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Action Stations

Action Stations


‘Sailors are the only class of men who nowadays see anything like stirring adventure; and many things to which fireside people appear strange and romantic, to them seem as commonplace as a jacket out at elbows’.

‘Typee’, Herman Melville 1846


Chris ‘Spider’ Webb was born during the Second World War, joined the Royal Navy after school and retired in 1984. He saw active service during the Indonesian Confrontation (1963 – 1966) and has been in the Philippines for over 40 years. Chris lives on a hill above Puerto Galera overlooking the Verde Island Passage. I first met him in the Big Apple Dive Resort enjoying his fish and chips. The geisha tattoo with ‘Hong Kong’ scroll on his left forearm and palm tree with ‘Malaya’ on his right said there was a story to be told.

Action Stations is an announcement made aboard a naval warship to signal that all hands must go to battle stations as quickly as possible.


Chris you’ve sailed the seven seas and travelled to 68 countries. I’m interested in your stories about the Far East because that’s something most sailors won’t experience now.

Yeah it was a different navy then, great times. We had a Far East fleet based at Singapore from the 1950s until 1971.

What was your childhood like before you joined the navy?

I was born in Islington North London during the war and evacuated to Scotland with my mum and older sister. Dad was a policeman at Tottenham. When the war broke out he tried to join the navy but was rejected because he was in a reserved occupation. Lucky really, all his classmates joined up and every single one died on the Atlantic convoys.

When I was nine Dad got rated sergeant. They sent him to Feltham Magistrates Court and we moved into a brand new police house at Sunbury on Thames. Yeah, good days, not a lot of money but at least he had a regular job. We never went hungry

I was always interested in the navy and when I was twelve I joined the Walton & Hersham Sea Cadets. They taught us an awful lot but for me the most important was morse. Douglas Reeman the famous author of navy stories was my teacher, a really nice guy. When I joined up the rest of the class at HMS Ganges spent six months getting to the speed I was at.

When did you join the navy?

RNRECRUITINGYou could leave school then at 15, but I had to get my parents to sign the papers. I told my teacher Mr Fields at Kenyngton Manor that I was going to join the navy as a radio operator. He’d been a radio operator in the war. He said you don’t know trigonometry no chance! I never touched trigonometry all the time I was in the navy!

I wasn’t academic at school. My favourite subjects were geography and history that’s why I joined up. You learn about all these rivers in Africa and I wanted to see them. I failed the entrance test by two points. The old chiefs at the recruiting office said you’re a sea cadet and it’s always been your dream to join the Royal Navy? I said yeah absolutely I can do morse twelve words a minute. Then they said oh and your fathers a sergeant in the police – in you go son!

I was 15 years 4 months old when I went to HMS Ganges shore establishment for training. The place was hard as nails worse than being in prison my Dad said. Most did 9-12 months but 18 months for radio operators. Probably the best branch, the more intelligent got in. I was there from June 1959 to September 1960.

At school I mucked around but not at Ganges not the way they taught you. If you did something wrong like fighting or stealing you got ‘cuts’ – whipping just like in the old days aboard ship The doctor examined you then they used a very thin cane on your backside – cruel, very cruel, yeah they could do what they bloody well liked then.

I was a good swimmer but those that couldn’t swim just got thrown in the deep end and fished out with a pole till they could. We had boxing three minutes each round. I’d fought before in the Sea Cadets and won the first two. That was stupid I had to go a third round with a big lad from Scotland. I got on alright actually, didn’t get bullied kept my mouth shut and learnt what they taught us.

Your first ship was the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious out to the Far East. How was that experience?

When we passed out our chief says right this is what we’ve got; a ship down in the West Indies wants two sparkers, there’s another one in South Africa, three in the Mediterranean want such and such and an aircraft carrier wants four. It all sounded so wonderful and I said where’s the carrier going? oh probably around the world. Put me down then and I got it! I joined HMS Victorious in December 1960 and we sailed a week later. We’d only done one week of sea training at Ganges and I was 16 years old.


HMS Victorious, Hong Kong 1961 (Source: Imperial War Museum)

Down at Portsmouth I got on the wrong aircraft carrier before finding Victorious. There was nowhere allocated to sleep so I grabbed a bunk. At 0600hrs I got a shake from the owner who was very helpful and sorted me out. The message from the chief said report to the bridge wireless office at 0800hrs after breakfast. My first time on a carrier couldn’t find the bridge! got there about ten past nine. The chief said got lost did you son? he was alright.

The Communications Department was 72 hands. The Chief Radio Supervisor had four Radio Supervisors all Petty Officers, one in the office with the chief, one in cryptography – radio encryption, one for Ultra High Frequency (UHF) and one High Frequency (HF). Our first port was Gibraltar, then Cape Town delivering new currency for the South African Government, Mombassa, Trincomalee then Singapore. The ship needed a month’s maintenance and refit. I had nothing to do onboard so went to RAF Changi as a Junior Radio Operator.

Onboard ship you watch keep; four watches if there are no problems in the world, two if there’s something going on. Singapore was fantastic we were on tropical routine; seven in the morning till twelve then off for the day.

Singapore was a lot wilder then nothing like today?

Yeah we used to go the Britannia Club run by the NAAFI opposite Raffles Hotel. Everyone started off there and sometimes stayed, they had a great bar and swimming pool. Anyhow a fight broke out, someone was taking the piss out of the French sailors with red bobbles on their hats. Next thing someone put a rattan chair over my back. I hobbled out and got a cab to the dockyard. The drivers then were all Sikhs. I was in the back and just outside Nee Soon camp he stopped and said you ok? just want to check you’ve got your money, can you show me? next thing he went boom, boom punched me in the face, pulled me out of the taxi and chucked me down a monsoon drain. I got picked up by a Royal Navy shore patrol. Welcome to Singapore! I think that was my first night in town.


Sailors mobbed in Bugis Street, Singapore. (Source: David Ayres flickr)

Outside the dockyard was Sembawang village – a strip of bars and cafes like the Melbourne and the Nelson which is still running. I stopped there to get my big eats, they did a good egg and bacon banjo. The ‘Vill’ we used to call it, ask any Far East sailor. Two older killicks (Leading hands) took me downtown to the winky wanky bar somewhere near Arab St and Bill Bailey’s on Collyer Quay – the famous old guy who never went home.

Bill Baileys

A run ashore. Bill Bailey’s Coconut Grove once had five bars and three dance floors. According to Bill the famous song about not going home was written in the 1870s long before he was born.

We had some local leave and the Leading Radio Operators cleared it with the chief to go hitchhiking around Malaya. It was just after the Malayan Emergency and we had to report to a police station every day. I remember riding on the back of a flower lorry and sleeping on straw mats in a Sikh temple. We only got as far as Malacca before heading back.

My first time to Hong Kong I was working in the crypto office when we sailed into Victoria Harbour. I had the morning watch and decrypted a SECRET signal from The Ministry of Defence – ‘HMS Victorious will not enter Hong Kong. Diverted forthwith to Kuwait’. I went for breakfast and all the lads wanted to change their money before going alongside. I thought no you’re bloody not! That’s why they say always get the buzz from the sparkers! We turned around and did thirty knots all the way to Kuwait.

Kuwait had just got independence but it was still a British protectorate and this Iraqi General was threatening to invade. Operation Vantage it was called. In all the heads they had pictures of Russian planes for recognition. Our planes were doing day and night bombing runs. We did about 6-8 weeks. When it calmed down we sailed to Mombassa.

Then I finally made it to Hong Kong. You ever seen the film ‘The World of Suzie Wong’? it looked just like that. It was a busy time, a lot of radio traffic but we had some good runs ashore. Bumboats took us to the China Fleet Club. They had accommodation, cheap beer and a great steak, egg and chips. I was underage then not allowed overnight shore leave, had to be onboard by 2359 hrs. For the rum ration ‘tot’ you had to be twenty but it was still served until 1970. That visit we didn’t have much money for sightseeing just stuck to the fleet club with a few trips down the Wanch.

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The China Fleet Club, Hong Kong located at 38 Gloucester Road, Wanchai from 1933-1982. (Source: David Ayres flickr)

Hang on I’ve missed something out. Before Kuwait we sailed into Subic Bay for a big exercise with the yanks called PONY EXPRESS. They were playing enemy and 6000 SEATO (South East Asia Treaty Organisation) troops ‘assaulted’ British North Borneo supported by all the ships and aircraft. The chief said you’re going on attachment to the USS Ticonderoga. We sailed out of Subic and that was a real eye opener, the yanks couldn’t believe what I knew. They had a different person to send morse and receive it, unbelievable and I said yeah I can do cryptography and I’m cleared to SECRET level. I was still only seventeen.

SubicbaybaseSubic was the biggest honky tonk town in the world, absolute wild west. Three British carriers Victorious, Centaur, Albion, the Australian carrier Melbourne and five American carriers were there plus all the cruisers, destroyers and frigates. The bars started across the shit river where the kids dived for pesos. They were mixed bars and we drank with the Filipinos. They wore sombreros and had bolo knives and guns on their belts. They used to hang the gun belts outside. Saturday nights there were shoot outs but no one got killed – the guns were all homemade. I thought I could live in this country one day! it reminded me of over the Mexican border in those Clint Eastwood movies. It was just like that. I didn’t notice any racial segregation then but was told later the US carriers had no go areas. The yanks create their own problems. We never had any racial problems on any ships I served on.

