Canada's Part in the Defence of Hong Kong

by Ron McGuire

This month [December 2001] is the 60th anniversary of what is now recognized as one of Canada's greatest military blunders. Canadian should be aware of the involvement of our Forces, the first to see action during the Second World War, and what those surviving the battles endured as Japanese prisoners of War. (POWs).

This is a very brief overview of their complex story. For readers wanting to know more about this sad episode in our military history there are many excellent articles and publications to consult.

Coincidentally, this is being written sixty years later to the day — 16 November when “C” Force, arrived in Hong Kong with considerable fanfare. The Hong Kong Telegraph had its first ever Sunday edition announcing the arrival of the forces consisting of a Brigade Headquarters and two regiments, the Royal Rifles of Canada and Winnipeg, Grenadiers, a total of 1,972 men and two nursing sisters. One soldier died on the sea voyage from Canada, an omen of what was to come.

The Canadians were intended to reinforce the British Crown Colony’s Garrison, but should never have been committed by the Government of Prime Minister Mackenzie King. The majority of our soldiers were poorly trained, inexperience and inadequately equipped. Equally, inexcusable, they were expected to help defend, what we now know was known by those in power, to be indefensible against attack. The Canadians were virtually sacrificed with only the vague hope their presence would deter the Japanese from extending their undeclared war in China and to bolster the morale of the Chinese who had been desperately fighting their savage invaders since 1937.

Hours after yet another undeclared war against the United States at Pearl Harbour, the Japanese attacked the mainland across from Hong Kong island. To their surprise and dismay, they encountered determined opposition which disrupted by weeks their well planned schedule of conquest throughout Asia and the Pacific. After seventeen and a half days of valiant efforts by the defenders against insurmountable odds, Hong Kong finally surrendered on Christmas Day.

Canadian losses were 290 dead and 493 wounded, some of whom soon died from lack of medical treatment.

For a variety of gallant actions , a number of Canadians were awarded decorations. One of them was Winnipeg Grenadier, Company Sergeant Major John Osborn. He had led his men in the capture of Mount Butler from the enemy with bayonets. They were soon forced to withdraw and became surrounded. Osborn return several Japanese grenades before being unable to reach one. He shouted a warning as he fell on it, saving his men from the death he sustained. Osborn, who was a Navy veteran of the First World War, was posthumously awarded Canada*s first Victoria Cross of the Second World War. The Royal Rifles had a Newfoundland dog mascot named Gander. During the fighting this loyal and highly intelligent animal did things which saved his “comrades" from death, including running off with a Japanese grenade. The Dickin Medal for Bravery was awarded to Gander on October 27,2000. Fred Kelly, the dog*s handler from when Gander “joined” the Regiment when it was serving in Newfoundland, accepted this award. Gander is the first “Newfoundlander” (and “Canadian”) as well as one of nineteen dogs to receive the award, the first to be given since 1949. It is considered to be the animal Victoria Cross. Both medals may be seen along with “C” Force artifacts in the Hong Kong Exhibit Room in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. Those who survived the fighting became part of what would eventually be over 140,000 Japanese POWs. Their well documented existence has often been described as “hell on earth”. Initially, Canadians were kept in camps in Hong Kong. The men were used as forced slave labour to rebuild and extend Kai Tak airdrome (now Check Lap airport). On August 20, 1942, four Winnipeg Grenadiers successfully escaped their ordeal. Unfortunately, they were soon recaptured and immediately executed.

When the runway was completed a total of 1184 Canadian, including only one medical officer, were transferred to Japan. By then, early 1943, another 128 of their comrades were dead from avoidable causes including: untreated wounds and disease, starvation diets, overwork, unsanitary conditions and the brutal mistreatment inflicted by their Japanese guards.

In Japan, the barbaric living and working conditions were worse. POWs were made to toil in dangerous and even more unhealthy environments. The coal, copper and iron mines were damp dark and totally unsafe. Ship building and other industries were no better. POWs received permanent eye damage and some went blind from using welding equipment without protection. Objections and refusals to work resulted in terrible beatings, often ending in death. Frail and sick they would collapse from heavy work in the rail yards and on the docks. Industrial accidents were common place and daily occurrences.

When Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, another 136 Canadians had died. But before survivors reached Canada, three more succumbed from the rigorous and debilitating conditions of 1377 dreadful days of captivity, thus a total of 560 never returned home. The three liberated POWs were however, only the first of literally thousands of Japanese POWs from a dozen allied countries that would die prematurely after liberation.

Upon release they were emaciated, many weighing less than half what they did on enlisting. All were impaired physically, many had mental problems. Their bodies were riddled with ailments, some obvious, other initially difficult to diagnose or long in appearing. They had to be hospitalized frequently, for long periods, for many years. They suffered and so did their families. The overall death rate for Japanese POWs was a staggering 27%, While the Canadians may have faired better statistically with about a 16% rate, it was only due to their sheer tenacity and will to live, the latter usually driven by thoughts of their families and loved ones back home, their beliefs and approach to life in general.

The nursing sisters, Kay Christie and May Waters (both deceased) have the dubious distinction of being the only Canadian women POWs. They were fortunate to be released in September 1943 as part of a mainly civilian prisoner exchange. They were brought home by the Swedish hospital ship, S.S. Gripsholm in relatively good health.

Unknown numbers of our Hong Kong Veterans could have lived longer and suffered less had the Canadian Government acknowledged sooner the numerous health problems of these POWs and provided them with medical benefits to combat disease in early stages. The ex-POWs were forced to form the Hong Kong Veterans Association (HKVA) to fight yet another battle with the government which was responsible for their plight from the beginning. It took decades but slowly, the Association obtained the necessary medical benefits. The last pension was granted in August 2001, ironically during the final HKVA reunion. As it was with the previous pensions far too late to be of use to those who needed them the most - from the day they returned home in 1945.

In 1995, fifty years after the end of the War, the Government of Canada created the Hong Kong bar, to be worn on the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal. It also decided that Hong Kong Veterans were now eligible for the Defence medal. There were then less than 400 veterans still living to receive these long overdue forms of recognition.

Understandably, the Hong Kong Veterans also wanted compensation from Japan for the slave labour they performed and an official apology for the inhumane treatment they received. Years of requests and legal action failed, including one to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Finally, on December 11, 1998 a settlement was paid but only to the approximately 350 Veterans and 400 widows still living. It was not a totally satisfactory resolution because the payout was not from Japan but from the Canadian Government. It was too late for hundreds of those entitled to have received it, and there was no apology. To this day Japan has still not apologized specifically to the veterans.

Several sons and daughters of the Hong Kong Veterans foresaw the day when the HKVA would not be able to carry on their work. In 1996, they formed the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association (HKVCA) to eventually take over from the veterans. At their last reunion held in Winnipeg on August 18, 2001 , the HKVA passed the torch to the HKVCA. This is the reason a torch forms part of the logo. The Association will assist veterans and their families when required. They are seeking sponsors to lay special wreaths at cenotaphs across Canada on behalf of their Veterans. Connie, my wife and I had the honour to place the first wreath at the Westboro (Ottawa, Ontario) Cenotaph on November 11,2001, and will do so again on future Remembrance Days.

The strength of characters of the Hong Kong Veterans in the face of continued cruelty, “man*s inhumanity to man” is a true example of human endurance. The HKVCA motto states another objective, to ensure that Canadians “Never Forget” these veterans and their experiences.

May their comrades rest in peace.