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.  http://veterans.gc.ca/eng/department/blaney-corner/photos/gallery/337

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. (www.vac-acc.gc.ca/remembers)

Jubilee Building http://gwulo.com/node/6695

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)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Remembrance Day 2011: Thoughts and Memories

One of my earliest childhood memories is of Remembrance Day.  I was watching a parade in downtown Vancouver waiting to see my uncle, Donald A. Penny, Royal Canadian Corps of Signals.  About five years had passed since his return from a POW camp in Japan where he had spent much of the war after being captured in Hong Kong on Christmas Day, 1941.  Unlike most of his Signal Corps companions, he and few others had decided to stay in the service, and so here I was on that cold rainy November morning watching him march toward the cenotaph. 

For most of my life, Uncle Don was the person I thought about on Remembrance Day.  I didn’t know much about his soldiering experiences, but he was the only person I knew well that had been in the war.  It wasn’t until I had spent a few years researching and writing a book about the Hong Kong R.C.C.S. contingent that I had other personal connections to WW II veterans.  So now as we approach Remembrance Day, 2011, I have many more names and faces to occupy my thoughts.

Defence of Hong Kong, "C" Force Memorial Wall, Ottawa

I was fortunate to get to know seven of the Signal Corps Hong Kong vets.  Through interviews in person, on the telephone and by letters and email, I learned about their training and trip to Hong Kong, experiences during the fighting, their struggles to survive the horrors of Japanese POW camps, and their post-war lives.  

I’ll remember Wally Normand who had to bury his friend and fellow Dispatch Rider Bob Damant in a common grave after he was killed in action on December 19, 1941.

I’ll remember Signalman Will Allister who told me about lying in a field with fellow Operator Rolly D’Amours sending messages on their No. 11 wireless set while Japanese shells exploded around them.  He was relating this story while we were sitting out on the patio behind his house overlooking the span of water between Tsawwassen and Vancouver Island.  To me the events he was describing were far away from the idyllic setting, but they were still obviously clear and present in his mind.

I’ll remember Dispatch Rider Jim Mitchell.  We sat in the living room of his daughter’s house in a small mining town near Sudbury, Ontario and spent the afternoon talking about his wartime experiences. He related a story of the end of the war at Ohasi POW camp in Japan:  “A plane came over and that night the Jap guards disappeared and we never saw them again.  The next day a plane came again and dropped a parachute with a note, a package of Camel cigarettes and two strips of white canvas approximately 10 inches wide and 8-10 feet long; and the message read, ‘If you need medical supplies make a cross and if you need food make a T”.  Everybody was screaming “T T T”.

I’ll remember Bob Acton, another Operator who stayed with the Signals after the war.  He told me about surrendering: “...they told us to go to a field that’s in the city – I don’t know what it was for; it wasn’t very big – and first they said to us, ‘smash your guns’, so we just bent the barrels by hitting the cement with them.  Then we went to this place and they had built a stage and the Jap Commander came up and spoke Japanese and the interpreter said, ‘If I had my way I would line you all up and shoot you dead, but headquarters in Tokyo won’t let me do that.’  So right away we thought it’s going to be a tough go.”

I’ll remember Lionel Speller and Tony Grimston.  I met them at Broadmead, a veterans care centre in Victoria.  Lionel was a shoemaker by trade and told me about how as a POW in Japan he was put to work repairing and making boots using rubber tires for soles.  Tony related a story about the day when some of his fellow Signals were killed in a house at Wanchai Gap.  He was in the next room working the radio and survived the shelling.

I’ll remember Gerry Gerrard.  It was Gerry who took me to see Lionel and Tony.  We have spent many hours over the past few years sitting in his kitchen talking about Hong Kong and Japan.  Gerry has become a good friend and was a great contributor to the research and writing of my book.  One of his stories that will always stick in my mind is of him sending out Dispatch Riders with messages: “[Capt.] Billings told me [to] send a Dispatch Rider down to the front line, and so I asked for a volunteer, which I didn’t get.  I can remember now, I got some straws and cut a short one and said, OK pick out, and Ernie [Thomas] was the one that picked out...and that’s the last we saw of him.”

