Shedding light on a hero's life

PUBLISHED: 10:57 13 March 2008 | UPDATED: 13:05 06 May 2010

Ocean Devil by James MacManus

Ocean Devil by James MacManus

IT S ASTONISHING that the remarkable and courageous life of George Hogg, who led 60 Chinese orphans to safety during 1945 at the height of the Sino-Japanese war, is only just beginning to get the recognition it deserves. The touching tale of this unsung h

Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays George Hogg in The Children of Huang Shi

IT'S ASTONISHING that the remarkable and courageous life of George Hogg, who led 60 Chinese orphans to safety during 1945 at the height of the Sino-Japanese war, is only just beginning to get the recognition it deserves.

The touching tale of this unsung hero from Harpenden has long been celebrated by those in China who owe their lives to him and by the proud pupils and staff at his former school, St George's. But until recently the outside world has been largely oblivious to the late headmaster's extraordinary life which, near to its untimely end, included a perilous 700-mile journey with his Chinese schoolboys across treacherous mountains in the middle of a savage winter.

That is set to change with the publication of a book about the Oxford graduate by journalist James MacManus who, while reporting in Beijing during the 1980s, stumbled upon talk of a statue being erected in the remote town of Shandan on the Mongolian border in memory of the Englishman.

Ocean Devil is the result of years of research, which included the author visiting Hogg's surviving pupils, and the story has also been made into an upcoming film epic, The Children of Huang Shi, directed by Roger Spottiswoode and starring heartthrob Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

Hogg was born in February 1915 to a prosperous middle-class family with strong Quaker-pacifist ideals who lived in a rented house known as Red Gables in Harpenden.

On graduating, Hogg set out with his aunt Muriel Lester to meet Ghandi in India but he visited China along the way and never left.

The country was already embroiled in a struggle between the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Shek and the communists, but by 1937 the two sides were forced into alliance in the face of the Japanese invaders.

Hogg became a journalist working as a correspondent for Associated Press and the Manchester Guardian, reporting on the brutal atrocities of a war which claimed some 15 million lives.

Life was tough and he was ill and at death's door on two occasions, first from paratyphoid and then from typhus. Each time he was lucky enough to be found by missionaries who nursed him back to health.

On his travels around the stricken nation, Hogg acquired an admiration for the Chinese Industrial Cooperative movement (CIC) which employed refugees and war orphans to provide basic materials for nationalist and communist forces.

He became actively involved and landed the role of the CIC's publicity director or the "ocean secretary" as he was known because the Mandarin translation for anything foreign is "ocean".

Hogg went on to adopt four young boys and became headmaster of a CIC school for boys in a remote mountain town in the Shanxi province in 1942.

It was enormous challenge - seven headmasters had been and gone in the 18 months prior to his appointment and the boys were malnourished, covered in scabies and lice-invested.

But compassionate Hogg nurtured them, found them somewhere to sleep, fed them and brought happiness through singing and sports and by outlawing the cruel draconian punishments favoured by his predecessors.

So attached was Hogg to his students that he was arrested for a week for refusing to hand over those above the age of 16 for conscription into the nationalist army.

But by 1944 the pressure became too intense and with the ever-advancing Japanese armies encroaching, Hogg decided, along with his friend and co-founder of the co-op movement Rewi Alley, to secretly relocate the school to Shandan, on the edge of the Gobi desert.

Against all odds they managed the journey to their new school in a derelict temple and Hogg was happier than ever.

But having found his place in the world aged 30, Hogg tragically died just a few months later from tetanus which he contracted when he stubbed his toe during a basketball match with his pupils.

The school was reasonably well-equipped but tetanus serum was overlooked and by the time the life-saving antidote arrived, it was too late.

Ocean Devil tells this inspiring and tragic story superbly and offers an immediate insight into Hogg's thoughts through extracts from his articles and letters home.

But equally well depicted in the book is the intertwining history of a brutal war and a nation's political upheaval, as well as life among the press corps sent out to report it on it. The book, published by Harper Perennial, costs £8.99.

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