With war raging in Europe in 1940, Manchester-born Joan Whiteley and her best friend, Brenda Morgan, decided to do their bit.
They met as nurses at Leeds General Hospital and applied to Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps, an elite organisation that traces its heritage back to the exploits of Florence Nightingale.
Duly accepted as ‘QAs’, as the Corps is widely known, the two best friends got their first and, it transpired, only posting to the exotic climes of Hong Kong.
It was a pivotal moment for Joan and Brenda.
What happened subsequently was little discussed by Joan herself, but she kept mementos of her time in Hong Kong in a battered old suitcase.
When her granddaughter Jo Price rummaged through the suitcase as a child, it sparked an interest in her Gran’s story that has now become a book.
“It was a story that we always knew about growing up as kids,” says Jo, who was born and raised in Burnage and now lives in Didsbury.
“We knew she had been a prisoner of war of the Japanese and I had this fascination with the story.
“I always told her I would write it and she always said no one would be interested. But very few people know about the history of what happened in Hong Kong. Everyone has heard of the Fall of Singapore, or what happened at Pearl Harbour, but no one knows that Hong Kong and Pearl Harbour were attacked just four hours apart in December 1941.”
Joan and Brenda arrived in Hong Kong in September 1940 and enjoyed an idyllic fifteen months amongst the colonial elite of Britain’s Far-Eastern jewel of the Empire. Joan met her future husband, Forbes Macleod, and settled into a life of nursing and endless parties.
But the storm clouds of war from an aggressive Japan were dismissed by the typical British ignorance of the day. The Japanese were considered inferior; there was a theory they would never launch an attack on Hong Kong island at night because ‘they can’t see in the dark’.
Hong Kong fell in two weeks, December 25th 1941 forever known as Black Christmas to those who experienced it.
When Joan Whiteley died in 2004 it spurred Jo into action.
“It was important to me that the story wasn’t lost. I got completely drawn into it and spent ten years researching, doing very little actual writing. I was working full-time and had two small children, so it wasn’t my primary focus.
“But once I got started, I realised there was so much to uncover and piece together to put real events alongside my Gran’s diaries.
“Joan and Brenda were really young girls at the start of their nursing careers. They were so excited by the idea of doing their bit for the country and I was always impressed with how brave they were, wondering how I, or other women of today’s generation, would have coped if faced with the same situations.”
It soon became clear there was too much story for a single volume. She now calls the project The Suitcase Diaries and has published her first book, simply entitled The Suitcase, which tells the story up to the point at which Joan was imprisoned by the Japanese in August 1942.
The second book has a working title of The Promise and details her time as a prisoner of war. It’s not for the faint hearted.
“The Suitcase is all about the glitz and glamour of girls on an adventure, right up until the point the Japanese arrive. The Promise is about how imprisonment changed them. There is a large element of women’s solidarity in there, of ‘girl power’.
“It’s very much a story about human resilience and how, again, the women rose to the top. It was a civilian camp and the men who had been in office and running Hong Kong went from being the most powerful men on the island to scrapping around and stealing cups of oats just to survive.
“By contrast the women got the camp up and running and kept it going. The Promise is about that strength of character and this gang of women pulling each other through.”
As Jo says, “There is definitely a bit of tough Mancunian in there, of Northern grit. My Gran was a very strong character and very determined. She absolutely comes under the category of ‘strong woman’. Everything she experienced and overcame, for me, shows her real strength of character.”
So what of the future? Jo is currently in the middle of writing The Promise and has a third book in mind for when her Gran returned to the UK. Publishing The Suitcase has given her the bug.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by how my book has been received. I’m still surprised and humbled when people say how much they’ve enjoyed it.
“Historical fiction is definitely my thing because I love the research element and some of these stories cannot be lost. I think we are in danger of that happening.
“I can’t claim complete credit for the story, though. It’s someone else’s story that I have written. It’s my Gran’s life story; it’s not come out of my head. It’s a bit like her gift to me.”
The Suitcase by Jo Price is available on Amazon.