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Canada's Hong Kong PoWs: the struggles and sacrifice

Nov. 8, 2012

Despite a valiant fight, Canadian troops took heavy losses at the 1941 Battle of Hong Kong, one of Japan's first major Second World War victories.

Those who weren't killed or wounded in the defeat were taken as prisoners of war.

For them, the battle for survival had just begun.

This is their story of valour and perseverance while in captivity — and in the decades that followed.

Photos: Left - Royal Rifles of Canada infantrymen and their mascot leave Vancouver for Hong Kong on Oct. 27, 1941. (Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-116791)

Right - Liberated Canadian and British PoWs in Hong Kong, August 1945. (PO Jack Hawes / DND / Library and Archives Canada / PA-145986)

As Asia veered toward war in late 1941, Britain requested military help from Canada to help fortify its Hong Kong garrison. Canada heeded the call, dispatching two battalions: the Royal Rifles and Winnipeg Grenadiers.

Many of the 1,975 soldiers had very little hands-on combat training. But commanders thought there was time to get ready before a possible attack.

The ships set sail for Hong Kong in October.

Photo: Infantrymen of "C" Company, Royal Rifles of Canada, board HMCS Prince Robert in Vancouver to head for Hong Kong on Oct. 26, 1941. (DND / Library and Archives Canada / PA-114891)

Japan, to the world's shock, launched a series of bold attacks at sites across the Pacific on Dec. 7 and Dec. 8, 1941. Hong Kong was among them.

The thinly stretched defences on the outskirts of the territory were overrun within days.

A series of fierce and bloody battles followed, with much loss of life.

The Japanese — with a force estimated to be more than three times larger — marched towards the last British fortification at Victoria Island.

Despite a spirited defence, the territory was surrendered on Christmas Day.

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During the battle, 290 Canadians died and 493 were wounded.

The rest were taken prisoner and subjected to years of hard labour in filthy, unsanitary camps.

The PoWs were detained in Hong Kong until early 1943, when most were relocated to northern Japan.

The conditions were extremely hard on the survivors; one in five did not survive until liberation at war's end.

Photo: A Hong Kong war memorial is the site of a remembrance ceremony for the battle on Jan. 23, 2005. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

The welfare of Canadian prisoners depended entirely on their captors.

But Japan never ratified the 1929 Geneva Convention, which laid out the international ground rules for treatment of PoWs.

Some in its military viewed soldiers captured in battle with contempt, as cowards not worthy of humane treatment.

Many allegations about their brutal treatment would emerge in later years.

Photo: Allied prisoners of war in Hong Kong leave for a prison camp in December 1941. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Prisoners would often work 12 hours a day, at various times, hauling gravel, digging in mines and labouring in shipyards.

Rations — roughly between 500 and 800 calories a day of rice, vegetables and tea — barely gave enough nutrition.

Conditions were often cold and damp. Vermin infested living quarters.

Illnesses, such as malaria, diphtheria and infections, ran rampant but few medicines were ever at hand. Torture was alleged.

Photo: Commander Peter MacRitchie of HMCS Prince Robert meets with liberated Canadian prisoners of war at Shamshuipo Camp at Kowloon, Hong Kong, in September 1945. (PO Jack Hawes / DND / Library and Archives Canada / PA-193015)

By war's end, 267 of the PoWs had died.

Many survivors had disabilities and difficulty coping with day-to-day life. The 1986 CBC TV report below shows some of the physical and emotional scars.

Photo: PO Jack Hawes / DND / Library and Archives Canada / PA-114812

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In 1952, Canada and the other Allies entered into a formal peace treaty with Japan.

This agreement was also intended to provide PoWs compensation for their mistreatment while in captivity.

But at the time, Japan's economy was deemed to be too fragile to pay.

So the Canadian government, funded by the sale of Japanese assets, provided each prisoner $1 per day in captivity. This was later raised to $1.50 — still far less than other prisoners had received from other locations.

Photo: A Japanese flag bears the names of the landing party from HMCS Prince Robert. (PO Jack Hawes / DND / Library and Archives Canada / PA-143934)

Groups representing the veterans began appealing to the UN and other international bodies in 1987.

The prisoners, they argued, had not received due compensation for the Geneva Convention violations of their treatment or their unpaid labour.

It took another decade until, in 1998, the Canadian government agreed to pay each prisoner, or their survivors, $24,000 to settle the claim.

A monument honouring Canada's veterans of the battle was unveiled in Ottawa in 2009.

Photo: Liberated Canadian and British prisoners of war liberated meet with HMCS Prince Robert boarding party at Hong Kong in August 1945. (PO Jack Hawes / DND / Library and Archives Canada / PA-145983)

The prisoners had to wait another 13 years for an apology from Japan. An official statement of regret was delivered in Tokyo in December 2011.

Photo: Canadian veterans Ken Pifher, Gerry Gerrard and George Peterson (from left) salute during a 70-year commemoration of the Battle of Hong Kong at Sai Wan War Cemetery in Hong Kong on Dec. 4, 2011. (Kin Cheung/AP)

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Only a few dozen prisoners were alive to hear the words of contrition.

One 94-year-old Nova Scotia veteran, Hormidas Fredette, didn't accept the apology.

For him, the war wasn't over, even more than 65 years later.

"You can't forget," he said in a December 2011 interview, "because if you try to forget in the daytime, you dream about it at night."

Photo: Left - Hormidas Fredette (CBC) Right — Canadian veterans lay a wreath during the Dec. 4, 2011 remembrance ceremony in Hong Kong. (Kin Cheung/AP)

Sources: CBC stories, news reports, Veterans Affairs Canada | Background photo: Canadian and British prisoners of war await liberation by the landing party from HMCS Prince Robert in Hong Kong on Aug. 30, 1945. (PO Jack Hawes / Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-114811)

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