Harry Atkinson's Interview

Note from interviewer:

On April 19th, 1986, I had the pleasure of meeting with Harry Atkinson in his home to talk to him about his experiences as a Prisoner of War in Hong Kong. I was 16 years old at the time. So when you read some of what is to follow, please keep something in mind. I was 16 years old girl, trying my darndest to interview a man about a subject that I knew was hard for him to talk about.

When we lost Harry just a short time ago, I knew it was time for me to complete the transcription of this interview, which survives on a cassette tape that I have kept safe all these years. Shortly I will be sending out copies of this cassette to Harry's family, who I know will forgive the quality of the recording, and treasure the words as I have these many years.

Why don't you start off by telling me a little bit about what happened the day you were captured

Well, we were captured at night - it was about 6:30 7:00 in the evening, and there was the balance of A company and what was left of our platoon from D company that were taken prisoner at the same time

That was the Grenadiers, right?

The Winnipeg Grenadiers and they marched us down this slope to Stanley gap, about ½ mile above (Wan Ne Chong ) gap where D company's head quarters were, and they searched us and took our money and our wrist watches and our wallets and they even took the belts off of some of the fellows pants, and they put us in a building overnight. They kept putting in more small numbers of prisoners all night and in the morning- there was no windows in it, but we could tell the odd time that someone opened the door that it was daylight, -so I would assume that when the mortar bomb came through the roof it would be about 7:00 in the morning. We were right on the line between the Royal Rifles of Canada's line, the East Brigade's line and the West Brigade's line. One of the Royal Rifle's mortar, 3” mortar platoons, located the Japanese in this position and they didn't know we were there and they bracketed the location, one bomb fell short and one went long and then the next one came through the roof of the garage and there was a large number of the Grenadiers wounded and killed in that building

So in effect, because of our own, we lost quite a few men

Well, it was unknown to our people that we were there

Ok. Maybe you could tell me what a basic daily routine was for you when you were there

In Prison camp itself? Once work parties started which would be in about May or June of 1942, they started us working on the airport. We would be up at 5:00 in the morning, have breakfast at 5:30 and be on our way at 6:00 to the airport to work all day. We rebuilt a runway for them, dug out the ground, leveled it, mixed the cement, everything almost in wheelbarrows and poured the cement on the runway. Those work parties would finish at 6:00 at night, be back into camp by 7:00, into bed and up the next day the same way. That went on all the time we were in Hong Kong, until we moved to Japan in 1944

What would you do before the work parties started?

We had odd jobs around the camp, keeping the camp clean, keeping out huts clean, that sort of thing. Some men went out on ration parties.

When you were in Sham Shui Po, what was the treatment.. the general treatment like? Was it really harsh?

Yes, it was. We had a Japanese interpreter, his last name is Inouye.. his last name was Inouye, that was born in Kamloops, British Columbia, we had nicknamed him the Kamloops Kid

He was one of the men that was moved out of BC??

No, he had gone back to Japan early, to go to school. He had been born in Canada.

Oh, OK

He went back to Japan early and joined the army as an interpreter. He was one of the rough ones. He would walk through the camp at night, in the dark, in between the huts, and listen to what was going on, and even speak to some of the men and no one knew who they were speaking to, until they might say the wrong thing, and then BANG.. he'd whack them. He was a very cruel individual. The treatment…. Their form of discipline in the Japanese army differed from our greatly. If a private committed a misdemeanor, the sergeant or corporal would stand him up at attention and would slap him or beat him. That's the discipline they handed out to us. It was something we had to learn to accept, because you couldn't fight back because if you did.. you just received that much more punishment

When I was reading In Enemy Hands I read something about Red Cross packages. Did you ever receive any of those??

Oh, yes, we received, in Sham Shui Po, it would be prior to Christmas of 1942, we received our first Red Cross Parcel, one per man. They were English Red Cross parcels, packed in Vermonze England. They had cheese, and canned milk, similar to what we get today in condensed milk, not evaporated milk, thick condensed milk, can of butter, chocolate bar, biscuits. They were very gratefully received because at that time, our food was nothing but rice and greens.

Did the camp officers ever go through these before you got them and take anything out?

Not to my knowledge, but I assume they did because of what happened subsequently in other camps and other red cross parcels. The number of parcels that came into camp, that the prisoners got, would be small in relation to the number of parcels that came into the colony, to the island itself. We're quite sure the Japanese strafed them, and we didn't get all the parcels that came in to the camp, or onto the island.

