Thursday, December 22, 2016

Unholy Christmases

Seventy-five years ago this Christmas, decorated trees, presents and singing carols were likely not on the minds of Canadian troops caught up in the losing battle of Hong Kong.  But it would certainly be a day they would remember, and not particularly fondly, with a surrender to the Japanese the order of the day. Far away from families and with an unknown future ahead of them they had seen friends killed and wounded and at least heard about numerous atrocities committed by enemy soldiers. Now seventy-five years later it’s important that we remember too. 

For those of us who had relatives there in Hong Kong we have a very personal connection to that Christmas of 1941. In my case, it was my uncle, Donald Penny, a Corporal in the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals.  I don’t know for sure where Don was on December 25, 1941, but from the various accounts I’ve read he was with a small RCCS unit attached to East Brigade providing communications links between the Royal Rifles of Canada and Fortress Headquarters. Fellow Signals NCO Ron Routledge later said in an interview, “Surrender? Well, I recall being, well everyone had to, we had to stockpile all our arms in one particular place in a field and wait for orders from the Japanese...”

Any feelings of uncertainty I have about my uncle’s whereabouts that day pale in comparison to what his family must have been going through seventy-five years ago.  They knew about the battle in Hong Kong but had no idea if Don was alive, wounded or dead.  An article in the Vancouver Sun from December 26th reflects the lack of information available to family and friends back in Canada.

It wasn’t until November, 1942 that Don’s family received official word that he was a Prisoner of War.  Weeks later he and his fellow Canadian POWs would spend their first Christmas in captivity, most of them half-starved and malnourished in Sham Shui Po camp on the mainland of Hong Kong. On November 29th the camp received the first Red Cross parcel distribution.  As Signalman Walter Jenkins said, “...we all would have died in Hong Kong, you know, if it hadn’t been for the Red Cross.” One of my uncle Don's notebooks has a page showing the Red Cross parcel distributions while he was a POW.

On Christmas Eve the men received their first official word from home, a message from the Prime Minister, Mackenzie King:
The Prime Minister of Canada requests the International Red Cross Committee to convey to all Canadians in prisoner of war or internment camps, on behalf of their relatives and friends in Canada, and also on behalf of the Canadian government and Canadian people, heartfelt Christmas greetings and best of wishes for the New Year.
The Prime Minister desires to assure them, one and all, that the thoughts of the Canadian people were never more of them and with them, than they are in the greetings they send at this Christmas season, and in the Wishes they send for the New Year.

The men also received a ten-yen note that could be spent in the camp canteen.  Signalman Ray Squires called it a “Godsend” buying among other things a half-jar of malt and codliver oil. Christmas dinner was a huge improvement on their usual evening meal. Tins of “Meat and Vegetables”, potatoes and even plum pudding were on the menu.  Services in the church hall included singing carols – a muted celebration to be sure, given the terrible conditions they were enduring as POWs, but still a time filled with more pleasant thoughts of home.

In early 1943, Don was one of about 600 Canadians transported to Japan.  He and a few other Signallers ended up in a camp near Tokyo; they were to be used as slave labour in a shipyard.  Christmas that year was described by Canadian officer, Capt. John Reid:
Two small pine trees we got today and some decorations.  This day a holiday was used for putting up decorations the men made themselves from scraps of this and that, they even made a fireplace with an electric light in it; it looked like a real fireplace, they made an amazing job.

One of Don’s mementos brought back from Japan was a mimeographed sheet of Christmas carols. On the reverse side he had made some notes about that Christmas.  His poignant letter home three weeks later put the Christmas celebrations into context.

