interned at Stanley Camp)
Ernest William Charles Simmonds No. 6  (Interned at Stanley Camp)

(1) When You Were Absent (2002). by Frances Wight and Archibald Cook (P. 76)  Biola University Publications

(2) When You Were Absent (2002). by Frances Wight and Archibald Cook (P. 15)  Biola University Publications

Steven K. Bailey 
Biola University Web Site
Clinton Chong  (for "When you were absent" by Frances and Archibald Cook)


UKNA file on movement of Fatshan (Courtesy of Dr Steven K. Bailey)

UKNA file on movement of Fatshan (Courtesy of Dr Steven K. Bailey)

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