ADAM KULA on the tale of an Ulsterman caught in a deadly international stand-off – and the quest to find his missing medal
The long-lost war medal won by a Belfast sailor during an extraordinary naval escapade is to go on public display for the first time after his son hunted across the world to reclaim it.
It had been earned by Samuel Bannister in the 1949 Yangtze Incident, during which UK forces came under attack by Chinese communists in the midst of that country’s intense civil war – an encounter which threatened to erupt into a full-scale battle between the two powers.
The international incident saw the vessel HMS Amethyst fired upon and virtually sunk, and then held captive, before going on to launch a brazen escape.
Samuel Bannister was among those to live through it, and was decorated for his service.
Now his son Andy says this medal is to go on display in HMS Caroline next year (the warship-turned-museum in Belfast) to co-incide with the 70th anniversary of the incident, after he spent years tracking it and bringing it home.
The News Letter learned of the story when Andy had that medal and two others valued on an edition of the Antiques Roadshow, broadcast on September 23.
Here he reveals in detail his family’s role in the 1949 escapade, and the quest to find the medal.
FROM ‘ACTOR’ TO WAR HERO:
When he was a child growing up in east Belfast, Andy never knew his father Samuel to talk about what he went through in China.
He recalls how, aged about eight years old, the war movie ‘Yangtze Incident’ came on the TV.
“People would say: Your dad’s film is on”, said Andy, who is now 51 and living in Lisburn.
“I assumed my dad had been an actor.
“It wasn’t until later in life I realised he had been involved in this, and it was part of his life.”
Samuel – whose own father fought in WWI and WII, dying at Dunkirk – had been a stoker in the engine room of the HMS Amethyst.
As it was sailing along the River Yangtze on April 20, 1949, on its way to guard a British embassy building, it was hit by Communist artillery fire.
It took heavy casualties – many of them fatal – and Samuel was struck in the chest with shrapnel while working below deck.
When the call came to evacuate the ship, Samuel made it overboard and then ashore along with an English sailor friend, Keith ‘Boy’ Martin.
Samuel was taken to a primitive village hospital alongside his friend, and was operated on without anaesthetic. He was then 21.
“In the film it actually shows the actor who plays him [Ian Bannen] biting on a rag,” said Andy.
“It’s actually quite a big part of the film, because my dad and ‘Boy’ Martin became political pawns for the Chinese.
“They tried to get them to sign statements saying the Royal Navy had opened fire first – but they wouldn’t do it.
“He’s a young fella, coming from Belfast. The next thing you’re being held captive by Chinese communists. It must’ve been very traumatic.”
The pair were eventually returned to the ship – only to find it had been essentially impounded with the surviving crew still onboard.
About three months after the initial incident, Amethyst – by then able to float once again - tried to escape its captivity.
Under cover of darkness it set out down the Yangtse – but was spotted, and had to run a gauntlet of shells as artillery guns on the banks opened fire.
After over 100 miles the ship made it to the open sea and freedom - with King George himself offering “hearty congratulations on their daring exploit”.
HARD TIMES LED TO MEDAL SALE:
Samuel later went on to fight in the Korean War too.
Upon returning to civilian life in Northern Ireland he worked at engine-maker Rolls Royce in Dundonald. He died in 1996 aged 69 of bowel cancer.
Samuel had been awarded medals both for the Yangtse Incident and Korean campaign, but at some point in his life had been forced to sell them to raise funds to look after his wife and four children.
Andy said “it had always been my boyhood dream to try and get these medals back”.
However, the person who had bought them was not known.
“Everybody I asked about it, different collectors, said: You’ve no chance of getting them,” said Andy.
“But when the internet first arrived, it became a lot easier to search.
“And after years of searching the net I finally came across Dixons, an auctioneer in London, which had sold the medals.”
It turns out they had changed hands a number of times.
“I was able to make about 100 phonecalls - a guy, who knew a guy, who knew a collector - and I got word they had tracked them to a collector in Asia.”
There were three medals in all - the Yangtze medal, plus a UK Korean War medal and a UN Korean War medal.
The collector - knowing a family member was seeking them – demanded £10,000.
Andy paid up, plus another £500 for the intermediary who found them.
When he appeared on the Antiques Roadshow on Sunday, their estimated value was put at £6,000 to £9,000.
Andy said he had been “held to ransom” over the price, but has no regrets.
“HMS Caroline are going to have a Yangtze Incident display next year. They will display the medals at that,” he said.
“I’m delighted. That’s the reason I contacted the Antiques Roadshow – just to keep the story alive.”
THREE GENERATIONS CONNECTED:
During the course of Andy’s research, he uncovered another Ulsterman who shared the ship with his father.
He came across a man called Raymond McCullough whose believed his own Belfast father (Raymond Senior) was on the Amethyst too.
They met on an online forum, and swapped stories.
Andy was able to find pictures of the Raymond Senior and Samuel together, confirming they had indeed both served on the ship.
But what was even more surprising was a picture Andy came across in a scrap book; it showed two women standing together at the docks, waiting for their sons to come off the Amethyst.
It turned out the ladies were Andy and Raymond’s grandmothers.
“When I rang Raymond and told him, he had goosebumps all over his arms,” said Andy.
“Our grandmothers had met, then our fathers – and now us.”
Raymond Senior has since died, but his medals too have recently come to light.
These are likewise now set to go on display in HMS Caroline.
Andy believes that there were as many as seven men from different parts of the island of Ireland on the Amethyst at the time of the incident.
Ideally, what he would really like is “a permanent memorial to Amethyst – to all the guys who came from here who were involved in the Yangtze Incident. I think that’d be fantastic.”
He asked anyone whose relative was on the ship (or Consort, London, and Black Swan, which attempted to help the Amethyst), to get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org