Return of a great survivor

A veteran who fought against the Japanese in Hong Kong

The South China Morning Post HongKong
Thursday September 7 1995

As a young soldier, Josť Gosano had some close encounters with death. The teenage volunteer was in a foxhole on the slopes of Mount Davis when a Japanese bomb landed two metres away – hurling him down the hill. The blast was so close it blew the khaki drill shirt off his back.

He was captured and sent to work in a coal mine near the northern Japanese port of Sendai, where the roof of a shaft collapsed, covering him with dust and leaving him shaken but unharmed.

The boy soldier in the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Force survived the Battle of Hong Kong and Japanese prison camps without injury. Disaster did not strike until the war was over.

Then, in a vicious irony, his right foot was ripped off at the ankle by a pallet of emergency rations dropped into his POW camp by an American plane.

One of his best friends, a US soldier standing next to him, was killed.

Josť Gosano sighs as he remembers the incident, and makes a soundless prayer.

Back in Hong Kong to take part in the disbandment ceremonies of the Royal Hong Kong Regiment (The Volunteers), the former cricketer and handsome man-about-Kowloon utters many prayers for the young men with whom he fought – and who died 54 years ago.

After the war, the boy with the glamorous looks of a 1940s matinee idol changed his mind halfway through his dentistry studies at Otago University, went into a New Zealand seminary, and for the past four decades has been a Catholic priest.

'It's certainly not what I planned,' he grins, now aged 72.

Coming home brings back boyhood memories to Josť Gosano, thoughts of the golden era of the Portuguese community in the 1930s. Like many others, in that placid time when Hong Kong was a quiet backwater, his life was dominated by sport.

If there was a ball around, Josť would kick it, hit it, bounce it or pick it up and run with it, trying to keep it away from contemporaries like Sonny Sales (Hong Kong's Mr Olympics) and the keen cricketer who later became Sir Albert Rodrigues.

It was sport that curtailed his schooling at 16.

He was studying for matriculation, but Albert Rodrigues headed the Club de Recreio cricket team which was doing well in the league.

He desperately wanted Gosano – the La Salle School cricket captain – on his ide. But to play, Josť had to be a club member.

'No,' said his mother. 'You are not going to pay to join a club until you have a job.' So he left school, promptly got a teller's post at the Netherlands Indies Bank, joined the Club de Recreio, batted mightily and helped the Portuguese team win its first ever league championship. 'I was ever a very good student, anyway,' he shrugs.

In 1939, British youth in Hong Kong were conscripted. Most Portuguese young men promptly enlisted in the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Force, including 16-year-old Josť and brothers Luigi, Gerry, Bertie and Lino.

'We didn't have to, but we simply couldn't let the English boys be called up and do nothing,' he explains. 'We wanted to fight for our homes and families.' He was in one of the Portuguese companies. Training was not exhaustive.

He recalls rather indolent and easy-going camps in Sha Tin and rifle shooting exercises at their headquarters, roughly where the US consulate stands today. Father Josť laughs: 'It wasn't really much training to fight a war.' It was enough.

The sports-mad Portuguese volunteers were playing softball against teams from newly-landed Canadian regiments when they were told they were to report for active duty the next morning.

But before Josť and his brothers got out of bed to don their uniforms, bombs started falling on Kai Tak, wiping out the pitiful, geriatric collection of war planes parked on the tarmac.

'The bombers came right over our home in Ho Man Tin,' he remembers.

'At first we thought it was our military playing soldiers. Then a cousin who worked in the telegraph company called to say Pearl Harbour had been attacked.' The boys waited anxiously for their mother to come home from nearby St Theresa's Church, where she went every morning by rickshaw.

They kissed her and marched off to defend Hong Kong. It was the last time Josť was to see her for six years.

Patrolling Mount Davis, where 9.2 inch naval guns were mounted, his Portuguese platoon – bank clerks and teachers – were bombarded by Japanese ships, aircraft and artillery firing from Kowloon.

Then, on that fateful Christmas Day, the guns fell silent. Hong Kong had surrendered.

With thousands of other soldiers, the Portuguese volunteers assembled in Murray Barracks. Josť and other privates and NCOs were marched off to captivity in the army barracks at Shamshuipo.

Josť, always a keen cook (as he remains today) worked in the kitchens. For a break in the monotony, the cooks sometimes went out on work parties.

One day, it was his turn to travel to Aberdeen with 420 other prisoners of war. When they returned, they were herded into a separate compound. Nobody new what was going on.

Two days later, they were forced up the gangplank of a rusty freighter.

The hold had been fitted with narrow benches, scarcely 60 centimetres high. There was hardly room to lie straight. The hatches were battened down 23 hours a day and the air was stifling. It took three weeks to reach Japan.

Arriving at the coal mine in Sendai was almost a relief. Young and strong despite POW rations, Josť Gosano was a driller, working on the coal face. He and his team had to cut and extract 20 tonnes of coal a day.

That deep pit, without the most basic safety precautions, almost became his grave. Without warning, the roof collapsed, missing him by inches.

The war ended suddenly. American warplanes appeared, and from the top of their huts, which they marked prominently with the letters POW, prisoners could see the mighty USS Lexington anchored off Sendai Bay.

Fighter planes soon found them and whirled overhead, dropping small presents with messages like 'From Captain Robert Smith, USN'. Then came the powerful B29s, dropping organised supplies to the POWs, still cut off from allied armies even though the war had ended.

'One of the Americans was a radio expert named Sy Sirata,' Father Gosano recalls.

'He had rigged a system to flash morse code messages to the aircraft. He climbed up on the roof of the guards' toilet block.

'We watched the aircraft dropping supplies to other camps nearby and admired the colourful parachutes as the supplies floated down. Then a B29 headed straight for us. The bomb bays opened and out came a pallet. But there were no parachutes.

'It tumbled through the air straight towards us. I yelled out to Sy, but it was too late.' The heavy load of aid smashed into the young American, driving him through the roof of the hut. It broke every bone in his body.

The pallet smashed into Josť Gosano's right leg, snapping the bone above the ankle. The tendons whipped the foot up to his knee.

The Japanese, now defeated, swiftly organised a carriage on a train heading for Tokyo and the young soldier was then placed on a hospital ship.

Because he was a British serviceman, he ended up on an evacuation vessel heading for New Zealand. After more than a year – and many operations – he could walk again.

He loved the country where he recovered from his injury, but wanted to see his family. In 1947, he arrived back in Hong Kong and soon got a job as a trainee accountant. He then sent off applications to study dentistry at schools in Britain, Canada and other countries. The first place that accepted him, he would grab, he told his mother. The answer came from New Zealand.

Throughout his life, the energetic, fun-loving Josť Gosano had people telling him he should think of the priesthood. Although he came from a strongly Catholic background, and his devout mother went to mass every day, he felt no sense of vocation.

'I liked life, I liked girls, I never knew why people said I should be a priest,' he smiles. But during his dentistry studies, he felt a call.

He left university and entered a seminary. He has been a parish priest, mostly in New Zealand's South Island, ever since.