by Mac Johnston
You seldom hear the phrase ‘the Far East’ these days, but during WW II it was a significant theatre for our military, involving more than 10,000 Canadians in many roles.
That’s why Veterans Affairs Canada conducted a Far East pilgrimage from Nov. 28 to Dec. 14, 1995. Organized under the Canada Remembers program, it was the last major event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of WW II.
Diversity abounded in this theatre. The Royal Canadian Air Force was a major player, providing two transport squadrons–435 and 436–that supplied the British 14th Army as it drove the Japanese out of India and Burma (now Myanmar) in 1944 and ‘45. A number of individual Canadians served with the 14th Army, including Major Charles Hoey of Duncan, B.C., who was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously for action in Burma in 1944. The RCAF’s 413 Sqdn. served with distinction in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). RCAF personnel were scattered throughout the theatre, including Malaya (now Malaysia), Singapore, Java (now Indonesia) and India, some in Royal Air Force units.
But Canada’s best-known Far East warriors are the Hong Kong veterans. The Royal Rifles of Canada based in Quebec City and the Winnipeg Grenadiers were the two infantry battalions that formed the bulk of the 1,975 Canadians sent in October 1941 to help defend the British colony.
About 40 Canadian volunteers of Chinese and Japanese descent served in the Far East with Force 136 of the British Special Operations Executive or intelligence units.
The Royal Canadian Navy was also represented. The Canadian cruiser Uganda and the auxiliary cruiser Prince Robert both saw service in the theatre and a small number of Canadians served in Royal Navy ships. In addition, RCN aircrew flew off British aircraft carriers with the Fleet Air Arm, including Flight Lieutenant Hampton Gray, who was awarded the VC posthumously for sinking a Japanese destroyer in August 1945. Other Canadians served in the Pacific in the merchant navy.
Collectively, these veterans feel they did not receive recognition in Canada. They refer to the Far East as the “forgotten war.” The VAC pilgrimage had special meaning for them because it was official recognition of their contributions.
The two transport squadrons, 435 and 436, flew twin-engined Dakotas, starting from a base at Imphal in northeastern India.
Later, as the 14th Army advanced, 436 flew from Akyab and Ramree Island on the west coast of Burma.
Bob Farquharson of Toronto, a 435 Sqdn. pilot, explains the basic setup: “The aircrew were divided into two flights, A and B: A would fly one day, B the next. The Dakota transports would fly every day, so there were two aircrews for each plane. A crew had four men: a pilot, co-pilot, navigator and wireless operator/air gunner. There were 25 planes in a squadron, so there were 200 aircrew. In total, a squadron was composed of about 800 people. The rest were in support–radar, fitters, riggers, administration, etc.”
Frank Cooper of Washago, Ont., a 436 pilot, describes the initial assignment: “We were flying the hump over the Himalayas to get to our targets in Burma.”
Farquharson notes: “The real problems for us were flying in the mountains and the monsoon weather. We got pretty good at looking ahead and seeing where the darkness in the clouds was and flying around it. One day I misjudged which way it was moving and it turned out it was coming towards me.
“We got caught in the monsoon cloud. One moment we were going up at about 5,000 feet a minute and the next we were going down at the same rate. The co-pilot and I both had our feet on the dashboard and were pulling on the stick to get out of the downdraft. Finally, this took effect….We then climbed to get free of the mountains. I thought I was pretty calm all through it, but when we realized we were safe, my feet were shaking on the rudder pedals.”
This work was history in the making–the first time an entire army was supplied totally by air. “We had to fly every day,” says Farquharson. “The army depended upon it….Up in the north in the mountains we were dropping supplies all the time. As the army moved south, the land became flatter and we landed more than we dropped.”
Adds Cooper: “About half the time we dropped supplies. We did free drops for rice and barbed wire. The rice was in heavy double hemp or jute bags. The barbed wire was in tight rolls and bounced like crazy. We did parachute drops for the other supplies.
“All these drops were to coded, marked drop zones. The code of the day, say NT, would be spelled out on the ground in tall letters with white sheets. They weren’t hard to read once you found them, but they could be hard to find. In the jungle you had to be right over the cleared area to see them.”
Peter Brennan of Ottawa was a 435 Sqdn. aero-engine mechanic. He says groundcrew would often go along if supplies were to be dropped. “When we got near the drop zone, the pilot would give us a warning. We’d have the packages with parachutes attached ready to shove out the door. Then over the drop zone the bell rang and the stuff went out the door. When the bell stopped ringing, you moved more materiel to the door while the pilot circled around to come in again for another drop. We carried three tons of materiel, so it would often take five or six circuits.” The transports routinely made from two to four trips a day.