By December, 1944, life in Camp 3D had taken on a sense of anticipation. American bombers had begun runs over the Tokyo area giving the men new hope for a return home.  The arrival of more Red Cross parcels also boosted morale.  Preparations for Christmas went into high gear. Secret orders went out for materials that could be scrounged or stolen from the shipyard and turned into decorations. Again, Capt. Reid described the scene:
Christmas again this year was very successful – the men made very amazing decorations, with streamers and fireplaces and santa clauses and so on – really amazing and all made out of scraps gathered from here and there.  In the morning we had white rice, a great delicacy and soup with leeks and carrots and twenty kilograms of meat.  The leeks to flavour it were a wonderful delicacy. At noon each man had one loaf of bread with some miso paste.  Leek soup, Christmas pudding – two parts flour to one of sugar.  For supper fish, one hundred and twenty-five grams per man, white rice, soya soup, and sweet beans with sugar and Christmas pudding.  Red Cross parcels arrived in the camp and were issued one per man on Christmas eve.  The Church Service and Christmas carols on Christmas Eve, a concert by the orchestra and the Japanese again came in Christmas afternoon and took photos.

Although the trappings reflected the Christmas spirit, there was also a reminder of their situation as POWs.  On the wall across the aisle from one large wreath, the men had hung an imitation scroll, hand-lettered by Signalman Will Allister:
We said:  “By Xmas ‘42
We know the war will all be through.”
We said:  “By Xmas ‘43
We know that we will all be free.”
We said:  “By Xmas ‘44
We know there will be war no more.”
But now?  “By Xmas ‘45
         I hope to hell we’re still alive.”

As it turned out, not only were the men of the Signal Corps at Camp 3D alive, by December, 1945 they would be back home in Canada celebrating a truly joyous Christmas with their families.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Beyond the Call Featured at Local Authors Event, June 11, 2016

It’s always nice to have an opportunity to share the story of “C” Force and tell people about our Canadian soldiers in Hong Kong and Japan.  I was able to take advantage of such an opportunity on Saturday (June 11) when I was invited to participate in a “local authors” event sponsored by Midland’s independent bookstore, Georgian Bay Books.  The store carries numerous titles by writers from the area, including Beyond the Call.

I had the chance to talk with many folks who were in town to participate in the annual “Butter Tart Festival” and found (as usual) that although everybody had heard about Pearl Harbor, very few knew anything about Hong Kong.   There was lots of interest in the stories of how our Canadian troops were involved, the battle and the subsequent incarceration by the Japanese.  I even sold a few books!

So I encourage other Hong Kong authors to talk to your local bookstores.  It’s another way we can keep the story alive and help support the Mission of the HKVCA.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

November 11, 2015

Today I'm thinking about all the Hong Kong veterans who served their country.  In particular, I remember the members of the RCCS who inspired me to learn and write about their stories. We will remember them.

Monday, August 24, 2015

VJ Day Ceremonies – Ottawa, August 15, 2015

I attended two ceremonies in Ottawa to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of Victory over Japan Day. The official Canadian Government event was held at the National War Memorial and had all the pomp and ceremony expected at such events.

At the Hong Kong Memorial Wall a small group of Hong Kong veterans, their families, and many members of the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association (HKVCA) gathered to honour and pay tribute to the men of “C” Force.  It was at times solemn, at other times uplifting, and most of all a time to feel part of a close and special family. 

Veteran Phil Doddridge (RRC) spoke words of remembrance and RCCS veteran Gerry Gerrard laid a wreath. 

Gerry is the last surviving member of the Signal Corps unit that was part of the (often forgotten) Brigade Headquarters group.  It was great to see him again, having travelled all the way from Victoria, B.C. – still going strong at age 94!  

Monday, August 10, 2015

VJ Day, August 15, 2015


It has been quite some time since I’ve posted to this blog, but I thought that the 70th anniversary of the end of the war against Japan - VJ Day - deserved some attention.  In Beyond the Call  I describe what happened at the various camps in Hong Kong and Japan where members of the RCCS were being held prisoner.  Here are excerpts from some of those descriptions:

Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong
Official word of the surrender was communicated on August 16 to the senior British officer, who then took over administration of the camp.  Ray Squires:
The flag [Union Jack] was officially raised this morning.  It was the most impressive ceremony I have ever seen.  Nearly all the officers and men had tears in their eyes.  The ceremony was peculiar because there was not a Jap in sight they have all quietly left, and there was no presenting of arms because we didn’t have any.