Through official records, diaries and stories related by others, I also got to know at least a bit about the other twenty-six members of the R.C.C.S. who went to Hong Kong.  Men like Johnny Douglas, who was training in Prince Rupert with his high school buddy, Don Penny.  He was selected to participate in the Remembrance Day service on November 11, 1939.  “Our wreath bearer, Sgmn. Douglas, J., our youngest soldier, presented a very smart appearance” recorded the 9th Fortress Signals War Diary.

And Georges “Blacky” Verreault, who by all accounts was one of the strongest willed and toughest Signallers.  His diary is full of details about the battle and his time as a POW.  All the highs and lows, the times of elation, and the times of deep depression.

And Dispatch Rider Don Beaton who wrote from Guam after he had been liberated from a POW camp in Japan, “Right now I’m on top of the world.  The Yank Navy have taken over any Cdn. Army Prisoners in Japan.”

And Signals Operator Rolly D’Amours whose diary entries from pre-war Hong Kong gave a vivid picture of the city that would soon become a battlefield, including descriptions of establishments frequented by the troops as “places furnished [with] wine, women, music and food.” 

And Lineman Raymond Squires who became a critical figure in the struggle to maintain the health of the Canadians being held prisoner in Hong Kong.  One of his diary entries captures the essence of survival as a POW: “I can honestly say that the main thing I live for is to be back with my wife, that thought makes this life tolerable, and gives me an optimistic viewpoint so sorely needed here.”

All thirty-three men of the Hong Kong R.C.C.S. contingent, including the nine who didn’t make it home, will be in my thoughts this Remembrance Day.  But there will still be a special place for memories of my uncle Don, who was the source of my introduction to this important annual event, and the inspiration for my book.
W.O. I  Donald Penny, Petawawa, Ontario, 1965

Thursday, October 27, 2011

October 27, 1941: Destination Hong Kong

It was a cool foggy evening 70 years ago today, October 27, 1941, when the S.S. Awatea sailed out of Vancouver bound for Hong Kong.  Among the over 1800 soldiers on board were thirty-three members of the R.C.C.S. who formed the Bde. H.Q. Signals unit for “C” Force.

The Awatea was a New Zealand passenger liner designed to accommodate 540 passengers, so to say the least, the vessel was severely overcrowded.  Modifications had been done to convert it for troop transport, including covering the portholes with plywood.  Most of the men (other than officers and senior NCOs) were housed below decks, and it was here that the Signals unit first got to know each other.

This was no “Band of Brothers” that had trained and lived together for months or years.  In fact, many had never met until they were onboard the Awatea.  Lineman “Blacky” Verreault noted in his diary, “I thought I would be the only lineman aboard but I just met three new buddies, Ted [Kurluk], Walter [Jenkins] and Ray [Squires].” (Diary of a Prisoner of War in Japan 1941-1945)  Signalman Will Allister, who was from Montreal, wrote, “[I] soon adopted Wally Normand and Bob Demant [sic], two madcap dispatch riders from Montreal, whose clowning antics dovetailed nicely with my own.” (Where Life and Death Hold Hands)  Gerry Gerrard told me that it felt like they were basically a bunch of strangers.  On the other hand, over half of them had trained together for a short time as part of a larger group of Signals in Debert, Nova Scotia, and small groups of the men had been together as part of the 10th Fortress Signals in Vancouver and the 11th Fortress Signals in Victoria. 
On October 28, Captain George Billings called his Signals section together on deck for the first time.  He introduced himself as a graduate of Kingston Military College and told them he had just returned from service in Britain. The group of thirty-two soldiers facing him represented various parts of the country:  nineteen were from B.C., six from the prairies, three from Ontario, and four from Quebec.  Four of them were still in their teens, most in their early twenties, and only three were over twenty-five.  All but five were single, although a few had left special girlfriends behind.  About half had served in the armed forces, either with militia units or the Active Service Force, for at least two years; only a few had less than a year of service.  So although the young men had not trained or worked together as a complete unit, for the most part they were well trained and had gained considerable experience in their specialties as operators, dispatch riders and linemen. (Beyond the Call, page 48)
Brigadier Lawson the “C” Force Commanding Officer, noted that the various Bde. HQ units were, “keen, anxious to work, well-behaved and so far as can be judged on board ship, are well trained.”

