Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Few vets 'survived' Hong Kong

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Margaret Owen says the Second World War killed both her parents, even though each survived it. Her father died in 1969 from a variety of ailments suffered as a prisoner of the Japanese following the 1941 Battle of Hong Kong. Her mother, "unwilling to be separated from him once again," died of a heart attack a few months later.

Today, Owen, a former Winnipeg school teacher, struggles to understand the demons of the past and a father who never really came home. "He was never the same."

It was that sense of anguish and of lives changed and lost that brought nearly 200 people from across Canada to Winnipeg this week for the biannual meeting of the Hong Veterans Commemorative Association (HKVCA).

It's not a veterans group, but an association formed about 20 years ago by the children and wives of those who were killed or imprisoned by the Japanese. It's the only organization of its kind in Canada.

Its goal is to ensure Canadians know what happened to the soldiers in Hong Kong, but it also serves as a support group for people who lived with husbands and fathers who came home with severe mental and physical problems. No other group of veterans suffered as much as the roughly 1,400 men who came home from Asia at the end of 1945.

They were all that was left of a force of 2,000 men, members of the Winnipeg Grenadiers and Royal Rifles of Canada, who fought a 17-day hopeless battle before the British ordered them to lay down their arms. Surrender was followed by years of torture, heavy labour and starvation rations.

Their stories were largely ignored or dismissed after the war. Following decades of struggle, however, they were awarded pensions and recognition. A producer from a Calgary film company was even in Winnipeg to conduct research on making a feature a film on the Canadian role in the battle.

Carole Hadley, president of the HKVCA, recalls the frequent family trips to Deer Lodge Hospital, a veterans hospital, where her father was treated on a regular basis, often for days and weeks. Medical personnel who worked with the veterans said they were the hardest veterans to treat because they suffered from so many illnesses.

Hadley says the children of Hong Kong veterans knew there was something unique about their experience compared to the children of other veterans, even if they didn't fully understand why their fathers were so sick all the time. Many didn't even know the full story of their fathers' experiences until much later in life.

There are many horror stories, like the veteran who often woke up in the middle of the night strangling his wife because he thought she was Japanese, or the man who would jump out of bed and starting shooting up the house with a gun.

Most men had severe night sweats and terrors all their lives. Christmas Day was also difficult because it was the anniversary of their surrender to the Japanese, who killed many defenceless or wounded soldiers.

Dennis Bell, a former Winnipeg police officer, said some veterans would sleep on the floor because they never got used to a bed. Most had severe drinking problems. Fist fights were common.

His father survived the war when Sgt. John Osborn used his body to smother a Japanese grenade, sacrificing his life for his young soldiers. Bell said that event was just one among many memories his father would have had to assimilate.

There are only 38 of these veterans alive today, but their enduring concern was that their stories might be forgotten. The Hong Kong battle, after all, was a relatively minor sideshow compared to the enormous battles in Europe and elsewhere.

Even today, in fact, it's sometimes forgotten that the battle marked several important milestones -- the first engagement of Canadian army troops with the enemy, the first action that earned a Victoria Cross and the first combat death of a Canadian general.

Despite all the honours and recognition -- a national war monument was unveiled a few years ago in Ottawa -- the children of the veterans are still planning new memorial projects and developing teaching material for classrooms.

There are even plans for a monument to Sgt. Gander, the regimental dog of the Royal Rifles who saved lives during the battle. A group in New Brunswick is also working on plans for a memorial.

And the province and city are building a tribute to the Arden Seven with a new park plaza in St. Vital. It will honour the seven boys who grew up on nearby Arden Avenue and fought in the Hong Kong battle. They included three brothers from one family, twin brothers from another, and two more.

It's safe to say Canada's veterans of that long-ago battle will be long remembered.

May they and their families rest in peace.

Editorial writer David O'Brien first brought the story of the Arden Seven to public attention in 2005.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2013 A17

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