by Susan Peterson, The Sentinel Courier
The history of the Hong Kong Veterans and the Winnipeg Grenadiers was something I knew nothing about until November 2006. Puzzling, as I have always known a fair bit about Pearl Harbor. For most, this is a time of year with fresh memories of Christmas, wonderful times spent with family. For almost 2,000 families across this country and around the world, it holds different memories.
To help others like myself who know little of this story, I'm fortunate to have input from the Grenadiers' families, including Carol Hadley, daughter of Borge Agerbak, former President of the Canadian Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association, an organization dedicated to preserving the HKV's history among other things. She's done a great job of telling the events as she could in the article about her dad. Thank you Carol.
The history of the Winnipeg Grenadiers is significant to this area because at 10 men from here were Grenadiers. They were first assigned to garrison duty in Jamaica and Bermuda, guarding prisoners of war held there, or acting as body guards for people such as Edward & Wallis Windsor. In some ways it was like a vacation, and unfortunately was not an experience which would season them for battle. After a year, they returned to Canada in September of 1941.
Grenadiers 1905 Building:
The Grenadiers, WWII, Pilot Mound. Front row: Joe Reynolds, Wilson Laird, Jim Craig, Jack Hay, Bill Mayne, Larry Simpson, Guy Stewart. 2nd row: Graydon Emery, Ed Toews, Buzz Winram, Dick Currie, Lindsay Wagner, Tiger Agerbak (killed in Hong Kong). 3rd row: Buster Agerbak, Ed Currie, Ken Agerbak, Gylen Creelman, Jack Fordyce, Keith Stewart, John Olscen. Names in bold are Hong Kong Veterans.
They were not home long when they received word of deployment to Hong Kong, and left Winnipeg October 25, 1941 by train to Vancouver where they would board ship to their new location. The necessary artillery and vehicles would travel separately.
Hong Kong was considered a fairly safe place to be stationed. It was believed the Japanese wouldn't dare attack the Commonwealth, and if they did, that particular war would be over in two weeks.
Sadly, the Japanese were underestimated. On December 7th, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and on December 8th, 1941, attacked Hong Kong. They outnumbered their opponents 10 to 1, but for 17 days were met with every ounce of strength and courage the Hong Kong defenders possessed.
The odds lay in the Japanese' favor as supplies and water ran low, the ship carrying the artillery and supplies for C Company, Winnipeg Grenadiers never made it past Manila and the men were not well trained (most of them hadn't fired a gun). The December 25, 1941 surrender was inevitable, and about 1,600 men became prisoners of war.
The capture of Hong Kong was a significant strategic gain, giving the Japanese control of the Canton River, which effectively severed the Allies' ability to move artillery and supplies into China. It also meant an important Allied refuelling station fell to enemy hands, and gave the Japanese the ability to become a dispatch/landing area for their forces to take over the Philippines. This powerful Japanese stronghold also meant there was very little the Allied Forces could do to rescue the men in Hong Kong.
The prisoners were scorned by the Japanese for surrendering rather than fighting till death, as was Japanese custom. Further, the Japs were humiliated that while they held the odds in numbers, the Hong Kong defenders had given them one hell of a fight, and had they not run low on supplies, could very well have won it.
There was no regard for the "Rules of War" adhered to since the Middle Ages. The captives were brutally tortured, fed only enough moldy, wormy food to stay alive and used as slave labor. The majority became ill with beri beri, pneumonia and other diseases as a result of malnutrition and starvation. Many died in the camps. Those who survived these 44-months of hell would suffer related health effects for the rest of their lives.
Not only were the Japanese physically cruel, taking great pleasure in stabbing their prisoners with bayonets and other forms of torture, they were psychologically cruel as well. They hated the Chinese, and would make the P.O.W.'s witness acts of cruelty toward them they were helpless to do anything about.
From the video "The Valor & The Horror" a story is recalled of a Chinese baby taken from its mother's arms, stabbed with a bayonet, then tossed from bayonet to bayonet like a football.
These were the day-to-day experiences of the Winnipeg Grenadiers. Back in Pilot Mound, the families knew very little as the Japanese were not cooperative in providing information to the International Red Cross. Mail to and from the prisoners in Japan and Hong Kong was rarely received. Newspaper articles were at first full of the capture and the "Powers That Be" attempts to explain/justify why the men had been sent there in the first place. As weeks passed, mention of the captives in Hong Kong faded to none until their liberation.
Once liberated they were hospitalized, or flown to larger centers. Keith Stewart contacted his family from Manila. According to the back of the photo of Buzz Winram, Dick Currie and Ed Currie, Buzz flew the Pacific in his pajamas. One by one the Winnipeg Grenadiers would return to Pilot Mound, following hospitalization and debrefings, anxious to see their families and for word of the buddies they'd been separated from for so long. Tage (Tiger) Agerbak would not be among them.
I leave the rest of this to be told by the families themselves. I would like to thank Greg Agerbak, Carol Hadley, Pat Winram, Pat Hunter, Dennis Stewart, Laura Glenn, Bill Mayne, and Etheleen & Bill Hay, for the conversations we've had over the past months about this. My regrets to the family of Guy Stewart if you read this, I just couldn't find you. And finally, my sincere thanks to Albert Agerbak, for his willingness to assist me in any way he could to put this issue together. I suspect this was very hard for all of you.