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.