During the voyage, there were numerous training sessions, physical exercises, and lectures, as well as tasks in the kitchen, sentry duty and signals communication on the bridge.  Perhaps the highlight of the trip was the stop for fuel and provisions in Honolulu.  Signalman Rolly D’Amours wrote in his diary:
We were entertained by the Royal Hawaiian Hula troupe, and the fellows went quite wild about it.  The troupe performed on the wharf, and it was quite a job to get a ringside seat.  We were not allowed to get off the ship, but some of the fellows put on trunks and dove off for a swim.  The water was filthy but I imagine it was also very refreshing.  The military authorities finally posted guards to keep them from diving off, but some of them still managed to crawl through the portholes. (Courtesy of Pierre D’Amours)
Will Allister later wrote about the “undulating hula hips waving hypnotically as the troops roared, hooted, whistled, ranted and tossed gifts from the ship’s deck.” (Where Life and Death Hold Hands)

The men had been permitted to write letters home and the stop in Hawaii allowed for a mail drop.  My uncle Don Penny’s letter follows.  It would be the last communication received by his family for almost two years.  When he says, "If you don't hear from me for some time it is O.K. because the mail delivery may not be very good" he had no idea of the true meaning of those words. 







It was just after leaving Honolulu that the men were informed that their destination was Hong Kong.  Even though we were not yet at war with Japan, preparations for that possibility were now well underway.  The men were told that they should be prepared for anything when they arrived, “even fighting.”  The hilarity of the hula dancers if not forgotten, was overshadowed by more serious thoughts.  I imagine this was reinforced when on November 10, the following was included in “Routine Orders, C Force:”

21.  SECURITY
1.  The following will be read twice on parade, to all ranks, before noon Wednesday, 12 Nov. 41.  Care will be taken that no N.C.O. or man whether on guard, fatigue or other duty, is [o]mmited.
2.  We shall shortly put into our last port of call before reaching our final destination.  From there onwards our route passes between islands occupied by a country which is already giving assistance to our declared enemies and which may at any moment declare itself as an open enemy.  Even without such declaration it may commit acts of hostility against us. 
IT IS THEREFORE OF THE UTMOST IMPORTANCE THAT NO INDICATION WHATSOEVER BE GIVEN WHILST IN THIS PORT REGARDING:-
                           Who we are
                           Our numbers
                           Where we have come from
                           The Direction in which we are going
                           Our final destination
3.  There must be NO conversation with persons ashore or in ships or boats which may come alongside.
4.  There must be NO shouting to persons ashore or in boats or ships, even to those in our escort.
5.  No persons will be allowed on shore.
6.  No mail or other communication will be sent ashore other than through regular channels.  Communications will NOT be handed to persons on shore or in boats, etc. for mailing.
7.  Personnel on guard where they may be seen from other ships or from shore will not wear “CANADA PATCHES”.  Dress for others will be shorts and shirts without patches.
8.  We are traveling in a New Zealand ship; provided the above instructions are carried out there should be no indication to persons in ships or on shore that Canadians are on board this ship.  To keep them in ignorance of this fact is exactly what we want and all ranks will govern themselves accordingly. 
9.  Any person questioned regarding any of the above matters will refuse to answer and will report details of questioning at once to the nearest officer or N.C.O.
10.  Disregard of any of the foregoing will be treated as a serious offence.
11.  No coins, badges, cigarettes or other similar identificable [sic] matter will be thrown overboard.  (from Beyond the Call, page 53)

