Reflections on growing up in Quebec City during the Second World War with a brother facing an uncertain fate in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, two sisters serving overseas and both parents contributing to the war effort. A Remembrance Day tribute to one special family and to all World War II veterans and their families.
By: Austen E. Cambon
I was in elementary school in Quebec City when World War II broke out. In what seemed to be a very short time my father was forced into retirement from the military, my brother joined the Canadian Army and he and my two sisters headed overseas in military uniforms. It would be five years before we would all be back together as a family.
Hon. John Matheson, former Parliamentary Secretary to Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, an Ontario MPP, a judge and a great Canadian is perhaps best known for being principally involved in the evolution of our new Canadian flag. I have had the pleasure of visiting John occasionally in recent years. He has said to me a number of times that my family is "the quintessential military family of Canada", a far too generous assessment made perhaps because he has good reason to remember my sister "Bunny" (see later on).
Our family was special to me but there were many other families just like ours, even in our own neighbourhood in Quebec City. John’s kind comment caused me to reflect about the extraordinary contributions and sacrifices so many veterans of WW II made to give us the freedom we enjoy today. With Remembrance Day 2011 at hand, the number of those veterans who are still with us is dwindling rapidly. I will remember them.
My mother was born into a military family in Belfast, Ireland. She went to school in Bridgetown, Barbados where my grandfather Colonel James Duffield commanded the British Garrison. My father, born in Scotland, served as a bandsman in 1RCHA in Kingston before transferring to the Royal Canadian Garrison Artillery, a military unit that would later become the famed Royal 22nd Regiment based at The Citadel in Quebec. My parents met in Kingston and they married in Kingston in 1917. My siblings and I were all born in Quebec City.
The "Van Doos" regimental band was in those days world-renowned. In March, 1927, when Calvin Coolidge was President, the band played at a military event at Arlington in Washington. In May, 1937, they played at the coronation of King George VI in London. While Dad was serving at The Citadel his Commanding Officer for a time was Lieutenant-Colonel Georges Vanier who would later become the 19th Governor General of Canada, another great Canadian who made a point of visiting the families of his soldiers, including our home. Dad also played in the Quebec Symphony Orchestra. I remember helping him glue replacement pads onto his wind instruments (saxophone, oboe, and clarinet) and listening to him practise his scales while I played road hockey on the street below.
When Canada declared war on the Nazi Third Reich in September, 1939, my oldest sister Margery ("Bunny"), a recent nursing graduate of Jeffrey Hale Hospital in Quebec, joined the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps as a Nursing Sister and was amongst the very first of many Canadians to head overseas. Serving in England for the duration of the war Bunny was a member of the world’s first plastic surgery team caring for the terribly-burned victims of German bombing raids. When the team was honoured with a medal for its unique and valued contribution to the war effort Bunny attended the investiture at Buckingham Palace. She was thrilled to meet King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
Bunny and John Matheson were high school classmates in Quebec. During the war they would meet up overseas in a most coincidental way. John was very seriously wounded by enemy shrapnel. When he was shipped back from the front he arrived at the very hospital where Bunny would be one of his nurses. He refers to her as "an angel". I strongly agree with John’s assessment in this case.
At the start of the war my brother Ken had graduated from high school and was working for the summer in a local soda fountain shop. One day he broke a coffee pot and discovered that the resulting deduction from his wages left him with nothing for his week’s work. On his way home a recruiting sign on the Quebec Armoury was enough of a motivation. He was only 16 at the time. He lied about his age and joined the Royal Rifles of Canada. After training for Arctic warfare in Newfoundland and New Brunswick he found himself on board a ship that sailed out of Vancouver in October, 1941 bound for Hong Kong to defend the British Garrison against an anticipated invasion by Japan.
