By Sunday, October 24, 1937, the battle for Shanghai had lasted for more than two months, and much of the city and the surrounding countryside had been marked by war. Despite the ongoing devastation, on that day a group of British and American civilians decided to go horse riding, with fatal consequences. By mid-afternoon, they were riding along the outside perimeter of the International Settlement, an area that had been left largely unscathed by the hostilities, when a Japanese airplane spotted them and strafed them with its machineguns. Here’s what happened next, in the words of British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, speaking to parliament a few days later:
“The party took cover in a British military post just within the perimeter. The aeroplane circled round and made a direct attack on the post with machinegun fire. The attack was repeated three times and Private McGowan, of the First Royal Ulster Rifles, was hit and, I deeply regret to say, died shortly afterwards. Three of the horses were killed and only by great good fortune did the remainder of the party and other soldiers at the post escape without injury. The aeroplane then carried out a machine-gun attack on three other British military posts along the perimeter and just within it. No casualties resulted in these instances. After the first attack the British post opened fire on the aeroplane.”
The full name of the dead British soldier was Patrick McGowan. He was from Londonderry and 25 years old at the time. The British authorities protested, and the Japanese government promptly issued an apology. “While His Majesty’s Government accepted the apology and assurances at the same time they must make it clear that in their opinion retaliatory fire by the British posts was entirely justifiable, and must always be expected if ever a case of this kind should recur,” Eden said.
McGowan was just one out of thousands who died violently in Shanghai in the fall of 1937. But his family has never forgotten him. Now, his niece Sarah Moran hopes to find his final resting place, the BBC reports. Although McGowan was buried with full military honors, his grave has since disappeared. It seems that the cemetery was closed down in 1951, and that a multi-storey car park has since been built on the site. Even if she doesn’t have any illusions that her uncle’s grave will be restored, she want to know the location of his burial site, and she has written to Prime Minister David Cameron asking for his help, according to the BBC. “My mother and father called him ‘wee Paddy’ and I grew up hearing about him. They were so close that Paddy was going to live with them when he returned,” Ms Moran told the BBC. “It is not right that he should be buried out there with not even a name on his grave.”