New Brunswick

A PoW's diary: father's wartime words reveal details family never knew

Ralph Nicol didn’t talk about his experience as a captive of the Japanese during the Second World War, but after he died, his daughter opened up his wartime diary and read about the horror and hardship.

Ralph Nicol of the Royal Rifles of Canada was guarded with his family about his wartime experiences

Ralph Nicol of the Royal Rifles of Canada had his picture taken in Sussex, N.B., before his battallion headed west and on to Hong Kong in 1941. After his capture by the Japanese, he kept a secret diary of his experience.

Ralph Nicol didn't talk about his experience as a captive of the Japanese during the Second World War.

Lynn Nicol was only five or six when she learned how painful the subject was for her father, who spent four years as a prisoner of war, almost wasting away in the Japanese camp known as Omine.

"Did you shoot anybody in the war?" Lynn asked him one day.

In a quiet voice, he replied: "Never ask me that again."

He then taught Lynn how to count in Japanese.

Over the years Lynn, now a producer with CBC Radio in Moncton, learned the outline of her father's wartime experience, but little about the hardship and horror of his years as a prisoner.

Ralph, a 25-year-old farmer from Sillarsville, Que., and his brother, Noble, had sailed into Hong Kong in November 1941 as part of the Royal Rifles of Canada, a battalion of men from the Gaspé coast and northern New Brunswick.

Together with the Royal Winnipeg Grenadiers, they formed C Force, the Canadian contingent of 1,975 soldiers created to protect Hong Kong against possible Japanese invasion.

On Dec. 7 of that year, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and hours later invaded Hong Kong. The ensuing battle claimed the lives of 299 Canadians. The rest were either wounded or captured, including the Nicol brothers.

Ralph Nicol, a soldier with the Royal Rifles of Canada, kept a secret diary after he was captured in Hong Kong by the Japanese and put in a prisoner of war camp. (Contributed/Kelly LeBlanc)

At Omine, on the island of Kyushu, between Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the Canadians became slave labourers in a coal mine. Throughout the war, Ralph Nicol wrote about his experience in a pocket-size diary he kept hidden from his Japanese captors. They would have killed him had they known.

In 1945, Omine was the last PoW camp to be liberated by U.S. troops. Ralph and Noble Nicol returned to the Gaspé, where Ralph married Verna Gaudin, a teacher. He went back to farming, raised three children and never set foot in a mine again. Nothing, he said, could make up for what he'd experienced in Japan.

Ralph Nicol died in 1981 at the age of 64. The evening after his funeral, his daughter Lynn opened the diary he kept during the war and started reading.

Ralph Nicol's war service badge. (Gwen Nicol-Macdonald )

The following are excerpts, beginning with the battle that led to Ralph's capture.

Dec. 23, 1941, Hong Kong

Got a bullet in my toe. Went to the hospital. It was shelled shortly afterward. One orderly was killed. Food is nearly all gone and so is the ammunition. and at four o'clock in the afternoon I don't see much point in resisting any longer. There is no hope of help that I can see. I, along with a lot of others, greatly underestimated the Japanese. The remnants of the Royal Rifles of Canada came in at dusk, dead on their feet. Is it to be a last stand? A fight to the last man. The padre is still with us.

Dec. 24

The peninsula was shelled this morning. Not much damage that I could see from my hospital window. Are we in such a bad predicament as we imagine? I wonder if any friendly eyes will ever look on these pages. The hospital staff is preparing for Christmas. When the shelling gets too loud, someone starts playing Nearer My God to Thee. I hate the sound of that piano. We heard at 5 o'clock Repulse Bay was recaptured by the Japanese. Maybe our end comes tomorrow. Shorty wants to bet we here in the hospital won't be killed. I don't believe there's a chance for life. When the attack starts, I'm going to try and hide this in the building somewhere, maybe the Japanese won't find it.

Christmas Day, 1941

The battle for the peninsula started at dark. At dawn they got as far as this hospital. They are now downstairs. I don't know yet if it's to be a massacre or not. I am going to hide this. Whether I'm taken a prisoner or killed, it's good-bye. God bless you all. I hope some of my friends in Canada will get a chance to read this. if you do and I don't show up after the war, don't grieve too much.

A battle raged all day. We weren't used too bad. I believe peace was settled at 9 o'clock.

Ralph Nicol's discharge certificate. (Karin Reid-LeBlanc/CBC)

March 8, 1942

We moved from Stanley Hospital. I got lonesome when I saw the women and children in the concentration camp in Stanley Village. There are a few other Canucks here, mostly Winnipeg Grenadiers. Another fellow told me Noble was captured the same time as he was. Noble is now at North Point. I had given him up as dead. I was glad to hear that news.

Jan. 19, 1943

On parade at 4:30, embarked sunrise. Don't get much to eat often -- just an occasional small ration of rice with a bit of bully beef. Nagasaki at 2 a.m.

Jan. 21

Disembarked at 9 p.m., and boarded the train at 11. Train was very crowded. Arrived at Omine at 1 p.m. Barracks look OK but I believe they will be cold. They are all windows, no heat. Sleep on the floor.

Aug. 1

What it would be like to sleep in bed with no fleas, bed bugs or lice. Got my first pair of shoes since coming to work in the mine.

Aug. 8

Got my foot crushed in the mine. Only two roll calls now.

Aug. 20

Eddie died this morning. No day off for the funeral.

June 22, 1944

A very dry spell. The Commander told us to pray for rain or we would starve. It rained.

Ralph Nicol held on to some currency from his war years in Japan. (Karin Reid-LeBlanc/CBC)

July 14

Sudden death struck today in the shape of a cave-in. Two dead.

Aug. 10, 1945

An air raid tonight. It must be getting close. Everybody was in the mine. The Commander expects a drastic cut in rations. Everybody thinks the war is coming to a close. They are in a very bad state. The civilian population is also starving.

Aug. 17

It's definite. The show is over. The sergeant came back last night and told us that the army of occupation has come. He issued boots to those of us with none. There was a short service led by one of the Australians. I renewed my vows to join the church and to try to make up to Dad for some of the sacrifices he has made for us.

Geoff Tyson, a fellow prisoner of Ralph Nicol's at the Omine camp in Japan, made this and other sketches of Omine during his last months there and put them in a book called The Last Phase at Omine. (Karin Reid-LeBlanc/CBC)

Aug. 23

Built two PoW signs and heard the Americans would drop food tomorrow.

Sept. 7

A shock today. Both Curlys are dead.

Sept. 8

Two more dead. I was a pallbearer. 7 or 8 others are very sick. They are hunting all over the place for oxygen.

Sept. 19

The last food drop of the last plane killed an Englishman and a Korean. That's what I call tough luck after three and half years in this hole to be killed a few days before home.