Niigata Camp 5B, Japan
[On August 15] the Emperor’s message of surrender was broadcast in the camp.  When one of the POWs who spoke Japanese told the rest of the men what was being said, there were hugs all around.  Rations for the evening meal were doubled and the prisoners at Niigata 5B gathered around in small groups digesting their dinner and the incredible news that the war was finally over.  Howie Naylor recalled,
The guard told us the war was over.  Then when some Corsairs came over and buzzed the camp, we knew it was true.  Every prisoner in the camp had tears in his eyes when he saw those planes.

Ohasi Camp, Japan
On August 15 the prisoners were at work when it was confirmed that Japan had surrendered.  Gerry Gerrard remembered it this way:
It was about noon…I got the word, pass the news around.  In the workplace there were these loudspeakers and the Japs had to go to these speakers and listen to these speeches – they were letting them down easy.  So by the time we got back into camp, everybody knew that the war was over.  But there was no sign that the Japs knew.  Next morning we had to get up – of course ready to go to work – and we go to parade and there’s no Japs around.  They just disappeared overnight.
Blacky Verreault wrote in his diary that there was still a lot of uncertainty – was it really true?  But by the end of the day on the 16th the reality of peace was finally being accepted and embraced. 

Sumidagawa Camp, Japan
Through July and into August the heavy bombing raids on the Tokyo area were witnessed by the POWs at Sumidagawa.  There were no air raid shelters around the camp so the men watched “the nightly festivities” from the windows in their hut. Then, in mid-morning of August 15, the workers were sent from the loading platforms back to the camp.  This was unprecedented and suggested something had changed.  As the men returned, rumours started to spread that the war was over.  Few would let themselves believe it, so around mid-afternoon, the senior POW officer was prompted to request an interview with the camp commandant.  He returned about half an hour later.  Will Allister wrote about that moment:
“With regard to a certain rumour!” and the taut, hollow face opened like a broken dyke letting through a rushing wave of joy for the first time, transforming it into a strange, scarred, radiant smile.  “IT…IS…SO!”
The hut exploded in a wild exultant Yankee-Limey-Scottish-Dutch-Indonesian-Canadian thunder of victory, of pent-up souls erupting, smashing the shackles of seeming limitless defeat in a great triumphant jungle roar!  Men charged down the aisle, whooping and bellowing, leaping and cheering.

Sendai No. 1 Camp, Japan
By mid-August there were numerous sightings of U.S. fighter planes around the camp and B-29s flying overhead.  On the 15th the men were at the mine, but no work was done.  Rumors fuelled by civilian workers spread:  the war was over.  There was still no official word on the 16th but finally the next day the camp commandant told the men officially that the war had ended.  Capt. Reid described the reaction:
The thing had been going on for so long, when the war was over you refused to let yourself think it was possible.  It came so gradually, the civilians telling us, and then the official word and then the war really being over, and there was no moment of great celebration but everybody was happy.

Sendai No. 2 Camp, Japan
In August, the men at Sendai No. 2 were seeing the same flights of B-29s as were noticed at the nearby camp.  Then one day, work was halted and the men were gathered on the parade ground.  The camp commandant, who had never spoken a word of English to the prisoners before,
…came out, stood on a box and said, in perfect English he said, “My dear boys!  You’re allowed…You’re free to go home to your mothers, wives, sweethearts,” and that was it.
Don Beaton remembered their reaction: “…it was like running into a brick wall.  We just stood there stunned and then everybody went a little crazy.”

Even though the war was over, it would take anywhere from six to eleven weeks before all the men would complete their journeys back to their homes in Canada.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Remembrance Day 2012

The Sai Wan Bay War Cemetery is situated on the northeast side of the island of Hong Kong, a short distance from the bustling city of Victoria.  The graves of two hundred and eighty-three Canadian soldiers are located here, including five members of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals.  It is quiet and serene with dramatic rows of white grave markers stretching on and on down a slope towards the sea, against a panoramic view of distant wooded hills.  Further south on the island on the Tai Tam Peninsula is Stanley Military Cemetery.  Twenty Canadians are buried here including four Signals.  The graves are located on a hillside flanked by grassy slopes with flowering shrubs and ornamental trees.  The peace and tranquility of these two sites belie the events of December, 1941 when the island hills were the scene of fierce and bloody fighting as the days of the battle for Hong Kong raged on.  (From Prologue, Beyond the Call)

Sai Wan Bay War Cemetery

On Remembrance Day, we think about those who gave their lives in service to our country.  Young men such as members of the RCCS:  Jim Horvath, John Little, Tom Redhead, Ernie Thomas and Wes White, buried at Sai Wan, and Bob Damant, Bud Fairley, Hank Greenberg and Charles Sharp, buried at Stanley.