On November 16th the ship arrived in Hong Kong harbour and docked at Holt’s Wharf, Kowloon.  For all but two of the Signals (Capt. Billings and Sgmn. D’Amours), this was their first glimpse of the Far East.  Three weeks later they would be at war, fighting for their lives.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

End of a Soldier's Long Journey Home

It was Tuesday, September 25, 1945 when the train from San Francisco rolled into Vancouver with a group of liberated POWs on board.  My uncle, Don Penny, still dressed in the U.S. Army clothing issued to him in Yokohama after he was freed from Sendai Camp #1 in Japan, was happily greeted by his two sisters, Jeanne and Greta.

In one of his notebooks, Don recorded the details of his trip from Japan back to North America.

In Guam, the Americans had set up large facilities for looking after their soldiers who were (and would have been) involved in attacks on the islands held by Japan (and eventually the home islands).  The whole operation there was now available for servicing liberated POWs. 

In Guam, the men had their first opportunity to write a real letter home.  For most, it was the first honest communication with their families in almost four years. 





Don was one of the lucky men who was brought to the U.S. by plane.  Upon reaching Fort McDowell, San Francisco, he sent a telegram home.  Three days later he was on a train headed for Vancouver.

The train stopped in Portland, Oregon and the Canadian soldiers were hosted at the George White Servicemen’s Centre.  In an article published in the Monday, September 24 Vancouver Sun, reporter Pat Terry described his visit with the recently freed POWs:
The sixty-odd Canadians still scenting the unaccustomed perfumes of freedom moved about the smoke-filled centre with the deliberate steps of men hearing for the first time after many years the words: “You may go anywhere.” ...
If you wish, they will tell you the cruel routine of the Jap prison camp – beatings, bayoneting, bad forced overwork.  But that is not all their life.
“You get used to anything,” said Don Beaton.  “The true horror was the unendingness of it all.  The day after day of sameness.  The being out of everything with the war moving like a swift-flowing tide and the years slipping by and you just being imprisoned as a forced labourer,” said Don. ...
“There was one thing kept you alive,” said Don, “and that was telling yourself and each other that the Yanks would come and set you free.  It was always the Yanks you thought about,” said Don, and the others nodded solemnly and slowly, “because you knew from first-hand information and experience that the Yanks were doing some bombing.  The Yanks were bombing the daylights out of the Japs,” he said.
“You didn’t talk about much else except getting free if the Yanks came.  Year after year you talked about that. Because freedom was like a dream and it wasn’t easy to live in prison without a dream.”

On Monday, September 25, 1945, Don Penny and his fellow Hong Kong repatriates stepped off the train in Vancouver and experienced those dreams becoming a reality.  In a strange footnote to his arrival that day, a letter from Hong Kong was processed in the Vancouver Post Office later that evening.  It had been mailed by Don on December 3, 1941.  The letter hadn’t made it out before the Japanese attacked a few days later, but miraculously was recovered after the liberation of Hong Kong in August, 1945. 





Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Visit to the Memorial Wall

I spent August 15th  - that important date for Hong Kong veterans and families among others – with Gerry Gerrard and his grandson Brian.  We were in Ottawa for Gerry’s first look at the “C” Force Memorial Wall and a visit to the War Museum.  It was great to see Gerry there, looking very distinguished with his medals proudly on display.






Looking at the R.C.C.S. panel, you can’t help but be struck by the number of crosses beside names in the small group of thirty-three.  Nine didn’t make it back to Canada – a ratio of almost one out of three. 

