Ernie's Story

Once Upon A Time


This story is for the family of Ernie Hodkinson but especially for his grandsons and great grandchildren. His sons already know his story - at least as much as anyone can know someone else's story.

As a nineteen year old boy, Ernie wrote this in his diary: "Winnipeg, Dec. 26, 1926 - Church at 11 o'clock, Sunday School at 3 p.m., Brotherhood of St. Andrew at 4:15, Pilgrims for supper, Home at 10:30 p.m.

Fifteen years later, a fellow prisoner would write in his diary: "Hong Kong, Dec.26, 1941 - a truce has been made and we are now prisoners of war" (from personal diary of Corporal L. Ross, Royal Rifles).

What happened in those fifteen years to the boy who went to church, scouts, and militia and spent as much time as possible with his beautiful young sweetheart, Irene Pilgrim, who lived nearby in Winnipeg?

Who this young man was and how he came to be a prisoner and endure the horrors of a Japanese P.O.W. camp is Ernie's story.

Ernie Hodkinson was the only surviving child of James and Clara Hodkinson, who emigrated from England when Ernie was a small boy. James had been in the British Army in India and Africa and seldom saw his family. Their home was one of a long row of attached houses in Macclesfield, Cheshire, the industrial heartland of England. Clara later described it as street after street of dirt and grime from the smoky mills nearby where the men and women worked long hours for low wages.

James and Clara Hodkinson

Eventually James left the army and was employed in a china shop. According to family stories, he left after a dispute with the owner who had promised to make him a partner. Clara wanted to go somewhere better for her babies. All her children except Ernie had died of respiratory ailments. James needed a new start somewhere and for reasons unknown he settled in Winnipeg.

Once he was settled there, he sent for Clara and little Ernie who came by ship with many other immigrants. Clara told Ernie that she used to play cards with the other women on the boat and in order to keep the lively Ernie safe, she tied him to a long rope so he could play but not get lost or fall overboard. Clara was a loving mother and a sociable friendly woman of whom Ernie always spoke with affection and respect.

James, on the other hand was a rough, hard drinking, little man who had difficulty keeping a job. But the family survived and a daughter Florence was born.

Ernie seldom spoke of his childhood except to say that they had to move frequently because they couldn't pay the rent. Always he spoke well of his mother Clara who was a hard working housewife, mother, and a devout member of the Church of England. Ernie grew up and by the age of nineteen [when his diaries begin] he too was hard working and devout. He was a young man who was interested in Scouts, the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Church of England.

Ernie's diaries for the years 1926 to 1929 have survived and even though they are small "Boy Scout Diary" books, only allowing room for a few brief lines each day, they give a clear picture of Ernie's daily life during those years. His address during those four years was always the same: 352 Kensington St., St. James. This must have been a stable period in his life. He liked order in all things: Scouts, Church of England, and the militia of the Winnipeg Grenadiers. His diary entries show his desire to achieve success within these highly structured institutions, all of which stress loyalty to country, and good moral behaviour as well as strength in adversity. This pattern of behaviour so ingrained during early manhood would lead to great valour and perhaps even saved his own life as well as the lives of others during the terrible ordeal he faced in later life as a soldier and a P.O.W.

The following entries show the pattern of his life during 1926:

JAN.1 - New Year's Day - Church at 11:15, first footing at Jim Young's house - afternoon and evening.

JAN.2 - made floor manager at M.F.S. [Mark-Fisher Store] party at J.Rogers 126 College 8 p.m. Fine time.

JAN.3 - Scouts own 11 a.m. at Scouts Cave St. James, Sunday School 3 p.m. good lesson, boys attentive. Church 7 p.m. Dramatic Society practice.

JAN.9 - 2:30 p.m. at Scout's Cave. Helped clear rink on river. Borrowed Bill Bruning's skates to play hockey and we won 3 to 0. Supper 6 Marlborough with Irene. Dance. Fine time.

It was a rare entry that didn't mention a Church or Scout activity or meeting, often with Ernie as instructor or teacher, even though he was only nineteen in 1926. His other interests are revealed in the next entries:

JAN.23 - worked for 2 hrs. on Machine Gun Course - called Irene at 7:45 p.m. - not home Went to Classic myself. Saw good picture taken from Zane Grey's novel "Call of the Canyon".

FEB.26 - mailed machine gun course to Tuxedo. Went to Father and Son Banquet at Roseberry Hall 6:30 p.m., Cubs 7:30 p.m.and back to put on sketch at Roseberry Hall - sketch bunk

FEB.20 - Scout Cave 3:15 p.m. Lost hockey game 4 - 0 to 4th. Assiniboine. Fixed stove in Cave and returned home. Spent 2 and 1/2 hours on Machine Gun homework - more to do.

