Ernie's Story

"Courage and Defeat"

A report of the activities of the Winnipeg Grenadiers from Dec. 7th to Dec. 20th, 1941 is among Ernie's papers. This was written on Oct. 20th, 1945, at the request of the military after he was back in Canada. After the ordeal that he had been through, one might expect his memory of a battle that took place four years before to be vague. Instead here are four closely printed pages giving exact details of shelters, kitchens, road blocks, and gun emplacements. Ernie had not allowed the starvation and cruelties inflicted by the Japanese to take control of his mind or his memories. Later in this story, we shall see that the Japanese twice came close to destroying both the body and the mind of this brave man. The first time was at Wong Nei Chong Gap.

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Map of Hong Kong. (Click for larger view)

On Dec. 7th, 1941, Ernie records his arrival at Wong Nei Chong Gap. Officers were billeted in homes in the area and shelters and kitchens were set up in various locations such as Mt. Cameron Road and The Peak. On Dec. 8th, Ernie reports that he has completed the billeting, set up Anti-Aircraft guns, and that war was declared at 0620 hours.

From Dec. 9th to 11th, he describes more reorganization of personnel. Cpl. L. Ross of the Royal Rifles tells in his diary of the sinking of the H.M.S. Prince of Wales and the Repulse by Japanese planes near Malaya. This was demoralizing to the Canadians because with the American fleet crippled at Pearl Harbour and Britain's two great battleships gone, there was no hope of reinforcement. He also tells of constant Japanese bombing: "Can't sleep ....everything looks bad" ("Diary" E1144 CPL. ROSS, L. (Royal Rifles), Prisoner of War: Oct. 41 - Oct. 45, p. 2).

Ernie begins to mention the Japanese bombing in his Dec. 12th entry. On Dec. 13th and 14th, he writes:

Air and shelling activity spasmodic all day, making it necessary to work on the Sand Bags all night, every night .... No relief on any tasks .... just short periods of rest at the scene of the activity

On Dec. 15th to 18th, he tells of inspecting various positions, stores, and communications. Dec. 19th, 1941, was to change Ernie's life forever. That day he received orders to lead an attack on Wong Nei Chong police station and then to proceed to Mt. Parker. He never reached Mt. Parker.

The following account is from Desperate Siege: The Battle of Hong Kong, by Ted Ferguson:

Major Ernie Hodkinson's men adored him ....Hodkinson deftly blended firmness, respect for rules and a good guy quality that made him easy to approach. During the battle for Wong Nei Chong Gap, his men learned he had another side to him: awesome tenacity. Hodkinson was in command of "D" company .... To the small, slight Hodkinson fell the gigantic task of recapturing Wong Nei Chong police station .... Hodkinson accepted Fortress Headquarter's order .... without protesting that it was a near suicidal mission. Inwardly he had deep qualms. His platoon comprised 40 men and 2 Bren guns. 500 Japanese had been counted having breakfast on Wong Nei Chong slope. The Hodkinson platoon took 10 hours to cover half a mile. By this time the Japanese had already killed Brigadier Lawson and they were infiltrating everywhere. Hodkinson and his men encountered enemy soldiers practically every yard. The Major's determination to reach the knoll was amazing. Running in front, he threw grenades, fired his revolver and shouted encouraging words.

Ernie radioed for help but the Japanese used their machine guns to disable the vehicles as they tried to reach Ernie and his men. They continued in a drizzling rain to climb the slope that was so steep that they couldn't see the station above them. These are Ernie's memories as recorded by Ted Ferguson:

Seconds before he felt his body lifting, Hodkinson heard explosions and agonizing screams. When he thudded back down, his left side torn by a grenade blast, he blacked out.

He regained consciousness some time later and saw the dead bodies of his comrades all around him. He called feebly for help and when he came to, he was in the Queen Mary Hospital. He knew the assault had failed. One can only imagine how he felt about the great number of dead Winnipeg Grenadiers.

Two of those dead Grenadiers were Ernie's fellow officers, both of whom he had known for some time and admired. Brigadier John Lawson, who had said that the Grenadiers were not ready for battle, died at Wong Nei Chong Gap. Bob Manchester of the Winnipeg Grenadiers wrote in his diary:

There's been a lot of B. S. about how Lawson died. One version even had him charging out of the bunker with two pistols blazing, right out the wild west. That's a crock. I was manning a gun not far away and saw him and three others run from the bunker and start up the hill. A Japanese machine gun firing at us suddenly switched over to them. They were shot down like ten pins, like clay ducks. (The Valour and the Horror, p. 24)

The Japanese commander, Colonel Toshishige, recognized his bravery and did not leave his body lying in the sun but "ordered a temporary burial of the officer on the battleground because he died so heroically." (The Valour and the Horror, p. 34)

Company Sergeant Major John Osborn had enlisted in the Grenadiers in 1933 and was well known to Ernie. He died on Mount Butler. Private J. D. Pollock is quoted in The Lasting Honour: "Grenades started to come over. C. S. M. Osborn kept throwing them back at the Japs every time they threw them at us." Sergeant Pugsley wrote :

C. S. M. Osborn and I were discussing what was to be done now, when a grenade dropped beside him. He yelled to me and gave me a shove and I rolled down the hill. He rolled onto the grenade and was killed. I firmly believe he did this on purpose and by his action saved the lives of myself and at least six other men. (The Lasting Honour, p. 99)

Ernie was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his bravery at Wong Nei Chong Gap. Brigadier John Lawson and C. S. M. John Osborne were awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously.

