Finding Wee Paddy: Film tells of Derry woman's search for hero uncle's grave

A Derry woman's search for the grave of her soldier uncle who was killed just before the outbreak of the Second World War is the subject of a moving documentary in the Belfast Film Festival. Joanne Sweeney talks to Sara Moran on why she is glad that her uncle finally got the recognition he deserved

Patrick McGowan, known to his family as Wee Paddy, was killed by invading Japanese forces in Shanghai in 1937
Joanne Sweeney

DERRY woman Sara Moran never got to meet her soldier uncle Rifleman Patrick McGowan but his life and death in China left such an indelible mark on her that she was determined to find out what happened to him after he was killed more than 80 years ago.

The great-grandmother's 20-year search to find the grave of her uncle and to ensure he was laid with the respect he deserved is now the subject of a new documentary film called Finding Wee Paddy to be screened this weekend as part of the Belfast Film Festival.

Known as 'Wee Paddy', the 25-year-old soldier from the Royal Ulster Rifles died a hero when he was killed in October 24 1937 by Japanese bullets as he manned a security post protecting the neutral International Settlement in Shanghai.

In August of that year, the 1st Battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles was moved at 24 hours’ notice from Hong Kong to Shanghai on emergency deployment following the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War. The battalion's task was not to get involved in the conflict but to assist with the protection of the International Settlement that was home to nearly 3.5 million civilians.

The Derry soldier often went above and beyond in what were essentially peace-keeping duties in the Chinese city. He and other comrades would often venture out to no-man's land to help rescue Chinese civilians who strayed into trouble.

Patrick McGowan was deployed to help protect the International Settlement in Shanghai in 1937 when Japan invaded China

Paddy was carrying a woman to safety when he was killed by gunfire from a strafing Japanese airplane as it was returning from a bombing raid. His death caused an international outcry as he was the first British army soldier killed in the war, and it was denounced in Westminster at the time. He was buried with full military honours but, over the passage of time, his family lost contact with the army and did not realise that his remains had been moved several times.

However, Paddy's niece Sara never forgot about him and her story of determination to find her uncle's grave fascinated documentary directors Jason Davidson and Peter Roch of Squeaky Pedal Productions. They tracked her down to Derry with help from the Derry Journal and asked permission to tell her and her uncle's story in the 60-minute documentary.

As Sara explains, what makes 'Wee Paddy's' tragic tale all the more poignant is the fact that life had been about to change for the better for the young Derry man before he was killed.

"My uncle was due to come home two months later to be best man at my father's wedding and he was also due to leave the army a few months later as he had served the time he signed up for. Paddy was going to move to England to live with my mother and father for what would have been a new start in life for him.

"There was only a year between my father John – who ran a chip shop in Messines Terrace in Derry – and his wee brother Paddy but their mother died when they were very young," says Sara.

"They were initially looked after their grandmother as their father remarried again and went to live in Buncrana but he didn't take his two boys with him.

"When I was growing up my mother and father always talked about my uncle as 'Wee Paddy' a lot and I felt that he had a really tough upbringing as his father was not there for him."

A plaque marks the grave of Derry soldier Patrick McGowan in Shanghai

Both brothers joined the British army, like their father before them, but Sara adds: "I think that Paddy only joined as he had no life and he had nobody to care for him.

"We know Paddy was buried with full military honours as my family had all the newspaper cuttings of the funeral. We saw all the wreaths from all different nationalities and how many Chinese people turned out to pay their respects.

“Even Sir Anthony Eden raised the matter in parliament and asked that the Japanese government pay compensation to Paddy's widow – but of course Paddy didn't have a widow.

"A week after Paddy was killed, there was another skirmish with the Royal Ulsters and three other Ulster Riflemen were also killed.”

Sara began her quest over 20 years ago to find out where her uncle was buried. She wrote several letters and made many requests over the years and finally, in 2013, she wrote to the then British prime minister, David Cameron, for help after the Chinese government was unable to help her.

She was eventually put in touch with consular officials and was outraged when she was told that it was believed that her uncle's resting place had been lost due to the rapid expansion of the growing city of Shanghai.

However, thanks to the work of Shanghai-based historian Dr Mark Felton, she discovered that there had been a mix-up in searching for her uncle's surname, looking for Magowan instead of McGowan.

Dr Felton found that Paddy McGowan's body and those of the other three RUR soldiers killed in 1937 were interred in the Song Quit Ling Cemetery in the city.

Following the discovery, the graves were freshly marked with name plaques and honoured once more with a visit by senior British officers, including a rear admiral.

"I have not yet been to see my uncle's grave but my son who lives only an hour away will go one day to visit it," says Sara.

"I was really angry when I was told that a car park had been built over his grave and I was determined to do something about it. But now to know that Paddy and the other three soldiers have been given the mark of respect they deserved and to have his story told in the film really makes me proud."

Mrs Moran, who will be at the Belfast screening on Saturday, is now in contact with army officials to see what medals her uncle may have been posthumously awarded.

:: Finding Wee Paddy, a documentary by Squeaky Pedal Productions, is being screened at The Movie House, Dublin Road, Belfast, on Saturday April 14 at 12 noon. For programme information visit

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