HANGZHOU, Sept. 4 (Xinhua) -- Fisherman Liang Yijuan has every reason to feel proud: 73 years ago, he helped rescue British soldiers captured by the Japanese.
"I shall never forget the scene when they waved goodbye," the 86-year-old said.
Living in Qingbang island, a small islet off China's largest Zhoushan Islands in east Zhejiang province, Liang and other fishermen have not forgotten the day when the war came to their home.
On September 27, 1942, "Lisbon Maru", a Japanese prison ship disguised as a common cargo vessel, left Hong Kong for Japan after the fall of Hong Kong in December, 1941.
More than 1,800 British prisoners of war were trapped on three lower decks when the ship was torpedoed by a U.S. submarine off the Zhoushan Islands in Zhejiang..
THE SINKING SHIP
"It was at day break on October 2, 1942," said Lin Agen, who is five years older than Liang, "we heard a huge bang from the sea."
People rushed out to see what happened and found the 7,152-ton ship, without the red cross symbol as international covenant stipulates, was half submerged in water and still sinking.
The Japanese boarded up the hatches, covered them with tarps and tautly fastened them before retreating from the arriving Japanese warship, leaving the captives to their fate.
Most prisoners were too weak to escape. Those who broke out of the cabin doors faced gunfire from the Japanese, some jumped into the sea, trying to escape.
"Historical evidence shows that the Japanese had 24 hours to transfer the British soldiers, but they did nothing to save them," said Peng Xunhou, former secretary general of Chinese Association for History of WWII.
At least 840 British prisoners died in the shipwreck, according to data released.
RESCUE AT SEA
"Blue eyes, yellow hair and white skin, we saw these foreigners near the sinking ship and hurried to save them," Lin told Xinhua.
Despite gunfire from the Japanese, all 198 fishermen from Dongji island and nearby Miaozihu island decided to rescue the foreigners. With 46 fishing boats, they made 65 trips between the shore and sinking ship, a total of 384 British soldiers were saved.
"We were so poor then and only had small wooden boats, and it was difficult to row quickly," Lin said with regret. "Some were swept away by waves before we could save them."
Poor as they were, every fishing family provided dried fish and sweet potatoes, together with rice, the most precious food in wartime, to the British.
"They didn't know how to use chopsticks, and I found it very interesting when they were eating with spoons," Liang recalled. A mischievous child at the time he said he "grabbed one man's beard, but he just patted my head, smiling."
They saved prisoners stayed in fishing families' home while others went to the Mazu Temple, which holds the venerated patron saint of the sea.
A RISKY MOVE
A day after the shipwreck, Japanese planes started dropping bombs on near the sinking ship. On October 4, five warships besieged the island and 200 Japanese soldiers were sent searching for British prisoners.
All those saved by Chinese fishermen were recaptured by the Japanese and taken back to Japan but navy lieutenant J.C.Fallace, diplomat W.C.Johnstone and businessman A.J.W.Evans, who were transported by fishermen to a safe have.
"When villagers discussed where to hide them, I suggested a nearby cave I had found out while playing on the mountain," Liang said, beaming with pride.
Japanese visited the island frequently and threatened to kill all of us if anyone tried to hide prisoners, but everyone carefully guarded the secret.
"It's a moral code among the fishing community that, despite grudges, we always help each other out," said Liang's daughter Liang Yinti. "If someone falls into the still, a fisherman will save them no matter what."
With the help of the fishermen, the three Britons managed to escape to Chongqing, an inland city in southwest China, and broadcast details on the "Lisbon Maru Incident".
"He pointed to me and then himself,and waved to me before leaving," Liang recalls his last memory of the Brit, "I guess he is trying to say that we will meet again when I grow up."
But they never had the chance to meet, until 2005, a British veteran Charles Jordan came to Dongji Islands, mourned for his comrades and met with Chinese fishermen again.