Dakotas were unarmed and without cargo doors. They flew low so enemy fighters wouldn’t dive on them for fear they would be unable to pull up in time to avoid crashing.
In August 1945, some 435 Sqdn. planes made supply drops to Force 136 in the Shan Hills of southeastern Burma. “This was our most hazardous flying,” says Brennan. “We usually had to fly up a narrow valley to a drop zone. On completion of our drop, the pilot would have to begin his turn close to the hillside in order to make a 180 degree turn in the valley. This brought our wingtips close to the treetops–so close I could see frightened monkeys leaping from tree to tree.”
Force 136 was represented on the pilgrimage by Herbert Lim of Vancouver, Gord Quan of Victoria and Harry Ho of Coquitlam, B.C. All are Chinese Canadians and all volunteered despite the fact that members of their race were victims of widespread discrimination; for example, they did not have the right to vote.
The ability to speak Chinese, a language common in Asia, and to blend in physically, “those were the reasons we were chosen, to be honest with you,” says Quan, a member of Britannia Branch in Victoria.
Force 136 members were trained in guerrilla warfare and demolition. Their assignments varied, but they parachuted behind the lines to help the local populace harass the Japanese, or they went in by fast boat to conduct hit-and-run raids.
Ho enlisted in September 1944 and jumped in on July 14, 1945: “We flew in a B-24 Liberator at about 600 feet. We were shot at by a Japanese corvette. Shrapnel hit the window and I was hit on the forehead. We kept going to the DZ in the jungle along the border between Thailand and Malaya. We dropped in a dry river bed. My captain got hung up on a tree 60 feet high. It took us 10 hours before we could get him down. While he hung up there he drank two flasks of rum.
“We trained Chinese guerrillas to prepare for the invasion of Malaya that was supposed to take place in September 1945,” Ho explains. “We came across the Japanese quite a few times on patrol, but we avoided them. We were chased several times and that’s when I got my back burned by battery acid as the battery pack jostled on my back….I stayed there until the Japanese surrendered. When you’re behind the lines, you can’t come out.”
In 1942 nearly 21,000 Japanese Canadians on the West Coast were relocated inland by the federal government. Their land, homes, businesses and many possessions were seized without compensation.
Fred Kagawa of Etobicoke, Ont., is a Canadian-born son of Japanese immigrants. His parents and two siblings were sent to the British Columbia interior. Kagawa, one brother and one sister were old enough to work and were dispersed to separate locations. Kagawa, 19, was sent to a road-building camp in Northern Ontario.
Kagawa was among those who chose to enlist. He says: “I wanted to prove myself to them (whites), so I could walk anywhere and be a first-class citizen and nobody could say anything against me. Anyway, it turned out OK.”
As a high school graduate fluent in Japanese, Kagawa was approached by the British Army to serve in Asia. Ottawa changed its mind about accepting Japanese Canadians in 1945, so he soon ended up in the Canadian Intelligence Corps in Rangoon, Burma.
“Our unit was a small unit called the Psychological Warfare Broadcasting Unit. I had to translate from English to Japanese the current news of the Japanese losing the war. I broadcast in Japanese and our target was the Japanese army. They had retreated from Burma so there was no need for hardline propaganda.”
Military service by members of Canada’s minorities in WW II was one factor in the changing postwar attitudes of the white majority. Chinese Canadians gained the vote federally in 1947, while Japanese Canadians had to wait until 1949. But real equality within Canada and in our immigration laws did not come until much later.
Burma was also an operational theatre for Bob Dark of Kingston, Ont., shown in the foreground of our cover photo montage. A Canadian whose parents were serving in India with the Salvation Army, he became a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Indian Navy.
He served in 112-foot wooden motor launches that dropped and picked up agents along the Burmese coast. He recalls one day in December 1943. “All of a sudden we spotted eight Zeros coming in at us, each from a different direction. We were zigzagging but I thought we’d had it. They each dropped a bomb. There were no direct hits but the bombs were close enough that splinters wounded some of the anti-aircraft gun crew. I don’t know why they didn’t strafe us. With all the fuel we had on deck in drums for the long trip, we’d have certainly blown up.”
