The S.S. Awatea approached the Island of Hong Kong on the morning of November 16, 1941 less then one month before the Jap attack on Pearl Harbour. That morning the sun rose blood red in the east. A fiery ball in a clear sky, blinding to look upon, here was the symbol of Japan, a blood red ball blazoned across the sky to welcome us. Although we did not know it at that time, behind those low hills that fringed the Mainland, crouched the battle seasoned soldiers of Japan in their tens of thousands, fresh from the rape of Nanking and the capture of the cities like Canton in China. Here they waited, impatient to be unleashed on the white man’s settlement of Hong Kong, the greatest prize in China.
I stood by the ship’s rail with Sergeant John Payne and some of the others and we saw only the romantic and mysterious East. We saw the blazing sun as the sun of Kipling’s ballad “Come back to Mandalay. Come back you British soldiers”. We were back.
As the ship passed along the channel that runs between the Island of Hong Kong and the mainland of Kowloon we gaped at the endless mass of fishing boats, junks, barges and Chinese houseboats that littered the harbour. I pointed eagerly to the first native Chinaman I saw. He wore a black blouse and a long pigtail. I remembered that I thought that pigtails were outdated in China. Slowly and majestically we sailed past all the flotsam of China till we came to where the channel narrows to about one Mile.
The Crown Colony of Hong Kong takes in the island and then spreads over 350 square miles of the Kowloon mainland. It is a conglomeration of modern buildings. There were banks, warehouses, Government offices, etc. and native buildings of every description mostly constructed of wood. These last, to our western eyes, seemed to be much in need of paint and repairs. On the Island of Hong Kong, back of the business section, there rises a high ridge of hills. The highest and most central of these is called the Peak. On the slopes of the hills are built the homes of the more wealthy families, mostly British. Some are quite pretentious and have all modern conveniences. It seems the higher you go the bigger the house and the more important in the affairs of the Colony.
All along the water’s edge, both on the Island and at Kowloon are crowded native huts surrounding the dock areas. On the water itself live a real floating population of tens of thousands. They live in barges, junks, and houseboats of the flimsiest construction or anything else that will float. I was told that the native population of Hong Kong had doubled during the Japanese war with China as hundreds of thousands of Chinese had fled here to escape the Jap. They sought protection under the British flag and constituted quite a problem to the authorities. There was at the same time we arrived a million people to be fed and housed. Many died of neglect and starvation. It was not unusual to see a dead child lying in the gutter with people hurrying by paying no attention. The fear of starvation was seldom removed from these people. Crowded into such a small space they were dependent on supplies, mainly rice, brought in by ship. When the lifeline of shipping was out, as happened even before the Japs attacked, the position of the civilian population was desperate. Robbing and looting added to the chaos.
We were welcomed on the mainland of Kowloon by the bands of the British Garrison, the Royal Scots and the Middlesex Regiments. Besides these the Garrison consisted of two Indian Regiments, one Rajputs the other Punjabi, garrison artillery, engineers and medicals. Altogether, including the Canadians, there must have been eight thousand troops of all arms. Wearing battle order equipment and dressed in tropical shorts and shirts we marched through the dock district of Kowloon, headed by our bands, to a local football field where we were officially welcomed by the Governor, Sir Mark Young, and the British Commander, Major-General C.M. Maltby M.C.
After the ceremony we marched a distance of four miles to Sham Shui Po Camp. This camp, in which many others and I were to be held as prisoners, was a permanent British Garrison Encampment. As we marched through the streets of Kowloon we carried ourselves proudly. We were all big men and hoped to make a good impression on the inhabitants. We eagerly scanned the streets for all that was strange and different. We breathed deeply the smell of the Orient, camphor and sandalwood, cooking and drains. We stared blankly at Chinamen pulling rickshaws. How they scampered. No one seemed to pay any particular attention to us. A hasty glance and they went about their business. The only flags we saw were the cotton and paper streamers with Chinese lettering that bedecked many of the native stores. This is where we first sensed the ominous. Something was foreboding.
These people were evidently afraid. Afraid of what? The average Chinaman has a full share of human intelligence and he knew, I now believe, what was in store for Hong Kong and for us. Many of them had seen the Jap in action. Seen the rape of the great cities of China, like Nanking. They knew what the Jap was capable of. Knew his numbers. Knew how near he was and that Jap emissaries were already among them. They were afraid.