So this was basically your mainstay, along with the rice?

Yes, and we spread them out as long as we could. We opened them, in some cases, 2 or 3 men would get together and open one little can and share it, so that there was no waste, nothing went bad.

What about mail?

Starting in.. well, we were in North Point, they allowed us to send mail home. You were allowed about 25 or 30 words, in a letter, or when they used post cards, a small message on the post card. You had to watch what you said, because it was all censored. You couldn't tell people you were writing to how conditions were, because they would be censored, and you were liable for a beating. Receiving mail, my brother got a letter in about Feb or Mar of 1943, that was in the first batch of mail that came in.

Was it censored?

It had been censored in Canada, and also been censored by the Japanese. Blotted out words, and sentences blotted out. In this letter my brother got, it had a picture of his daughter that was born just prior to our leaving for Hong Kong. He had only seen her once, in hospital before we had left. I recall that letter, I know that was in early '43, because it was just after the diphtheria epidemic had subsided.

What about you yourself? Did you ever receive any mail from home?

I got one letter in Hong Kong……and I got one letter.. hmmmm no I shouldn't say that. I should correct myself – I haven't got them handy here. My recollection, I got a letter from our United Church minister, and I got about four letters from my mother, over the period of four years.

Heavily censored I would guess?

Oh yes.

What about the move to Japan?

I wasn't on the first draft – the first draft went in January of 1943. That draft, there was almost 1000 Canadians sent to Japan. I was in the second draft that went in August of 1943. In that draft there would be about 250 Canadians um 250 Grenadiers and 250 Rifles I meant. We were put on a small .. we called it a tramp steamer, but it was a coastal steamer that had been sunk in the Hong Kong harbour, the Japanese had raised it and made it seaworthy again and that's what we went on. There was 250 men crammed into each hold. We didn't see the light of day after we got in there for about three days, till we were out well along the China coast. And if you can imagine, 250 men in a space where, if the man on either side of you were to lay down to go to sleep, you sat up. That's just about the way it was. We slept in that position, you either slept sitting up, or when it was your turn to lay down, you lay down. We took turns laying down. It was side to side, head to toe and shoulder to shoulder.

Pretty tight quarters. What about when you landed in Japan?

We landed in.. Ill tell you about the trip first. We left Hong Kong it took us 21 – 22 days to get to Japan. A normal trip today by boat would be 2 perhaps 2 and a half days. We hugged the coast line. We snuck across the open sea, to Vermosa… which was Vermosa then, Taiwan now, and we were in the port in Tai Pai for almost 2 weeks, 12-14 days. Then is when they started letting us above decks. They built a washroom..a bathroom along the side of the ship and that's where we would go. But they kept us confined in the hold. We were in receipt of one.. of what we called one bowl of rice a day– about a cupful of rice a day in that period of time, all the way to Japan. We landed in the city of Osaka, and traveled by train from there to the city of Niigata. 250 Canadians, Grenadiers and Royal Rifles mixed, they split the draft into two different groups, and the other 250 went to one of the other camps.

What about the camp you were sent to?

The city we were in was Niigata. It was a seaport on the sea of Japan. In those 250 Canadians were split up among 3 different work groups – the Shintetsu – the foundry gang, the Marutsu – the dockyard gang, and the Rinko – coal yard gang. The dockyard gang was 50 men, the foundry and Rinko coal yard gang were the other 200 men were split up amongst them, 125 to 75 – 75 in the foundry gang. Our job, I was in the Marutsu dockyard gang and our job was to load and unload ships and load and unload boxcars.

What about treatment in Japan?

Japan treatment was much more severe than it was in Hong Kong because in the early part of it we also had civilians to deal with that we worked with out in the dockyards. The 2 honchos we had, the 2 young honchos we had, took out their.. what would we call it.. their venom on the prisoners of war for the least misdemeanor or the least error that was made, you received a beating. Which again was hard to take, you had to stand there, and be punched in the face and in the body and without fighting back. The work, it was slave labour. If you can imagine carrying 200 pounds on your shoulder, of soybeans. The soybean bags weighed 90 kilos, that's almost 200 pounds, 190 pounds, and we learned to carry them like the Japanese, we literally ran with them on your shoulders. But it was a trot, we watched the Japanese coolies carry them, and we adapted from that.

I guess to spend as least time as possible with these things on your back?

