If anything emphasized the necessity for the the Allied nations to fight the Japanese military machine during the Second World War, it was its treatment accorded civilians of conquered nations and prisoners. In effect, the Japanese enslaved millions of people to do their bidding, working countless numbers of them to death through hard labour while depriving them of the necessities of life or simply murdering them without qualm or hesitation.
The 60th anniversary of the Japanese surrender on August 15 has just passed. In this Year of the Veteran, the sacrifices of Canadians during the war are finally receiving much deserved ink. In the weeks leading up to and following the anniversary of the Japanese surrender, the media and the Canadians who took part in the conflict against evil incarnate are telling the stories that other Canadians need to know. Put simply, what happened during the war is part of the Canadian identity, and the sacrifice of some many young men and women should never be forgotten, nor should the reason they fought in the first place go
There is no question that the ruling militarist regime sent an entire generation of Japanese citizens into the depths of human depravity. The Winnipeg Grenadiers or the Royal Rifles of Canada, who survived the surrender of Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941, became well aware of how deep an abyss the Japanese had descended as the unwilling thralls of the Japanese military machine.
In the early 1930s, the militarists — greater admirers of Nazi Germany — had taken over the school system, indoctrinating the youth of Japan to follow orders with unwavering obedience in the name of the Emperor, called a god on earth. In 1931, the militarists defied the civilian authority and attacked and conquered Manchuria, followed by an attack on the rest of China, embodied by the Rape of Nanking, the murder of 250,000 Chinese. They were out-of-control and used assassination and other means to overpower the civilian government.
Just before the sneak-attack on Pearl Harbor, the militarists had gained the
upper hand. Anyone who may have checked their enslavement of a continent was silenced with the rise of General Tojo to the Japanese premiership.
This set the stage for the sneak-attack on Pearl Harbor and the invasion of Hong Kong and other regions of Southeast Asia.
Hindsight shows that the Canadian troops should not have been in Hong Kong on December 8, 1941. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “There is not the slightest chance of holding Hong Kong or relieving it.”
Yet, Canadian General Harry Crerar was convinced by British generals, who believed the Japanese army was inefficient and weak, didn’t like water and had difficulty seeing in the dark — truly amazing beliefs and dead wrong — that there was “no military risk in dispatching Canadian battalions” to Hong Kong. Crerar then told the Canadian government there was no danger and Ottawa then told Churchill that Canadians could be made available for the defence of Hong Kong. Of course, Churchill then indicated his support, since there would be no political backlash in Britain — colonials from a far off nation could readily be sacrificed in a useless cause.
These decisions doomed 1,975 Canadians (some 14,000 troops from India and Great Britain, mainly Scots, were already in Hong Kong and equally doomed). The only concession made by the Canadian authorities was to send untested and poorly-trained troops to Hong Kong — after all it was a safe haven — and reserve the best for duty in Europe. One Hong Kong veteran later said he had never fired a rifle and didn’t know how to put an ammunition clip into a rifle when he landed at Hong Kong.
Yet, the poorly trained troops fought valiantly and with remarkable courage under the circumstances of being attacked by an overwhelming enemy. They fought mostly with small arms and bayonets in hand-to-hand combat because the British generals commanding the defence hadn’t anticipated the December 8 attack, and their heavy equipment had not yet arrived from Canada.
On Christmas Day, the Allied troops — who had been told by British General Maltby they would be fighting to the death — despite their exhaustion, and lack of ammunition and food, were incredulous that they were being told to surrender.
This surrender was greeted by an orgy of brutality by the Japanese, who murdered the wounded in hospitals and raped and killed nurses. According to the Japanese code of Bushido, surrender was an act of cowardice and prisoners were to be treated without mercy.
During the three weeks of fighting, 23 Canadian officers and 267 other ranks were killed. Forty per cent of the Canadian force was either killed or wounded. Among the dead was Sergeant-Major John Osborne of the Winnipeg Grenadiers, who earned a Victoria Cross by throwing himself on a grenade to protect his men during a futile attack on Mount Butler.
Those Canadians who had not been killed were taken to North Point prisoner of war camp and subjected to inhumane conditions which continued when they were later sent to Sham Shui Po camp, where they were put to work on the construction of the Kai Tak air base. At this camp, four Grenadiers were beheaded after a failed escape attempt.
The troops contracted numerous diseases, but its was mostly diphtheria which thinned their ranks. In their first year of imprisonment, 112 Canadians died of diphtheria. By the end of the war, 264 had died in the prison camps.
In 1943, Canadian PoWs were transferred to Japan to work as slaves in coals mines and docks. The first 633 Canadians were crammed into the hold of a freighter for the journey to Japan. Seasickness and disease caused them to fill their so-called living space with vomit and excrement. When they emerged from the hold upon arrival in Japan, they were covered with this foul mess and more sick than when they had started out. The same conditions were experienced by the 515 who were later sent to Japan.
One soldier said that upon arrival in Japan they had been transferred from one hell to another.
Throughout their imprisonment and slave labour, they received less than 1,000 calories of food a day, while performing jobs that required at least 5,000 calories a day. They were reduced to disease-riddled walking skeletons. If they couldn’t work, they were beaten unmercilessly, sick or not.
Today, only about 240 Hong Kong veterans are still alive. In fact, most of them died in their 50s and 60s from complications brought about by their harsh treatment. Before the liberated survivors reached Canada, three succumbed to the debilitating conditions of their 1,377 days of captivity.
The Canadian government was slow to acknowledge their numerous health problems. It actually took decades before the Hong Kong veterans received adequate health benefits and a special pension was only granted in 2001 — too late for most. Compensation from Japan for the veterans and their widows came on December 11, 1998, but the veterans are still seeking an adequate apology from the Japanese government for their inhumane treatment.
“Never Forget” is the motto of the Hong Kong Veterans Commemoration Association, and that is something Canadians should take to heart in recognition of their sacrifice.