Courage To Return

March 1, 2001 by Legion Magazine


by Tom MacGregor

Sai Wan Hill offers a spectacular view.

When you get away from the concrete and skyscrapers in the bustling city of Hong Kong, you find areas of lush forest growth, even with winter coming on. In one of four buses carrying a delegation of Canadians marking the 55th anniversary of the release of the Hong Kong prisoners of war, someone asked veteran Harry Atkinson how they ever fought in such thick jungle. “You have to remember it wasn’t like this in 1941. The hills were all bare. The people had cut down all the trees, even taken up their roots for firewood,” explained Atkinson, the national president of the Hong Kong Veterans Association of Canada. “The Japanese had cut off the supplies from the mainland and the people had nothing to cook their meals with.”

On this pilgrimage, mixed perceptions were ample between those who had been there in wartime and those trying to imagine what it was like. Unlike other pilgrimages organized by Veterans Affairs Canada, this was not just a trip of veterans and officials attending ceremonies. It was a family journey of veterans with wives, widows, children and grandchildren. The family members–mostly members of the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association–had coordinated their trip with the VAC pilgrimage so both groups could travel together. Some had come to remember. Most had come to at least learn and at best try to understand the courage exhibited during the 17-day defence of Hong Kong in December 1941 and the years of harsh treatment endured in Japanese prisoner-of-war and labour camps.

Many saw the Nov. 27-Dec. 7 pilgrimage as the last chance the veterans would have to visit the former British crown colony and describe what they faced and why so many of them seldom spoke of it afterwards. The necessity of passing on the message and correcting misperceptions or latter-day revisionism seemed all the more essential, given a self-imposed deadline on the future of the Hong Kong Veterans Association’s national body. This October in Winnipeg, the association will turn over its administration and operations to the newer Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association.

“We take over the operations, but the association will still exist,” said the commemorative association’s president, Derrill Henderson of Nepean, Ont. “The Hong Kong Veterans Association has a sunset clause that says when the second-last veteran dies so does the association.” The commemorative association was started by family members of the Hong Kong veterans in 1995 amid all the attention given to the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Another change was evident on this trip. After years of bitter battles for compensation for the years of mistreatment and slave labour, the veterans finally won an $18 million settlement with the Canadian government in 1998 for failing to make a better deal when it signed the peace treaty with Japan in 1952.

As the delegation reached Hong Kong, newspapers were telling of a Japanese construction company’s agreement to pay compensation to nearly 1,000 Chinese prisoners who had been forced into labour during World War II. Among the delegation members was Cliff Chadderton, who led the battle for compensation as patron of the Hong Kong Veterans Association. He told delegates that the long battle was over. Praising the intervention of then-Foreign Affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy, Chadderton said that to seek further compensation from the Japanese would be against international law. “The payment from the government of Canada was made ex gratia in recognition of what you went through and what was owed to you,” he said. “I know some of you feel it was paid by the wrong government. I feel that way, too. But the matter is settled.”

The delegation, led by Speaker of the Senate Gildas Molgat, travelled from Vancouver to Hong Kong and then to Japan. Along were 19 Hong Kong veterans as well as representatives of the larger veterans associations. Dominion President Bill Barclay represented The Royal Canadian Legion. Ceremonies would include moving tributes to those lying in the cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the unveiling of three plaques to tell those living in Hong Kong–and those visiting–of the valour exhibited by Canadians in its defence. Each plaque was unveiled at a suitable location and will be relocated at a permanent place in the near future.

The overwhelming growth of the state of 6.7 million people has made preserving Hong Kong’s architectural and historical heritage a daunting task. That was evident from the first evening at a reception hosted by the Consul General of Canada, Colin Russel, at the Antiquities and Monuments offices on the Kowloon Peninsula. There, a small section of an old British school has been preserved and is used as a museum and administrative offices. The facade of the building, which once flowed out into the open air, is now crammed up against a bustling four-lane street.

Russel told the delegation he chose this spot for the reception so that delegates would see the kind of pressure faced by those who want to preserve heritage. He said Canada’s wartime role is not that well known and he and others were trying to improve the situation. He also said the new Chinese authorities should be reminded of the values the Canadians were fighting to protect.

This was the first VAC pilgrimage to Hong Kong since it became part of China in 1997 following the expiry of the 99-year lease Britain held for the island, Kowloon, the New Territories and its adjacent islands.

The importance of Hong Kong as an entry point into China as both a market and source of trade goods is why the British established a colony in 1841. It was to protect those interests that Winston Churchill asked Canada to provide two regiments to bolster the defence of the colony in 1941. Though already at war in Europe, Canada agreed to send two regiments that were in the early stages of training and currently employed in garrison duties at the other side of the world. The Royal Rifles of Canada, a Montreal-based regiment, was in Gander, Nfld., guarding the airport while the Winnipeg Grenadiers were in Jamaica.