Mmmhmm.. We carried them in some cases from the dockyard to the boxcars to the warehouse, would be a distance of 40-50 yards and you did that, when the bean boats came in, you did that day in and day out from about 7:30 in the morning until about 6”00 at night.

From either camp, Sham Shui Po or the one in Japan.. what about escape attempts?

Well, in Hong Kong , the Canadians, there was 4 Canadians escaped Sergeant John Payne, Percy Ellis, another Grenadier by the name of Adams, and Corporal Prozinski made and escape in August 1942. They were the only Canadians to attempt an escape, and they were captured almost the next day and were, without trial, were literally murdered by the Japanese.

That was in Hong Kong?

That was in Hong Kong. There was a large number of Hong Kong Volunteers and British Officers that made escapes in Hong Kong. First of all, they had been in the colonies for a number of years ,and spoke Chinese, which was a great asset for them, and they had connections to get out, and a lot of them did get out. Very very few of them were captured. But from a Canadian stand point, we had no knowledge of the language, and had been there so short a space of time, that we had no idea of where we were going to be going. In Japan, escape was practically - escape chances would be practically NIL because Japan is an island and the closest spot would be Manchuria which was under Japanese control. IT would have been foolish to attempt an escape.

Getting back to the day of your capture to the day of your release, what would you say is one of the worst periods of time you went through?

I could name numbers of instances, mind you, this all happened over 40 years ago and you have to scratch your memory at times. One instance, one of the buildings we were sleeping in Japan collapsed on us and we had… 6 men were killed, 6 Canadians were killed and there were 6 of us, our pelvises were crushed. That was one experience. Another would be in Sham Shu Po the diphtheria epidemic, when a large number of Canadians died, we were averaging 2 – 3 a day for a period of time. The diphtheria deaths, a combination of diphtheria and dysentery. Another time from my own personal experience would be in North Point in 1942 when I had dysentery bad, I came really close to death that time. But almost every day was an experience. You might say there was 1415 days of problems.

Was there ever at all any fun that you had.. I wouldn't say fun I guess, but had it a little bit easier?

Well, talking to you now, relating these experiences, when we do this as a group, when we get together we can relate to each other because we know what we all went through. When we talk to friends and people mostly we can relate funny parts that happen, that even today we can sit back and laugh at how we fooled the Japanese in the stealing of extra food, in trading with them, which your Grandfather was very adept at. And the way we fooled them and beat them, even though we got caught numbers of times stealing and everything else and suffer the consequences, we got away with a hell of a lot more than we were ever caught for.

In other words, you had a little bit of fun pulling the wool over their eyes..

That's right, that's right, pulling the wool over their eyes.

Making them look stupid.

And thinking back to, we'll call it fun we created amongst ourselves, I remember there were 4 of us, Eddy Hobson, Joe Traswick and Danny Danseeth and myself every night played a bridge game. We played a bridge game for nothing else than one meal when we got home, a big supper. I cant recall now who owed who, but we were always going to collect when we got home. That never happened of course, but those were.. that was one form of you might say entertainment we had. Another was recipes. Everybody remembered their mothers favorite recipe and we used to write those out, and it helped.

I would imagine it did. What about the day of your release? It must have been a pretty happy time for you.

Yes, it was. We were in Niigata. We went out to work in the dockyards on the 14th and they….that afternoon the Jap guards came out to the camp and told us we were going back in because we were going to rest and carry in firewood that the sick people in camp had cut, we were going to carry it in for the winter and we started that the next morning. That was the 15th, August the 15th. In carrying in logs, the Jap guards that were with us said “Shintsu Awaree (ph) in Japanese that means the war is over. We laughed and we would tell them, yeah, and when it was over the Americans.. America was going to win and they said “Ai Ai Yes Yes, America won, America win” So many guards said that that we carried that message to our interpreter Rantz, and Englishman, and he and the American officer in charge of the camp went over to the camp commandants office and asked him directly what the situation was. He said the fighting had stopped but nothing had been signed. Major Fellows, the American officer said that he wanted control of the camp turned over to him. All the guards were disarmed. They were left with their rifles but their ammunition and their bayonets were removed. The camp commander wanted the guards left on the gate. He was afraid of Japanese civilian repercussion against the Prisoners of War.

He was thinking of the prisoners..

That's right. We took over the camp and we took over the country side. The Japanese people were friendly toward us. IN our camp there would be half the camp every day that were out in the city of Niigata and through the country side trading with the civilians. Trading blankets and anything we had to trade. When the B29s came over and dropped the supplies were there from 15th of August to the 1st of September, and in that period of time, the B29s had dropped us ample supplies, and we all had new clothes and plenty to trade with, and we traded with the Japanese.