The battle for Hong Kong raged all over the colony, affecting civilians as well as soldiers. Bob Clayton of the Royal Rifles, in "The Valour and the Horror" by Brian and Terrence McKenna, described what he heard:

It was horrible. The screams and ....all night long. I don't know what they were doing when they got in there. I guess they were looting and everything else. But the whole city was just one massive scream all night long. Just raised the hair on the back of your head."

On Dec. 22nd, Ernie's old instructor from the Minto Armouries, now Colonel Sutcliffe, sent the following cable to Canadian Defence Minister Ralston: "Situation critical. Canadian troops part prisoners. Residue engaged. Casualties heavy. Troops have done excellent work. Spirit excellent."

This was to be the final message from the Canadians at Hong Kong. Cpl. L. Ross of the Royal Rifles wrote on Dec. 26th., 1941: "A truce has been made and we are now prisoners of war."

Over 300 Canadians died in Hong Kong, most at Wong Nei Chong Gap. The Japanese lost 800 soldiers and were determined to get revenge.

At the time of the truce, Ernie was in the Queen Mary Hospital recovering from his wounds. Amongst Ernie's papers is a copy of his medical records. Professor Digby recorded on January 1, 1942, "Hand grenade wound. Several wounds L. side chest. Penetrated lung. Soundly healed but states F. B. (foreign body) still in chest."

Ernie can be considered fortunate to have been wounded before the surrender to the Japanese and to be already in the hospital. Those who were wounded and still lay on the battlefields were executed by the merciless Japanese.

Canadian Medical Officer Lieutenant Colonel John Crawford of the Winnipeg Grenadiers told of the scenes he witnessed at the Canadian-British ordnance depot about four days after the surrender:

The ordnance depot had a high hill on one side and a sharp drop on the other. There were a dozen bodies slumped close together at the base of the cliff. They were badly decomposed. I formed the opinion that these men had been lined up against the base of the cliff and shot. ..... there was another house ..... bordered by a parapet ..... and there was a straight drop of twenty feet. ..... At the foot of this drop there were about twenty corpses ..... these bodies had been bayoneted. (Dave McIntosh, Hell on Earth, p.10)

Private James Fowler of the Winnipeg Grenadiers told what happened when his position was overrun by the Japanese:

The Grenadiers threw down their weapons and put their arms over their heads. Many Canadian wounded were lying on the ground, and Fowler saw the Japanese thrusting their bayonets through them and heard the screams of the wounded being killed. (Dave McIntosh, Hell on Earth, p. 10)

Ernie can also be considered fortunate to be in the Queen Mary Hospital and not St. Stephen's Hospital where one of the worst Japanese atrocities occurred. There are many accounts of the horrors that happened at St. Stephen's on Christmas Day, including the bayoneting of the helpless men as they lay in their beds, the rape of nurses and the torture of individual patients. Captain James Barnett, padre of the Royal Rifles who was at St. Stephen's on December 25, 1941, testified to the following:

On the 26th of December, 1941, in the morning, a Japanese NCO or officer told me that I could move around. ..... I noticed that a number of our Allied men ... had been bayoneted in bed and were dead. Others were seriously wounded. ..... I discovered the bodies of McKay and Henderson. ..... Both bodies were badly mutilated ..... I next saw four nurses coming towards me. They were in a dreadful state ..... they had been assaulted by the Japanese soldiers. One nurse told me that all the people in the hospital were to be killed ..... The surrender of Hong Kong had saved us. (Dave McIntosh, Hell on Earth, p. 12)

Ernie often told about leaving the hospital with only a pair of shorts and some sandals. He didn't leave until January 21, 1942. According to his story, the nurses told him to get up and prepare to take a long walk. He was still weak and didn't think she could be serious. She was deadly serious. The Japanese were coming to "inspect" the hospital. Everyone knew about the horrors inflicted by the Japanese at St. Stephen's on the helpless patients. The nurse felt that Ernie's best chance of survival was to be well enough to walk to a prison camp.

Corporal L. Ross of the Royal Rifles says in his diary that the Winnipeg Grenadiers arrived at Sham Shui Po on January 23, 1942. Ernie records that he arrived on January 21, 1942. Sham Shui Po was on the mainland and was a compound of huts where the men slept on wooden bunks and some less fortunate on cement floors. Corporal Ross describes the conditions:

19 Jan. 42 The Japs had us formed up and counted us. Cold to-day.
23 Jan. 42 The Grenadiers have come here.
2 Feb. 42 Rice three times a day.
4 Feb. 42 Roof leaked very badly.
7 Feb. 42 Washed hut out.
11 Feb. 42 We are almost frozen to death and the roof leaks awfully.

Conditions were to be much worse and to last longer than Ernie or the other men ever thought possible. The next battle was to last for almost four years. It would take all of Ernie's physical, mental and spiritual strength to survive these terrible years.