Memories Uninvited - To Hong Kong

A Detour

We went back to our old stomping grounds in Valcartier for a very short stay before leaving for Saint John, New Brunswick. "D" Company was assigned  guard duty on the West Side. Whenever I hear the songs, "Marie Elena" or Bie Mir Bist du Schoen I think of those days, only nineteen of them, in Saint John.

The Journey Begins

Back again to Valcartier! We moved around so much that some wag dubbed us "The Price Brothers  Circus. This  time, though, it was for real. We were there just long enough to get jabbed with a few needles, get outfitted with tropical uniforms, go on a very short embarkation leave, then climb on a train headed west. I had never been west of Quebec City, so each day was a new experience. I was nineteen then, and as green as the prairie grass that went by my window. We were in old colonial cars, with wooden seats and overhead bunks that were pulled down at night. Byron Willett, who always had much to say, was up on the top bunk giving the rest of us a verbal going-over when someone slammed the bunk shut, locking him in.

He would have smothered, but some kind soul braved a tongue-lashing and pulled the bunk down. We were all roundly cursed, but Byron's bark was much worse than the bites he threatened us with but never carried out.

Our food was served in the cars and we ate at our seats from tin plates and enamel mugs, We were supposed to collect the dirty dishes and return them to the galley, but many of them are probably still rusting along the railroad track.

At Horne Payne, in Northern Ontario, we stopped early one morning and were taken on a route march. It was frosty, and snow flakes were in the air. It seemed so bleak and desolate that I never forgot it, and in the first years that followed I would have gladly exchanged  my bug-infested billet for the frost of Horne Payne.

Our journey took us by the CNR route through Jasper National Park, eventually ending in Vancouver where we boarded the waiting "Awatea".

A Passage to Hong Kong

(photo courtesy of Jim Fairie)

The "Awatea" was a New Zealand liner, converted, to some extent, to a troop ship.

Mutton was the staple diet. Before long the complaints from the troops could be heard in every quarter. No pun intended. Ken Cambon, who after returning to Canada wrote the book, "Guest of Hirohito"*, composed a poem about the trip in which the mention of mutton appears prominently. "Our cheeks were just juttin' with nutin' but mutton", which nicely said it all, about the food.

Heavy guns had been mounted on the upper decks causing a certain top-heaviness and thus contributing to a great deal of pitching and rolling. Some of the men became seasick and never got their sea legs all the way across the Pacific. I was lucky and didn't get sea sick at all.

On the ship there was some arms training and boat drill, but in general, not much took place to break the routine. I remember in particular a movie that was shown. I don't remember anything about the plot, but there was a song that has haunted my memory till this day. I have heard it only once since then, and before I could identify it, it was gone. Some of the words were, "You couldn't be much nicer, You couldn't be much sweeter ...... than you are.", or something like that. I have asked in several places but it still remains a mystery to me. I seem to recall that in the movie it was sung to a little girl.

We were warned not to throw anything overboard. The reason given that was any garbage would give enemy ships a clue as to where we were.

We docked in Pearl Harbor under the famous clock. Hula dancers came to the dock and put on a show for us. Some of the lads went ga-ga over them and showered them with money. An old adage that my Mother used to repeat, "A willful waste makes a woeful want", came to my unsophisticated mind. It would be only months before the money tossed onto the dock that day would have been very useful indeed, and possibly lifesaving.

Thanks For The Memory

Perhaps the following story will be classified as "bragging", but ... I'm going to tell it anyhow.When we loaded our office supplies aboard ship all my Company records went into a box labelled, "D" Coy, and the number 1042, which was, I believe the number of the Royal Rifles of Canada. One day, during the voyage, Major Parker summoned me and asked if I had a nominal roll of the Company. I shamefacedly had to admit that I had no such document having packed everything away in Valcartier in preparation for the trip.

What to do? After tossing it around in my mind for awhile I went to each of the  Platoon Sergeants, and got a list of the men in their charge. I put all these lists together, arranged the names in alphabetical order, and put the name, rank and serial number beside each name.

Except for Lance Ross, whose number was E/1144, and Randolphe Steele, whose number was E/1145, all the men in "D" Company had numbers starting with a letter followed by a five digit number. Doubt me if you will, but this is the truth ... I managed to arrange 125 names and serial numbers in alphabetical order ... and get them all right.  I had typed the nominal roll a hundred times and had a system of remembering the numbers based on the time and place of enlistment of each of the men in the Company. I found a typewriter and typed out the names again and presented the list to the Major. I don't know if he ever knew what had taken place.

We stopped in Manila in the sweltering heat, but again, didn't leave the ship. We moved on again after dark and before long it became blissfully cool. We were headed north, to Hong Kong.

* Guest of Hirohito, published by PW Press, Vancouver, B.C., Canada