Len Birchall's Address to the HKVA

(provided by Derrill Henderson, National Secretary HKVA in May 2020)


National President Harry Atkinson, Quebec-Maritimes President Philip Doddridge, dear friend Roger Cyr, honoured and distinguished guests — fellow Horiyos, ladies and gentlemen. What a wonderful and most flattering introduction for which I say, Thsummie masen deshta toe arigato gozyimus.

I am honoured indeed to be here with you and may I, on behalf of my wife and myself, thank you all most sincerely for taking us into your midst with such warmth and true hospitality.

Just think, it will be 59 years ago this coming December 7th that your world of peaceful living changed into one of hell and horror. What a terrible life and death struggle you chaps had to fight. It must have felt more like 18 months rather than 18 days. It is impossible for anyone except those who actually went through it, to even begin to know what it was like. Fighting a battle against overwhelming odds — no air support — little or no heavy fire power — troops poorly equipped, trained, supplied —and only the most meager communications. During most of the battle knowing there were only two possible endings— an agonizing death or becoming a P-O-W under unknown conditions. I am full of admiration for you chaps, and I am extremely humble in your midst.

One sidelight of your battle. I have been following with very great interest the story of your mascot, Sgt. Gander, the dog you adopted in Newfoundland and took to Hong Kong with you. What a fearless, brave valiant mascot he turned out to be when he picked up that Japanese hand grenade thrown into your midst and took it away, only to be blown to bits himself. If he had been a human being he would instantly have been awarded the V.C. or Victoria Cross. As announced in the news today, after five years of full out effort, Sgt. Gander is being awarded the Dickin Medal, known as the animal’s V.C. My solid conviction is that at least he should also be given the G.C., or George Cross - only in this case the G.C. would stand for the "Gander" Cross.

For those who survived the battle, it was to enter into four long years as P-O-Ws with starvation diet, merciless beatings, no medical supplies or treatment, atrocious living conditions, slave labour on the Kia Tac airport and other jobs. Some of you also had to suffer the trip to Japan in the infamous "Hell Ships". There was the Lisbon Maru which set sail for Japan on 28 September, 1942, with 1816 P-O-Ws crammed down in the holds. 843 were killed or drowned en route. A further 244 died in the working camps in Japan. The Arisan-Maru where out of 1800 only 8 survived. The Oryoku-Maru with 1619 P-O-Ws and only 200 survived. Those who did manage to arrive in Japan, faced slave labour in Japanese working camps under conditions beyond description. The average P-O-W death rate in those camps from their start to finish was over 30%.

In the case of my crew and our 30-minute battle, six members of the nine survived, three were seriously wounded and three not badly off. During the four days the Japanese carried out their air raids on Ceylon we were kept in a paint locker in the bow of the destroyer that picked us up. No medical treatment, no fresh air. Room only for the three badly wounded to lie down and the other three of us took turns sitting and standing. We were given some water, rice and miso paste soup three times a day, washroom privileges only whenever our guards felt like it. We, the mobile wounded, had to carry our badly wounded back and forth to the washrooms as best we could.

After the bombing raids on Colombo they moved us over to the flagship aircraft carrier "AKAGI" where we lay on straw mats underneath an aircraft elevator. We were given severe beatings every night by furious and frustrated pilots who held us responsible for the loss of all too many of their comrades. Reports had also reached the Japanese fleet of the Doolittle air raid on Tokyo-Yokohama. While these pilots couldn't get at the Doolittle raiders they could sure get at us and this they did with uncontrolled vengeance.

Upon our arrival in Japan we entered a special Naval questioning camp. This was a living dictionary or reference library for the Japanese Navy. They kept one prisoner of every trade they had captured and used him to get all the information they could. As usual, it was no medical supplies or treatment, extreme starvation diet, beatings several times every day. We lived in cells of two tatomi mats or 6 foot square, with two prisoners to each cell. We were not P-O-Ws but rather still on the firing line and could be killed as such at any time.

No talking was allowed and we could only talk to the guards in Japanese. Believe me, we learnt our pidgin Japanese very quickly. I still cannot forget the most important phrase we had to learn, especially with our constant dysentery, "Benjo a eetimo yuroushi eeyn deska" which translated into "Is it alright even though I should use the toilet".

We were allowed out once a day for 20 minutes in a small courtyard for a bit of exercise and one cigarette. Our daily diet was a cup of cooked rice and a cup of clear miso paste soup three times a day. That was it!

The only way out of this interrogation camp was to be replaced with another prisoner of similar trade and status but more recent vintage. While we wished our fellow allied forces every success in defeating the Nips we still had that fond hope that in the meantime someone of our category would hurry up and get captured to release us from that death camp.

After six months, a United States Navy Catalina was shot down out of Dutch Harbour up in the Aleutian Islands. Its crew was brought to the camp whereupon my crew was released and we were taken to open a working camp in the Yokohama Baseball Stadium. That same night 275 P-O-Ws arrived in from Hong Kong.

