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Victory over Japan

Canada’s Pacific War contributions may have been relatively minor, but our sacrifices were no less vital

 

On Aug. 9, 1945, some 700 prisoners of war—including 166 Canadians—were working as slave labourers in the Omine coal mine on Japan’s Kyushu Island. The mine was situated about 160 kilometres northeast of Nagasaki. At about 10 o’clock that morning, air-raid sirens sounded and the prisoners were herded underground. When they emerged, huge clouds of smoke were rising from Nagasaki. It was soon rumoured that a special bomb had been dropped.

On Aug. 15, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allies and the mine’s guards ceased confining the prisoners. But it would be weeks—long after the formal surrender was signed on Sept. 1, 1945, aboard the USS Missouri—before American soldiers liberated them.

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and Nagasaki three days later forced Japan’s surrender. Whether the massive destruction wrought by these bombs was warranted is a moral question that continues to be debated to this day.

Major-General Bert Hoffmeister, commander of the 24,000-strong Canadian Army Pacific Force (CAPF), certainly believed it prevented cataclysmic losses of both military and civilian lives that would have resulted from the Allied invasion planned for that autumn. The CAPF was to join the invasion’s second phase—Operation Coronet—in the early spring of 1946 with landings on the main island of Honshu. Instead, the CAPF was disbanded on Sept. 1, without having left North America.

 [City of Toronto Archives/f1266_it98390]

City of Toronto Archives/f1266_it98390

Torontonians gather to read the Aug. 14, 1945, edition of The Globe and Mail; which ran the banner headline “PEACE AT LAST”.

Canada’s role in the Pacific theatre dated back to before hostilities between Japan and the Allies broke out on Dec. 7, 1941, triggered by Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States naval base in Hawaii. Over the previous spring and summer, the Royal Canadian Navy armed merchant cruiser HMCS Prince Robert spent three uneventful months patrolling from New Zealand back to her home base in Esquimalt, B.C., arriving on Aug. 24.

Meanwhile, tension between the Allies and Japan continued to mount and Britain’s high command began assessing its ability to defend its Southeast Asian possessions. Hong Kong was clearly vulnerable. In late September, Canada was asked to reinforce it. On Oct. 27, 1941, a contingent of 1,975 Canadian soldiers sailed from Vancouver aboard the troop transport ship Awatea with Prince Robert as escort. Two battalions formed the fighting backbone of the contingent: Quebec City’s Royal Rifles and the Winnipeg Grenadiers. Brigadier John Lawson commanded. The force landed in Hong Kong on Nov. 16.

Immediate hostilities were unexpected, but on Dec. 8, within hours of the Pearl Harbor attack and while the Canadians were still acclimatizing, Japanese forces out of China attacked Britain’s defensive line on the mainland.

Hong Kong’s defenders numbered barely 14,000—soldiers from the colony itself, Britain, India, Singapore and Canada. By the morning of Dec. 13, the mainland defences were overrun. An amphibious crossing on the night of Dec. 18 brought the Japanese into contact with the Canadians. Early next morning, the Winnipeg Grenadiers ‘A’ Company, led by Company Sergeant Major John Osborn, launched a bayonet charge that recaptured Mount Butler. After staving off numerous counterattacks, the company was desperately short of ammunition and surrounded. Grenades showered into the perimeter, and Osborn hurled them back until one fell that was impossible to pick up and toss. He threw himself onto it and was killed instantly. Osborn’s sacrifice earned a Victoria Cross.

Company Sergeant Major John Osborn of the Winnipeg Grenadiers threw himself onto a grenade defending Mount Butler, a hill in Hong Kong. [LAC/PA-037483]

Company Sergeant Major John Osborn of the Winnipeg Grenadiers threw himself onto a grenade defending Mount Butler, a hill in Hong Kong.
LAC/PA-037483

No amount of heroism could save Hong Kong. Lawson died on Dec. 19, when his headquarters was overrun. On the island’s eastern side, the Royal Rifles fought a battle of costly counterattacks as they were slowly driven back to Stanley Fort. To the west, the Grenadiers—particularly ‘D’ Company—kept the island’s main north-south road open until Dec. 22. When it surrendered that day, the company counted only 38 men. The remaining Grenadiers fought on, even managing a counterattack on Christmas Day. But at 3:15 p.m., a general surrender was ordered.