FEB.25 - posted Machine Gun homework. Met Irene corner of Brooklyn and Portage, caught street car and went to St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church to see play.

MAR.13 - chopped wood in afternoon. Called on Irene 8 o'clock, went to Classic Theatre. Had a good time. Home 11:30. Wrote to Capt. Worthington about M.G. [machine gun] Course.

MAY 27 - chopped all wood in sight. Called for Irene at 8 p.m. to go to Capitol but landed at Classic.

During the following Spring, he mentions taking piano lessons, long hours of stock taking at work, and entering some long distance foot races. He was a young man seizing all that life had to offer to a single man of limited means in Winnipeg in 1926. But more and more the gunner's course with the militia and dates with Irene are recorded along with all the weekly Church and Scout activities. Bill Burnett, who eventually became his brother-in-law --he married Irene's younger sister, Norra-- remembered this about Ernie:

"On recalling my first meeting with Ernie - I was 12 years old, he some years older, and we were both on a street car going from St. James to the famous Winnipeg Minto Armories, he in the uniform of a Grenadier Cadet (I'm sure he had stripes and a rank even then). I was in my Queen's Own Cameron Cadet uniform and at the time learning the bagpipes. We didn't talk much, he being older. [We] Saw each other many times on the parade floor - little did we know then that we would be related by marriage." (Letter from Wm. Burnett April 5/1997)

In the summer he spends a few days at Camp Hughes with the militia and spends even more time at the Minto barracks where his desire to be a successful gunner is slowly being realized, as is shown by the following entries. He also meets Capt. Sutcliff, who is to play a role later in Ernie's life during the fall of Hong Kong.

AUG. 26 - machine guns at Minto had lecture on mechanism by Sutcliff.

SEPT.2 - cleaned guns for camp at St. Charles MADE SERGEANT

NOV.4 - M. Guns at Minto. Start N.C.O. course next 6 weeks. Home at 10:30

DEC 16 - passed examination at Minto barracks at 8:15 p.m. Lecture on fire movement by Capt. Worthington

So by the end of 1926, he is steadily progressing in his militia training. He is employed. He is in love and his life is full of healthy activities and interests. The diary entries that started 1927 described much the same activities that had filled Ernie's days during the previous year.

JAN 1 - NEW YEAR'S DAY - St. James Hall until 2 a.m. Home at 2:30 a.m. Went to see Chris' brother in the morning and toboganning in the afternoon at River Park, Classic at night

JAN.8 - snowed all afternoon and turned to blizzard at night. Called on Irene and went to Classic & saw "Brown of Harvard" Home at 10:45 p.m.

JAN.23 - Church at 11 a.m. S.S. at 3 p.m. Brotherhood of St. Andrews at 4:15 Supper at Pilgrims Church 7 p.m. Irene's after Church Home at 10:30 p.m.

FEB.17 - Barracks at 8 o'clock Took class in I.T. and was left on own to take Gun Drill - 3 guns

MAR.17 - St. Patrick's Day - Barracks until 10:15 p.m. Irene waiting for me outside. Walked home. Home at 11:20 p.m.

Mar.24 - M.G. at Minto - Gun Drill and Battalion Drill. Appointed C.S.M. [Company Sargeant Major] To get "crown" next week. Walked home with Jack Harrison

APRIL 2 - Rain - S.S. & Cub & Scout work all afternoon. Called on Irene at 7:30 p.m., went to Classic Theatre & saw Wm. S. Hart in "Tumble Weeds" Home at 10:30 p.m.

In July, Ernie's diary records a trip to the Dauphin area. This was "home" to the Pilgrim family who had settled there when they first arrived from England. The following article from the "Langley Advance" describes the background of Ernest Pilgrim in Canada: Mr. and Mrs. Pilgrim were wed March 26th, 1898 in Plaistow, Essex, England. He was a carpenter, sculpter [sic] and building contractor.

