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Prisoners of the past: Veteran stories from the archives

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Author, photojournalist and former Calgary Herald journalist David Bly wrote the below historical piece, originally published in August 2005. While many of the veterans interviewed for this piece have since passed away, their stories remain vital parts of our history worth recalling not only on Remembrance Day, but every day of the year.

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Prisoners of the past: Canadian veterans of the defence of Hong Kong feel their suffering has not been fully recognized

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By David Bly
Calgary Herald

Gordon Durrant got a first-hand look at what an atomic bomb can do when the plane taking him home flew over Hiroshima not long after the bomb was dropped.

It was rubble as far as you could see,” said the 83-year-old Calgarian.

You could see just one building standing.

The pilot had purposefully flown the transport plane low over the bombed city to give his passengers a view of the destruction. People on the ground, probably fearing more bombs, scrambled for cover in the crude shelters they had built.

It was a scene of incredible desolation, but Durrant had mixed feelings.

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That bomb saved my life,” he said.

He was on his way back to North America after nearly four years in Japanese prison camps where he endured a living hell of forced labour, little food, disease and cruel abuse. He suffers multiple health problems today because of the treatment as a prisoner of war.

But one of the more painful wounds is the lack of recognition he feels is due the Canadian veterans who fought in Hong Kong and other Asian battlefields.

We class ourselves as the forgotten bunch,” he said. “We weren’t recognized. All you hear on TV is what they did in Europe. You never hear anything about the Hong Kong veterans.

Pictured in 2006 are Second World War Canadian veterans Gordon Durrant, 85 and Ed Shayler, 89, and Postmedia archives.
Pictured in 2006 are Second World War Canadian veterans Gordon Durrant, 85 and Ed Shayler, 89, and Postmedia archives.

They’re getting some of that recognition this weekend. Durrant is in Ottawa, along with more than 100 Far East veterans, attending events commemorating the victory over Japan and the end of the Second World War. The culminating events are a ceremony of remembrance and a march-past at the National War Memorial today with Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson attending.

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Other Calgarians attending are August Bitzer, John Dearden, Ralph MacLean and Don Nelson.

The first Canadian ground troops to see action in the Second World War were the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada, a Quebec regiment. They were sent to the Far East in November, 1941, to help defend Hong Kong, at the request of Maj.-Gen. A.E. Grasettt, the retiring commander of the British forces in Hong Kong.

It was supposed to be an easy assignment because, as Jack Granatstein writes in Canada’s Army, “in Grasett’s view, the Japanese could not fight successfully against white troops, however well they had performed against the Chinese.

The Japanese attacked two days after Pearl Harbor was bombed, quickly overrunning the mainland defences. They launched an amphibious assault on the island of Hong Kong on Dec. 18. The British and Canadians fought fiercely, but they were outgunned and outnumbered. On Christmas Eve, the British ordered their troops to surrender.

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Of the nearly 2,000 Canadians who had come to defend Hong Kong, 290 were killed and 493 were wounded.

On Christmas Day, the survivors became prisoners, and in the following months and years, more than a few began to think the soldiers killed were the lucky ones.

Japan refused to follow the Geneva Convention, the international agreement governing the treatment of prisoners of war.

We suffered,” said Durrant, who joined the Winnipeg Grenadiers in 1939. “We really suffered in the camp.

Durrant knows the life of a PoW from both sides. Before he was sent to Hong Kong, he spent 14 months in Jamaica guarding German PoWs captured from submarines off the Gold Coast of Africa.

We treated them a lot better than we were treated,” he said.

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One night, the German prisoners erected a banner with a swastika on it, and one of Durrant’s comrades shot a hole through the banner.

He was court-martialled,” said Durrant. “He didn’t get much (of a sentence), but he wasn’t supposed to fire his weapon.

No such rules governed the Japanese soldiers who guarded the Allied prisoners captured in Hong Kong.

When we were first captured, two prisoners dug under the electric fence and got out,” said Durrant. “(The Japanese) came back with their heads and told us, ‘That’s what you’re going to get when you try to escape.’ 