The Canadians had lost 290 killed and 493 wounded. The survivors faced more than three and a half years of harsh captivity that claimed 264 more lives. Among those taken prisoner were two nursing sisters—Kay Christie and Anna May Waters—both freed in late-1943 prisoner exchanges. But not all the Canadian prisoners were taken at Hong Kong.

Nursing sister Lieutenant Kay Christie is met by her father in Montreal after returning from Hong Kong, where she and Anna May Waters were the first and only Canadian nursing sisters taken as prisoners of war. [LAC/PA-141659]

Nursing sister Lieutenant Kay Christie is met by her father in Montreal after returning from Hong Kong, where she and Anna May Waters were the first and only Canadian nursing sisters taken as prisoners of war.
LAC/PA-141659

Even though it was small compared to the war against Germany, Canada’s role in the Pacific War was still significant. For example, about 400 Canadians, many of them Radio Detection Finding specialists, served in the RAF’s Far Eastern Command. A number of Canadian pilots also flew Hurricanes out of Singapore and the island of Java in Indonesia. As Japan invaded British Malaya (culminating in the Battle of Singapore), Java and Burma (Myanmar), several of these Canadians were captured, including 26 when Java fell on March 8, 1942.

The following month, about 70 more Canadian airmen joined RAF squadrons in the Pacific. With Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) threatened, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s No. 413 Squadron rushed from Scotland to be the first Canadian air unit in Southeast Asia. The squadron’s first Catalina flying boat reached Ceylon on March 28 and the second, piloted by Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall, arrived on April 2.

Two days later, Birchall detected an enemy fleet steaming toward the island and radioed a warning before enemy fighters shot down his plane. Two of the eight-man crew were killed and the rest, including Birchall, were captured. But his warning allowed Ceylon’s defenders to meet the Japanese flotilla with air and naval forces. After a protracted battle that cost the British heavy losses, the Japanese fleet withdrew. Although this action was more intended as a raid than an invasion, Birchall was declared the “Saviour of Ceylon.” He also received the Distinguished Flying Cross. No. 413 Squadron remained in Ceylon, logging some 11,000 operational hours before returning to England on Feb. 23, 1945.

The RCAF contingent in India and Ceylon continued to grow throughout 1942. By year’s end, there were about 1,100 personnel serving with RAF fighter and bomber squadrons. Because of the number of Canadian flyers, an RCAF District Headquarters was authorized in May 1943 and opened in New Delhi that October. It operated until June 1945, reaching a staffing peak of 191 responsible for administering a 3,000-strong Canadian contingent scattered throughout India and Southeast Asia.

Liberated Canadian prisoners at Shamshuipo Camp. [LAC/PA-116808]

Liberated Canadian prisoners at Shamshuipo Camp.
LAC/PA-116808

The threat to Ceylon coincided with the Japanese seizure of the westernmost American Aleutian islands of Kiska and Attu, on June 6 and 7, 1942, respectively. On June 20, Japanese submarine I-26 surfaced about three kilometres off the Estevan Point lighthouse on Vancouver Island and fired 17 shots from its 5.5-inch deck gun. The shells fell short into the sea or exploded in the surrounding dense forest. Beginning on Nov. 3, 1944, incendiary balloons were launched from Japan to ride the jet stream to North America to start forest fires. Some 9,000 to 10,000 balloons were launched before the campaign ceased in mid-April 1945. Those that reached British Columbia caused no notable damage, but remnants are still found today.

The submarine attack, combined with the Aleutian invasion, gave urgency to the defence of the West Coast. Two army divisions were deployed and naval and air assets strengthened. RCAF No. 8 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Squadron and two fighter squadrons, No. 111 and No. 14 deployed from British Columbia to Alaska. The latter flew 30 dive-bombing raids against Kiska.

American plans to retake Kiska and Attu developed rapidly. On May 11, 1943, Attu was assaulted and a bloody battle yielded about 2,350 Japanese dead and only 24 taken prisoner before its fall on May 30. American losses were 549 killed and 1,148 wounded.

Turning to Kiska, the Americans sought assistance from a Canadian brigade group to build an invasion force totalling about 34,500 troops. To meet the request, the Canadian government passed an order-in-council on June 18, 1943, authorizing soldiers enrolled for compulsory service under the National Resources Mobilization Act to be employed in Alaska, including the Aleutians.

