“I am remembered.” Those words brought tears to the eyes of many in the crowd of more than a thousand gathered on the banks of the Rideau River in Ottawa for the dedication of the Hong Kong Veterans Memorial Wall. On its polished surface are inscribed the names of 1,976 Canadian men and women who were part of the defence forces in Hong Kong when the Japanese army invaded in 1941.
A testament to their dwindling numbers, only 22 Hong Kong veterans were able to attend. A number of dignitaries were also there, including Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson and International Trade Minister Stockwell Day, whose grandfather Bertram Gilbert was captured. Senator Vivienne Poy, a baby at the time of the invasion, thanked the veterans for their sacrifice in Hong Kong’s “hour of great peril.” General Walter Natynczyk, the Chief of Defence Staff, saluted many of the Hong Kong veterans personally prior to the ceremony.
The Aug. 15 ceremony saw the unveiling a six-metre long monument topped by stylized depictions of the four mountains of Hong Kong, where battles took place. On one side of the granite-sheathed memorial are inscribed the names of 961 members of the Royal Rifles of Canada; on the other, those of the 911 Winnipeg Grenadiers. The more than 100 from brigade headquarters—signallers, clerks, doctors, dentists, nurses and chaplains—are commemorated on the end pieces. Among the names appears that of Gander, the great-hearted Newfoundland dog, who fought alongside the Royal Rifles and died after picking up an enemy grenade.
“Until this stone disintegrates and returns to dust, we will be remembered. May we all from our place in the hereafter be able to look down on this monument and say: ‘My name is written there; I am remembered,’” said Phil Doddridge, president of the Hong Kong Veterans Association.
Although they were the first Canadian troops to see battle in the Second World War, survivors of the Battle of Hong Kong, who spent nearly four years as slave labourers in prisoner-of-war camps, felt their lack of recognition. Their sacrifice was so early in the war, their numbers so few, they were easily overlooked by a public anxious to return to peace.
“To many the defence of Hong Kong was a minor event compared to the vast conflict that consumed the world in those anxious and dreadful days of the 1940s,” said Doddridge. “No wonder the war in Europe got the headlines while our little war was largely forgotten.”
The ceremony was held on VJ-Day, the anniversary of Japan’s unconditional surrender which ended the Second World War. Doddridge, just 20 when he was sent to Hong Kong with D Company of the Royal Rifles, is now 87, and among only about 80 veterans of the conflict still living.
The young Canadians of C-Force were blissfully unaware of their fate when in November 1941 Canada sent them to augment the 20,000-man British garrison in Hong Kong. Ill-equipped and inexperienced, they were in battle just three weeks after arrival. The Japanese attacked Hong Kong the day after bombing Pearl Harbor. British, Canadian and Indian troops held out for 17 days; Hong Kong’s governor surrendered on Christmas Day. During the battle 290 Canadians were killed and 493 wounded. The prisoner-of-war camps claimed another 267, who succumbed to disease, starvation and the effects of torture.
“I recall the slender youths who sailed across the Pacific in 1941 to encounter a well-trained and battle-hardened foe,” said Doddridge. “How innocent of combat we were, how naive of the horrors of war. How far removed from the comforts of home and the good order of Canada, and how oblivious we were to the many years we would languish in those horror camps.
“As one of the few remaining Hong Kong veterans I’m honoured and privileged beyond compare to express the gratitude of all my comrades for this permanent marker of our place in history,” he added. “It’s especially fitting that it should be installed in our nation’s capital, the nucleus of the country we all pledged to serve 70 years ago.”
After the ceremony, relatives of veterans visited the monument. Marilyn Wilbur Morgan of London, Ont., made rubbings of the names of her father’s two brothers, Clarence and Angus Wilbur. Both lived through the battle, but Clarence died a prisoner-of-war in 1943; his health broken, Angus died 20 years later. The memorial is amends for earlier overlooking the veterans’ contributions, she said. “The government insulted them by offering them $1 a day for every day they were in captivity.”
After years of bitter battles about compensation, the veterans finally won an $18 million settlement from the federal government in 1997 for failing to make a better deal for compensation when it signed the peace treaty with Japan in 1952.
“I’m here to honour my father,” said Marilyn Wright of Wascana Beach, Ont. Lieutenant C.A. Blaver was awarded the Military Cross for “great courage, dash, coolness and leadership” for covering the withdrawal of his heavily outnumbered men attempting to clear the Japanese from Mount Parker. He was wounded, but returned to Canada to marry, progress to the rank of captain, and start a family before dying of polio in 1955.
“Your mission to keep the memory alive for all Canadians is as important as your mission to defend Hong Kong,” said Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson. “The memory of your brave service and sacrifice will live on in all those who are here and all who will pass this way.”
The Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association intends it should be so. “We don’t intend it to sit there as a huge gravestone,” says Derrill Henderson, president of the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association, which began raising money in 2007 for the $375,000 monument. More than 800 donors have contributed about $200,000, but the group still needed to raise about another $200,000 to finish the landscaping.
The group’s website www.hkvca.ca already has lesson plans and background material for teachers, and sponsors a nationwide essay contest. Sitting on land donated by the National Capital Commission just down the street from the residences of the prime minister and governor general, eventually the Hong Kong Veterans Memorial Wall will be the centerpiece of an educational display hoped to draw students from across the country.