Prisoners would be slapped for the least reason, or for no reason at all. Food was scarce.

They gave you a little scoop of rice,” said Durrant, “not enough to fill a milk can. It was just the sweepings from the warehouse, and there was everything in it — cigarette butts, bugs, rat droppings, mice droppings, beetles — but you ate it because you were hungry.

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You ate anything you could get. I ate snake, I ate dogs, I ate weeds. Someone would see some weeds, and we would dive into the ditch and grab the weeds. You didn’t bother cleaning them off. You just ate it the way it was, something to get more vitamins in your body.

The PoWs saw few of the Red Cross parcels that saved the lives of many Allied prisoners of war in Europe.

They were able to receive Red Cross parcels, which we weren’t,” said August Bitzer, who joined the Grenadiers from Regina in 1940. “The Red Cross (officials) would come the odd time, at Christmas time. They would just walk in and walk out, and the Japanese would put on a show of the parcels, but as soon as the delegates went out the door, the parcels went back to the Japanese.

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The guards would use the parcels to torture the starving prisoners.

They would open our Red Cross parcels and sit there with a can of stew,” said Durrant. “They’d take a mouthful, make a face and spit it out, and throw the rest of the can away.

Our Red Cross parcels stayed in the warehouse until they rotted. We knew they were there. A couple of guys went in and stole a couple, and got caught. They had to stand up to their waists, naked, in a cesspool all night. The next morning, when we lined up for work, they were put in the line, still naked, and sent to work without breakfast, still naked. When we got our little scoop of rice for lunch, they had to sit and watch us eat.

Veteran Gordon Durrant in 2005. Postmedia archives.
Veteran Gordon Durrant in 2005. Postmedia archives.

Physical abuse was common.

They were mean,” said Durrant. “They would slap you for no reason at all, and they would be laughing. One slapped me across the ear for about 20 minutes, and I think he broke my eardrum. I still have trouble with that ear.

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I remember getting slapped by the Kamloops Kid.

That was the nickname of Kanao Inouye, a Japanese-Canadian born in Kamloops who went to Japan in the 1930s, and worked in the PoW camps as an interpreter. It is believed he suffered racism and abuse in Canada, and so delighted in tormenting the Canadians. He was responsible for the deaths of eight Canadian PoWs. After the war, hoping to evade prosecution as a war criminal, he claimed Canadian citizenship, so he was tried for treason and executed.

The prisoners who could work were sent to Japan in 1943 where they worked in mines and shipyards. It was hard work made harder by a starvation diet.

We got no sleep, worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. It’s pretty hard when you’re hungry and you’re shovelling coal,” said Durrant. “I blacked out when I was shovelling ore off a train car. I fell and hurt my back.

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It’s another injury that still plagues him today.

Disease was constant, said Bitzer.

You didn’t get enough to eat, and you couldn’t keep clean,” said Bitzer. “There was dysentery, diphtheria — we lost a lot of people in prison.

In the Hong Kong camps, 128 Canadian PoWs died of starvation, disease and physical abuse. Another 136 died in the labour camps in Japan.

The prisoners knew nothing of the progress of the war, that the Japanese were pulling back as the Allies fought their way through the Pacific.

At the Potsdam conference on July 26, 1945, Allied leaders called on Japan to surrender unconditionally or face “prompt and utter destruction.

Japan’s military leaders refused to surrender, believing they could beat back the coming invasion of the home islands.

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Prompt and utter destruction” came when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6; another fell on Nagasaki three days later. No one had ever seen such destruction from a weapon, and on Aug. 14, the Japanese agreed to the terms of surrender, and the Allies declared victory the next day.

The Canadian PoWs didn’t know the details, but they knew something had happened.

Durrant said prisoners would get one day off every three months, but were expected to use that day to haul wood for the cooking fires.

One day they told us we had a holiday, that we didn’t have to haul wood,” said Durrant, “and we all cheered because we hated hauling wood. The next day they told us we had another holiday, and we kind of thought the war was over. The next day they gave us cigarettes, and then we knew it was over.