From Pacific Command, the 13th Infantry Brigade was deployed, with four battalions—Canadian Fusiliers, Winnipeg Grenadiers, Le Régiment de Hull and Rocky Mountain Rangers—and supporting artillery, engineer, machine-gun and ambulance units. This force constituted 4,831 all ranks. Also making its inaugural combat debut was a combined American-Canadian elite unit—First Special Service Force (FSSF)—with about 500 Canadians present. This brought the total Canadian contribution to approximately 5,300.

Early in the morning of Aug. 15, the FSSF—soon nicknamed the Devil’s Brigade—led the assault. Impenetrable fog blinded the invaders and a chaotic roaming gun battle ensued. Sporadic exchanges continued for two days as soldiers groped about in weather conditions veterans dubbed the “Optical Aleutians.” On Aug. 17, they realized in dismay that the Japanese had abandoned the island days earlier. No Canadian was killed by friendly fire, but one was wounded. One Canadian officer was killed by a Japanese mine. During the ensuing occupation, three more Canadians were killed by enemy booby traps or ammunition accidents. The last Canadians gratefully left Kiska on Jan. 12, 1944.

Kisses and hugs are shared by Canadian military personnel in Ottawa on hearing of Japan’s surrender in August 1945. [LAC/C-003226]

Kisses and hugs are shared by Canadian military personnel in Ottawa on hearing of Japan’s surrender in August 1945.
LAC/C-003226

Early in 1943, British Chindits—deep-penetration airborne troops led by Brigadier Orde Wingate—had thrust into northern Burma, relying on airdrops for resupply. With the tide turning against Japan in early 1944, it was decided to expand this long-range penetration. Strongholds, including airstrips, were established far behind Japanese front lines in Burma and eastern India. Thirteen Canadian Air Liaison Officers provided ground radio communication for one such stronghold.

Some supplies were moved through the dense jungle by mules—and 180 Canadian mule skinners actually delivered 1,600 animals from Canada—but most supplies were delivered by air. RCAF No. 435 Squadron and No. 436 Squadron, flying Douglas C-47 Dakotas, joined these operations in December 1944 and January 1945. Supplies, mail and reinforcements were airdropped or landed on the short airstrips. Seven aircraft were lost on operational missions, with 6 aircrew killed, 14 missing and 5 wounded. The two squadrons collectively airlifted almost 56,500 tons of supplies and 29,000 troops, and evacuated about 1,000 casualties by war’s end.

Another vital player in the Burma campaign was the Sea Reconnaissance Unit. This unit of frogmen was the inspiration of Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel Bruce Wright, who oversaw its training and led it. The frogmen served as pathfinders, identifying viable river-crossing points. Facing Japanese troops, not to mention crocodiles, the unit proved its worth during the crossing of the Irrawaddy River, where Canadian Flight Lieutenant Henry Avery earned a Military Cross on the night of Feb. 24-25, 1945.

An unknown number of Canadian merchant ships plied Far Eastern waters throughout the war. Japanese attacks sunk 17.

Also serving in Burma, Malaya and Sarawak were 40 Japanese-Canadian and Chinese-Canadian linguists as part of Special Operation Executive’s paramilitary organization Force 136. Their service helped influence the Canadian government to extend full rights of citizenship to the nation’s Chinese and Japanese communities by 1950.

As the war in Europe ended in May 1945, the cruiser HMCS Uganda arrived in the Pacific theatre to support the American invasion of the Japanese island of Okinawa. The 82-day battle that ended on June 22, 1945, was the Pacific War’s bloodiest, with an estimated 241,000 lives lost—including almost 150,000 Okinawan civilians.

These massive military and civilian losses helped convince President Harry Truman to authorize the atomic bombings. On Aug. 9, the same day Nagasaki was struck by the second bomb, RCAF Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray from Trail, B.C., led eight Corsair fighter-bombers to target Japanese shipping in Honshu’s Onagawa Bay. Despite his plane being badly damaged by anti-aircraft fire, the 27-year-old pilot pressed home his attack on a destroyer—sinking it with one 500-pound bomb. His plane then plunged into the sea. Gray was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. He was the last Canadian to die in Second World War combat.

Hostilities ended six days later. The news arrived in North America on the evening of Aug. 14, and immediately thousands of people spilled into the streets in jubilant celebration. Toronto’s downtown streets were jammed with a sea of humanity. It was the same in every Canadian community. After six years of war, peace had come at last.

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