We also remember those who through sheer luck, fortitude, or unexplained miracles made it back to Canada.  Knowing what the men of “C” Force went through during the battle of Hong Kong, and for more than three and a half years as POWs, it truly does seem a miracle that any of them survived.  In particular, because I know their stories best, I will be thinking about the thirty-three men of the RCCS, those who died in Hong Kong, and those who made it back.  Only two are still with us today – Gerry Gerrard and Wally Normand, both fine gentlemen and proud veterans.  I salute them all.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Draft to Japan, January, 1943

In early January, 1943, after being POWs in Hong Kong for just over a year, about 1200 men were identified for transport to Japan. Among the 663 Canadians selected were eleven members of the R.C.C.S., including my uncle, Don Penny.  Signalman Will Allister described the physical test to determine their eligibility: “We were lined up for a fitness test – we must be able to work in Japan.  We were each instructed to walk across the road.  Those who made it were pronounced physically sound, A-1 category.”  (Where Life and Death Hold Hands)  Capt. John Reid, a medical officer, was the only Canadian officer allowed to go.  In his post-war report he told what happened next.
 We were isolated in the barracks at Hong Kong for a week before we left during which time we were vaccinated for cholera, dysentery, typhoid and they slipped a glass rod up everybody’s rectum.  I don’t know what you could find out except worms, a very poor way of going after stool,... (Reid, 1945, DND Directorate of History and Heritage, File 593, D17)
Among the Signals I talked to, there seemed to be agreement that the selected men were anxious but generally ambivalent about being sent to Japan.  As Gerry Gerrard said, “You didn’t know whether it was going to be for better or for worse.  I couldn’t see it being any better, because you had to figure that food wise it couldn’t be that great in Japan, we sure weren’t going to get our share, and just before we left there was a supply of Red Cross that came in.”  Jim Mitchell was worried about submarines, Bob Acton thought they might receive better treatment there, and Will Allister said at least the move gave them some hope.

On January 17 the men in the draft were issued some new clothes including running shoes, but they had to give up their boots.  On the morning of the 19th they were marched to the wharf and put on board the SS Tatuta Maru, a converted Japanese passenger ship.  Don Penny recorded the basic trip details in one of his notebooks.

The actual experience on board the ship was described using words like “Black Hole of Calcutta” and “giant sardine tin packed with living, squirming human creatures”.  Severe heat, meagre food, seasickness, dysentery and bucket latrines all made for a pretty horrible three days.  When they arrived in Nagasaki, there was one unexpected good thing: fresh buns.  Capt. Reid noted, “When they came up and said five buns per man I couldn’t believe it and thought it must be one for five, but it wasn’t; they really tasted good and it was fine.  They issued cigarettes too.”

After a train ride and a short march, most of the Canadians ended up at the gates of a camp near Kawasaki, just northeast of Yokohama.  Designated Camp No. 5 (later changed to 3D), this was to be their home for many months to come.

As a footnote to this episode, the day the men left for Japan, January 19, 1943, was Signalman Gerry Gerrard’s 21st birthday.  Now, 69 years later, Gerry is marking his 90th, undoubtedly with more smiles, and a much more celebratory atmosphere.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Thoughts at Christmas 2011

In my uncle Don Penny’s letter home from Hong Kong in early December, 1941, he wrote, “This will be the third Xmas in a row that I have been away from home.  It won’t seem the same over here as back home in Canada.”  Of course, he had no idea what awaited him in the days, months, and even years ahead.  As it turned out, he would not be with his family for Christmas until 1945.  In those intervening years he would see the Christmas Day surrender to the Japanese, a bleak first Christmas as a POW in Hong Kong, and two additional Christmas Days in POW Camp 3D in Japan.
Here are a few items and stories from those years.
The only way families back home in Canada knew about what had happened to their loved ones in Hong Kong came via the newspapers and radio broadcasts.  Official news from Canada’s Dept. of National Defence didn't come until almost a year later. 