Dispatch Riders Bob Damant and Ernie Thomas, and Operators Hank Greenberg and Charlie Sharp were killed in action.  Operators Bud Fairley and Jim Horvath died of wounds received during the battle. Operators John Little, Tom Redhead and Wes White succumbed to illness while prisoners in Hong Kong.

Thomas (from Vancouver), Damant (Montreal), Greenberg (Roblin, Man.) and Sharp (Victoria) died on the same day, December 19.  Gerry Gerrard described to me what happened with Thomas: “...then we were at Wong Nei Chong Gap – we were there for a while.  I don’t know where some of the guys were, I was dispatching guys out and sending them different places...Ernie Thomas was killed there....(Capt.) Billings told me, he says send a dispatch rider down to the front line and so I asked for a volunteer, which I didn’t get.  I can remember now, I got some straws and cut a short one and said OK pick out, and Ernie was the one that picked out...and that’s the last we saw of him.” He had just turned 25 on December 2nd.  Bob Damant was 21, Hank Greenberg was 22 and Charlie Sharp was 26.

Gerry was also at Wanchai Gap where the other three were killed by an artillery shell that hit the house on Coombe Road where the Signallers had set up their radio. He had just walked in when the shell hit.  The blast knocked him down but he was able to walk out covered in dust and debris and help with the injured.  Signalman Rolly D’Amours was also there: “I crossed the room on the north side and was just coming into the room on the south side when a 9.2 shell crashed through the north wall and exploded right in the middle of the sleeping men.  The blast threw me forward and my head slammed into a wall so hard that it broke the straps inside of my steel helmet, and gave me a terrible headache.  I tried to go through the room on the north side to get medical help, but the dust was so thick and the screams of the dying men so horrible that is was like going through hell.” (Roland D’Amours Autobiography, courtesy of Pierre D’Amours)

Both Bud Fairley (from Merritt, BC) and Jim Horvath (Winnipeg) were wounded during the attack and would later die of their injuries. They were both 22 years old.  In his personal notebook, my uncle, Don Penny, recorded Brigade Headquarters casualties.



As noted on the second page, John Little (Terrace, BC), Wes White (Abbotsford, BC) and Tom Redhead (Victoria) all died while in Bowen Road Hospital in Hong Kong. Little’s case of dysentery never got better and he died on June 5, 1942.  He was only 20 years old.  In August, a diphtheria epidemic raged through the camp.  Many succumbed, including White (who was 22) on September 25, and Redhead (26) five days later. 
Here are the faces of those nine young men with the crosses beside their names.
Bob Damant

Bud Fairley

Hank Greenberg

Jim Horvath

John Little

Tom Redhead

Charlie Sharp

Ernie Thomas

Wes White

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Ted Kurluk's Engraved Mess Tin




                                                        Signalman Ted Kurluk, R.C.C.S.


Had an interesting visit with Dan Kurluk, his wife and son. Dan’s brother, Ted, was with the Signal Corps in Hong Kong.  He was eventually sent to Japan, spending Christmas, 1943 onboard a ship bound for Narumi POW camp.  The family shared some stories, photos and other memorabilia with me. 

Ted was quite an artist.  On his aluminum mess tin (which interestingly appears to be an item that originally belonged to one of the British soldiers at Hong Kong – see below) he engraved pictures, words and images, reflecting his experiences in Hong Kong and Japan.











The side with the handle attached has the name of a company located in Birmingham stamped on it with the date, 1939. Also present is the British Broad Arrow, a mark signifying that the item belonged to the British government, a practice going back centuries.  After the battle of Hong Kong when the Canadians were gathered in the camps at North Point and Shamshuipo, most of them had virtually none of their kit with them.  So everyone scrounged around to find whatever utensils they could.  They might refurbish an old pot or if they were lucky they might find a discarded mess tin or other useful container left by a departing soldier or casualty.  Ted was fortunate to have a good aluminum utensil in his possession and obviously kept it with him for the duration of the war.  It’s a fine piece and one the family can cherish, not only for what it says about Ted as an artist, but also for the stories of his experiences it records.

