Pamela Hill, Coded Lover, Dies at 83

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:54

    Once on the dancefloor, however, Pamela and Donald unexpectedly connected?waltz, foxtrot, Charleston?then kissed as the night ended, absolutely enthralled with each other. "It was like a dream," she remembered years later. "I kept telling myself it didn't happen like this in real life." Two weeks passed before he summoned sufficient nerve to phone her, whereupon for the next three months they saw each other as often as possible?dances, dinners and long drives, but no sex?emerging mutually smitten and, in June, engaged to be married. When he objected to her parading around in panties in public, she changed jobs, from model to youth hostel cook. Then word came for him to ship out to Singapore, and they bid tearful goodbyes on July 12.

    In Singapore, Donald behaved badly, falling into a tempestuous affair with the wife of a naval officer, and, when discovered, was discreetly transferred to Hong Kong in June 1941 with a promotion to flight lieutenant. He behaved no better there, this time indulging in an affair with the wife of a police officer. On Dec. 8, one day after Pearl Harbor, and one day after he began keeping a diary, a strictly forbidden activity, the Japanese strafed his air base. Despite putting up a brave defense, the Hong Kong garrison ultimately surrendered on Christmas Day, with Donald landing in a nearby POW camp, where he suffered from brutal privations until war's end in August 1945. Many men died. Though rendered almost blind by vitamin deficiencies, Donald somehow survived, clinging to three talismans?Pam's photo, her cigarette case and a ring she'd given him. And he maintained his diary, devising a complex method of encryption that turned it into row after row of tightly bunched, seemingly random numerals, which he entered into a notebook, writing on its cover "Russels Mathematical Tables."

    Pamela and Donald wrote frequently to each other, although few of the letters reached their intended destinations. She finally received one in September 1942; he from her in April 1943. He responded immediately: "My Darling One. Last week a miracle happened. I received a letter from you. My first letter, Darling, and what a difference it made. I was so excited that I started reading it upside down. To know after all these months that you are safe and well. Darling, what more could I ask." He signed off, "Take great care of yourself, my Darling. I love you. Always have and always will."

    That letter found Pam in early 1944. During the war she worked first as a Red Cross hospital cook, then in the same capacity at a top-secret espionage unit that tried to disrupt enemy activities overseas by disseminating disinformation. Not surprisingly, many men sought Pam's affections, but only one, Eric Maschwitz?hit songwriter ("These Foolish Things Remind Me of You," among others), high-ranking spy and all-around bon vivant?interested her. Still, she resisted his blandishments, remaining faithful to Donald. "Perhaps I should have forgotten about him, and got on with my life," she noted recently, "but I couldn't. He was the man I loved, and only him."

    A skeletal Donald emerged from prison camp, convalesced in a New Zealand nursing home, then made his way to England in January 1946. Six and one-half years after they parted, he and Pamela were reunited, and two weeks later they married. But the tremendous psychological and physical depredations of Donald's POW experience left him severely scarred. He floundered in a new RAF post, spent time in a psychiatric hospital and was discharged from the service in the fall of 1948; he quickly secured a post with a British oil firm in Iraq, where Pam joined him, and by 1952 they had three children. Still, the baneful effects of the POW captivity haunted their marriage, with Donald declining to discuss the contents of his diary: "I can think of more interesting things to talk about," he coolly told Pam. They quarreled, she drank, he withdrew. Back in England, they split up and reconciled numerous times, finally divorcing in 1978. Donald remarried, but mentally he gradually disintegrated, and when in 1983 he wound up in a private hospital close to Tunbridge Wells, Pamela visited him often. Their love reignited. And when his heart gave out on Feb. 25, 1985, she was with him, holding his hand, declaring her love for him.

    Among his few remaining belongings was the diary. Pamela suspected that it might lend some insight into his troubled mind, sent it to the Imperial War Museum and RAF Museum for decoding, but both dismissed it as singular mathematical tables. In early 1996 it was forwarded to Dr. Philip Aston, a senior lecturer in the mathematics department at the University of Surrey. As recounted in Andro Linklater's new book The Code of Love, Donald's diary intrigued Aston, each page consisting of 1081 individual graph-paper-like boxes?23 columns across, 47 down, and each box containing four digits. Aston quickly peeled away two ciphered layers, determining that it was, in fact, a diary, but despite its being subjected to myriad software programs, the text, now a jumble of letters, refused to unscramble. The letters' proper arrangement required the insertion of a key. In June, Aston had a brain wave: on the inside cover of the diary, side by side, appeared Donald and Pam's full names in caps: DONALD SAMUEL HILL and PAMELA SEELY KIRRAGE. When Aston squeezed the names' 34 letters together as the key and ran yet another computer program, the text revealed itself as Donald's record of the battle for Hong Kong and part of his imprisonment, including this entry, from Feb. 6, 1942: "Thank God for you, Pammy darling, your memory is ever with me." Aston handed over a translation to Pamela. "It felt as though the man she had first loved had been restored to her," writes Linklater.

    Last month, a wheelchair-bound Pamela Hill, crippled by cancer, attended a launch for The Code of Love, averring to those gathered, "Now I can let myself die." And she did, less than a week later, on March 21, age 83, in Tunbridge Wells.

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