Mabel and Ernest Pilgrim

Back in 1903, Mr. and Mrs. Pilgrim came to Canada and settled at Dauphin, Manitoba. They raised a family of three girls while Mr. Pilgrim followed the contracting trade throughout the province and later throughout the prairie provinces .... Mr. Pilgrim left his mark of construction in Western Canada. Years ago he was responsible for constructing the first re-enforced concrete bridge in Manitoba. That was on the Neepawa-Minnedosa highway - only it wasn't a highway in those days - just a prairie road. Mr. Pilgrim recalls that travellers and engineers were sceptical of the span and some refused to cross it, preferring to ford the river. Since that date he has put up bridges through-out Manitoba and has also been superintendent on many important buildings including the Winnipeg Auditorium and the United Church at Flin Flon and many others .... Mr.Pilgrim takes tremendous pride in numerous articles and furnishings which he has made for Anglican Churches all over Western Canada as a hobby. He has worked articles in stone, marble, and wood, including an altar of limestone that weighed several tons. (Langley Advance, c. 1950's) By the time Ernie met the Pilgrim family, they had been living in Winnipeg for some time and his sweetheart was Irene, their eldest daughter. Her two younger sisters were Nora and Gladys. The Mrs. Pilgrim they are going to visit is Hilda, Ernest Pilgrim's sister. She married Harry Pilgrim, who was later trampled by a bull, leaving Hilda with her two children, George and Betty, to manage the farm. This article from" The Gilbert Plains Maple Leaf" tells of the first members of the Pilgrim family to settle in the area: On September 23, 1901, Harry Pilgrim received the first tax receipt issued ... in the newly formed municipality of the district of Gilbert Plains. Harry was born in London, England and at the age of 18 left the "Old Country" sailing on the "Circassian" of the Allen Boat Lines. He arrived in Montreal on September 6th, 1892 after a voyage that took only twelve days and arrived in Winnipeg on September 9th, 1892. In the fall of the same year he arrived in the Gartmore district and when not working in logging camps, he made his home with his uncle, Joseph Pilgrim, who had settled in the Gartmore district for several years. In 1895 or 1896 Harry made an application for his homestead and on August 9, 1899 received his homestead patent.... Late in 1899 he made a trip back to England but returned to his homestead in 1900. On June 25th, 1903, in Winnipeg, he married Hilda Pilgrim, a cousin who had recently arrived from London, and they made their home on the homestead. In 1904 Hilda's brother Ernie Pilgrim came to Canada and for a short time lived with Harry and his wife Hilda. Ernie Pilgrim, a stone mason by trade, built the present St. Matthew's Anglican church in Gilbert Plains in 1905, and also constructed several stone and cement bridges in the Dauphin, Grandview and Gilbert Plains districts .... Sixteen years later Harry died at the early age of 49 and was buried in Dauphin cemetery. His family continued to live on the old homestead until 1943 when the farm was sold. --Gilbert Plains Maple Leaf (September 28, 1961) written by Mrs. Betty (Pilgrim) Weir, Vancouver In July of 1927 Ernie Hodkinson sets out with the Pilgrim family to visit Hilda Pilgrim on her farm near Gilbert Plains. His diary records the difficulty of travel in rural Manitoba in 1927.

JULY 5 - Left for Dauphin at 9 o'clock. Rain. Tire trouble & stomach trouble. Reached Gladstone 96 mi.

JULY 6 - Pushed on at 10 o'clock but owing to rains and rubber mud only reached McCleary stayed at Mtn. View Hotel.

JULY 7 - Left McCleary at 1/4 to 9, arrived at Mrs. Pilgrim's 12 mi. north of Dauphin at 1/4 to 3. Had good supper and went to bed.

JULY 8 - Irene wants Photo. up at 7:30. picked straw. Fixed up screen windows & played around. Went in river in afternoon & then had supper. Bed at 10:30

JULY 9 - up at 7:30 Breakfast, pumped out cellar, went to Ashville for two panes of glass, 2 gal. of gas. Mail for Barretts, Bennington, & Pilgrims mail. Posted P.C. home, had ax sharpened & bought a pair of overalls for Mr. Pilgrim. Cleaned spark plugs. Picked strawberries & had supper & bed.

JULY 10 - Left Pilgrims to go to Dauphin Church. Late so went to Baptist. Dinner at Grace Norton's. Dauphin Lake in afternoon after meeting Madge McKee, C.of E. at night & back to Pilgrims.

JULY 11 - Irene and Aunt went to Dauphin. Mr.P. and I made a pig pen & drained the road to the farm as much as possible, Barretts for supper & barn dance after. Home at 3 o'clock.

JULY 12 - Left Dauphin at 9 o'clock. dull day. Got as far as Chicken's farm after being stuck in a mud hole for 2 i/2 hours. Bed at Chicken's farm. froze.

JULY 13 - up at 6 o'clock. Breakfast and away at 8 o'clock. after a little of good roads & more bad we arrived in Brandon at 11 o'clock & SLEPT.