A year away then we sailed home for Christmas stopping at Mombassa, Aden, Suez, Malta and Gibraltar. Mum and Dad came to meet me, I had a pocketful of money. It was a lovely feeling to be home.

After leave I was drafted to the Admiralty in Whitehall. There was a big Communications Centre (COMCEN) where the Churchill War Rooms are now. That was a horrible job working all night. We never stopped, messages coming in from all around the world.

How did you get back to sea?

I put in to go back to the Far East then got a draft to HMS Mercury, RN Signals School, to do the Radio Operator 3 to Radio Operator 2 course. Then I joined HMS Lion a light cruiser in Plymouth. Me and a mate were in a pub in Brighton when it came over the news that all personnel from HMS Lion were to report immediately sailing for an unknown destination. This was the Cuban missile crisis. We were mucking around in the Atlantic thinking there was going to be a war with Russia. When Khruschev backed down we sailed for the med.

I was in the bridge wireless office, my job was listening out on 500 kHz the international distress frequency. The FM12 receiver was mainly used for navigational direction finding but could be used to get a bearing on a ‘target’ including a vessel in distress. A radio operator could go fifty years without receiving an SOS – three short, three long, three short but I picked up the SS Canberra whose engine room had caught fire and needed assistance.

In the Red Sea I received another SOS! from a merchant ship that we ended up towing for ten days. That got us out of an exercise in the Gulf and I was a hero to all the lads – good old Spider!

In Singapore the ship was in refit so I asked the chief to put me down for the Leading Radio Operator’s course at Kranji even though I was only nineteen. Most of the others on the course were around twenty four. There was no communications work onboard during the refit so I went to HMS Simbang (naval airfield) near HMS Terror (accommodation barracks) as the Chief Petty Officer’s messman. I had to cook breakfast, had all these eggs in a saucepan didn’t know which was which soft boiled or hard boiled. When there was no comms work you sometimes got good jobs.

The second time in Hong Kong I was old enough to get a room at the China Fleet Club. Woke up once, nice day a bit windy, someone said they were looking for you last night the ships sailed this morning. A typhoon was rolling in, can’t remember the name. I saw a block of flats collapse in a mudslide once as we sailed in. I went over to HMS Tamar and the officer on duty said do what you like, report when your ship’s back. Wonderful time in Hong Kong!


Liberty cuffs or South China sea dragons. A navy tradition of sewing embroidered patches under their uniform cuffs that were turned up on leave.

After that we went to Nagasaki, Japan on a goodwill visit. We could sail straight to any emergency in the area, policemen of the sea really.

I was in uniform and these kids came up in their sailor suits about ten years old – Excuse me sir can we practice English? we learn your history I can tell you all the Tudor Kings and Queens, Henry VIII’s wives and all that. The Japanese felt they had a lot in common with the British; island nation, royal family and their navy was based on ours.

In Kobe a bartender tried to cheat me and my mate said we hadn’t paid for a bottle of vodka. There was nearly a fight so I called a policeman and we ended up in night court. Said our bit through the interpreter and the magistrate ruled in our favour. The navy police said what are we going to do with the vodka? Lets drink it now before going onboard. The interpreter said good idea that’s a nice drop of Russian vodka so we all went up to roof of the magistrate’s court. The magistrate was very friendly knew my dad was a policeman, we had a good laugh and a joke.

After Japan we sailed for Australia through the Sunda Straits that separate Java and Sumatra. The Indonesian President Sukarno said HMS Lion will not pass, if she attempts it we will blow her out of the water. Our Captain – McGeogh was his name had one eye and been on submarines during the war. He said ‘I’ve only got one thing to say lads – let them bloody try!’ He was a real warmonger, loving it. We went through at night nothing happened.

The Vietnam War was escalating during this period. How did it affect you?

Oh I missed out Saigon! We went to Saigon on the Lion, fly the flag, show some support for the yanks. Saigon was a beautiful city, very French, nice food. We were part of SEATO and everyone was shit scared of communism at that time especially the yanks. The policy was they would stop communism coming down in Thailand and Vietnam and we would clear it in Malaya and down south. It was ruled the British and Commonwealth would not be involved in Vietnam but then it was; ‘All the way with LBJ!’ Mr Holt was Australian Prime Minister and the Aussies and the Kiwis ended up going. They should never have been there.

Anyway we went to Saigon and got fired on going up the Mekong delta – bang, bang, bang! my first time under fire and it was the bloody yanks! ha! ha! friendly fire. They were river patrol boats two of them, didn’t hit us. We hoisted our flag sharpish. I remember out in the middle east the Royal Marines would never ever call in American air support never, bunch of amateurs!

The President of South Vietnam was called Diem and he came on board the Lion for a cocktail party. He wasn’t married so he came with his sister-in-law. I was waitering and got chatting to him. He said what are you doing lad? I told him I was really a radio operator. I asked him why can’t we dance? because at the time dancing was banned in Vietnam and they weren’t allowed to play the Beatles or Rolling Stones. He just grinned and wagged his finger. Seemed a nice enough guy I know something happened to him later.


President Diem was unmarried and a staunch catholic who became increasingly unpopular with the Buddhist majority. His sister in law Madame Nhu became the de facto first lady of South Vietnam. The CIA gave the green light for a coup and Diem and his brother were assassinated on November 2nd 1963. Twenty days later President Kennedy was assassinated and Madame Nhu was exiled. (Source: Larry Burrows, Time Life Pictures via Getty)

That time in Saigon was called the hand grenade throwing phase quote, unquote. The Viet Cong used to lob grenades into cafes from the back of a motorbike. We wore uniform ashore and most of the time hung out with the yanks at their PX, much safer, great facilities. They had the donut dollies, American girls working for the Red Cross. You had to buy US scrip dollars to spend there. I remember one of our sailors collapsing in a bar in town. The mamasan came out and put ammonia under his nose. He woke up straight away, never seen that before.


The main Saigon PX (Post Exchange) in Cholon had an adjoining commissary store selling foodstuffs and a snack bar. (Source: manhai flickr)

At the time President Kennedy’s stated policy was to send military advisers like the Green Berets and they denied regular troops were engaged in fighting.

What they say and what really went on are two different things. They said they were only military advisers but there were regular troops there as well.

They put on a coach tour for us to the Laos border to see a bit of the countryside. We saw this convoy of yanks all smoking weed playing rock music, supposed to be elite ha, ha. Those we saw weren’t, really opened my eyes. I thought how unprofessional they were. Even early on there were troops who didn’t want to be in Vietnam. The PX was full of them drinking beer every night.

We sailed home – Aden, Suez, Malta and were in Gib November 1963 when we heard Kennedy had been shot. We all thought Christ there’ll be a bloody war before Christmas.

Our families were brought out by tugboat and we sailed into Portsmouth together. My Dad was thrilled by that. It was a freezing cold winter that year. I couldn’t stop shaking been away so long.

Easter time I was drafted back to Whitehall and nearly got arrested by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, MI6). I came back with a pocketful of cash and bought a MG TF sports car bright red, post office red, fantastic.


MG TF roadster.

I was living with mum and dad, used to drive to work and park at Horse Guards, had a special pass. This was during the Christine Keeler, Profumo affair. It was all spies and James Bond, everyone was jittery.

People were poking their nose in. How come this twenty years old working in a secret communications centre is driving an MG sports car he paid cash for? So one morning I came off night watch drove out of Horse Guards to go down the mall. A car pulled out behind and followed me. He was still there when I went down Cromwell Road and the Great Chertsey Road. I was living in Shepperton. We went down the A3, this bugger’s following me! So I’ll lead him somewhere I can confront him. I came off the A3 went into Walton on Thames railway station. Are you RO2 Webb? well they said certain people are looking into your affairs. I sat with them for about half an hour until they were satisfied with my story. My mate, a BEA steward, lived opposite and got pulled in for twenty hours questioning about me. It was all a bit iffy those days if you worked anything to do with secrets.

How did you get back to sea?

I was in Whitehall about six months, the chief called me in one morning and said pack your bags you’re off to Singapore tonight 2200hrs. I had to leave the car for my Dad to sell. My girlfriend was on the same watch as me, I didn’t have chance to say goodbye. For 50 years she thought I’d done a runner.

We flew Britannia Airways – Zurich, Istanbul, New Delhi, Singapore about forty hours total. As we were coming into Paya Lebar the navy guy who’d been sitting next to me hadn’t come out of the toilet. Passed out from drink. They had to take the door off to get him out. The captain wouldn’t land unless everyone was seated.

