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This article was published 10/2/2015 (741 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
George Peterson talks about the war like it was yesterday.
On the eve of his 94th birthday, the Windsor Park resident spoke to The Lance recently about his service during the Second World War, his heroic participation in the Battle of Hong Kong, and his time as a prisoner of war.
Peterson is the sole surviving member of the Arden Seven — a group of young men who lived on Arden Avenue in the Pulberry area of St. Vital that joined the Winnipeg Grenadiers. The other members include Peterson’s twin brother, Morris, who died in 1986, Fred Abrahams (also known as Fred Harting), Bill Lancaster, and brothers Alfred, Edward and Harry Shayler.
The seven men survived the Battle of Hong Kong in 1941. Records show that 290 Canadians were killed and another 493 were wounded during the battle. Greatly outnumbered, the allied forces surrendered to the Japanese on Christmas Day 1941. The survivors spent the next 44 months living in torturous conditions as prisoners of war.
"The battle lasted for 17 days from Dec. 8 to 25. I remember one day I hadn’t eaten and someone brought me a couple of jam sandwiches. I put one sandwich on the parapet, but it got covered in sand so I couldn’t eat it," Peterson said.
"During the battle, we were always pushed back and then had no place to advance to. We did our duties and didn’t do anything to spoil the good name of Canada. The day we surrendered we went from one hell to another."
While a prisoner at the camp, Peterson was made to work in a coal mine. As well as the casualties of the famous battle, Peterson said 264 soldiers also lost their lives in captivity due to various causes, including "disease, starvation, overwork and murder."
When the men were finally liberated, Peterson said, they had trouble proving the extent of their suffering because they had eaten well in their final days.
"One of the problems when we got home was that we looked too well. Emperor Hirohito surrendered on Aug. 15, but we weren’t released until Sept. 9. After Aug. 15, the U.S. troops started dropping supplies and we started eating pretty well. By the time I got home at the end of September, I’d put on 68 pounds. People wouldn’t believe what had happened to us, even the doctors," Peterson said.
"As prisoners of war, we lived on hope. When we were taken prisoner, we thought we’d be out by April, then Dominion Day and so on. We picked days to focus on and they came and passed. Almost four years later, our hopes came true. When the end came, I happened to be in the mine. We were called to the place where the trains were and we knew something was wrong. A Korean man said either one of the trains is off or the war is over."
In December 2011, Peterson was one of three Hong Kong veterans invited by the Canadian government to accept an official apology from the Japanese in Tokyo for the mistreatment of Canadian prisoners during the war.
"I was the senior soldier, so I spoke first. I said, "I accept your apology today on behalf of my comrades and myself who were taken prisoner on Christmas Day 1941. I can neither forgive nor forget our treatment at the hands of your military, but I do accept your apology today, sir.’"
On a local level, last summer saw the unveiling of a permanent Arden Seven monument in Jules Mager Park (River Road and St. Michael Road). According to local historian and president of the St. Vital Historical Society Bob Holliday, the idea for the monument came from Riel MLA Christine Melnick.
"Melnick approached city councillor Brian Mayes, who approached the St. Vital Historical Society for information and a meeting was arranged with George Peterson," Holliday told The Lance last year. "Following two meetings in the SVHS board room, the plans for the monument were officially unveiled during an August 2013 convention of Hong Kong veterans in Winnipeg."
"When I first saw the monument, it was pretty emotional for me. Brian said he could get the money for it and that I could approve it, which I appreciated. I like the idea of the seven chairs and two plaques," Peterson said.
"I think the monument was very well done. I didn’t think it was going to turn out as good as that."
Peterson’s first home was on Bannerman Avenue in Winnipeg’s North End and his family moved to Arden Avenue when he was 12 or 13. And though decades have passed since, the war hero still harbours memories of his early years.
"I remember Woodlawn School, a two-room school for Grades 1 to 6. Of course, there was no Bishop Grandin Greenway then, so there was lots of green space. My father worked at Winnipeg General Hospital and he was taken sick with pneumonia and ended up in hospital. When he was ready to return to work, he found out his friend had replaced him, so he was unemployed through most of the Depression years. Sometimes he found something to do, but not often. But there was always food on the table," Peterson said.
"He had a $10 a month pension from serving the First World War and with that I could fill a wagon of food for a week at the local store. It was near the area that the St. Mary’s Road streetcar would turn around and head back to Winnipeg."