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by Fred Hurd, son
December 5, 1941 - August 18th, 1945---- referred to as America’s war
My father was one of 2,000 Canadians who were dispatched to help defend the British colony of Hong Kong, a group of lost heroes who became POW’S, prisoners subjected to starvation, sickness and forced labor for three and one half years by the Imperial Japanese military. This was also my father’s war.
Excerpts from “Flags of our Fathers” (marked with coloured background)
I refer to this material as it gives the reader a better understanding of the different cultural aspects at play between the Allied Forces’ structural thinking and the Japanese Militarys’ training that were dominated during that era.
The Allied War in the Pacific would be a war without quarters--fought with no rules. It would be a primitive battle--a fight to extinction. The Japanese fighting man believed he was fighting in the proud tradition of ancient “Samurai,” but this was not the case. Instead, Bushido, the “Way of the Warrior,” had for centuries been the honored code of Japan’s proud Samurai caste. In the first half of the twentieth century, the military romanticized the “Way”, calling on all young men to be willing to die for their Emperor. It was this interpretation of Bushido that motivated the Japanese soldiers to fight to the death in a manner western military judged fanatical. This ideal was not the real thing, rather, it was a corruption of Bushido. The Samurai had always been a small elite group within the larger society. For them, Bushido defined a life of honor and duty.
In the early 1900’s, the Japanese military set forth an updated version of Bushido; it’s aim was to make warriors of the entire male populace. Death in battle was portrayed as an honor to the family and a transcendent act on the part of the individual. Surrender was a disgrace to the soldier, his family and his country. The twentieth-century Japanese military were teaching their new leaders a cult of death, that sacrificing your life is the ultimate beautiful goal. Not surprisingly, the military hierarchy had little respect for the products of the system, meaning their own men. They were expendable; and there was an unlimited supply.
To the Japanese fighting man, surrender meant humiliation. His family would be dishonored, his name would be stricken from the village rolls, he would cease to exist, and his superiors would kill him if they got their hands on them.
Unable to surrender and forced to fight to the death, the young Japanese soldier had no respect for the western military that didn’t do the same. So a tragedy occurred in the Pacific. A tragedy brought about by the Japanese military leaders who forced their brutalized young men to be brutal themselves. An example of this mentality occurred many times on the battlefield. Medic’s would respond to calls for help from wounded Japanese, who would cry “Medic or Corpsman”--- in English. When the medic’s came to their aid, they were then either treacherously shot by the wounded Japanese or blown up together by hand grenades concealed on their bodies.
No matter the similarity in death, in life the Allies and Japanese fought very differently. The Japanese army fought using the most ruthless tactics of any combatant in World War II. Their practice of “no surrender” meant they were unpredictable as they fought far beyond the limits of an Allied combatant.
The Japanese soldier turned all Western logic on its head. If surrounded, a German would surrender; a Japanese would fight on. If wounded and disabled, an Englishman would allow himself to be taken prisoner; Japanese military would wait and blow up himself and his captor.
Japanese treatment of defenseless prisoners of war alarmed the Allied fighting man. All armies commit atrocities against their opponents, but these are generally isolated incidents not condoned by higher officials. But the Japanese authorities in Tokyo, including the Emperor, condoned a different set of rules to fight their war. Rules that permitted among other startling actions: slavery, systematic torture, barbaric medical experiments, and even cannibalism.
Japanese stuffed Allied forces into dark, stinking holds of what was known to the Allies as “hell ships” and delivered survivors to China, Korea, and Japan, where they were forced to work as slaves in mines, factories, and farms. Allied slave labor built the “Railroad of Death” over the Kwai River at a brutal cost of over three hundred Allied lives per mile.
The Japanese had their counterpart to the “Nazi Gestapo” skilled torturers known as the Kempei Tai. One of their favorite tortures was to force fistfuls of rice down a POW’s throat, insert a water hose down his throat until his belly swelled, and then mercilessly jump on him.
The statistics at the end of the war spoke to the brutal Japanese treatment of anyone within their grasp. Allied POW’s captured by the Germans in the European Theatre died at a rate of 1.1 %. But POW’s held by the Japanese died at the rate of 37%
Canadians, British, Scottish and Indian regular army units along with volunteer Hong Kong residents of all ages and nationalities, took up defensive positions to protect the British Commonwealth colony of Hong Kong.
Two Thousand (2,000) of these men were young Canadians who arrived in Hong Kong only a month before Japan attacked the colony. One of these men was my father, a Captain in the Royal Rifles of Canada.
With an Allied defensive military force of some 8,000 combat troops, and another 6,000 volunteer groups, ill equipped and inexperienced men were soon overwhelmed by a Japanese force of nearly 60,000, well equipped, battle hardened men.
The British colony of Hong Kong fell into Japanese control on Christmas day, December 25th, 1941. At this point over 1600 men were killed, 1700 wounded and many more missing in action. Of the 2000 Canadians, 290 soldiers were killed and 493 wounded with others missing in action.
For three years and eight months from December 1941 to August 1945, the Allied Commonwealth military forces captured in Hong Kong were prisoners of war (POW’S) under the Imperial Japanese Military.