Did you bring anything home with you?

Very little. I brought my mess kit and cup with me. I had a kit bag full of souvenirs. I had a Japanese rifle and a bayonet, but when we got to Tokyo, we were on Tokyo bay on a ship, and on the morning of the 3rd of September or 4th of September the navy PA system came on and called 40 American names and 10 Canadian names and they said pack your kit. You're leaving for the air port. All I grabbed was my little haversack. I left my kitbag full of souvenirs I had…

I guess you were pretty excited..

So someone else got them. I was going to travel light. I flew home.

What did the government have to say when you got back… what did the government have to say about all of that?


I'm sure there was the general apologies made all around?

Oh, yes, there was but hmmm. The government…. Governments never take responsibility for anything. The government of the day.. Today we still blame them, the government then, for the predicament we were put into. But what we always say, and always remember is that fact that we were volunteers and when we joined the army we joined the army to go where our then Queen and country were to send us for the duration of that war or that period of time. But we feel the government of the day then, Mackenzie-King and his government sent us into something…. Well, they claim they didn't know what was going to happen. They DID know what was going to happen because they knew the day before we left the harbour in Vancouver, before the SS Awatea sailed that there was likely to be a war with Japan in the very near future.

So in effect, they knew what they were sending you into, they just wanted someone to be there to take it.


They knew what they were sending you into but they didn't have anyone else to send into it?

Well, history records show that. We didn't know that then. But Canada had a vast number of troops and armed forces in England where there was no.. had no appearance of anything happening. This was a chance for Canadian troops to go to another part of the world. That's the reason we went.

Do you feel that not enough people today know about what you went through?

Very few people know. We were only 2000 Canadians, less than 2000, 1973 altogether with the 2 nursing sisters that would make about 1975 people. We were a small part of a big war. December 7th every year always gripes Hong Kong Veterans because the first thing you hear on the news media is Pearl Harbour, and Americas entry into the war. There is nothing ever mentioned of what happened to those 1900-odd Canadians on December 7th 1941.

Mr. Dancocks book had brought a lot more interest {garbled} what happened..

Yes, but not through Mr. Dancocks book.

Have you read it yourself?

I read his book and if we had it to do over.. There was two of us here did an interview with him at the radio station, CBC, and had we read his book prior to that, we would have taken him to task for a number of things that he said in his book.

Such as?

Well, in one instance, he mentions a man name of Murphy. We had no Murphy in the Winnipeg Grenadiers. He puts this man in the position of another man, name of Murray, we called him Machine Gun Murray in Jamaica. He used a Lewis gun to shoot at a Nazi flag in the internment camp. In the book he calls him Murphy. {pause} I have to correct something. I have to apologize to you. Dancocks book is a series of… Dancocks book is alright. I'm sorry. I'm thinking of Desperate Siege that was written by Ferguson in Edmonton.

I haven't read that one

In Ferguson's book the majority of it is hogwash. He stretched the stories to make the book.. I wont say more interesting but more salable. If he had stuck to the facts that the men gave him…

So in fact what he did is take a few isolated incidents..,

And made it a fiction book. That's what it is.

I see what you mean. Do you think more people today should honestly be aware of what happened? Are quite happy with the fact that some people know about it and some people never will?

Some people never will. We, wherever possible, try to keep reminding people of what happened. My personal feeling is that a lot of young people today don't realize what happened in the second world war. A lot of them don't even realize there WAS a second world war. A lot of people do. People like yourself, because of your grandfathers experiences and his closeness in our organization. But a lot of young people you speak to today just don't even know anything about the second world war, let alone our part in it.

I guess you realize this will be published in the school paper, my school paper is pretty widely read, so what I am also hoping to do is bring a little more knowledge to my own school.

Very good.

Because I noticed a lot of kids just don't…

They don't realize. And that is, to me, a real problem today. And it stems again from part of our education system. Some of our educators want to forget what happened. And they shouldn't forget. The only fact that they're there today and able to teach our young people these things is the simple fact that Canadians that went into action in Europe and in the Far East like ourselves, fought for certain democratic principles that we believed in then and we believe in today. If we hadn't done that, those people wouldn't be here today to educate our young people. We could be living under an entirely different system of government and everything else.