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Then they gave us a speech and said the Japanese had surrendered, and they told us they had a gift for us. There were about 500 of us in the camp, and they brought in a little baby pig on a leash, so we saw a little bit of fat floating on top of the water that was supposed to be soup.

Bitzer said the Americans were quick to drop supplies to the prison camps.

The Americans flew in so fast with supplies,” he said. “They seemed to know what was going on, and where most of the prison camps were.

The abundance of food was a hazard to starving prisoners if they didn’t eat carefully, Bitzer said.

Durrant said the supplies came none too soon.

I was 18 when I joined up, and I weighed 185 pounds,” he said. “When I got to Tokyo, I weighed 78 pounds.

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He believes he was not far from death.

If they hadn’t dropped the atomic bomb, no one would have got out of that camp that winter,” he said. “I would never have survived another winter.

I was too hungry, too cold. We were always cold because we were always working out in the wet snow. That first winter in Japan, there were 100 Canadians in the camp. Fifty-eight died.”

Bitzer believes the atomic bombs were justified.

We were told that if (the Allies) ever landed in Japan, all the prisoners would be killed,” he said.

Durrant agreed. “I think if (the Allies) had gone in to try to take each island, we would have been used as shields,” he said. “They were absolutely mean.

Bryce Chase, a member of the Calgary chapter of the Burma Star Association, flew transport planes carrying supplies and personnel in and out of Burma.

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It was a bloody good thing they dropped those bombs,” he said. “Probably we would have lost another million troops, but Japan would have suffered more casualties than they did. The Japanese army wasn’t going to give up. Because of their do-or-die attitude, they would have been pretty formidable opponents on their home ground. They were at any time. It would have been a suicide thing all the way through.

Alistair Limpitlaw, another Calgary vet who flew over Burma dropping supplies to guerrillas, flew food for PoW camps after the war ended.

He also evacuated PoWs and Dutch civilians who had been held in Japanese camps.

They were in rough shape,” he said “The fellows who were in German camps lived in luxury by comparison.

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“Our skipper and the rest of the crew went to visit a PoW camp, and came back with horrendous stories.

I could murder the Japanese. In fact, I belted a Japanese captain. The Japanese knew the war was over, but they were still arrogant. It was a week after the end of the war, and this bugger was so arrogant, I just lost my temper and slugged him. It was the best bloody thing I ever did.

The former PoWs held by the Japanese suffered more health problems than other veterans, said Durrant, and a higher percentage of them have died.

I had two brothers who were also in Hong Kong,” he said. “They both died prematurely after they came home.

For years, Hong Kong veterans have fought unsuccessfully for compensation and an apology from the Japanese. Even getting recognition at home has been difficult, said Durrant, who listed one ailment after another that resulted from the years of prison camp deprivation.

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One day, I went to the Colonel Belcher Hospital to get some help, and the doctor said, ‘Oh, another Hong Kong complainer — I’ll send you to a psychiatrist.’ They wouldn’t believe what had happened to us.

He is not bitter toward today’s Japan. “I don’t have any hate,” he said. “They were doing their job. The Lord says you love everybody. That’s life. I didn’t like them when I was in the prison camp, but there are a lot of good people in Japan today.

John Dearden, another Calgarian involved in today’s commemorations, came back from the war weighing 80 pounds. Hearing difficulties precluded an interview, so his wife, Audrey, spoke for him.

He never talked much about being a prisoner of war,” she said. “We were married in 1974, and he still had nightmares then. A lot of buddies took to drinking and talking, for some reason he has blocked it out of his mind.

But there’s one oddity I have noticed. If he’s eating a Dixie Cup full of ice cream, he will scrape and scrape until there’s absolutely nothing left. It’s the same with soup.

She said the ceremonies and recognition in Ottawa this weekend are “well overdue.

On Friday, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board unveiled a plaque at the Canadian War Museum declaring the defence of Hong Kong an event of historic significance to Canada.

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Prisoners of the past: Veteran stories from the archives Source link Prisoners of the past: Veteran stories from the archives

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