The Indonesia – Malayasia Confrontation was an armed conflict from 1963 to 1966 originating from Indonesia’s opposition to the creation of the state of Malaysia from the Federation of Malaya. Malaysia was formed by a merger of the Federation of Malaya (now Peninsular Malaysia), Singapore and the British crown colonies of North Borneo and Sarawak (now East Malaysia). Most clashes took place between Indonesia and East Malaysia on the island of Borneo but the Indonesian strategy included lower intensity incursions on the Malay peninsula and Singapore. Up to 80 Commonwealth ships mostly patrol craft, minesweepers, frigates and destroyers were deployed to patrol the coast line and intercept Indonesian insurgents

We were bused straight up to HMS Terror and assigned to a ship. I was Leading Radio Operator on the seaward defence boat HMS Tilford. Joined the ship the following morning and that night we were in the middle of a gunfight, bullets flying everywhere. My job was really in the radio office but if one of my guys was on watch I couldn’t disturb him. I took over his position as the port bridge wing bren gunner. On a small ship like that we had to double up duties. There were patrol areas designated in the Singapore Strait off Keppel Harbour. Every night each ship had its sector, about ten ships out. I thought Christ forty eight hours ago I was sat on the London underground reading the Evening Standard.


HMS Tilford (Source:

Our mission was to stop and board sampans to arrest Indonesian infiltrators. They were desperate, sometimes they fired back and chucked grenades at us. We had plenty of firepower; the pom pom gun, twin Vickers and the whole ship’s company armed with Sterling sub machine guns. They didn’t stand a chance, got ripped to pieces in a firefight.

We were at Action Stations nearly every night. The navy probably saw more action than any time until the Falklands War. One night out then into Telok Ayer basin, try to sleep during the day and back out. We caught a lot and handed them over to the Singapore Police. They didn’t muck about – all hung on monday mornings. The Indonesians were in plainclothes and carried a lot of money which we kept – the ship’s fund was enormous.  We took off the 150 HP outboards and sank the sampans. They had a mixture of weapons – rifles, sub machine guns all old stuff. They weren’t coming out to fight us but to infiltrate Singapore. We didn’t know till months later they were hung, probably forced into it, they looked drugged up.

It was a dangerous job for my buffer Terry Davenport he led the boarding parties, a very brave man. He backed me up on Facebook when the guys said you were only a sparker you couldn’t have fired the bren gun blah, blah, blah. Still talks to me every day.

One time we had a big night out up at Changi. We used to follow this group around called ‘The Misfits’. They were a really good rock and roll band all RAF guys. I was driving a hire car along Tampines Road and forgot there’s a section where the camber goes the wrong way. The British POW’s built it on purpose during the war.

I went round too fast and flipped over. I was underneath. My two mates were Dave Evans and Len Nash. Len’s shouting get the car off me. Dave was thrown from the car. He was alright lifted it right up and pulled us out. Must have been the adrenaline. I was a bit bruised up and got five days ashore for observation. I was going out with the daughter of the RSM of Nee Soon garrison, later my wife. Walking on the front at Queen Elizabeth walk we heard firing and I thought it was my ship being blown up because I knew the sectors. Later found out it was HMS Woolaston a mine sweeper. They lost seven guys that night.

Another time our crew on the Tilford got invited up to a Malaysian army mess somewhere over the causeway. I was on duty and couldn’t go. They came back pissed as puddings and like zombies from sleep deprivation. One Able Seaman, fat guy, hard as nails from Newcastle he had it in for me. There were loaded weapons stored everywhere at that time. He grabbed a Stirling and let off a few rounds towards the officer of the day and me on the bridge.

I shouted get down! Three of them had grabbed guns. After the shock some of the lads managed to round them up. The captain ordered them locked in the paint locker, hot as an oven and we sailed on patrol. That was the end of the matter, wasn’t worth the trouble. We needed all hands. Loads of funny things went on that aren’t talked about.

One night we were sailing into Singapore and I was on the bridge with the captain. We saw a RAF VC 10 being fired on from the Indonesian side; their islands are really close to Singapore. The next morning the captain and me went to see the Admiral, the Commander in Chief. The captain briefed him and said Webb will verify. He said leave this with me. It was our short leave but at midnight we were woken up and ordered back to our ship. They said we aren’t  going on patrol but have a job to do. On board were a couple of Gemini rubber boats and a bunch of funny looking guys dressed in black. We dropped them off at an island picked them up next morning. I asked one what’s going on? And he said you saw them firing at that plane didn’t you? Well they won’t be anymore!

I remember my 22nd birthday very clearly – we were on a R n R trip in Penang staying at a place called Silver Sands. I went swimming and had a sea snake around my neck.

Another time they sent us to the hill station at Frasers Hill where there was a Royal Navy training camp – a bit of a jolly. We went on the train to Kuala Lumpur then on lorries wearing jungle greens. The overnight train was so slow you could get out and walk along the track. The instructors there said they had six guys from HMS Hermes one time who just disappeared. The jungle was so thick helicopters couldn’t find them. They told us stories about man eating tigers too. I said bollocks so that night the local guides put sand out around our huts. Next morning they showed us paw marks.


The Royal Navy Training Camp at Frasers Hill. ‘More of a holiday camp than a training camp.’ (Source: David Ayres flickr)

By October 1966 the situation had improved and we all went home. I was staying at my mum’s bungalow in Shepperton but couldn’t sleep, just lay there in bed. It was like being in another world.

In those days Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) existed but hadn’t been clinically defined. Losing your father, a car accident, sleep deprivation, the climate and stress from constant patrolling must have contributed.

Yeah there was no debriefing or counselling then. The navy doctor said it was stress. He says here’s some Valium and Amitriptyline – green and black bombers. Take a few of these with a couple of pints and you’ll be fine. I was hooked on Valium for twenty years. The military kept prescribing it. Took a long time on my own to get off it by cutting down the dosage.

After the Radio Supervisor course I was back at Whitehall for four years until I was twenty seven. When you’ve done twelve years they ask if you want sign on for another thirteen to get your pension. HMS Endurance was our ice patrol vessel down in Antarctica. I said if you can get me on her I’ll sign. The Duty Officer said at least you’re straight with me and I got it!

Did you have any more postings to the Far East?

I did two and a half years on Endurance and was at HMS Northwood operational headquarters in Northwood, London. My chief said fancy going to Hong Kong? I said yes but my wife’s pregnant and the baby’s due. He said that’s alright they can follow you later.


CRS Chris Webb, HMS Tamar Hong Kong 1976. (front row third from left)

I went out on a VC 10 from Brize Norton and reported to the Communications Centre at Victoria Barracks living across the road at HMS Tamar. When my wife arrived they put us in a private flat near the Excelsior Hotel in Causeway Bay, that was in 1974. It was stinking hot. I worked nights and they were pile driving during the day. Used to get a little yellow bus to Stanley and sleep on the beach. I went to the Housing Petty Officer and he moved us to Harcourt Place in Happy Valley. Loved it, me and a mate used to go to work on the tram in uniform. My old fleet chief was going home so I volunteered to stay and relieve him. The Communications Centre moved down to Tamar and I became chief of station. Had nothing to do really. I got my promotion to Chief Radio Supervisor and my guys were so experienced it was a doddle.

It was a great life then plenty of time for sightseeing, sailing and army and navy parties.  My mum was staying one time and I took her to a dance at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club which was officers only. My Commanding Officer said and what are you doing here Webb? I said my boss is a member and he invited me. Are you a member? The Governor danced with my mum and she said he pinched her bottom! I said don’t worry he’s known for it, did it to my Mrs as well. Hong Kong was great. We left in 1976. That was my last trip out before I retired in 1984.

Thanks Chris let’s stop here, too many stories! We didn’t have time for HMS Endurance, undercover in Northern Ireland, the three wives, five kids, Australian citizenship or forty years running bars, restaurants and hotels in the Philippines!


 The spider’s web.


The steps up to spider’s web.


Station dito. Like a modern day ‘Lord Jim’, Chris used to sail his banca round the headland to pick up supplies. These days he pays the local kids to carry his groceries up and rides into town on a habal-habal.


Treasure Islands

Treasure Islands


Beach vendors in the Philippines sell fridge magnets, shells, coral necklaces, fake Marlboros and anything they can to tourists. At Subic Bay I was offered American ‘silver’ dollars stamped 1797.  The coins were said to be from a ship wreck hoard recovered off Mindanao the second largest island in the Philippines. Both of us wanted them to be real but knew they were fake. Realising the game was up he dropped his price from 5,000 pesos to 500 pesos (approximately US$9). At the next beach I was pursued by grinning vendors offering more ‘silver’ dollars for 500 pesos.

To see genuine shipwreck treasure I headed over to Vasco’s Hotel & Restaurant off the Argonaut Highway at the working end of Subic Bay. The former U.S. Naval Base, northwest of Manila, was closed in 1991 after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo and the Philippine Government’s decision not to extend the lease. Today it is an industrial and commercial area designated as the Subic Bay Freeport Zone. Vasco’s has its own maritime museum and Australian owner Brian Homan showed me around. Now in his seventies Brian no longer dives but is still passionate about underwater exploration and treasure hunting. Every artifact has a story and with so many on display he switches from tale to tale as they trigger his memory. A history lesson about the Manila galleon trade is mixed up with his life story as a commercial diver, treasure hunter and hotel owner. Brian reminisces about the days he spent in Puerto Galera on Mindoro Island excitedly pointing out that the names mean ‘port of the galleons’ and ‘mine of gold’.

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On holiday in 1979 a Mexican traveller in a Manila bar told Brian about a stunning bay called Puerto Galera. Two days later he sailed in on a cattle boat. The cannons overlooking Muelle Pier caught his imagination and he became fascinated with the maritime history of the Philippines.


Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro voted one of the most beautiful bays in the world in 2004 by UNESCO. (Source: Asia Divers)


The marble cross at Muelle commemorates the sinking of the battleship Cannonero Mariveles in a storm on November 18th 1879. The battleship was despatched to protect Puerto Galera from Moro pirates who were raiding the area. A wooden cross in memory of the crew was replaced with marble in 1938.

Brian quit his job, became a professional diver and spent the next 35 years searching the islands for ship wrecks. The Philippines was then firmly under the control of dictator Ferdinand Marcos and he made his first discovery in August 1983 on the same day opposition leader Ninoy Aquino was assassinated on the tarmac at Manila International Airport. Sixty feet below the surface of the Verde Island Passage he found a native sailing ship loaded with Ming Dynasty blue and white porcelain and some half buried, coral encrusted, dragon jars. At the time Brian knew next to nothing about the story of the Manila galleons and headed off to the National Museum in Manila to report his find. Their underwater archaeology section were happy to work with him but desperately underfunded. Before Brian could teach them to scuba dive he had to teach them how to swim.

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Ming Dynasty porcelain and dragon jars on display in Vasco’s maritime museum.

Because of the scarcity of written records and lack of metal in their construction most pre-colonial wrecks were found by chance by fishermen. Antiques would appear in the showrooms of Manila dealers leaving only a small window of time before the exact location of a wreck was known and plundered by looters. Along the way Brian pioneered the diving industry in Puerto Galera, established the first dive resort on Sabang beach – Capt’n Greggs and was first to explore and document the World War 2 wrecks of Coron Bay.

Two weeks after the US withdrawal from Subic Bay Brian arrived in style at the helm of a replica Spanish galleon built by a European consortium to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America. He docked the galleon at what is now the Subic Bay Yacht Club where it became a tourist attraction.

Wrecks that were previously off limits in the bay could now be explored and Brian was the first person licensed to run a scuba diving business. There is very little coral diving in the area due to volcanic ash fall from Mount Pinatubo but at least 19 known shipwrecks including both American and Japanese WWII vessels, a battle cruiser, cargo ships, a jet fighter, landing craft and patrol boats. The most famous is the armoured cruiser USS New York scuttled in 1941 to prevent Japanese ships from entering the bay.

The replica galleon was made from European pinewood which deteriorated and rotted in the tropical climate. Brian managed to salvage rigging, blocks and tackle and various wooden fittings that he used in the construction of his hotel. In February 2000 Vascos opened in sight of the Subic Bay Yacht Club and Subic Bay International Airport providing the opportunity to display his treasures. Previously the site was a wasteland being an abandoned coaling and re-fueling station of the U.S. Navy.

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Vascos bar with ceramics and coral encrusted Japanese rifles on display.

Through story boards and dioramas the museum tells the story of the Spanish ships known as Manila galleons that between 1565 and 1815 made an annual round trip across the Pacific between Manila and Acapulco. During this period the galleons were the sole means of communication and the economic lifeline between Spain and its Philippine colony. Their cargoes of Chinese silk, perfumes, porcelain, cotton fabric and precious stones were transported overland by mule train from Acapulco to Veracruz and then by sea to Seville, Spain. On the return voyage the galleons brought back huge quantities of Mexican silver and communications from Spain. The Spanish in Manila depended on the trade so much that when a ship was lost at sea or captured by English pirates their colony was plunged into economic depression. The importance of the trade however declined in the late 18th century as other powers began to trade directly with China.


In the 250 years history of the Manila – Acapulco galleon trade there were at least 400 recorded voyages, with 59 shipwrecks, 41 of which occurred in Philippine waters. A combination of typhoons, uncharted waters and strong tidal currents made the Cavite – Verde Island Passage – San Bernardino Strait (marked by the dotted line) the most dangerous section. During the Spanish colonial period shipwrecks and their economic impact were regarded as major disasters alongside earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Brian ends his tour in the office where his most valuable finds are locked away. The last thing he shows me is a typed notebook with co-ordinates, manifest details and the names of unrecovered wrecks lying on the seabed close to Vigan on the west coast of Luzon. The notebook was left to him by an old shipmate who studied Medieval Spanish so that he could follow up leads in museums and libraries across the world. Like the old prospector Howard in the movie – ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ Brian becomes animated by the thought of one final treasure hunt. His stories have been polished over many years of telling and he concludes:

“I’ve been doing what I’ve loved since I was a teenager. I am so committed to the sea and diving that I lost two good wives…I’ve slowed down as I don’t want to lose my third wife”.

Approved by the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority Brian now plants replica cannons, anchors and other parts of Spanish galleons on the seabed as an artificial reef to attract marine life, protect the environment and promote tourism. His treasure charts he declares are freely available to anyone willing to follow in his footsteps.

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Muelle Cultural Heritage Park, Puerto Galera.

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A quiet corner overlooking the bay.


Vascos, Subic Bay.


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Snapshots of a treasure hunter. (Source: Kevin Hamdorf Photography)

Welcome To The Jungle

Welcome To The Jungle


The week before Malaysia’s first Covid lockdown I bought Hiroo Onoda’s: ‘No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War’ from a second-hand bookshop in Penang. Onoda was a Lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army who refused to surrender at the end of World War II hiding out on Lubang Island in the Philippines for 29 years. Tucked inside the flyleaf was a collection of yellowed newspaper cuttings about Onoda from his emergence in 1974 to one dated 2005. Someone intrigued by the story had followed his life closely. His death in 2014 made world headlines and he is still a popular subject for film makers.

Onoda was sent to Lubang in December 1944 to conduct guerrilla warfare after US soldiers landed. His orders stated he was not to surrender under any circumstances or take his own life. In February 1945 Onoda took to the hills with three other soldiers. One surrendered in March 1950, one was shot and killed by a search party in May 1954 and the third was shot and killed by police in October 1972. From then on Onoda was alone until he surrendered on March 9th 1974.


Lubang Island, the Philippines (Source: Daily Mail).

Located 150 kilometres southwest of Manila Lubang is a long narrow island approximately 10 kilometres north to south and 30 kilometres east to west. The northern part is suitable for planting rice and grazing cattle. The southern side, mainly rugged cliffs and small sandy beaches, is home to a few fishermen. Lubang isn’t remote but certainly off the beaten track without even a mention in Lonely Planet. There are no commercial flights and the island is connected to Luzon by fast craft or RORO (roll on roll off) from Nasugbu. Today the population is around 25,000 double the number when Onoda was ordered there in 1944.

Before catching the bus to Nasugbu I visit the Philippine Air Force Aerospace Museum in Pasay. One of their display cabinets is misleadingly titled: ‘Philippine Air Force Task Force ‘Onoda’, The Rescue of Hiroo Onoda’. Along with his helmet and patched green uniform it has cooking utensils, glass bottles and the bolt action Arisaka Type 99 rifle he cleaned daily.

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On March 10th 1974 Lt. Hiroo Onoda formally surrendered at the radar base on Lubang. Major General J.L. Rancudo of the Philippine Air Force inspects his sword whilst Akihisa Kashiwai leader of the search party and Onoda salute.

The Lubang Tourism Facebook page turns out to be a clone and there is no reply to my e-mail enquiry about ferry times. With no online booking for hotels the experience reminds me of pre-internet travel.

At Wawa pier I buy a ticket for the following day’s Lubang Express. Foreign visitors stand out here and the port security guard tips off a crew member who arranges a tricycle driver to meet me at Tilik pier. Unlike most Filipinos he doesn’t speak English but automatically drops me off at the Seabourn Beach Resort. Recognising the name Onoda he agrees a pick up at 8am the next day.


A trikeney ? The only place in the Philippines I’ve encountered tricycles disguised as jeepneys.

In town I make the mistake of wandering into the Municipal Building’s tourism office. Ms. Gina Julaton, the senior tourism operations officer, is unimpressed by independent travellers even those who have done their homework. The Onoda trail turns out to be overgrown and too dangerous to trek, Mt. Ambulong can’t be visited without permission from Gozar Air Station (unlikely), the waves are too high to reach the Spanish lighthouse on Cabra Island (unless I hire a private banca for 5,000 pesos) and she won’t direct me to the ruins of Fort Santa Catalina because they haven’t been cleared. I remind her of their ‘Amazing Lubang’ brand and point out that I’ve waited three years to visit. She offers a half day tour of the Onoda Caves led by one of their approved guides. When I reply that I’ve already booked a tricycle she wants to know the name of the driver and warns we might be stopped by the police. I refuse to rat him out and since my presence on the island is now officially known I end up with two expedition guides.


Lubang town on the windswept north shore.

The caves are the centrepiece of the designated Onoda Trail that if permitted would take three days to traverse. The trek to the caves turns out to be a short uphill climb marked by huge marble boulders and slabs. My tourist guide struggles along but is knowledgeable about the forest pointing out century old trees, fruit bearing trees and jackfruit, coconut, guava, banana and pineapple plants. Like many of the islanders he carries a bolo knife in a wooden sheath and claims his was fashioned by Onoda from a bayonet. He acquired it later from one of the Task Force members who ‘rescued’ Onoda. I appear impressed by the story and pose for a picture with his knife inside the main cave. The four caves formed from marble have ancient stalactites standing at the entrances. Inside bats and swallows have made their nests. Onoda described the main cave on what he called Snake Mountain but didn’t use it because of the fear of being discovered.

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Caves formed from marble described by locals as black tiger because of their blue and purple stripes when wet.

The thought of jungle conjures up an area overgrown with trees and dense, tangled vegetation that needs a bolo to hack through. More accurately the mountainous area of Lubang is covered in tropical rainforest. Although uncomfortable to live in the rainforest does offers concealment and is not difficult to move around in. Onoda estimated that the Philippine military would have needed two battalions of troops to locate them. His group developed a circuit around the centre of the island staying in one place for only a few days depending on the weather and food supply.


View from highway on the north shore towards the mountains where Onoda hid out.

Onoda’s chapter: ‘Jungle Life’ describes how they survived by living off the land. Bananas boiled in coconut milk were their principal staple and when available smoked beef from cows they butchered. There is no malaria on the island and they maintained good health always boiling stream water before drinking. What the jungle couldn’t provide they ‘requisitioned’ from the islanders including rice, coffee, clothing and in the 1960s a transistor radio. During the dry season they slept in army tents and in the wet season (July to October) built huts confident that the local people and search parties wouldn’t venture into the mountains.

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The south of the island is less populated mainly rugged cliffs interspersed with small beaches.

After the caves we visit the Philippine-Japan Friendship Shrine a stone marker overlooking Tilik harbour which may have been the burial site of Private Kozuka killed in 1972. At the end of the tour I’m told that ‘entry’ to each tourist site costs 500 pesos in addition to the guide’s fees. I’m back at the resort for lunch having answered the question of how Onoda could have survived in the jungle for so long.

Understanding Onoda’s motivation is more complex. He ends his story by asking:

‘Why had I fought here for thirty years?  Who had I been fighting for?  What was the cause?’.

Despite surrender leaflets, newspapers left in the jungle and loudspeaker broadcasts from family members Onoda continued to holdout. It was an encounter with a university dropout Norio Suzuki that finally convinced him to surrender but only when formally ordered by his old commanding officer. (Suzuki said he wanted to search for: ‘Lieutenant Onoda, a panda and the Abominable Snowman, in that order’. In 1986 he died in an avalanche searching for the yeti.) Japanese public opinion was divided between those who saw Onoda as a hero and those who regarded him as an embarrassing reminder of the past. Onoda worried he would be labelled as a traitor to the emperor and may have feared retribution from the islanders. The President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos immediately granted him a full pardon for his actions in a televised ceremony.

In the evening I meet the resort’s only other guest Ms. Nori Santos, a retired chemistry teacher from Manila. In 2008 she bought land in the south of the island building the Kaypalad homestay with her former Swiss partner Christian Schmutz. Apart from him there is only one other foreigner living permanently on Lubang. Over the years Ms. Santos has listened to the islander’s tales about Onoda and assisted reporters and film makers. She describes him as a hermit type figure suffering from Stockholm syndrome who probably fraternised with the locals. Our discussion is cut short by a group of locals firing up the dreaded videoke machine which appears to be the only night-time entertainment on the island.

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The Kaypalad (blessed in Tagalaog) homestay, barangay Binakas in the south of the island. Not off grid but secluded enough to attract well heeled hippies and wellness freaks. (Source:


The most useful resource I found before visiting Lubang was the personal website of David Hyde. Between 2008 and 2014 he made regular trips photographing all aspects of island life. From his site I learnt of another holdout from the modern world with a story as interesting as Onoda’s.

On October 21st 2005 Thomas Geoffrey Charles Michael Taylour, the sixth Marquis of Headfort died aged 73 at Kenlis House on Lubang. His obituary was printed in the Daily Telegraph on 8th December 2005.

Lord Headfort was born in 1932, educated at Stowe and completed his National Service as a Lieutenant in the Life Guards before going up to Christ College Cambridge. He inherited Kells Estate in County Meath, Ireland but travelled the world as a salesman of civil aircraft. Headfort married his first wife in 1958 and had three children before his divorce in 1968.

He had his first brush with the law as a student when he was fined £2 in Acton for driving with his arm around a girl but gained notoriety in 1965 for an alleged attempt to recruit a hotel waiter on the Isles of Scilly to murder Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The man informed the police who escorted Headfort to St. Lawrence’s Hospital at Bodmin. He was released and from his home in Ireland denied the story. Neighbours described how Headfort, wearing a Stetson, had once fired three blanks into the ceiling of a pub during a party. They added that he was known for his high spirits, practical jokes and was regarded as a crack shot.

Headfort suffered from manic depression linked to alcoholism requiring occasional hospitalisation. In 1987 his last speech in the House of Lords was a tribute to the work of Alcoholics Anonymous and he did not drink for the remainder of his life.

In 1972 he married his second wife Virginia Nable, a friend of Imelda Marcos who visited Ireland the following year staying at Kells Estate. Before moving to the Philippines Headfort was for a time an auxiliary Inspector in the Royal Hong Kong Police.


The former Kenlis House residence of the sixth Marquis of Headfort until his death in 2005.


The beach in front of Kenlis House.

While in Lubang he put his Motor Yacht Kenlis II at the disposal of the coast guard and as an honorary officer in the Philippine Coast Guard Auxiliary assisted many fishing boats in distress. He built his home Kenlis House at Tagbac Cove and also had a 4 hectares farm. Lord and Lady Headfort donated a public library and he was an active philanthropist supporting local schools, fishermen the airport and hospitals. In addition to his local workforce the estate became a refuge for a curious mix of foreigners including an ex-French foreign legionnaire and mercenary, a former NASA engineer and a fugitive financial consultant wanted in UK.

Today Kenlis House with its prime beachfront location remains boarded up and neglected. Climbing over the fence I peered through the windows: books still lay scattered across a coffee table, faded pictures hang on the walls and the rooms are full of typical ornaments picked up in Asia.

Captain Taylour On The Kenlis II M (2)


Closure of the Philippines during the global pandemic coincided with renewed interest in Onoda’s story.

Twilightworld (2)In 2021 the movie: ‘Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle’ was released and the following year film maker Werner Herzog published his debut novel: ‘The Twilight World’ a semi-fictionalized account of Onoda on Lubang. Herzog notes at the start:

‘Most details are factually correct; some are not.’

Filipino–Australian Mia Stewart is currently working on her own documentary film: ‘Searching for Onoda’. Ms Stewart’s great-uncle was allegedly killed by Onoda during one of his raids to gather supplies. According to reports up to thirty farmers died from gunshot wounds during the time he was in the jungle. Some believe not all were killed by the soldiers. Rustlers from Luzon may have been responsible knowing the Japanese would be blamed. Ms. Stewart seeks to address this and tell the story from a Filipino perspective.

Apart from being known as the hideout of Japanese World War II stragglers Lubang is off the radar for most tourists. As such it remains an area of pristine jungle, unspoiled beaches and marine protected areas without the problems from overtourism that affect more popular destinations.

An Unknown Hand

An Unknown Hand

An Unsolved Murder in Colonial Malaya

The biggest Christian cemetery on Penang Island is Western Road Cemetery and includes graves of Commonwealth servicemen and police officers killed during the Malayan Emergency (1948-60). Their headstones are a standard design but in the same section is the grander tomb of John St Maur Ramsden who:


                                                      DIED BY GUNSHOT FROM AN UNKNOWN HAND

                                                            AT CALEDONIA – PROVINCE WELLESLEY

                                                                                   JUNE 8th 1948


The coroner’s findings were:

‘Shot by an unknown person with a double barrel gun…There is no evidence against any particular person.’

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Malaysia’s Penang state consists of Penang Island location of the capital George Town and Seberang Perai, formerly Province Wellesley, on the Malay Peninsula. By 1915 the Ramsden family controlled over 55,000 acres of rubber plantations in the Nibong Tebal area.

John Ramsden was the eldest son of Sir John Frecheville Ramsden (1877-1958) known as Chops. Chops’ father inherited his baronetcy, two Yorkshire country estates, virtually the whole of Huddersfield and in 1874 acquired title to a Malayan sugar plantation. Caledonia was one of the first plantations to shift from cultivation of sugar to rubber which became Malaya’s principal export crop.

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Sir John Frecheville Ramsden (1877-1958) known as ‘Chops’. He had a strong attachment to his estates in Kenya but never visited Malaya entrusting John to oversee their reconstruction. Within a few years of John’s murder he liquidated all his Malayan companies.

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The Big House, Caledonia plantation was built in 1917 for the General Manager at the time. It is often called the 99 doors mansion although this name was not in use at the time.


On the evening of June 8th 1948 John Ramsden, Managing Director of the Penang Rubber Estates Group, was shot twice in the back of his head as he walked upstairs. The Tamil estate watchman and three Malays heard a shot and found his body slumped behind the stairs. Hunter Crawford, manager of the neighbouring Byram Estate, also heard the gunshots and rushed to the scene. A fluent Malay speaker he took charge and immediately contacted Nibong Tebal police station.

Crawford was a pre-war rubber planter who had worked with John since 1946 to restore buildings and replant fields damaged during the Japanese occupation. Captured by the Japanese he had been interned on Sumatra and resumed his career after the war.

In England at 9.45am on June 9th a message was brought to Chops at Muncaster in Cumbria where the family seat had been moved from Yorkshire in 1917. The Associated Press had rung up with the news that John had had an accident and they wanted to speak to his wife. The story made the front page of the London evening newspapers describing the deceased as: ‘heir to Sir John Ramsden – England’s richest baronet’.


The main staircase. At the time of his death John Ramsden was living alone and it would have been easy for the murderer to enter and flee the scene.

Wachaines (3)In charge of the investigation was William Arthur Campion Haines, Chief Police Officer of Penang & Province Wellesley. Born in 1899, Haines joined the Malayan Police after service in the Royal Flying Corps during World War One. When the Japanese invaded Malaya in 1941 he was seconded to the Australian Imperial Force, captured by the Japanese, and interned in Changi.  He retired in 1950 and before his death in 1991 submitted his memoirs: ‘A Time to Remember (1920-1950)’ to King’s College London.

For an old Malayan hand like Haines the Ramsden killing was straightforward albeit sensitive due to the victim’s background. Reporting directly to the Commissioner of Police in Kuala Lumpur he was under pressure to provide answers to Sir Edward Gent and the Colonial Office in London.

Search of the crime scene found two spent 16 bore shotgun cartridges under a hedge outside the house and the murder weapon was identified as belonging to a Malay who kept it in the victim’s bungalow. Finding his shotgun missing he reported the loss to police on the evening of the 9th. Whether the killing was pre-planned or in the heat of the moment was not established. At the coroner’s inquest Dr. Loudernernam gave evidence that Ramsden sustained the fatal injury from a pellet hitting the back of his skull.

The police moved quickly with six Malays and Javanese detained for questioning on June 9th. Regarding the motive Haines felt confident enough to brief the local press in time for their morning editions on the 10th:

‘We are satisfied that the murder is not connected with assassinations of employers in other parts of Malaya and does not come within that category of murder.’

He added that the motive was obscure but it was not connected with any recent trouble on the estate. The body was brought to Penang mortuary and on June 10th John Ramsden was buried at Penang’s Western Road Cemetery.

The Straits Times 10th June 1948 duly reported under the heading: ‘Director Killed at Home’:

‘Political motives are not suspected in the murder of Mr. J. St. M. Ramsden.’

When their 48 hours detention was up four of the suspects were released but police enquiries against the other two were ongoing. Granting bail ran the risk of them absconding so holding charges were laid and further detention ordered by the magistrate. Ramsden’s driver Embi Bin Hashim, 27, described in the press as his ‘Head Boy’, was charged with ‘Illegal Possession of Ammunition’. On 17th September he was sentenced to 3 months imprisonment but immediately released, the sentence dating from his arrest on June 9th. He pleaded guilty and his counsel told the District Judge Mr. Fletcher Rogers in Nibong Tebal Court that Mr. Ramsden had given him the ammunition.

ZAINRAMJANA charge of ‘Murder’ was laid against Mohammad Zain bin Ramjan, a local plantation worker. In the absence of a confession or eye witness any case against him relied on circumstantial evidence.

On August 28th he was discharged by Magistrate Mr. Tai Hooi Soo. Inspector Jagir Singh said his instructions were that the discharge was not an acquittal and he was ordered to be detained until after the coroner’s inquiry three days later.

On September 1st 1948 Zain bin Ramjan was asked to try on two pairs of shoes in court whilst giving evidence at the inquiry. They were produced by the head of Penang C.I.D. Mr P.H.D. Jackson who said one pair was found near the murder scene. He admitted the first pair belonged to him the other did not. The witness suggested his shoes had been planted there by someone who had a grudge against him. He denied he had been dismissed by Mr. Ramsden and on the night in question was at his cousin’s house in Bukit Mertajam. In evidence he said:

‘I do not know of anyone bearing sufficient grudge against Mr. Ramsden to shoot him.’

The inquest concluded on 3rd September 1948 and with it all legal proceedings regarding the death of John Ramsden.


Within a week after his funeral three European estate managers were murdered by Chinese gunmen at Sungei Siput in neighbouring Perak state. On the Elphil Estate two Chinese rode up on bicycles to Mr Walker’s office and shot him with pistols from a door and a window. At the Phin Soon Estate twelve Chinese armed with sten guns and revolvers tied up Mr. Allison and Mr. Christian before shooting them in a back office. In response The High Commissioner was forced to declare a nationwide state of emergency. Regarded as the start of the Malayan Emergency trouble had been brewing since 1945 with the growth of trade union movements and rise in communist party membership leading to widespread strikes between 1946-1948. Veterans of the Malayan Peoples Anti-Japanese Army retrieved weapons from hiding and the decision for armed conflict had been taken before shots were fired at Sungei Siput on June 16th 1948.


Headline story on the Sungei Siput murders, Morning Tribune June 17th 1948.

The political situation in Malaya was tense and in a House of Commons statement on June 12th 1948 Mr David Rees-Williams, Under-Secretary for the Colonies said extremists were trying to upset the economy of Malaya. Commenting in parliament on the Ramsden murder he said that in recent weeks there had been at least 13 serious incidents including 10 murders and three attacks on European estate managers.

Despite the police discounting political motives John Ramsden’s murder became conflated with the communist insurgency.

In a House of Lords debate on June 16th Lord Ailwyn asked:

‘My Lords I beg leave to ask His Majesty’s Government the question which stands in my name on the Order Paper –

‘To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they are now in position to make a full statement regarding the murder of Mr. John Ramsden in Malaya on June 8th?’

The Earl of Listowel replied in part:

‘A preliminary report from the High Commissioner.. stated that the police were satisfied that this murder was not connected with the recent wave of politically motivated crimes.’

Earl Howe:

‘May I ask the noble Earl if he is aware that in the broadcast news at one o’clock today there was a report that three more rubber planters in Malaya had been done to death?’

At the start of the ‘Emergency’ there were around a thousand European planters in Malaya, mainly British, who along with the police suffered a disproportionate number of casualties.

Murder is only a mystery if the motive and killer are unknown and John’s death was largely forgotten until recently. In footnotes and references it was noted that he had been gunned down by communist terrorists.

The diaries of Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, the conservative politician notes that he was:

 ‘killed in Penang during the Malayan Emergency.’

Internet genealogical sites including Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage record that he: ‘fought in the Malayan Emergency’ and was: ‘assassinated’.

No evidence was ever produced that John Ramsden was killed by communist terrorists.


Published in 2017 Meriel Buxton’s ‘Poverty is Relative’ tells the story of Sir John William Ramsden (1831-1914) his son Sir John Frecheville Ramsden and their relationship with Huddersfield. Related by marriage she was invited by Chops’ grandson Andrew Feilden to write the book.

John St Maur Ramsden was born in London on April 26th 1902 and educated at Eton and Cambridge. At university in the 1920s he was part of an aristocratic set dubbed ‘The Bright Young Things’ by the tabloid press. This group of young socialites including Harold Acton, Cecil Beaton and the Mitford sisters were famous for their fancy dress parties and scandalous stories of drinking and drug taking. The society photographer Cecil Beaton began his career documenting their activities.

Hugo Vickers in his ‘Cecil Beaton; The authorised Biography’ described one of Beaton’s parties:

‘On the last day of October 1925 he attended a wild fancy-dress party in Cambridge given by his Harrow friend Jack Gold. Jack had got into what Cecil thought a ‘select set’ including Sir Richard Sykes, Maurice Bridgeman, John Ramsden, Philip Dunn and Lord Charles Cavendish. For the party Cecil put on a pink chiffon and a bustle drinking champagne and cocktails.’

Vickers quotes from Beaton’s diaries:

If I had been sober I should have paid more attention to the silly Ramsden. He is so smart and dances with the Duchess of York. I was so tight and pleased with myself…I was in a state rushing with Philip Dunn and John Ramsden after me from one couch to another and then falling over a sofa and being smothered with kisses from Philip Dunn and John Ramsden saying, ‘Oh Philip, I shall never speak to you again. Oh Cecil, Oh Cecil I thought your shingle was too marvellous…’

Vickers notes:

‘All these men later married and most of them undertook respectable occupations…. John Ramsden…was assassinated in Malaya in June 1948.’

Buxton concludes that he was probably bisexual and found the pressures on him to marry and produce an heir deeply disturbing. In 1935 John Ramsden married Lady Catherine Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby (1906-1996) and their daughter Carola was born in 1938. They were divorced in 1947 and he had returned to Malaya from home leave in England three months before his murder.


John St. Maur Ramsden (Source: Photos provided by the family are included in Meriel Buxton’s book ‘Poverty is Relative’. 

Buxton’s research didn’t include Malaysia but in the same year Lynn Hollen Lees Professor of History Emerita at the University of Pennsylvania published: ‘Planting Empire, Cultivating Subjects, British Malaya, 1786-1941’. She describes the social hierarchy and working conditions with John Ramsden’s death and liquidation of the Penang Rubber Estates Group providing a dramatic conclusion.

Professor Lees conducted site visits and oral interviews with surviving plantation workers including one witness who remembered Ramsden. A Tamil lady Muniammah, who worked on the Caledonia plantation in the 1940s, was living in a corner of the abandoned mansion. She remembered John as a nice man who was kind to the estate children and described a private golf course and airfield adjoining the big house. She spoke of a Malay woman who lived as his mistress and a brother working as his driver who resented their liaison. Others said Ramsden was gay and only employed young, handsome Malay houseboys, the sort who had been arrested by the police.

To a modern reader John Ramsden’s sexual orientation would be irrelevant the emphasis more on colonial exploitation or abuse of  position. In an age when homosexuality was illegal the threat of blackmail was enough to ensure family secrets were honoured. The inscriptions chosen by his parents for John’s tomb are telling; a son and heir cruelly gunned down for no reason with his honourable war service recorded on the other panel:

                                                                  JOHN SAINT MAUR RAMSDEN

                                                         SERVED IN THE GREAT WAR 1939-1945

                                                               FIRST IN THE ROYAL AIR FORCE

                                                                    LATER IN THE ROYAL NAVY

                                                              ON THE NORTH ATLANTIC PATROL

                                                              AND AFTERWARDS IN THE PACIFIC

                                                          PRESENT AT THE SURRENDER OF JAPAN

                                                                LIEUTENANT R.N.V.R ON BOARD

                                                                         H.M.S. INDEFATIGABLE


St. George’s Anglican church, George Town, Penang completed in 1818.

In addition to John’s grave there is also a large screen behind the altar of St. George’s Church in George Town. A tiny brass plaque in Latin at the bottom reads in translation:

‘To the greater glory of god and in memory of their beloved son cruelly murdered at Province Wellesley, John Ramsden Baronet and his wife Joan, his parents, have dedicated this monument 1952.’

The inconspicuous plaque, in a classical language only understood by a small number of colonial officials doesn’t even mention their son’s name. The church won’t allow viewing or photography of the plaque.


The Caledonia plantation was converted into a palm oil estate in the 1960s. The Seberang Perai Municipal Council have pushed for the mansion’s conservation but without success as it sits on private land. Most bloggers are interested in it only as a backdrop for haunted house stories.

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Western Road Cemetery on Penang Island. The first time I learnt about the murder of John Saint Maur Ramsden was when visiting the grave of Charles Nevill Godwin, the most senior police officer killed in Malaya. The mysterious inscription caught my interest and before searching the internet I’d jumped to the obvious conclusions: aristocrat, remittance man, black sheep of the family, first European victim of the Malayan Emergency.  


Poverty is Relative (2017) Meriel Buxton

Planting Empire, Cultivating Subjects: British Malaya, 1786-1941 (2017) Lynn Hollen Lees

Cecil Beaton: The Authorised Biography (1985) Hugo Vickers

‘Director Killed at Home’ The Straits Times 10th June 1948

‘Estate Manager Shot Dead on Staircase’ Morning Tribune 10th  June 1948

‘Funeral of Mr. Ramsden’ The Straits Times 11th June 1948

‘Murder Charge’ The Straits Times 10th July 1948

‘Mr. Ramsden: No Charge’ The Straits Times 28th August 1948

‘Ramsden Killing: Story of Bungalow Shot’ The Straits Times 31st August 1948

‘Witness Told To Try On Shoes In Court’ The Straits Times 1st September 1948

‘Ramsden Inquest Finishes’ The Straits Times 3rd September 1948

‘Head Boy Gaoled’ The Straits Times 17th September 1948

Penang Heritage Trust Newsletter Issue No. 101 / April 2012, ‘Mystery of Rubber Estate Manager’s Murder’, Leslie A.K. James

Hemingway in Manila

Hemingway in Manila

Hemingway enjoying his Asian tour.

In November 1940, two months after publication of his Spanish Civil War novel: ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, American author Ernest Hemingway married his third wife war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. Paramount Studios paid him $100,000 for the movie rights and announced that film star Gary Cooper would play the leading role.

At the height of his fame Hemingway agreed to accompany his wife on assignment for Colliers Magazine to cover the Sino-Japanese war. Years later in: ‘Travels with Myself and Another’ Gellhorn wrote about: ‘the horror journeys’ of her life including what Hemingway called their honeymoon trip to China in 1941.

According to Peter Moreira’s: ‘Hemingway on the China FrontHis World War II Spy Mission with Martha Gellhorn’, they went to China:

‘surreptitiously gathering intelligence for the (US) government.’

Hemingway’s  mission was to gather information on relations between Mao Tse-tung’s communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists.

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Clipping from Austin American-Statesman January 31st 1941.

On February 1st 1941 the couple set sail from San Francisco to Honolulu aboard the luxury liner SS Matsonia. After Hawaii they took Pan Am’s China Clipper flying boat service to Hong Kong via Guam with a longer stop-over in Manila. Hemingway stayed in Manila again on his return journey but apart from its climate the sweltering capital didn’t make any lasting impression on the famous writer. In Hemingway’s fiction and journalism no reference of any importance is made to the Philippines. By contrast his visit was eagerly reported in the local press.

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Postcard of the Matson Lines Luxury Liner Matsonia. 

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The China Clipper in Paradise by David Ferris.

Arriving at the Manila Hotel he was mobbed by admiring Filipino journalists and authors from the Philippine Writers League who faithfully transcribed his every utterance.

The Official Gazette, official journal of the Republic of the Philippines, has the following entry in their ‘History from Day to Day’ column, Philippine Magazine 38 (April 1941):

Feb 21 – Ernest Hemingway, celebrated novelist, and wife arrive in Manila by Clipper, in message to Philippine Writers League he states:

‘I think a writer’s gravest problem, always, is to write the truth and still eat regularly’.


Ernest Hemingway was greeted in Manila by F. Mangahas, President of the Philippine Writer’s League and Amando G. Dayrit.  ‘Al’ Valencia in dark glasses. (photo from Philippines Magazine, Volume 1, No.4 1941).

Six feet tall and weighing in at 225 pounds Hemingway towered above the diminutive Filipinos. Throughout his life he enjoyed the finest food and drink and in later years suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure with his weight peaking at 260. In his posthumously published novel about expat life in Paris: ‘A Moveable Feast’ he described hunger as: ‘good discipline’ becoming a metaphor for literary success. Hemingway’s impoverished life as a young man in Paris created a deep desire to experience life and channel this experience as a creative force in his writing.


Philippine journalist and wartime correspondent ‘Al’ Valencia met Hemingway for drinks at the Manila Hotel. When his home in Manila was destroyed during the war he lost everything but saved his autographed copy of ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. (Source: Gina Wileman)

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Hemingway signing a book for a young Filipino writer named Nestor Vicente Madali Gonzalez (From the Facebook page of Nestor’s daughter).

The welcoming committee were struck by Hemingway’s courtesy towards his fellow writers and throughout the author’s stay he was happy to autograph his new book. Even when presented with copies pirated in Shanghai, for which he received no royalty, he just grinned and autographed it.

Hemingway told them:

‘That you should write at all (and so well) in this intense heat makes your achievement truly marvelous. You should do all your important writing before six o’clock in the morning.’

At home in Cuba his schedule was to write every morning as soon as possible after first light when it was still cool and there was no one around to disturb him.


Hemingway’s writing has been mined for quotes on everything from life to love to war and writing. The Manila Hotel still dines out on one of the big man’s less inspired utterances: ‘If the story’s any good, it’s like Manila Hotel.’

The Manila Hotel was opened in 1912 on reclaimed land along the former Malecon a famous seafront beauty spot. In the lobby was the Pan Am office where Clipper passengers made reservations and dropped off luggage. As Manila Bay was considered too rough for flying boat landings the Clipper was moored eight miles south of the city at Cavite Naval Base.

Today the hotel is opposite what remains of the historic walled city of Intramuros founded by the Spanish in 1571. The moats were later filled in by American town planners turning them into sunken gardens and a public golf course.

There are several paragraphs about Hemingway’s last night in Manila in the June 1941 issue of the American Chamber of Commerce Journal. Published under the heading: ‘Just Little Things’, a column of anecdotes and business talk, the article bears no by-line but may have been written by the journal’s editor Walter Robb.

Much of Hemingway’s time was spent with old Basque friends from Pamplona, Havana and New York hanging out at the fourth floor Sky Room of the Manila Jai Alai Building on Taft Avenue. The Basque people originated from the mountainous region of northern Spain, which he famously called:

‘the country that I loved more than any other except my own,’

Spain provided the inspiration and setting for his major works including: The Sun Also Rises (1926), Death in the Afternoon (1932) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). The author was the most prominent foreigner amongst the writers and journalists who sided with the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War making it problematic for him to visit after the victory of General Franco’s Nationalists in  1939. Hemingway moved to Cuba the same year living there for 22 years, longer than any place in his life.

‘Three hundred years in a convent and fifty in Hollywood’  – is a shorthand for the Philippines colonial experience;  governed by Spain from 1565 to 1898 and then America from 1898 to 1946.