The following (marked with coloured background) are excerpts from the book “The Royal Rifles of Hong Kong”, a book in which my father was to be the guiding force in its publication. Excerpts from his diary written as a POW are a part of this book. Captain E.L.Hurd of the Royal Rifles of Canada; Quartermaster during the battle.
The North Point Camp, located on the island of Hong Kong was an abandoned refugee camp alongside horse stables, all of which had been ransacked during the battle. There were dead horses all over and nothing but debris covered concrete floors with little in the way of shelter provided. The men were herded into this camp where both able-bodied and wounded prisoners were to spend the next nine months. Officers and those men who were able, under constant guard, were sent out to search for cots, bedding, cooking utensils or anything that they could muster that would make their lives more tolerable. There was no running water, the floors were filthy, bug infested, and disease spread rapidly among the wounded with no medical help. They survived on a meager ration of rice laced through with maggots and rat droppings that they were able to scrounge when out on these search parties. This camp held predominately Canadian POW’S who were transferred to Argyle and the Shamshuipo camps after about nine months.
During the 1941-1945 Japanese occupation, the camp (originally erected in 1939 by the Hong Kong Government as temporary quarters for refugee Chinese solders in the Sino-Japanese war), was used for officers for a period of a year and a half. The Japanese, ever vigilant and constantly apprehensive about the possibility of escape, surrounded the camp with triple rows of electrically charged barbed wire fences. Also surrounding the camp were flood-lights and sentry towers. All the bunks, stools, shelves and utensils were gradually fashioned by the prisoners from scraps that they scrounged and those brought back from work details for the Japanese outside the camp. They picked up gunny sacks, nails, barbed wire, bits of planks, asbestos sheeting; whatever they could find. They would then make things they needed, from cooking utensils to an operating table, and their tools were just scraps of glass or saws made from old knife blades. Sometimes these home-made tools were confiscated and the prisoners punished.
Many of the activities undertaken by the prisoners depended entirely on the mood of the Japanese soldier on duty. The captors were unpredictable and nothing could be taken for granted.
Among the internees were British along with a Canadian doctor (Dr.Reid) who did their very best to keep their fellow prisoners well in both mind and body. The living quarters were so cramped that the doctors encouraged them to walk outside whenever it was allowed. But the fear of escape made the Japanese reduce the exercise area by increasing the distance that the prisoners had to stay away from the charged barbed wire. The distance kept on changing, and the penalty for overstepping the line was brutal physical punishment.
The Officers were moved from Argyle Street camp to the Shamshuipo Camp sometime in May 1944, were segregated from the rest of the internees and were not allowed to mix. Bedbugs infested both camps. They were everywhere. They drove the prisoners to distraction. They were in the bunks, the stools, the chairs and clothing and there was no way to eradicate them. Hot water was not permitted and insecticides were not allowed. The only remedy was to accept them.
Unlike the Argyle Street camp which was located in the middle of a semi-residential area in Kowloon, the Shamshuipo Camp was located on the western side of the Kowloon Peninsula right on the waters edge, on a cliff overlooking the harbor. Ill clothed, tired and starved, Officers returning after a day’s work detail were humiliated by the Japanese, when outside the camp, by ordering them to salute Japanese officers and army privates as well.
When prisoners first arrived in the Shamshuipo Camp, the huts were mere shells, stripped of everything and in complete squalor. They were missing doors and windows, and had concrete floors. There were no beds or bunks or blankets-- nothing was provided. The prisoners had to sit and sleep on the concrete floors . In the first days of captivity they had food that they had brought with them, whatever they could carry, and they were able to barter or to buy basic necessities such as a cup or some cooking utensils from the local Chinese through the barbed wire.
Though everything was available in a city like Hong Kong, the Japanese provided nothing for the hundreds of men in their captivity and reduced them to an almost primitive existence. The prisoners had to be inventive and skilled, with no tools to speak of, to make the most basic things such as wash stands made out of rusty pieces of corrugated galvanized iron. Over 500 men used these tubs to do laundry in cold water with no soap. Some of these homemade tubs were used to cook food as well.
The only garment distributed to the prisoners was called a “pandochi,” a type of cloth diaper. Prisoners wore these to save their shorts or trousers for the obligatory twice-daily muster and at times when the Japanese insisted upon proper dress code. The men’s good clothes were threadbare; they were darned and patched over several times. For footwear, the Japanese provided clogs. Some men wore them and repaired them with scrap materials; others preferred by necessity to go barefoot because the clogs straps rubbed and grated the skin resulting in sores that without medication or bandages had to be avoided.
The Japanese counted the prisoners twice daily and often several times at night. Day musters were held rain or shine and the Japanese insisted on proper dress. After several prisoners escaped from the camp, the Japanese increased security measures by making the prisoners take turns during the hours of darkness to account for everyone in each hut. There was a time they demanded a report as often as ten times a night, making prisoners responsible for their own group of friends.