During their short Burma stay, the veterans didn’t get to see much of the capital of Yangon or the country now called Myanmar, which is essentially a military state. But they had a sense of satisfaction after holding ceremonies at Taukkyan and Rangoon war cemeteries, which together have 56 Canadian war dead.
Next the Canadian delegation went to Singapore, where there are three Canadian graves in Kranji War Cemetery–and 199 Canadian names on the Singapore Memorial that recognizes more than 24,000 Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen with no known grave.
Gordie Dunn of Caledon, Ont., was here as an RCAF fighter pilot with 232 Sqdn., RAF: “At Singapore in early 1942 our early warning systems for enemy attack and our radio were practically non-existent, so we calculated about the time the Japanese would be coming and tried to intercept them. If we had height on them we would attack on a dive-and-hit basis, then leave. If they were high on us, we would dive away from them. It was not a very successful way of doing it, but our guys fought bravely against them.
“They were flying Zeros, which were very nimble with good offensive abilities. But they were not rugged like our Hurricanes, which could stand an awful lot of punishment. Of course, we were always badly outnumbered. Eventually they overwhelmed us and Singapore fell.
“We evacuated Singapore, heading for Sumatra. Soon after we were airborne my heat guage started rising….The engine finally seized over the jungle. I jettisoned my port side panel, jettisoned my helmet with the radio wires and oxygen hose, released my safety strap and forced myself out, right elbow on the windshield, and flopped onto the wing. The action pulled my ripcord. My flying boots shot off and I was brought to an abrupt halt….I floated down.
“I landed in a bit of a grassy clearing. I had been yelling over the radio transmitter that I had to bail out. I spread open my chute so I could be seen and sat down for a smoke, but I had no matches. I could hear the bullets exploding in the wreckage of my aircraft, but I couldn’t see it. I went to climb a dead tree to get a vantage point, but I was immediately covered in red ants. I brushed them off and went back to my chute.
Dunn was soon rescued by young men from a nearby village, who led him to their headman’s house. “As we walked along the paddy dikes, everyone we passed fell in behind us–kids, men, women and dogs.” The headman, a Javenese native who worked for the Dutch, transported him about 20 miles to Palembang in his chauffeur-driven 1937 Oldsmobile.
The Dutch surrendered Java in March 1942 and Dunn was taken that fall by boat to Japan. “I had dysentery bad,” he recalls. “I nearly croaked.” He loaded and unloaded ships and trains until the end of the war. “I weighed 108 pounds at the end. We couldn’t have made it through another winter. If they hadn’t dropped the atom bombs, the Japs would have fought on.”
The Japanese have been justifiably condemned for their inhumane treatment of Allied prisoners of war and their Canadian PoWs are a case in point. During the battle for Hong Kong, 290 Canadians died, while 493 were wounded. But 129 more died while being held in Hong Kong. Then after 1,184 Canadians were shipped to Japan for forced labor, 135 more perished. In all, 554 of the 1,975 Canadians at Hong Kong never returned.
The Hong Kong Veterans Association of Canada organized a tour group of 37 which merged with the Canadian delegation. The group contained 12 Hong Kong veterans, six widows and 19 family members and friends.
Two sisters from Thunder Bay, Ont., Mary Prairie and Angela Aalto, each married a Winnipeg Grenadier who was a Hong Kong veteran and each was widowed. Mary said her husband Alex Prairie was only 86 pounds at war’s end. He died in 1988 at age 65 after enduring serious health problems for 17 years. “They had old bodies a lot sooner than others did,” she notes.
“My husband had a very positive attitude. I miss him terrible, but he used to always tell me to be grateful for the good things and leave the bad things behind….I just felt I had to come here, to see where he spent his wartime years…I think they deserve to be remembered.”
Aalto’s husband Oscar Jonasson died in 1956 at age 33. “It did my heart good to see the fellows he fought with. And it made me realize we were lucky to have the years he did have, rather than be lying out here in a cemetery.”
Roger Cyr of Ottawa, president of the Hong Kong veterans, feels the focus is on those who died in battle, not those who died in PoW camp. “To me some of the bigger heroes were the guys who perished in the camps. You don’t hear about the guy who gave his food away, sacrificed his life and helped save three buddies. You don’t hear about the guy who took 25 beatings.”
At Sai Wan War Cemetery in Hong Kong, Lawrence MacAulay, Secretary of State for Veterans, says: “It is important that we remember sacrifice, that we keep the stories of these men alive for future generations, because if we forget our history, we lose sight of our future. And so we salute the living because you gave us your courage and your youth. And here, today, we honor your fallen comrades.”