It was Christmas Eve, 1942 when the POWs received their first official word from home, via the International Red Cross.  It was a message of Christmas greetings from the Prime Minister, accompanied by a card with a 10-yen note, money that could be spent in the camp canteen.  The 25th was a day most like every other.  However, the food was better than usual and there was a choral service and singing of carols.

Three weeks into 1943, Don and about 660 other Canadians were crowded onto a ship bound for Japan.  He wound up at a POW camp near Kawasaki where the men were put to work in a shipyard.  On the back of a sheet with the words to Christmas carols, Don wrote about his Christmas, 1943.

A greeting card from Canada and the Prime Minister for Christmas 1943, wasn’t delivered in Japan until February, 1945.

On December 24, 1944 at Camp 3D, each man received a Red Cross parcel.  The “barrack” was decorated and as described by the Canadian medical officer Capt. John Reid, Christmas was a good day.
Christmas again this year was very successful – the men made very amazing decorations, with streamers and fireplaces and santa clauses and so on – really amazing and all made out of scraps gathered from here and there.  In the morning we had white rice, a great delicacy and soup with leeks and carrots and twenty kilograms of meat.  The leeks to flavour it were a wonderful delicacy. At noon each man had one loaf of bread with some miso paste.  Leek soup, Christmas pudding – two parts flour to one of sugar.  For supper fish, one hundred and twenty-five grams per man, white rice, soya soup, and sweet beans with sugar and Christmas pudding.  Red Cross parcels arrived in the camp and were issued one per man on Christmas eve.  The Church Service and Christmas carols on Christmas Eve, a concert by the orchestra and the Japanese again came in Christmas afternoon and took photos. (Capt Reid’s report, 1945, DND, Directorate of History and Heritage, File 593 -D17)

In his book, Where Life and Death Hold Hands, Signalman Will Allister described the poem that had been written on a scroll attached to the wall:
We said:  “By Xmas ‘42
We know the war will all be through.”
We said:  “By Xmas ‘43
We know that we will all be free.”
We said:  “by Xmas ‘44
We know there will be war no more.”
But now?  “By Xmas ‘45
I hope to hell we’re still alive.”
He, my uncle Don, and their fellow Signals at 3D did make it back to Canada for a joyful Christmas 1945.  With all their experiences, however, Christmas would never be the same, and I always take a few moments at this time of year to think about those brave and steadfast young men. How fortunate we are today.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Japan's Apology to Hong Kong POWs

It's been a long time coming but at last the Japanese government has apologized for the treatment of Canadian POWs captured at Hong Kong.

After attending ceremonies in Hong Kong to mark the 70th anniversary of the battle which began on December 8, 1941, the Canadian delegation including representatives of the HKVCA and veterans from the three components of C Force: Winnipeg Grenadiers, Royal Rifles of Canada and Brigade Headquarters, went to Tokyo to receive the apology in person.  I was so pleased to see my friend Gerry Gerrard, former Signalman, RCCS, representing Bde HQ.  I can't imagine what it must have been like for him to hear the apology in person.

I have heard from a number of family members of deceased RCCS Hong Kong veterans - they too have expressed their pleasure in hearing about the apology, but saddened by the fact that their family veteran was not able to hear it himself.  Some people have said, "too little too late" but given the Japanese culture and apparent reluctance to apologize for any past atrocities, perhaps we should be happy for even this much delayed acknowledgment.  I know I am.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Two R.C.C.S. Operators First Canadian Battle Casualties of WWII

The morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941, became etched in our historical record when the Japanese attacked the U.S. base at Pearl Harbor.  Generally overlooked in discussions of that day in history is the fact that at the same time – the pre-dawn hours of Monday, December 8, Hong Kong time (on the other side of the International Date Line)  – Japanese forces crossed the Chinese border and invaded the British colony.  But unlike the complete surprise of Pearl Harbor, the attack on Hong Kong had been long anticipated. 