After a successful escape, collective punishment was applied. The already meager rations were cut and the guards were ordered to physically ill treat the internees. After months of being terrorized and being brought to near starvation, the results were such that even the Japanese authorities became concerned and cancelled certain restrictions.
The brutality of some Japanese was vicious and their tempers were mercurial. They would often use the butt ends of their rifles to inflict blows. The severity of some of these beatings would require hospitalization. A Japanese Canadian, called the “Kamloops Kid” was especially vicious.
For nearly four years, the prisoners existed on very small portions of white rice, many times, rotten, dirty, and infested with bugs, which they cooked themselves. The rice was often accompanied by poor quality “bok -choy’ or rotting turnip, or generally the refuse from outside vegetable markets. The Japanese supply corporal sent in whatever he wished. A few of the luckier prisoners in Shamshuipo managed to establish little garden plots and grow a few vegetables for their kitchens. Initially, no senior Japanese officer would concern himself with the food supply for the prisoners until pellagra and beriberi with their attendant physical degeneration swept through the camp. The near starvation diet resulted in a high death toll and caused the Japanese some alarm. It was then that small supplementary supplies of peanut oil, fish and flour appeared for a time.
Of the Red Cross parcels sent to the prisoners, only a few were ever received. In fact, in 44 months of captivity, no one received more than seven food packages.
My father was interned in all three camps from December 25, 1941 to late August 1945. It was from this camp that men were systematically shipped on the “Hell Ships” to Japan to work as slaves in the factories and mines as they needed men to replace those who had died there.
On August 18th, 1945, the union Jack was raised over Camp Shamsuipo. The Japanese had surrendered earlier, but the Japanese camp administration withheld the news.
For some reason he had survived not only the battle of HK but also the brutality of the POW camps he had been kept prisoner in. I share his thoughts so others will have a better understanding of what can happen to a society, to a country and to the men, women and children who enjoy freedom today. The change in ideology for the Japanese Military began in 1921 when Prince Hirohito made the military independent of cabinet and responsible to him alone. All male boys born from that date on were to become part of this ideology to form a highly trained military force of men programmed to fight to die. Our military ideology was to fight to defend and to live.
The process of mind change is not immediate, as evidenced; it takes time and we should be very vigilant as to what is taking place in the world today. My father’s lesson and he always felt it important that our young people understand history and ideologies executed in the wrong hands and for the wrong purposes can change world history.
His thoughts as shared in his later years gave me a better understanding as to why he was the way he was, and that’s all I need to say.
He found it hard to accept that as he had just about lost all will to live, he was “free and going home.” He was one of the few prisoners still capable of making his way unaided, perhaps because he was an Officer. He felt that as Officers they were indeed treated somewhat better, nonetheless, some were in such bad shape that they had to be carried out of the camps.
“If it weren’t for the use of the atomic bomb, as horrible as it was on the Japanese people, none would have survived. The ‘Bomb’ was the only event in the war that gave cause for the Japanese Military to surrender. Otherwise they would have fought to the last man standing honoring the “Bushido Code”.
He could hardly comprehend it, going home after almost 4 years as a Japanese POW, to his mother & father, his wife, children and family. He recounted many times, over the course of returning home, in his mind’s eye, he could picture everything so clearly. All the things he hadn’t allowed himself to think about for such a long time, that now finally, he knew that it was to be all within reach, he allowed the thoughts and memories to pour over him unabated. At the same time, he knew that life would never be the same again. He had seen things, experienced things that had ”changed him forever.”
“He hated how he had changed. Hated what he had been forced to witness. Some of his comrades died before they could even get home. It was just another death, he had “seen so many.” I remember his comment to me many times; that he had nothing against the Japanese people, just their military. He talked to me about his experience only in his later years and now as I look back I have come to realize that perhaps he did not say much for the same reason most men who have seen combat----kept silent. “The totality of it was simply too painful for words.”
“Sometimes in prison, he would hear a roaring sound in his ears, but most often it was filled with an empty, rushing silence. There was something about the sight of a guard’s rifle butt coming towards him that represented the ultimate betrayal. In spite of the fact that they stood on opposite sides in the war, they were a human contact that normally should have given the men a sense of respect and security as our own forces did and would have in a similar situation. But when he saw the captors raise the butts of their rifles, he felt the pain as it struck as if it was his own, and all his illusions about the innate goodness of human beings had been shattered.”
He said that “as he sat there, waiting for the final release, surrounded by others who had suffered as he had, many of them so sick and traumatized, that they would not survive even now, he made a sacred vow to himself, that he would look after his fellow comrades in whatever capacity he could for the rest of his life.”
As a young boy, I could not relate to how he must have been feeling. I now know the reason why he went out in the middle of the night, many times, was to help fellow HK veterans cope with illness and mental instability they suffered after the war.
He went on to become the Regional President and then National President of the HK Veterans Association of Canada. He was liked by his men and that was all he needed to survive his own mental issues.
He lived a full life until his death at 94-- February 2001. I am very proud and thankful to have been able to get know him along with many of his comrades, and to have been able to have him as my Dad.
God bless our veterans for what we have today!
A HK POW”s son