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.

Los Baños book now available!

Bestselling author Bruce Henderson’s new book, Rescue at Los Baños is now available on Amazon and other websites. The history and conditions of Los Baños Internment Camp are detailed, but the rescue of the 2,147 American and Allied prisoners is the highlight of the book. Some of the internees mentioned in the book include Ben Edwards, Dr. Dana Nance, Jerry and Margaret Sams, Terry Santos, Margie Whitaker and Dorothy Still. The appendix includes the camp roster originally compiled by Carol Terry in February 1945.

The STIC Internees’ Song

While researching the background of Santo Tomas internee Blakey Borthwick Laycock, who was executed by the Japanese in 1942, I came across a 2013 article titled War camp mass has Aussie premiere about a song for the internees written by entertainer Dave Harvey and composer Mario Bakerini-Booth.

According to the article, “It was absolutely predictable that Harvey and Mario Bakerini-Booth became great friends. Not long after the Easter mass was performed, Mario wrote the music for Internee Song while Harvey wrote the lyrics.

It was presented at a camp concert for the first time on May 22, 1943. Later its performance was banned, though internees continued to sing the words and hum the music out of the earshot of their Japanese guards.”

We live a life that’s new to us
Most of us here were strangers
Our habits and customs were numerous
We’ve survived these communal dangers.
You may be a Pole or American, English or Scotch or Dutch
But whatever your nationality
It doesn’t matter much,
For we’re internees of Santo Tomas
And we’re all resolved to pull the load together.

We’re ready now to put it across
And we’re ready to help in fair or stormy weather
Our troubles may be many
But we’re over 3,000-strong
Dark clouds are hovering over us
But they won’t be there for long
For there’ll come a wind that will blow those clouds away
And scatter them till they’re lost
It’s coming across the water
It’s blowing from every quarter
To us internees of Santo Tomas.

For we’re internees of Santo Tomas
And we’re all resolved to pull the load together.

I will try to get a recording of this song to share through this website, since it demonstrates the spirit of the internees.

“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:

Last Chapter, First Page

The Repatriation Voyage of the S.S. Jean Lafitte
Manila, 3 March – San Francisco, 30 March, 1945

By Curtis Brooks

The final phase of the wartime history of Americans in the Philippines, for most of us, was the trip from Manila to the United States. My brother and I were with the first group of civilian internees to leave the camp, a journey that would begin on February 23, 1945 and end March 30 of the same year in San Francisco.

I don’t remember when we were first given a head’s up for the trip but it must have been only a day or so before departure. The morning of the 23rd was thunderous, with much firing from artillery all about the city. We loaded onto trucks and headed out the gate on to Calle España and drove east. It was the first time I had ridden on a vehicle since January, 1942 when a bus brought us into camp. We drove along the road for a distance and then came to a stop. There was a sign, “Keep off the Airstrip.” The road from there forward was the runway. Parked on both sides were several transport aircraft. We recognized the C-47, but there other aircraft we did not; we boarded one of those; I think we had a choice of what plane to board and supposed the unfamiliar planes to be the newer ones. Off to one side was a damaged dive bomber that apparently had come to grief using the airstrip. It was a moment of great excitement; we were on our way, further my brother and I had never flown before. In the plane we sat in bucket seats along the side of the fuselage. I remember counting and there were 35 of us on board. A friend of mine who had flown before told us we probably wouldn’t notice when the plane left the ground. Not so; the plane pulled up sharply with a noticeable jolt when we became airborne. The plane headed east and then circled south. To our right, the city of Manila lay blackened and smoking, in the harbor we could see the hulks of many ships sunk during the American bombing raids.
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Going Home, a memoir by Rob Colquhoun

GOING HOME: THE VOYAGE OF THE CAPE MEARES
Manila, 10 April – San Francisco, 12 May, 1945

By Robert Colquhoun

My mother, Elsa Colquhoun, and I were held by the Japanese in Santo Tomás Internment Camp, Manila, from January 1942 to our liberation by the US army on 3 February 1945. By then she was thirty-four and I was six years and four months old. My father was a military prisoner of war in Hong Kong and in Camp my mother met another Englishman, Harold Leney, who would become my stepfather. Their son, Tom, was born there on 30 March 1945. Ten days later the four of us left Camp for the last time and with many other internees headed by truck to the port area on the first stage of our journey home via San Francisco. At the harbor, because of the damage done during the battle for Manila, we were carried by landing craft – an excitement in itself – out to our ship, the SS Cape Meares.

The Cape Meares, named after a promontory in Oregon, was one of 173 C1-B freighters specially built during the war. Eight of these, all named after capes on the west coast of North America, were converted into troopships. (One of them, the Cape San Juan, did not survive the war: on its way to Australia in November 1943 with over 1,300 troops on board, it was torpedoed south-east of Fiji and sank with the loss of 130 lives.)

Cape Meares

Cape Meares


Intended to be used on routes which did not call for fast ships (they were capable of doing 14 knots), C1-Bs were better constructed and more versatile than Liberty and Victory ships. The Cape Meares was built by Consolidated Steel, Wilmington, California, and delivered to the Matson Navigation Co. in June 1943. It was 417 feet long, weighed 6,750 tons and could carry over 1,800 military personnel. It was armed with guns fore, aft and midships (next to the funnel), as shown in the above US Maritime Commission drawing.
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