If the situation ever arose again, where they wanted to send men out because World War 3 arose, which is getting pretty close right now because of the situation in Libya, and you had the opportunity to go back, if nothing more than to SEE, would you go?

Well, I believe, like 99% of other veterans, that our system of living everything else, is still worth defending. Whether our country, if our country went to war, whether it was right or whether it was wrong., its still our country and its worth defending.

So you would go back.


That's something to hear right now. A lot of kids, even the kids that are thinking of enlisting, its like, if there's a war, I'll find an excuse not to go.

There again is part of our system of education that has created this feeling with these kids. Its.. President Kennedy had words that he put together at one time, its not what my country can do for me, its what I can do for my country. To me, that's the way I look at it.

Well, thank you very much Mr. Atkinson.

You're very welcome.


All of us, Rememberance day then was Armistice day, the name was changed after the second world war, to Rememberance Day. Our schools.. we went to school, there was no holiday. Our schools shut down at 5 to 11, every class assembled in the assembly hall, the auditorium, and we had 2 minutes of silence starting at 11:00 and we had a Armistice day or Rememberance Day Service. Today very few schools if any hold a service like that. Again I come back to our education system, to me this is part of it.

At our school, we do have a minute of silence, but no service.

Yes, but that's a holiday.

Yes we do it on the 12th.

There's very few, Linda, where they do hold service of any kind.

That's really too bad. I guess there's a lot of kids “its 11:00 “ but they don't realize what it means

And the poppy is a symbol itself, a soldier in the first world war, I think he was a doctor if I'm not mistaken, his name was McRae, wrote a poem, In Flanders Fields..

Yes, I really love that poem

And the legion picked up the poppy as a symbol of Remembrance, and that is why we have poppy day today, or whatever you want to call it

I was reading a poem not too long ago, I think it was by Woodsworth, that summed it up before the war people treated anybody as garbage, but as soon as they were needed to go somewhere, its automatically like everybody is all attentive to everything they want, and then as soon as they come back, its all the same again. So while you had something to offer the country you were of all importance, but as soon as it was done with, or if you had nothing to offer, you were garbage.

Well, was that a poem or was that a story?

It was a poem by Wordsworth. I cant remember it exactly, but something to do with…. I had it written, I had to hand it in for History,

That must be an old old poem

It was in the Legion magazine about 2 months ago.

Woodsworth.. yes.. I cant remember that poem. Well, that's true in any occupation, let alone being a soldier or a member of the armed forces. I wouldn't say it serves that purpose in regards to Canada, all the way, because Canada actually hasn't forgotten their soldiers, the people that served in their armed forces. Mind you its been the veterans that have kept the government informed of the fact that we're still here. And that will continue until the last veteran dies.

One other question that shoots off a little bit. Now you were held prisoner by the Japanese. And while back in Canada, some of our own Japanese citizens were moved into the interior of Canada. A lot of them are asking, or demanding, reimbursement right now for that. What do you think about that?

Well, from a personal standpoint, and I'm strictly speaking now from a personal standpoint, I don't think the government was wrong in moving them. Because you could ask Mr. Meeker a question, he wasn't around at that time, he doesn't know what happened, all he does is read and knows what his family has told him The situation on the west coast was such that the question I would put to him is this. If Canada hadn't moved the Japanese people out of BC, and the Japanese troops had landed on the west coast, what would those Japanese people have done?


That's a question I don't think he would care to answer. Because he doesn't know. His feeling is that there was 21000 Japanese Canadians uprooted. They weren't all Japanese Canadians. More of them were Japanese, at that time, a time of war, Japanese aliens. They had never taken out citizenship, or sworn allegiance to Canada or to the Queen at that time, because we were.. the Queen was head of us, head of our government. They had never sworn allegiance to Canada

What about the ones that were Canadian citizens.

Well, those I feel sorry for, but no sorrier than I feel for people who had to go in to Japanese Prisoner of War camps. Mr. Meekee states that they were confined in concentration camps. He doesn't know what a concentration camp is.

So in effect, their asking for reimbursement from our government makes as much sense..

I don't believe in reimbursement. You cant go back over 40 years and make corrections, today make corrections for what may or may not have happened.

So in effect their asking for reimbursement would be like the Canadian veterans going to the Japanese government and saying Well, you put all of us in camp, and we think we deserve to be reimbursed too.

We are in the process of doing that at the present time.

That's great. That really is

I don't think anything will come of either case.

But more people will become more aware of it because of that.

That's right

And I'm pretty sure that's the whole idea behind that.

--end of interview==