Santo Tomás: A Tale of Two Families

by Robert Colquhoun

Born in October 1938 in Hong Kong, where my father was serving in the British army, and evacuated to the Philippines in July 1940, I was interned with my mother, Elsa Colquhoun (1911-2001), in Santo Tomas in January 1942. She had been working as a stenographer for the American military in Manila. My father, meanwhile, was made a prisoner of war when Hong Kong fell to the Japanese on Christmas Day 1941.

In Santo Tomas my mother met another Englishman, Harold Leney, an unmarried accountant of her age who had been working for a British firm in the Philippines. They fell in love, shared a shanty and by the summer of 1944 she was pregnant. That October Harold, who was part of the garbage crew, was arrested and imprisoned with others for smuggling food and cigarettes into camp – an activity in which I, a six-year-old proudly accompanying them, unwittingly took part. On 30 March 1945, two months after liberation, Mother gave birth to a healthy baby in camp, Thomas (named after Santo Tomas). Days later we sailed for England via the United States.

My father had survived the POW camp in Hong Kong and after the war my parents divorced. My mother and Harold Leney married, settled in London and had twins in 1948. In 1952 Harold took a job in East Africa but was killed in an air crash the following year. My mother returned to England, spent the next twenty years bringing up her children, and in 1975 married her widowed brother-in-law, the husband of Harold’s sister. I have remained close to my Leney siblings throughout my life.

I have now written an illustrated memoir of my time in Santo Tomas which can be downloaded free: SANTO TOMÁS INTERNMENT CAMP: Childhood Memoir of Japanese-Occupied Manila, 1941 – 1945 This 3.7 MB file may be adequate, but a larger 17.3 MB file will give better quality and sharper images.

On the ship which evacuated us from Hong Kong to Manila in 1940 were Anne Balfour, the French-born wife of a British colonial official, and her young family (he was later interned in Hong Kong). Like my mother, she stayed in the Philippines rather than go on to Australia, but as a French national she was not immediately interned when the Philippines fell. Under the Japanese occupation she shared a house in Manila with an unmarried Frenchman, Paul Esmérian (1912-69), who became a surrogate father to her family. As a supporter of General de Gaulle and adherent of the Free French, he was eventually interned in Santo Tomas in June 1943; Anne Balfour and her three children followed a year later. They all survived to liberation in February 1945, but just before Anne and her family sailed for the United States she learnt that her husband, Stephen, had been accidentally killed by an American bomb in his civilian camp in Hong Kong in January 1945.

Contrary perhaps to expectation, Paul Esmérian and Anne Balfour did not marry after the war. She married the well-known English music critic and BBC music administrator, Sir William Glock; and he married a Dutch woman – they later divorced and there were no children.

Free Frenchman

Free Frenchman

Both in occupied Manila and in the camp Esmérian kept a vivid and perceptive diary of the harsh life and worsening conditions around him. Published in France in 1980, it deserves to be better known to an English-speaking audience and, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of our liberation, I have now translated and edited it under the title, A Free Frenchman under the Japanese: The War Diary of Paul Esmérian, Manila, Philippines, 1941-1945. Published by Matador in the UK, this English version of the diary is also available worldwide through usual retailers and booksellers including Amazon.

Articles on 70-year anniversary of STIC Liberation

The reminiscences of George Fisher appear in the appeared today in The Frederick News-Post. The article, titled Interned Americans freed 70 years ago with help of Frederick veteran, describes what Fisher, then a 25-year-old Army private with the 1st Calvary Division, experienced the night that the American tanks broke through the gates of Santo Tomas Internment Camp on 3 February 1945. The short article can be read at this link.

Another article appears today on GMA News Online, Survivors return to PHL 70 years after liberation from UST prison camp. The article begins “for three years during World War II, American Kathy Elfstrom Cronquist lived on the grounds of the University of Santo Tomas, which the Japanese occupiers had turned into a prison camp for over 4,000 American and British civilians living in Manila.

Cronquist was one of the former prisoners of war who visited UST on Tuesday, exactly 70 years since Filipino and American forces liberated the Santo Tomas Internment Camp (STIC) on February 3, 1945.” This article can be read at this link.

Another short article, from Coconuts Manila, is titled 20 internees and families to visit UST today on Battle of Manila anniversary. Unfortunately, it doesn’t name the 20 internees who made this trip, but, luckily, there is a follow-up story which also appears: Battle of Manila survivors, 70 years later. This article profiles Joan Bennett Chapman, Roi Doolan, Tim Crosby, Gerry Ann Schwede and Sascha Jean Weinzheimer Jansen. Click the article titles above to link to the online stories.

Other stories that appeared recently include the Philippine Daily Inquirer article titled “Seize the day” people: Kids of war revisit UST (former internees mentioned include George Baker) and Muscatine man recalls liberating camp 70 years ago this week, which details the reminiscences of former Pfc. Bob Harrison on the STIC liberation and the Battle of Manila.

“Woman of War” profiles the Aaron Family

The Victoria Advocate, of Victoria, Texas, recently ran a 4-part series on an internee family, focusing mainly on daughter, Eileen Aaron. The five members of the family were Eileen Dorothy Aaron, Jean Margaret Aaron, John David Aaron, John Maurice Aaron and Margaret Elizabeth Tyre Aaron. The series covers a lot of territory and has several photographs and maps.

The links to the Woman of War series, from the Victoria Advocate (Victoria, Texas), December 2014, are listed below: