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Commemoration In The Capital: Marking The End Of Dark Days



Veterans ride in a WW II jeep during the march past.

Many years ago, John Ford was unfortunate enough to be a prisoner of war in Japan and forced to perform slave labour in the dockyard at Nagasaki. It was there that he saw the beginning of the end of World War II.

The St. John’s, Nfld., native was with the Royal Air Force during WW II, serving with 36 Torpedo Squadron. The flight mechanic (first class) was taken prisoner in Java (now Indonesia). He was working with seven other men when they heard an incredible noise. Then he saw a massive mushroom cloud rising into the sky. It was Aug. 9, 1945, and the United States Air Force had just dropped the second atomic bomb on Japan.

Ford felt the intense heat and yelled at the others to hit the ground. “After that you could tell the war was over. We still had to work in the dockyard but the Japanese were not making us work that hard,” he said while in Ottawa during the Aug. 12-14 ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the end of WW II. Japan unconditionally surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945. “I say to this day that dropping the bomb took at least a year off the war. It saved millions of Allied–and Japanese–lives,” said the 87-year-old war veteran who holds the Palm Leaf and the Meritorious Service Medal for Mount Pearl Park-Glendale Branch of the Legion.

The shock of the exposure to the blast has taken its toll. “I have had skin cancer five times. They said it (the bomb) caused destruction to everything within 10 miles. We were only seven miles away,” he said.

Veterans Affairs Canada had contacted the remaining Far East veterans to see if there was strong interest in going back to Hong Kong for a VAC pilgrimage, as they normally do every five years. The other option was to bring the veterans and their families to Ottawa for a weekend of relaxed ceremonies. “Given the veterans’ age, they were more interested in coming here than going all that way,” Veterans Affairs Minister Albina Guarnieri told Legion Magazine. However, she said this was not the end of the pilgrimages program. “As long as there are Canadian graves overseas, we will not leave them for other people to care for. There will be more pilgrimages. Not necessarily with veterans anymore, but their deeds will be remembered.”

The Ottawa events proved more popular than VAC had expected. More than 700 people registered. This caused the department to scramble at the last minute to move events planned for the National Arts Centre to the nearby Crowne Plaza hotel.

During the weekend, the Hong Kong Veterans Association of Canada held its convention, as did a spin-off group made up of sons and daughters of Far East veterans, the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association. Members of the Burma Squadrons Association, also known as the Burma Bombers, met in Trenton, Ont., for their association’s meeting.

Canadians were involved in the war in the Far East during the darkest days for the Allied cause. As Japanese forces started moving through China, Britain wanted to make sure its colony on Hong Kong was at least seen to be protected.

Canada was to provide two battalions of infantry, the Royal Rifles of Canada from Quebec and the Winnipeg Grenadiers. However, they had only been in Hong Kong for three weeks and were still in training when Japan attacked in 1941. Nonetheless, the defending forces kept fighting despite the enemy’s overwhelming number of soldiers.

The fighting lasted 17 days, during which company Sergeant-Major John Osborn of the Winnipeg Grenadiers courageously held the top of a mountain from advancing forces. Several times he lobbed enemy grenades back at the Japanese to stop them from causing harm. Eventually, one fell too close. Knowing he couldn’t pick it up on time, he fell on it himself, using his body to be a shield for the others. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross in 1946 when his deeds came to light, and long after other VCs had been awarded. Still his action was the earliest in WW II that earned a Canadian the medal.

The Allies surrendered on Christmas Day. Approximately 290 Canadians died in battle. The rest were taken prisoner and forced to endure hardship until the end of the war. By the time the PoWs were liberated, 264 more had died.

Many Canadians were serving in Burma (now Myanmar) and India as part of the RAF, supporting British troops fighting the Japanese in the jungles. Canada would send two Royal Canadian Air Force transport squadrons, 435 and 436, to the Far East to participate in a new concept in supplying advancing troops. Because there were no proper roads in the dense jungle, the lines were all supplied by air. Planes landed on hastily constructed airstrips or dropped supplies with parachutes to the fighting forces. Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, the supreme commander of South-East Asia Command, said after the war that, “It was the mule and the Dakota that won the Burma campaign.”

The RCAF’s 413 General Surveillance Sqdn. was dispatched to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, in March 1942. It was there that Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall spotted the Japanese fleet advancing toward the island. His report prepared the defences. Although Birchall’s plane was shot down and he would spend the rest of the war as a PoW, he earned the title Saviour of Ceylon from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The history of war in the Far East also tells us about Lieutenant Hampton Gray of the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve. He served as a pilot with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm aboard HMS Formidable, and was awarded a posthumous VC for his attack on a Japanese destroyer in August 1945. He sank the ship but his own plane caught fire and was never seen again.

Commemorative events started on Friday night at the new Canadian War Museum. “Veterans are in vogue these days. We have the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Now we have a new war museum and we will have this presentation tonight,” said museum Director and Chief Executive Officer Joe Geurts. “But we cannot be complacent. To every veteran who fought in this war and everyone who wore a uniform, we must say thanks.”

The reason for the night at the war museum was the unveiling of a plaque noting Canada’s involvement in the Far East during WW II. Created by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, the plaque was unveiled by Parks Canada Chief Executive Officer Alan Latourelle. “History is to the nation what memory is to the person,” said Latourelle. “This plaque is for the gallant defence of Hong Kong until the surrender on Christmas Day. It was the only battle of the war that had 100 per cent casualties, in that all were killed or became prisoners of war.”

The plaque reads: “In late 1941, 1,975 Canadians arrived in Hong Kong to re-enforce the garrison. They fought with courage and determination against overwhelming odds after the Japanese attacked on Dec. 8…. During the 17-day battle, 290 men died. After the surrender 267 more perished during the long years of harsh captivity. The Canadians’ role in the defence of Hong Kong stands as an eloquent expression of their lasting honour.” Sadly, many of those who returned to Canada suffered serious disabilities as a result of their PoW experience, and many died premature deaths. The plaque will be placed in Ottawa’s Confederation Park near the National War Memorial.

Among those attending the event was Don Sale, a veteran of His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Uganda. He joined the Royal Canadian Navy in 1942 and was in Scotland in 1945 when he was assigned to Uganda. “We left at 4 o’clock on New Year’s Day and went to Egypt and through the Suez Canal,” he recalled. “I didn’t see much. I was a stoker,” said the life member of Sutton West, Ont., Branch. “We were a cruiser. The job of cruisers was to protect the aircraft carriers who really did the hard damage.”

Hong Kong Veterans Association President Phil Doddridge, 83, of New Richmond, Que., served with the Royal Rifles. He said the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association got going in the late 1980s. “I was pretty discouraged. Things were going slow with the remaining Hong Kong veterans. A woman in Winnipeg named Laura Wachtendorm had been compiling lists of the children of the veterans. They got together in 1993.”

Doddridge recalls of his service that it rained throughout the month, making fighting even harder. “If we ditched down too low we would drown. Christmas Day was the worst day of the battle. We were in the Stanley Valley. They were firing mortars on us from the hills.”

David Sager, 81, served with the British in the 14th Army in Burma. The Halifax resident was in communications on the ground. “We were supplied entirely by air. There was no refrigeration. Most of the men got sick. I didn’t get the fever but I had an outbreak of boils. After the war, I spent two more years in the Far East while we repatriated the PoWs. I didn’t get home before 1947.”

Edward Atkinson, 81, of Ottawa was beginning a career as a reporter with the Kingston Whig-Standard during the war, but decided to leave and join the merchant navy. “I joined at the end of 1942.” He served on a number of ships, including the Selkirk Park, La Salle Park and the Outremont Park. Atkinson remembers the ships transporting jeeps and grain to the Far East. “We had trouble on the Outremont and ended up limping back to Canada. But then there were so many ships lost,” said the former cadet officer.

Cliff Chadderton, the honorary patron of the Hong Kong Veterans Association, spoke of the long fight to get compensation for the Hong Kong veterans. While the former PoWs received at least 50 per cent disability pensions, they felt the government let them down in signing the peace treaty with the Japanese that did not include compensation from Japan. To settle the issue, the federal government finally paid a lump sum of up to $24,000 to the survivors or their widows in 1998. The veterans have continued to demand that the Japanese make a full apology and that they pay compensation.

Brothers Bill and Dennis Bell, both retired police officers from Winnipeg, joined the festivities even though their 88-year-old father Billy Bell declined to attend. “Every year he shines up his medals for Remembrance Day but in the end he just watches the ceremony on television,” said Bill Bell. “He has bad memories. Even to this day, sometimes shrapnel falls out of his head when he combs his hair. He had dysentery and intestinal problems.” Their father lost a brother, Gordon Bell, in the war. Both brothers are members of the commemorative association.

Bill Cosway, 81, of Ottawa was already working as an installer for Bell Canada when he enlisted in Toronto in 1942. He joined the RCAF and served with the RAF. He flew on 38 missions as a navigator, directing bombing on Japanese supply ships.

The member of the Burma Star Association was a flying officer stationed in Bengal, India, when news of the war ending reached his squadron. He said some of the Japanese refused to believe the emperor would ever surrender, and sporadic fighting continued for three months after the war’s official ending.

The final day of the weekend culminated in a remembrance ceremony at the National War Memorial. The Governor General’s Foot Guards formed up with the gathered veterans at the cenotaph after completing the traditional changing of the guard on Parliament Hill. The Act of Remembrance was read in French by Doddridge and in English by Peter Brennan of Ottawa, who served with RCAF as part of 435 Sqdn. in Burma. Wreaths were placed by Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, Veterans Affairs Minister Guarnieri, Defence Minister Bill Graham and Silver Cross Mother Claire Léger, the mother of Sergeant Marc Léger, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2002. Dominion Past President Allan Parks placed a wreath on behalf of The Royal Canadian Legion.

Veterans and military members, led by the music of the foot guards, then did a march past in front of the Governor General. At the evening gala, Guarnieri paid tribute to the veterans, saying, “You changed the times more than the times changed you.”

Also attending was Isobel George of Britain’s People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals. In 2000 the animal charity awarded the Dickin Medal, sometimes called the Victoria Cross for Animals, to the Hong Kong Veterans Association in recognition of the bravery shown by a large black Labrador retriever named Gander.

Gander was the mascot for the Royal Rifles of Canada when the unit was stationed in Newfoundland. When orders came that the unit was to proceed to Hong Kong, the men gave Gander the rank of sergeant and took him with them.

Then, when a grenade was lobbed into a refuge for seven wounded soldiers, he picked it up in his mouth and charged at the enemy with it. The grenade exploded as he carried it.

George had brought with her a black and white portrait of Gander to present on behalf of the dispensary to Doddridge and the Hong Kong Veterans Association.

Though many of the veterans had bad memories of the war, the mood was generally one of celebration of the end of WW II and their welcomed return home. On one sad note, many gathered in silence at the hospitality suite in the Lord Elgin Hotel, their eyes glued to television coverage of the funeral in Vancouver for Sergeant Smokey Smith who had been Canada’s last surviving Victoria Cross recipient (Tribute To A Hero, September/ October).


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