On the road to Dauphin

JULY 14 - up at 9 o'clock. Breakfast & away from Brandon at 12 o'clock. good and bad roads. arrived Winnipeg 11:20 p.m. Slept at Pilgrims.

Throughout the rest of 1927, Ernie's diary continues to record Militia, Scout, and Church activities as well as frequent dates with Irene Pilgrim. Ernie learns to play tennis and takes part in many long distance races.

AUG.3 - 3 mile race, started last, finished 6th. Irene at our house for supper. Took her home and arrived home at 10:45.

AUG.6 - 5 mile race at River Park. Finished 2nd. to W. Zimmerman, his time was 27:54. Went to Irene's right after supper .... Home at 11:15 p.m.

Sept.10 - .... Left home at 6 o'clock to go to Road Race at 6:30. started scratch, finished first by 18" real nice race.

He continues militia training often with lectures from Captain Sutcliff. He has now made officer rank which is very important to him as is shown by the following entry:

NOV.17 - Barracks at 8:15 p.m. Shooting on ranges. Score 54 Upstairs in Officers' Mess for about 15 min. Home 11:30 p.m.

The diary entries for 1928 continue with most of the same activities. During the period between July 2 to 17, Camp Hughes is the only thing written across the pages except the word "RAIN". The summer of 1928 seems to have been an exceptionally rainy season in Manitoba. Other entries note the lack of money in the family and some quarrels with his Father. These are some examples:

OCT.17 - Worked until 8 o'clock. Home at 8:30 p.m. Got in through window

OCT.26 - Had to go home as Mother wanted wages

OCT.31 - Dad gave lecture, had to stay in but finally didn't

Church and Scout activities are recorded in 1929 but more frequently sessions at the Minto Barracks. He apparently spent every Thursday evening there for training and shooting matches. He also went again to Camp Hughes in the summer. The previous February, he had been recommended for a Commission and he frequently mentions Capt. Sutcliff giving lectures on various aspects of military life and skills. The diary entries end abruptly on November 30 for no apparent reason. During the years 1930 to 1940 there are no written records but many important events happened in Ernie's life. On Wednesday, September 30, 1931 at 7:30 p.m., Ernie married Irene Pilgrim at St. James Church in Winnipeg. Many of the cards from the wedding gifts and a congratulatory letter from Aunt Hilda address Irene as Renee, which was to be her nickname for the rest of her life. So Ernie and Irene who had been sweethearts since their teens were married and still living in Winnipeg. Ernie by now was working at Fords and the young couple rented a house on Madison St. James. Irene's younger sister Nora also got married but in quite different circumstances as told in this letter by her husband, Bill Burnett: Nora and I, very much in love and living in our own little world, decided to get married and so on Sept.19th., 1931 ... judge of the surrogate court ... married us. We kept it a secret until Oct. 30th. What a shock for both our parents .... When we then realized what an upsetting thing we had done. Not smooth for us either. In the year following we moved five times, no settling down. In late 1932, Nora and I decided to part for a while - she took my car with a few worldly belongings and went up to Aunt Hilda's at Ashville. I worked my way over to England in a cattle boat. Was very lucky in both England and Scotland getting part time work. On returning to Winnipeg in 1933, got a job in Flin Flon, Nora and I back together ... We weren't long in Flin Flon - when our house burnt to the ground. Allan was born in 1934 and our marriage lasted 58 years.Letter from Wm. Burnett (Feb. 5, 1998)

Ernie and Irene's marriage was somewhat less traumatic but their first son also was born in 1934. He arrived on January 17 and they named him Sydney Philip. A second son was born on July 22, 1935 and they named him Ernest Spencer. Some time before 1939, Ernie lost his job at Ford's as did so many men during The Great Depression of 1929 to 1939. In later years he told the family about being on the dole in Winnipeg. Every man on the dole had to work for the city. Ernie told of digging ditches in the bitter cold and how discouraged the men felt. There were no jobs to be had, no matter how hard one searched. Ernie kept his spirits up by thinking of his lovely young wife, his two sons and by keeping busy with Church and Scout activities and as always the militia of the Winnipeg Grenadiers.

Also sometime during these years, his beloved Mother, Clara died. No details of her death are available but it must have affected Ernie deeply. He and his Mother had shared so many struggles over the years and also shared so many values related to family and church as well loyalty to king and country.

A new era in Ernie's life was about to begin and all the strength of character that he had developed as a soldier, as a Scout leader and as devout member of the Church of England was to be tested to its limits.