In the week prior to the commencement of fighting, defences on both the mainland and the Island of Hong Kong were elevated to a state of readiness.  On December 6th a warning was issued of impending war.  On Sunday the 7th the commanding officer of the colony forces, Major General Maltby, came to the conclusion that war was imminent.  At 1100 hours orders were issued for the whole garrison to move to their battle positions.

The Canadian Military Headquarters report (#163) on “Canadian Participation in the Defence of Hong Kong” provides the official description of how the war with Japan began:

At 0550 hours on Monday, 8 Dec 41 (1720 hours Sunday, 7 Dec, Ottawa time), H.Q. China Command received word through Naval channels that war had broken out with Japan.  All defence services were warned.  At 0745 hours Kai Tak Airport was dive-bombed.  The attacking force consisted of 45 single-seater fighters with forward guns.  All R.A.F. and civilian aircraft were caught on the ground and virtually destroyed….The enemy air attack was then directed on the Sham Shui Po area, which was bombed and machine gunned.  The Jubilee Buildings were hit and two R.C. Sigs signalmen were wounded.  These were the first casualties sustained by “C” Force.

The two Signals were Operators Lloyd “Bud” Fairley and Sgt. Ron Routledge, who had shrapnel wounds in his back, shin, thigh and forearm. In a post-war interview, Routledge described the situation:

It was pretty confusing you know because everybody realized they had to get out of the barracks and…they brought in some trucks and people started getting up on the trucks and very few people, if any others knew that this other chap and I were, had been wounded, and so they were sort of saying, “goodbye” and “you’ll be in another truck” sort of thing, you know.  But that didn’t happen and they all left the Shamshuipo barracks and I wouldn’t be altogether sure where they all went at that particular time but certainly it was, or someone realized that we were in trouble in that shell hole and came and got us and took us to the Bowen Road Hospital in Hong Kong. (

Jubilee Building

When the attack began, Blacky Verreault was in the Jubilee Building barracks.  He recorded the event in his diary:

We were lounging on the balcony when Walt [Jenkins] noticed some thirty airplanes overhead then “shit, they’re dropping something…those are bombs Blackie,” said he staring skyward, his mouth open.  The first bomb demolished the guard house, the second made an enormous crater in our parade ground, the third smashed the corner of our building while the fourth fell smack in the middle of it.  What a blast.  We were almost blown off the balcony.  We just then realized that this was not just some simple British exercise.  I packed my things and hopped in a truck that took us to the hills. (Diary of a Prisoner of War in Japan 1941-1945)

Gerry Gerrard had just finished breakfast and was operating one of the temporary wireless sets out on the parade square.  He saw the bombs fall and the barracks being hit.  Then orders came in to move immediately to the pre-determined manning stations.  He told me,

…the truck just rolled up and we threw our stuff on – we were gone.  Trouble is we had no personal stuff with us.…

Normally we would have our equipment mounted on trucks, but in Hong Kong we were delivered to our destination and given a good luck wave.

The two “casualties” were treated and released for duty.  Less than three weeks later, Bud Fairley died of wounds received during the shelling of a house where the Signals had set up their radio.  Sgt. Routledge was captured when the colony surrendered and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of the Japanese. He was active in passing messages to the outside and acquiring much needed medical supplies.  His activities led to him being arrested but under torture and threats he refused to give the names of the others involved. On his return to Canada he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for constant courage under brutal treatment and punishment.

 December 8, 1941 marked the first Canadian engagement with the enemy in World War II.  The members of "C" Force did their country proud both during the battle and later as POWs.  Regarding the members of the R.C.C.S., the history of the Corps noted:

Hong Kong was the occasion for the first Canadian brigade signals to go into action in the Second World War, and it acquitted itself commendably.  These Signalmen, in the words of the British Chief Signal officer, "did all he could have hoped."  In addition, they performed in the last stage as infantry, and fought valiantly.
(History of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals 1903-1961)