The arrival from Canada of 96 officers and 1,877 other ranks on Nov. 16 brought the defence force of British army and air force servicemen, and Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps to approximately 14,000. Conventional wisdom was that this would be enough to deter Japan’s will to attack. To make a show of strength, lines of defence were built along the mainland border of China and preparations were made for an attack by sea, most likely at Stanley along Repulse Bay.

But the attack came from the land. War in the Pacific began on Dec. 8 with nearly simultaneous attacks on Hong Kong, the United States at Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, Guam and Northern Malaya.

The Commonwealth forces on the mainland soon withdrew to the island where the Canadians were split between the East Brigade–where the Royal Rifles were–and the West Brigade with the Grenadiers. The senior Canadian officer, Brigadier John Lawson, was with the West Brigade headquarters. The fierce fighting succeeded only in restraining the enemy’s progress. The cost to Canada during the battle was 290 dead, including Lawson, with another 493 wounded. All the remaining were prisoners of war. In one of his addresses, Molgat quoted the official army historian C.P. Stacey as saying in his memoirs that “it gave me satisfaction to be able to write that the Japanese accounts indicated that it was in the areas where the Canadians were the major units engaged that the enemy encountered his greatest difficulties and suffered his heaviest losses.”

The first ceremony was the unveiling of a plaque dedicated to all members of the Royal Rifles. In particular the plaque refers to the night of Dec. 18, 1941. That night Major Wells Bishop’s action led to his being awarded the Distinguished Service Order for bravery.

The ceremony took place on the remains of Sai Wan Hill Fort, a British-designed fort dating back to the 19th century. During the ceremony, Flash Clayton, 79, of Brechin, Ont., recalled that “we were not up here but down at the bottom of the hill.” He said the Japanese climbed the hills during the night and had a high ground advantage. “Maj. Bishop was a good leader. He made us all remain quiet. He told us not to fire since the enemy was just trying to find our location. At one point, one of the Japanese began calling to us in English–telling us to surrender and they would treat us very well. The major told us all to aim our rifles where we thought the voice was coming from. He said, ‘When I give you the word, shoot the son of a bitch’. We did and that was the last we heard from him.”

The unit inflicted many casualties, but it was outnumbered. Rather than allow themselves to be encircled, Bishop called for permission to retire from the position. “And it was a retirement–very orderly and disciplined,” Clayton added.

The delegation attended the annual ceremony at the Sai Wan War Cemetery where more than 1,500 Commonwealth war dead are buried. There are 283 Canadian war dead here, including 107 who were unidentified. Another 228 Canadians war dead are listed on the memorial wall as having no known grave. From the highway visitors enter the cemetery through an arch on top of a steep slope with a challenging set of stairs to look at graves in rows leading down to the Cross of Sacrifice. Again the changing landscape of Hong Kong was evident. The cemetery had been called Sai Wan Bay War Cemetery because it looked out on the bay. It is now shrouded behind a mass of high-rise buildings.

As the ceremony began, boy and girl scouts in uniform came down the steps taking position at the end of the rows where the Canadian graves are, near the Cross of Sacrifice. Following the Act of Remembrance, Last Post, silence and Reveille, the scouts walked along their designated rows and placed a poppy on each grave. Russel explained that this is a tradition which began a few years ago and has proven very popular.

A second ceremony was held at Stanley Military Cemetery along the south shore at Repulse Bay where the final days of fighting occurred. It, too, is on a steep slope but from road level, visitors climb a long stairway to reach the cemetery and Cross of Sacrifice at the top. Down a lesser slope–on the other side of the hill–are 20 Canadian graves scattered among other Commonwealth war graves.

The final business in Hong Kong was the unveiling of the other two plaques. The first was on Mount Butler in honour of the Winnipeg Grenadiers and Company Sergeant Major John Osborn who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions. The plaque was unveiled at Jardine’s Lookout which is now a popular recreation and barbecue area.

It was near that spot that A Company of the Grenadiers engaged the enemy and took the summit for three hours. When other units began to withdraw from the mountain, Osborn ordered the troops to give them covering fire. He remained calm, constantly moving among the men offering encouragement. On a number of occasions he picked up incoming grenades and threw them back at the enemy. Finally, as he was talking to a sergeant, one fell near them. Osborn pushed the sergeant–knocking him down the hill–and threw himself on top of the grenade saving the sergeant and at least six other men.