Thanks to Dan Kurluk and his family for their permission to include the photos on my blog.


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Remember Brigade Headquarters


“C” Force  Brigade Headquarters

Consisting of approximately one hundred Canadians, Brigade HQ included Brigade Staff, the Chaplains Service and members of the Army Medical Corps, Army Pays Corps, Army Service Corps, Dental Corps, Ordnance Corps, Provost Corps, Postal Corps, and Royal Canadian Corps of Signals.  The request for these additional personnel to be added to the two infantry battalions (Winnipeg Grenadiers and Royal Rifles of Canada) came from the War Office in London on October 11, 1941.   Four days later the request was granted in Ottawa and a Brigade Headquarters with 16 officers and 83 other ranks became officially part of “C” Force. (ref. CMHQ Report #163)

The men and women (two nurse officers) of Brigade Headquarters were there to provide support services for the members of “C” Force.  Mostly trained as operators, clerks, drivers, and various medical staff, they were called upon to carry out their duties under trying battle conditions, and in many cases had to take up weapons and fight for their lives.  Eighteen of them received Military Honours and Awards for their actions.  Thirty-five never made it back to Canada - a terrible casualty rate.  They gave their lives: killed in action, died of their wounds, or died from illnesses while prisoners of war.

My uncle, Don Penny (R.C.C.S.), recorded most of these casualties in one of his notebooks.






Unfortunately, too often the published materials about our Canadian troops at Hong Kong ignore the important role played by the units of “C” Force Brigade Headquarters. They served with honour and distinction.  Let’s make sure we remember them, along with the Grenadiers and Royal Rifles.

(Note:  CMHQ Report #163 – Canadian Participation at Hong Kong – is available online: http://www.cmp-cpm.forces.gc.ca/dhh-dhp/his/rep-rap/cmhqrd-drqgmc-eng.asp?txtType=2&RfId=163  It’s a very interesting document with sections that outline the BHQ contribution.  I encourage anyone with an interest in “C” Force to have a look.)

                                 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Hong Kong: 2010 and 1941


When I recently spent some time with HK RCCS veteran Gerry Gerrard, we talked about his trip to Hong Kong last December with a group from the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association. (A report can be seen on the Association website: www.hkvca.ca/2010trip/ )  He commented on how much Hong Kong has changed from when he and the other members of “C” Force arrived there in November, 1941.  High rise towers and other developments are prominent, but there are areas where the fighting took place during the battle where some of the features from 1941 are still visible (including the HQ bunker that Gerry remembers well).  Efforts are being made to preserve and interpret these locations for interested visitors.

Another important location for us Canadians is the Sai Wan Bay War Cemetery.  The graves of 283 Canadian soldiers, including Wes White and four other RCCS members, are found here.  On one of her trips to Hong Kong, my sister-in-law took some photos of the cemetery – three of which I’ve included here.





Gerry and I also talked about the “culture shock” that occurred for most of the Canadian soldiers when they arrived on November 16, 1941.  Everything seemed “cheap” in terms of Canadian dollars – food, liquor, and services (including women).  A number of the fellows wrote about their impressions, including my uncle, Don Penny.  He sent a letter home to Vancouver, relating his unfavourable reactions to his new location (which he was not allowed to identify).





Signalman Rolly D’Amours recorded many of his thoughts and observations in his diary.  Three pages dealing with a particularly memorable evening are shown below.  Thanks to Pierre D’Amours, Rolly’s son, for allowing me to include them in this post.





On the morning of December 8th (December 7th in North America), after barely three weeks of gradually getting acclimatized to the realities of Hong Kong life, the soldiers had to quickly accept another reality:  they were now at war with Japan.

If you have other recollections or documents about our Canadian soldiers' early days in Hong Kong that you would like to share, you can post them as a comment, or email them to me and I will include them in another post to the blog.