These Hong Kong troops were all British and mostly from the Royal Scots, Middlesex Regiment, Royal Navy, and Royal Engineers. The officers with them were Capt Ottway of the Royal Engineers, Warrant Officer Master-at-Arms Joss Waring of the Royal Navy, Lt. James Ford of the Royal Scots and Dr. James of the Hong Kong Volunteers Medical Corps. I, as a Squadron Leader or Major, found myself in that unenviable position of being the senior P-O-W.

About two months later, 75 Americans from the Philippines arrived. These were survivors from the battle of Bataan and the Death March of Bataan. In that march over 16,950 prisoners were killed, that is 2/3rds of the entire total number of prisoners involved. They also went through the Hell Ships to Japan. Can you imagine the physical condition of these poor chaps? I can still recall this group of living skeletons who faced me on their arrival. Nick Chintis, one of this group, is one of my best friends and I see him quite often. He loves to remind me of my welcome to them. They had lost all initiative to fight back so I took an awful chance. I told them that they may think they were having a very rough time under the Japanese but this was nothing compared to the treatment they were now going to get from me. This sure lit the fire under them and you could sense their saying; "Who the Hell does he think he is and by God he is not going to get us down". They bucked right up and through bonding together with the camp, sharing everything we had, and relying on the buddy-buddy system: hose, every one of those 75 Americans all arrived back home after the war.

The Stadium was a Branch camp. As such we worked at a number of various jobs and factories as against a detached camps where P-O-Ws worked at only one specific place right near where they were billeted.

One of the camps in the Tokyo-Yokohama area with which all the P-0-W s in that area were familiar, was the P-O-W hospital camp at Shinagawa. We tried this hospital out by sending a couple of our terribly sick, who were beyond any further help we could give them. The reports we got back were that it was the worst death camp ever. The Commandant, Japanese medics and guards were nothing short of vicious, crazy animals. It was a certain horrible death for any prisoner to be sent there. We never sent any more of our sick to this place unless our doctor knew they were dying and there was absolutely nothing we could do to save them. After the war I worked on the prosecution team against this camp. We got the highest number of death sentences in any one camp during the entire war crimes trials.

It was in the Stadium camp that I really got into trouble. At one point we were having a bad session of sickness and as usual,    could not produce the number of workers to go out on the various jobs. The guards had us drag all our sick out their bunks and go out on parade. They then started to beat the daylights out of them with clubs and rifle butts. As I watched the sick being beaten I had an overwhelming sense of frustration. All I knew was that I was not going to stand by and let those little yellow so-and-sos get away with any more of it. I had had enough. So I took on the head guard and let fly with my fist. That first punch to his jaw was driven and had in it all the pent up hatred and resentment I had accumulated since my capture. The guard went down with a crash and so I just kept on throwing punches until they separated us. To be honest I never felt so much satisfaction in all my life.

I shall not go in to the aftermath of that fracas the immediate punishment, the subsequent Kangaroo court, beatings, starvation. Twice I was taken out to be killed, once by firing squad, once by beheading. You all know what they could and did do. Let me just say I was extremely lucky and can never explain how I managed to get out of it alive. I did have the satisfaction of testifying against this guard, who we called "The Pig", during the war crimes. His main defence was that he had had to suffer enough,. Just having to deal with me as a P-O-W, the after affects of the beating I had given him, and the loss of face he had to live with. He still went to prison for 15 years.

This camp was broken up and we were moved out in groups to live on the actual jobs as Detached camps. I went to the Asano Dockyard camp in Kowasaki. Here the beating of the sick started up again as well as to make them go to work. We agreed that I would never live through another session such as I had in the last camp and so I held a sit-down strike. Once again all hell broke loose — but — the men held firm. They remained sitting even though I was given a real working over. Only when the sick were allowed back into their bunks did I tell the men to get up and go to work.

Within in one hour I and the doctor were removed and sent to the H.Q. camp at Omori in Tokyo for severe discipline. Once again there is no need to tell you chaps about the treatment they dished out to me under the infamous head guard "Whatanabe the Killer". The P-O-Ws back in the Asano camp were told that I had been taken away to be killed and my reception in Omori sure convinced me that this was just what they were doing. It was here that I first met up with some of you Canadians who came through this camp for periods of time. I then found out what a horrible time you had all been having and while there was not much I could do for you in Omori as I was under severe discipline and far from being the senior P-O-W still I did what I could.

I lasted in this camp until that entire area was burnt out by the fire raids. I was then taken with about 250 P-O-Ws from the Tokyo-Yokohama area on a 48-hour train ride in box cars, up into the mountains. We were so jammed that only some could sit and the rest had to stand. No food, no water, no fresh air, no sanitation. It was sheer and utter hell! After the train we were taken on open bed trucks through a driving, cold rain to a mining camp further up in the mountains at a place named SUWA. Here I found I was once again the senior P-O-W.

