I am almost always a little emotional at events honouring veterans. Saturday’s unveiling of the memorial wall for the battle of Hong Kong was no different.
I love meeting veterans, hearing their stories, feeling their courage and resolve, evident in their faces and their words -- even more than 60 years after their battles.
On Saturday, Aug. 15, I had the privilege to meet several Hong Kong veterans in person, including Winnipeg Grenadier George Peterson. Like the others who survived the battle of Hong Kong, Peterson was captured by the Japanes and forced into prison camps for the remaining three years and eight months of the war.
On Saturday he told me a little about that time.
"I can’t say that we lived but we did survive. We lived on hope, we survived on hope from one holiday to the next. We were taken Christmas Day and the first day we said we’d be free was Easter. Then Dominion Day. Then Labour Day. Then Armistice Day. Then Christmas Day again. This lasted for almost four years."
I was quite moved to see Peterson and other veterans become celebrities at the event, mobbed by the family members of their now-fallen comrades, everyone seeking stories about their loved ones.
Roberta Baty was there from Winnipeg. Her father, Arthur Baty and her uncle, Stanley Baty, both fought in Hong Kong with the Winnipeg Grenadiers. When her father returned from Hong Kong, having spent nearly four years in a Japanese prison camp, he didn’t speak of what happened.
At his funeral, after she delivered the eulogy, Roberta says she approached some of the men her father served with and said he never spoke of the war. They told her they didn’t either, except with each other.
"They were men of stiff upper lip. They weren’t victims," she told me.
I came across Pearl MacPherson standing next to the wall, wiping away tears as she looked at her husband Don’s name etched in the granite. Don died four years ago. She said he’d be mad because they included his middle initials on the wall, names he’d officially dropped. But mostly she said he’d be very honoured to see it.
Then Don MacPherson’s daughter, Sandy, gave me a copy of her father’s story. I didn’t have time to read it then, but this morning I came across it in my bag and opened it up.
It is his story in his own words. It is a compelling read, laden with the horrors of war and POW life, but interspersed with a spirit and charm that make Don MacPherson jump right off the page as if he were telling me the story while sitting next to me.
He writes of enlisting as a 20-year-old, leaving his hometown of Miniota along with three friends, including his brother-in-law. He was the only one of them who would return from Hong Kong. The others perished in the battle. It is hard not to be moved by the matter-of-fact listing of the men he watched die in battle, of the many moments he thought he was going to die himself.
He writes of sitting in a trench with his brother-in-law, and a mortar landing between them. Shrapnel hit his brother-in-law in the head and killed him instantly. Don survived. Later that same day Canada surrendered.
"My first reaction was relief as we were completely exhausted from lack of sleep," he wrote.
That did not last long. Two paragraphs later he writes of his arrival in prison camp.
"We were given one blanket and we had to sleep on the floor which caused big sores on our hips and shoulders. We had nothing to eat out of so I dug around in a garbage heap and found a jam can which I washed out the best I could and I used that for two years until I went to Japan - it was pretty rusty by that time. . .We had very little to eat - mainly rice and not too much of that - it was dirty and had a lot of white worms in it. It was a hard life."
MacPherson would shed nearly 70 pounds in the camps, but he didn’t pity himself.
"Many were worse off than I," he wrote. "The whole camp was actually starving to death. Many prisoners and civilians in Hong Kong did starve to death during the first year."
But the first camp wasn’t as bad as the second, he writes. When they were moved from Hong Kong to Japan in August 1943 they ended up in "a real hell hole.
"We would leave camp before sun up, march about half a mile to the railway and be put on cattle cars to go to the mine. It would be dark when we got back to camp at night and that was usually seven days a week. If you got too sick or too weak to work then you were put on half rations and that would be the end of you."
He writes of the illnesses, the pain, the beatings they endured: "We suffered from beri-beri, pellagra, dysentery and diarrhea."
Their feet burned, their stomachs got so bloated camp doctors had to remove fluid by sticking a needle into their abdomens. They lost vision from malnutrition. MacPherson survived the prison camps with just eight per cent of his vision left.
But then the war ended and the prisoners were liberated.
He writes of the day American planes dropped packages of canned coffee, cream and sugar onto the camps along with word they’d be back in three days with more food.
They did, and the starving, ailing prisoners were thrilled, even if their stomachs were not ready for real foods after almost four years of starvation.
"I ate 32 of those large Hershey bars and 11 large cans of peaches in two days," he wrote. "I just ate and threw up and ate and threw up."
When they were finally taken out of the camp he writes of hearing a woman’s voice for the first time in almost four years, of meeting General Douglas MacArthur, of being treated royally on board an American ship taking them to the United States.
Despite the horrors it seems as if his spirit did not break. He writes of his return to Canada, of sneaking off the train taking the Canadians back to Canada so they could get ice cream and then missing the train when it left.
"When we got on board that head nurse sure gave us heck," he wrote.
He returned to Winnipeg but eventually moved to Vancouver where he worked for the B.C. Liquor Board. After retirement he grew "prize winning corn" and curled, despite being legally blind.
He ends his story with a quick summation: "May our future generations never know the horrors which we suffered."
I can only hope more stories like Don’s are told and treasured.
And I encourage you to visit the Hong Kong memorial wall if you ever come to Ottawa. There are 1,975 men and two women who would be honoured.