At Camp Sham Shui Po we found excellent quarters, compared to the troop ship, and all thought this was the life of “Reilly”, Sergeants seemed to be somebody in this neck of the woods. We were waited on hand and foot. We could also procure the services of a Chinese servant. A young Chinaman, who asked to be my boy, approached me. His pay? Two Hong Kong dollars a week, sixty cents in Canadian money, for this amount he did as much as any personal servant could do, cleaning equipment, shining buttons, ironing and pressing clothes, running errands, etc. He even wanted to shave me before I was awake in the morning. I remember I awoke the first morning feeling rather damp and saw a razor being flourished in front of my face held in a skinny yellow hand. I had trouble distinguishing my grinning boy from a Jap. Wiping the soap from my lips I spluttered, “Don’t do that any more!”
These services were all very pleasant at the time but not so pleasant is the memory. Later, in the same camp when we were hungry prisoners, we learned that the East Indian employed by the British to supervise these personal servants was a Japanese agent and spy. He came into our prison camp where many Indian troops were also held and in their own language asked the Indians to desert and serve the Japs. He got few recruits. The Garrison tailor, who was an Indian, and the barber, a Japanese, were also spies. There were dozens of others in the Garrison and hundreds among the teeming millions of Hong Kong. Why the British closed their eyes to all this I do not know. Luckily we had been alerted enough to remove most of the white women and children. Those who remained either refused to be evacuated or were Red Cross Nurses staying at their posts. How the Japs treated these women, in too many cases, brands them as beasts and savages. One portion of the white population, including the Military, seemed to be alerted and fully aware of the peril that faced them, the other carried on as usual.
Before landing from the ships we were told to take off our Canadian badges and all else that might identify the Battalion. Later the same day we bought Hong Kong papers with glaring headlines, “Canadians land in Hong Kong.” Such is Official secrecy.
We noticed at every street corner the tall Sikh policeman, a very fine body of men. We remembered the lectures on the boat as to our behavior when meeting the East Indian, that they did not smoke or drink and we should not spit in their presence. While remaining at their posts performing police duties many of these fine tall men were killed by the Japs. Others were forced to continue these duties under the Japanese.
From India comes many breeds, the lowly coolie from the rice paddies of the burning plains, the clever and often times rich Parsee1 merchant or barber, the hardy little Gurkha soldier from the hills of Nepal, and the warrior types, the Sikhs, Rajputs and Punjabi, the last, fighting hill men from the north.
After the surrender I saw an example of the courage and loyalty of these Indian troops. They were herded into an enclosure of barbed wire and the Nip made use of his Indian spies and collaborators to urge these men to join the victors and have a share in the spoils. This they steadfastly refused to do, paying little or no attention to those making the appeal other then spit in disgust. The Japs, to emphasize how much choice was allowed them, brought up a machine gun and trained it upon them. The Indian soldiers took quick notice of the gun. As a man they walked up to the wire, bared their chests by tearing open the front of their shirts, and with feet apart and heads thrown back challenged the Japs to shoot. The Japs withdrew the gun. How many of these proud warriors were latter reduced to dead and living skeletons? Did the Japs ever break their spirit? I think not.
We had been on the mainland about two weeks and had carried out battle practice and maneuvers when we were ordered over to the Island of Hong Kong. A plan of defense was taking shape and the two Canadian Battalions were to be part of the reserves on the Island. The Royal Scots and the two Indian Battalions were left on the mainland in prepared positions, the first to oppose the Jap when he attacked.
We crossed the ferry and marched through the business section of Hong Kong. It was a warm day late in November. The seasons at Hong Kong and Japan are much the same as our own but the winter days are often hot while the nights are freezing cold. We wore full battle dress with steel helmets and were loaded down with machine guns and ammunition. Our air was entirely different than when we first arrived. Then we came to garrison, now we were taking the field. The British authorities had supplied us with some field equipment including two Bren Carriers. Our own had been on a different ship and was detained at Manila.
The seriousness of things was plain now to everyone. Big events were afoot and we were in the middle of them. Feeling the heat as we marched through Hong Kong, seeing the furtive looks of the people, and noting the brooding Peak beyond, I thought of Lyttons “The Last Days of Pompeii”. The Roman soldiers on guard at the City gate kept their places when all others had fled. Were we going to keep ours? There was one thing about Hong Kong, the people had no place to flee to, unless it was by sea.