Ken, a rifleman, was among the 1,975 Canadians who fought in the Battle of Hong Kong. They were the first Canadian troops to be engaged in battle in WW II. The Japanese attacked Hong Kong on December 8th almost coincidentally with their attack on Pearl Harbour. The 17-day battle was fierce. After a valiant effort and a huge loss of life the Canadians were forced to surrender on Christmas Day, 1941. The death toll and their hardship did not end with the surrender. The survivors became prisoners of the Japanese for 44 months in Hong Kong and Japan. It was many long months before we learned that Ken had survived. Many did not. Nearly 300 Canadians died in that battle and almost as many died later in Japanese prison camps.
When Hong Kong fell to the Japanese my sister Noreen abandoned her nursing training and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. Noreen worked mostly in a then highly-secret new field: radar. She served in Britain and in Newfoundland. When Wing Commander Guy Gibson, VC, of "Dam Busters" fame came to Canada with Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s party for one of the Quebec Conferences, Noreen was assigned to be his escort for a tour of the city. One of the photos of her with W/C Gibson showing them riding in a caleche appeared in the "Star Weekly", a magazine that I very proudly delivered to my customers that week.
With my sisters and brother overseas, my father working in a munitions factory at Valcartier and my mother serving in the Women’s Volunteer Reserve Corps (WVRC), I paid very close attention to the news broadcasts we listened to three or four times every day. Quiet was mandatory while the CBC’s Matthew Halton reported on the war. Hong Kong was never mentioned until much later on.
As a youngster, I did not sense that we at home had any significant difficulties during the war. We had rationing but our corner grocer always seemed to have the sugar, butter, or calf liver I was sent to pick up, ration coupons in hand.
As kids we had good times in school. We enjoyed basketball and bean suppers at the "Y". We spent our summers playing softball and attending "Y" camp. In winter we skated every night at St. Patrick’s School. We played hockey endlessly. I remember being encouraged throughout the war to eat everything on my plate at every meal and being reminded that my brother would no doubt love to be able to eat what I was inclined to leave. Reports that German U-boats had been sighted in the St. Lawrence provided excitement, but no concern. Thankfully, the war was "away over there, somewhere", not here in Canada.
Security was not a big issue. I remember that when Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to Quebec in August, 1943 for the first of their two Quebec Conferences more than a few us ran alongside their cars for many blocks as they drove down rue Grande Allee toward The Citadel. We would also frequently head up to the moat around The Citadel to see and even talk with the German POW’s who were confined there.
Many of my friends and I had a common bond: we had family away at war. The war raged on in Europe and in the Pacific. We waited and waited for news about the POWs in Japan. We heard nothing.
Finally, hope. On May 7, 1945, we celebrated V-E Day, the date when the World War II Allies formally accepted the unconditional surrender of the armed forces of Nazi Germany and the end of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. However, our celebration was muted. The war in the Pacific raged on.
On August 6, 1945 the U.S. dropped the first of the two atomic bombs that would end the war, this one on the city of Hiroshima. Three days later the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The alternative target for that bomb, if Nagasaki had been unavailable due to weather, was Niigata, the city where Ken was confined as a POW.
The surrender of Japan on the afternoon of August 15, 1945, V-J Day, ended World War II. This time we really celebrated. I remember riding around in Breakeyville outside Quebec City in a Model-T Ford filled to capacity with a group of friends. We made more than our share of noise. Still, we knew only that the war was over. What about the POWs ?
Eventually, the telegram arrived. "He’s alive !!! …he’s free !!!" The atrocities ceased. The surviving heroes of the Battle of Hong Kong made their way home by ship and by train.
All of our family waited anxiously for Ken’s arrival at the railway station in Quebec and finally there he was … skinny, but alive. We were together, a family once again. A miracle!
We linked arms and marched through the cheering crowd. Next day the Montreal Gazette splashed a photo depicting that glorious and memorable moment across the front page of their morning paper.
Ken had been a delivery boy for The Gazette. George Carpenter, the former circulation manager and now managing editor of The Gazette, had a reporter meet Ken on the train to invite him to visit Mr. Carpenter in Montreal at The Gazette’s expense. When Ken did so Mr. Carpenter strongly encouraged Ken to get on with his education as soon as possible.