We had a large contingent of Dutch from Java and the remainder was a mixed bag from all over the world. We did have 35 Canadians, mostly from the Quebec area, and some of you may have been in that camp. I have never met a finer bunch of more true comrade. I relied on those Canadians for anything that had to be done. Just give them the task and they always did it to the Queen's taste.

As an example, that first night we arrived in the camp after enduring the 48-hour ride in box cars, then the open bed trucks through driving cold rain and into a camp which was no where near finished. Some of the barracks had only partial walls, some had only partial roofs. The rain came pouring in, the floors were a sea of mud, no straw mats or other covering on our sleeping shelves, no latrines and one wire running through the camp with one or two light bulbs in each building. No kitchen and the cooking bells were just lying there beside a pile of fire bricks. We had had no food or water for well over two days and so I called for volunteers to try to brew up some tea and rice. It was the Canadians who came to my rescue. They were cold, soaking wet, miserable, starving and sick, just like all of us, — but they pitched in, set up the cooking bells on some bricks, got a fire going and before we lay down to try to sleep we all had a cup of hot tea, some cooked rice and a cup of miso paste soup. What a wonderful bunch of chaps you all were and I was never more proud to be a Canadian in all my life.

This was indeed a death camp and our sick list went out of all control. Despite our stealing everything we could find, our sick and deaths went out of sight. It was, however, an open face mine and so we were spared from the hell some of you chaps in the camps had to endure in the underground mines. Once the Japanese surrender took place we got our kitchen going 24 hours a day. We looted the entire surrounding area for food and medicines so that our doctor and medics could restore some health in the camp. We painted big yellow P-O-W signs on our barracks roofs and the U.S. Navy torpedo bombers found us. They dropped us food, medicines, clothing and lots of goodies, such as chocolate bars and cigarettes.

We put up flag poles and made flags out of bed sheets and crayons. I believe that your outstanding man, Corporal Ken Gaudin, either brought back to Canada the Canadian flag we made or knew which Canadian did. Ken was a marvellous man and I went with him and Kay Christie, the Canadian Nursing sister, on the pilgrimage to the Far East with the Honourable George Hees when he was Minister of DVA. Ken gave one of the finest and most memorable speeches at the cemetery in Hong Kong that I have ever had the privilege to hear.

When our camp doctor said we had a chance to beat our way out, we commandeered a train for the overnight journey to Tokyo. In Tokyo we confiscated all the transportation we could get in order to carry our sick, especially those with hot feet and those who could not walk because of injuries or other medical problems. We moved over to the electric train station and took the electric train to Yokohama. In Yokohama we went outside the railway station and sat down with our flags flying on some bamboo poles we had liberated. A Jeep came by with a big radio on it. Soon we were inundated with buses, ambulances, nurses and attendants. We were taken to the reception sheds and there we were given the same treatment as all the other P-O-Ws.

Then came the searching for news of comrades who had been left behind in places were we had been captured, or sent to different camps in Japan. So many times it was to receive the terrible news they did not make it. So many times we heard about the horrible way they had died.

This was followed by the long, long journey back to Canada through camps, hospitals, ships, trains and release centres. When we did arrive home did any of you get the same greeting I got: "Where in hell have you been, the war has been over for a long time?"

With having been listed as "missing or killed in action" for over four years, homes, families, small family businesses, were all too often broken up and gone. Jobs, clothing, housing and nearly all the daily necessities of life were difficult, if not impossible to get. Little or no consideration given to our medical and psychological problems - the nightmares and hot feet - because nobody knew what we had endured, what was wrong with us and worst of all, nobody knew what had to be done about it. This could and did lead so easily into alcohol and other substance abuse which only increased the further breakdown of family life and our getting back to a normal life.

Despite all this, the spirit, drive, camaraderie and faith that brought us through those P-O-W days and its terrible aftermath is still keeping us going. That unshakeable bond which developed between P-O-Ws is never going to decrease. Rather, it will continue to grow stronger with the passage of time and this reunion is just one solid proof of that fact. May we be granted the good fortune to keep going for a good many more years to come. How any of us ever survived those P-O-W days is beyond me — and I for one, think of every day since our release as a bonus. Every time I wake up, if I don't smell flowers or hear organ music, then I open my eyes.

And so here we are to-night, having a dia ichi ban reunion with a joe toe maeshi. Wonders will never cease. Once I got into your midst some of my most cherished memories came flooding back of our days spent together. When the sharing and caring for one another brought us through those ordeals we could never have survived otherwise.

This has been a wonderful occasion for both my wife and myself for which we can never thank you all enough. It has been an honour and a privilege for me to have served with you, to have you as friends, tomodatchies comrades, in every true sense of those words.

Mesdames et messieurs — merci mille fois et bonne chance mes aimees.

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