Not far away is the bunker believed to have been where Brig. Lawson had the brigade headquarters. It was here that the Canadians tried to delay the enemy’s advance through the Wong Nei Chong Gap. They were soon overrun.

The Japanese gained high ground and hurtled grenades and gunfire at the headquarters. In a dramatic moment, the 54-year-old Lawson telephoned his commanding officer and said he and his men were “going to go outside and fight it out”.

Dick Keays 81, of Pointe-à-la-Croix, Que., remembered the battle. “I saw Lawson run out. I didn’t see him fall but there was a machine-gun trained on him. He only got about 30 feet.”

Here again the physical evidence of history was shrouded in mystery. While the bunker chosen had easy access from the road, Keays said it was not the one used by Lawson. The permanent location for the plaque is yet to be decided. “It didn’t seem quite right,” he said. He and his wife Isabelle went up the road and looked in the woods. “There was the right place about 100 yards away. I recognized the chimney pipe right away.”

On the final night in Hong Kong, the delegation had dinner with local dignitaries on a boat cruise in Victoria Harbour. The cruise is a popular tourist attraction allowing visitors to look at the neon energy of the city, made all the more brilliant with the addition of large-scale displays of Christmas lights.

Before returning to Canada, the delegation went to Yokohama, Japan. The mood was very different for those returning to the land of their incarceration. “Let’s just say, I felt very uncomfortable as we were arriving at the airport,” said Donald MacPherson, 80, of Richmond, B.C. MacPherson, who served with the Grenadiers, is legally blind as a result of malnutrition and the conditions of his incarceration. After two years in Hong Kong and Kowloon camps he was sent to Oeyama, Japan, for two years where he worked in a nickel mine, moving from daylight to dark, seven days a week.

The Canadians were first kept in camps at Hong Kong where many were forced to help build an airfield for the Japanese war effort. In 1943, 1,184 were taken to Japan. There, they were forced to work in heavy industrial jobs while conditions continued to be harsh. Of them, more than 130 died.

Larry Stebbe, 77, of Victoria was a signals operator attached to the Winnipeg Grenadiers. He was laying down telephone lines when ordered to surrender. He spent much of the war in Nippon Kokan shipyard in Tokyo. “We couldn’t talk at work,” he said. He remembers being underfed. “One day this big sheet of steel fell on my foot and cut off part of my toe. It was just bandaged up. They wouldn’t give me any medication.”

A final ceremony was held at Yokohama British Commonwealth War Cemetery. Speaking at his final event, Molgat said. “It is more than appropriate that we have this ceremony here at Yokohama. Because it was in the hell hole of PoW camps in Hong Kong and later–in this country–that so many Canadians would spend their war. Their fight for Hong Kong lasted only 17 days. Their battle for survival would last 1,330 more.”

The ceremony was held in a plot where 137 Canadians lie buried with several New Zealand allies. “Here lie those who survived the battle only to die from slave labour, torture, malnutrition and lack of medical supplies,” said Atkinson. “They will not be forgotten.”

Also not forgotten, though, will be those who returned home and raised families. The delegation ranged in age from 89-year-old Lancelot Ross of Paspebiac, Que., to 11-year-old David Heinrichs of Winnipeg who attended formal ceremonies in his scout uniform.

“This has been a roller-coaster of emotion,” said Allan Hadley of Winnipeg. He and his wife Carol accompanied his father-in-law Borge Agerbak who fought with the Grenadiers on Mount Butler. “I knew where he served but, with this, it all took on so much more meaning.”

Ross’s daughter, Mitzi Ross, said her father had a certain trepidation about going on the trip. “I called him to ask if he wanted to go on the trip. He finally said, ‘If you go, I’ll go’. For her it was an opening up that had never occurred before. “He never talked about it. We lived in the Gaspé. I knew my father was involved in the Hong Kong Veterans Association. I can remember veterans visiting when they were in the area. And I would hear them talk. Mostly they would tell a funny story or talk about a trick they played on a guard.”

She now understand the bonds between veterans. “I remember one veteran telling me, ‘I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for your father.'” She said her father is a hero to her. “He always has been but now he is even more so.”

For others without the family connection, the commemorative association intends to carry on the association’s work. Henderson, the son of Corporal Stewart Henderson of the Royal Rifles who died in 1991, noted: “The veterans wanted us to do this. They mostly didn’t want the widows to find themselves without somewhere to turn. Some of them are comfortable with good pensions, but others have only the survivors pension.”

Henderson says the association intends to register as a charity and raise money for more commemorative and educational projects. That way as the visual markers of the ferocious battle for Hong Kong disappear, knowledge of what Canadians did there 59 years ago will not.

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