Ken followed that very good advice. He enrolled at McGill University where he met and married a wonderful medical school classmate, Eileen Nason. They made history as the first married couple ever to graduate from McGill’s Faculty of Medicine. They worked together as medical specialists in Vancouver where they raised their two daughters. Ken became a highly-respected physician and surgeon and Professor Emeritus, University of British Columbia. Eileen, equally successful, served as President of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada and was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Science Degree by her Alma Mater, the University of New Brunswick.
Ken eventually wrote about his wartime experiences in his book "Guest of Hirohito" which was translated later on into Japanese and Chinese. He travelled to Japan and China as an author, a title he enjoyed. He donated all proceeds from his book to the Hong Kong Veterans Association. Google "Kenneth Cambon Hirohito" to reach an online version on a US Marines website: http://lastchinaband.com/cambon.htm .
While in England Bunny married one of her patients who had been wounded in Holland. When they returned after the war they raised a family of four children. Bunny continued her nursing career, nursing for a total of 38 years. Bunny and her husband John Quail were treated like VIPs when they attended the 60th Anniversary of VE-Day celebrations at Apeldoorn in the Netherlands. The Dutch will never forget their liberators.
After the war Noreen resumed her nursing training. Upon graduation as an RN she joined the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps as a Nursing Sister and enjoyed a distinguished career until retirement. She then continued to make good use of her valued experience working for the Registered Nurses Association of British Columbia.
Long after the war Bunny and Ken were able to marvel at an experience they shared. While in England in 1944 Bunny wrote to Ken on a POW Letter Form that we all had to use including in her note a birthday greeting for him. The Japanese never gave the prisoners their mail. In June,1991, Ken called Bunny to thank her for her greetings but he complained to her about the tardiness in its delivery … 44 years! A collector of war memorabilia had purchased the letter from a collector in Boston. He remembered seeing Ken’s name in the American Legion’s magazine as the author of his book. He tracked Ken down and sent him Bunny’s letter.
In recent years I have attended several National Conferences of the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association (HKVCA), a fine organization that is now maintained by the families of the veterans of the Battle of Hong Kong. On August 15 annually, the anniversary of their liberation, surviving veterans meet in a ceremony of remembrance for their fallen comrades, always a very moving occasion. This year at Granby, Quebec, only 8 of the 88 surviving veterans of the Battle of Hong Kong were able to attend this memorial event. I will remember them.
I will remember my personal heroes, Bunny, Noreen, and Ken. They are no longer with us but my memories of them will remain with me forever.
I will remember the bravery of the parents of children who went overseas.
I will remember the families of all veterans of war.
I will remember to be forever grateful that my siblings all returned safely from war.
I will remember the many who served and did not return.
I will especially remember all those who fought in the Battle of Hong Kong.
I will remember them. LEST WE FORGET.
(click on the image for a larger view)
Ken's POW ID. His weight dropped to only 68 lbs when in prison camp.
Ken looking better after home-cooked meals
Lieut. N/S Bunny Quail and F/O Noreen Cambon, RCAF, young warriors
The Homecoming! La Gare de Quebec, Fall, 1945.
Left to right: Mrs.Lucy Cambon, Rifleman Ken Cambon, Lieut. N/S Margery “Bunny” Quail, Flying Officer Noreen Cambon, Mr. George Cambon, Austen Cambon
Austen graduated from Quebec High School, The Royal Military College of Canada, Kingston, and Queens University, Kingston. As an artillery officer in 3RCHA he served with the First Commonwealth Division, United Nations Forces, Korea. Upon leaving the forces in 1957 he enjoyed a career in business managing industrial enterprises. He is a Knight of the Royal Order of the Northern Star, an honour conferred on him by the King of Sweden. Since leaving the corporate world, working as a management consultant, and becoming a widower, Austen has been teaching business in universities and colleges in Canada, USA, Lebanon and China, winning several teaching awards in Canada and abroad. He is currently teaching international students in The Business School at the Humber Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Toronto.