To the English writer Aldous Huxley writing in the 1930’s the Philippines was unlike any other country in the Orient:

‘It is Spain – diluted, indeed, distorted, and overlaid with Americanism.’


The Jai Alai fronton.

Hemingway was passionate about bullfighting and deep sea fishing, sports that became recurring themes in his fiction. Although his Manila sojourn was too short to enjoy either he was an enthusiastic spectator at the jai alai fronton. Jai alai (Pronounced ‘HY+UH+LY’) involves bouncing a ball called a pelota off a walled in space or fronton using a hand-held wicker basket known as a cesta. The game originated in the Basque region. Dubbed the fastest sport in the world it was also extremely dangerous. Played originally without helmets so the crowd could see the player’s expressions smashed teeth were common and sometimes death.

Jai Alai Skyroom.jpeg

Before World War 2 the Manila Jai Alai Building was considered the finest art deco building in Asia. After the sport was banned in 1986 because of game fixing and murder it fell into disrepair and was demolished in 2000.

On Hemingway’s final night he had to leave the Manila Hotel at 2am to catch the China Clipper but at midnight was still drinking in the Sky Room. One of the Basques took him back, helped him pack and together they sang folk songs all the way to Cavite. Hemingway just made his flight to Hong Kong.

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The walled city of Intramuros, Manila. (Image copyright: Justin James Wright)

Pre-war Intramuros was famous for its places of worship known as the Seven Churches of Intramuros an allusion to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Most were destroyed during the battle for Manila in 1945. One of the most distinctive with its tall bell tower was the San Nicolas Tolentino Church of the Augustinian Recollects. The Augustinian Recollects are a catholic religious order of friars and nuns who came to the Philippines from the Basque region of Spain in 1606. After the war the ruins of San Nicolas remained standing, until it was demolished in 1959.

Hemingway took time to visit these priests who he admired from his time in Spain. He told his interviewer that men:

‘don’t come any better in any package.’

One of the fathers presented him with a suitable gift – a bottle of 80 years old Napoleon brandy.

Ernest Hemingway grew up a Protestant in Oak Park Chicago but converted to Catholicism when he married his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer. He later told Gary Cooper that becoming a Catholic was one of the best things he’d done in his life.

At his funeral in 1961 there was no formal Catholic service. Whether his death was an accident or suicide by shotgun was undecided at the time but had no bearing on the funeral. The fact that Hemingway had been divorced barred him from a Catholic Church funeral.

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Hemingway & Gellhorn arrive in Hong Kong, South China Morning Post.

Hemingway was still on good form when he arrived in Hong Kong on February 22nd. Holding court  at the bar of the Hong Kong Hotel he boasted to one reporter about his book sales:

‘Drink up, drink up, I’m in the money,’

Gellhorn, unimpressed and largely ignored went out to do some serious reporting on Hong Kong’s social condition. Eventually tired of her husband’s ‘loafing’ she persuaded him to move to the Repulse Bay Hotel on the south of the island for some rest before their trip to China. She had been eager to visit China since childhood but Hemingway had little interest. He had not he said spent his formative years:

‘stuffing his imagination with Fu Manchu and Somerset Maugham,’

The couple travelled to Chongqing, Chengdu and Shanghai meeting Chiang Kai-shek, his wife Soong Mei-ling and Zhou Enlai but the trip was physically demanding. They endured dangerous flights, travel by mule, bedbugs and Gellhorn suffering from ‘China rot’ that caused the skin between her fingers to ooze puss. Hemingway moaned constantly. In her memoirs, she refers to him as Unwilling Companion, or U.C. for short. He only seemed to come alive when challenged to a drinking competition by a group of Chinese generals.

Gellhorn soon lost all her illusions, disappointed by the lack of vigour with which the war was was being waged against the Japanese and appalled by the squalor, the corruption and the deep social divisions:

‘An overlord class and tens of millions of expendable slaves was how China looked to me,’ 

Hemingway travelled home alone while Gellhorn flew on to Burma, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies. He was still in a sour mood when seen off from Hong Kong on May 6th. The Clipper was crowded and he was not looking forward to the flight to Manila, to Guam, to Wake Island, to Midway, to Hawaii.

According to Moreira Hemingway couldn’t stand Manila and spent five nights there drunk and miserable:

‘He described the city as a place where people didn’t ask for someone at a hotel desk; they just asked a houseboy where the room was and barged in. He was getting sick of people talking to him about For Whom the Bell Tolls…and he was tired of answering questions about it.’

To escape ‘the dreariness’ of Manila Hemingway accepted an invitation from local flyer George Rowe to fly to Baguio known as the ‘Summer Capital of the Philippines’ because of its altitude and cool climate.

On May 11th he attended a dinner by the Philippine Writer’s Association. Carlos Baker in his official biography of Hemingway wrote:

‘everyone’s attempt to be gaily informal bored him so much that he got too drunk to care….

In Manila Hemingway made a few more notes and explored some of the Spanish bars of Intramuros. Otherwise his sole gain from the Philippine stopover was a good short summer haircut.’

He became short tempered with journalists when reporters asked him what was happening in China shouting at them that if they wanted to find out they should go for themselves. Hemingway did however pay attention to local news being so moved by a huge fire in Tondo that he donated 500 pesos to a fund for the victims. Tondo remains a notorious slum area still prone to fires today.

Manila’s coat of arms incorporates the waves of Manila Bay surmounted by a sea-lion and a pearl in its shell. The sea-lion represented the islands’ former status as a Spanish colony whilst the upper portion references the city’s nickname – ‘Pearl of the Orient.’ Pre-war Manila was far from dreary it’s culture closer in atmosphere to Havana than to Hong Kong, Shanghai or Singapore. There were no high-rise buildings, it was clean, the water was safe and crime practically non-existent The city’s total population was around six hundred thousand, a tenth of present day Metro Manila.

In a region of colonies the Philippines was unique in having an assurance of independence. The islands had been granted Commonwealth status in 1935 with full independence scheduled in 1946. High society was dominated by old established families but a colonial mentality persisted conjured by the phrase ‘Manila Americans.’ According to a 1939 census, excluding the military, there were only 8,709 Americans resident in the Philippines with 5,149 living in Manila and the neighbouring province.

Florence Horn’s 1941 travelogue – ‘Orphans of the Pacific’  had this to say about the American community:

‘Americans in Manila are like Americans in Mexico City and Americans in Maracaibo and Hong Kong and Rio de Janeiro. They build for themselves a barricaded American life wherever they are. They insulate themselves as thoroughly as possible against the life of the country they are in. . . They grouse continually about petty inconveniences, and berate this miserable native bitterly and endlessly … The American women heartily despise the Filipinos.’

Manila with its tropical lifestyle, similarity to Havana and expatriate American community should have been Hemingway’s kind of town. The city was the same, what had changed during his three month’s tour was Hemingway’s mood. He later referred to his Asian journey as: ‘that unshakeable hangover’.

In 2006 Dr. Christopher D. Martin, a psychiatrist, published a study on Hemingway’s mental health history finding significant evidence that he presented symptoms of bipolar disorder, possible borderline and narcissistic personality traits exacerbated by a lifetime of alcoholism along with a genetic predisposition towards mental illness.

When the United States entered World War 2 Hemingway was at home in Cuba. He armed his boat the Pilar with tommy guns and grenades supplied by the Office of Naval Intelligence before setting out on anti-submarine patrols. Thinking that a German submarine would come close to barter or steal fish his crew of Basque jai alai players would lob hand grenades down the conning tower of the submarine and open fire with machine guns. They never encountered any submarines. Gellhorn unimpressed saw it as an excuse to go drinking and fishing with his crew and promptly left to cover the real war in Europe.

In 1945 the couple were divorced Gellhorn famously stating that she didn’t want to become a footnote in someone else’s life.


Hemingway’s 1937 novel: ‘To Have and Have Not’ set in Key West and Cuba was the template for countless books and movies about a tough guy on a boat. In 1952 Warner Bros. released ‘Mara Maru’  starring Errol Flynn and Ruth Roman. Flynn played an ex-PT boat commander running a salvage business in Manila and hunting for sunken treasure.

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Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, (1969), Carlos Baker

Travels with Myself and Another. New York: Penguin, (2001), Martha Gellhorn

Orphans of the Pacific, (1941), Florence Horn

Language of the Street and other Essays, (1980), Nick Joaquin

Ernest Hemingway: How Mental Illness Plagued the Writer and His Family, Barbara Maranzani, April 2 2021,

Hemingway on the China Front – His World War II Spy Mission with Martha Gellhorn, (2006), Peter Moreira

Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961, (2017), Nicholas Reynolds

Ernest Hemingway and my Grandfather: An Enduring Friendship, Gina Wileman,

‘Just Little Things’, June 1941 issue of the American Chamber of Commerce Journal

The American Minority in the Philippines During the Pre-War Commonwealth Period, Gerald E. Wheeler, Asian Studies: Journal of Critical Perspectives on Asia

‘Glory Days’ published in the November 2007 issue of Tatler Philippines

‘In love and war: a Hong Kong honeymoon for Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn’, Stuart Heaver, South China Morning Post Magazine, October 12th 2019