The following article written by Col. (Rtd.) John Gardam, is a summary of his research into the life of L/Cpl René Charron, Royal Rifles of Canada, "C" Force to Hong Kong.
Permission to use this article was given by Col. Gardam's son John MJ Gardam, May 28, 2018.
by John Gardam
For the first time in my career as a writer of oral history I found the ultimate gift - a one hundred page diary written just after a soldier was freed from almost four years as a prisoner of war. René Charron, a clerk from C Force Headquarters in Hong Kong, had access to pencil and paper, kept his notes and transcribed them right after returning to Canada. This permanent record reads as if the events took place just yesterday.
Carl Vincent, an archivist in Ottawa, wrote No Reason Why in 1981, a book based on primary sources dealing with Canadian involvement in Hong Kong in 1941. With these two resources I interviewed eighty-one year old René Charron in January 1995, fifty-four years after the event. His story is one of suffering, deprivation and courage. A small man of five feet three inches who feels that maybe his size was an asset as his captors never regarded him a menace. Small in size, yes, but a man who devoted his time to younger, stronger men who needed a friend to support them when the Japanese treatment became more brutal and demanding causing some to break under the strain. René Charron was a stranger until January 25, 1995, the date of our interview, and yet I felt I had met a man of great strength and wisdom who has always made the best of all circumstances.
This story began in 1939 in Montreal, Quebec. René Charron joined the Canadian Grenadier Guards in 1939 for one reason, his brother was already serving in the regiment. René was 27 years old and a personal secretary with Champlain Oil in Montreal. Guardsmen are supposed to be at least 5 foot 10 inches, René was not! When he went for his medical and they laughed at his size, he told them, "I am joining the Guards from the neck up!" After a short interval he decided to join the Active Army for, now married to Mary, a Scottish lass, he would receive an additional fifty cents a day. Fully qualified clerks were hard to find and René was warned for service in London, England. As a member of the Corps of Military Staff Clerks his destination was changed in Ottawa. "I was told I was to go to Hong Kong, but I could tell no one - it was a secret" said René. Secrets were made to be kept in those days and when René phoned Mary to say goodbye he said, "You will not be hearing from me for a while because I am going far away." Mary knew it was not to be England but she had no idea that her husband was leaving for the Far East. Thursday, October 24, 1941, René left Ottawa by train for Vancouver.
When the soldiers arrived at Vancouver they were moved quickly to dockside. Quoting from René's one-hundred page diary, these words give an indication of the urgency of the move:
As we paraded from the train to the ship [the Awatea], we were greeted by many... It was a pity these boys were not given time to speak to their people. I heard one of them say, "I'm sure that is my mother standing there with my sister - Gee I wish I could speak to them."
The quarters in the hold for the privates and corporals were awful and as René saw the skyline of Vancouver disappearing he felt "very lonely."
The next day Corporal Charron saw Colonel Hennessy for the first time. René described him as "a fine officer, nice to his men, but stubborn at times." He promoted René to sergeant which meant he no longer had to live in the hold. Colonel Pat Hennessy was the Senior Administrative Officer of C Force and he would be René's superior in Hong Kong.
The first stop en route was Honolulu and everything was normal and peaceful. René recalled:
What a place for a honeymoon... It struck me with a kind of pain that, when the world could be so lovely a place as this, how could so much mutilating the face of nature, wrecking its beauty, destroying men, take place.
René's fears would soon become a reality when he became a player in the war.
With C Force sailing to Hong Kong and battle a certainty, it is appropriate to ask the question, why were Canadians sent to Hong Kong? Within government circles and in some places in the Canadian Army there was a feeling that although the nation had been at war since 1939 and the Air Force and the Navy had been in action, the Army had not "fired a shot in anger." In Carl Vincent's book, the finger points at two people, Major General A.E. Grasett who was the commander in Hong Kong until July 1941 and Major General Harry Crerar, Chief of the General Staff in Ottawa. Grasett passed through Canada en route home to England and he briefed his friend, from RMC days, Harry Crerar, on the Hong Kong situation. Carl Vincent writes in his book No Reason Why:
It would have been strange for Grasett to suggest to his superiors the probable willingness of Canada to supply troops for Hong Kong [which he did] without at least a tacit commitment from the Canadian Chief of Staff. The virtual rubber-stamp endorsement given by Crerar to the subsequent British request gives some indication that it came as no surprise to him.
The British had no reason to doubt Canadian sincerity, for a note sent from the senior British General [Sir John Dill] for submission to Prime Minister Churchill said in part:
...Grasett suggests the Canadian Government might be agreeable to provide [infantry reinforcements] . . . relief might be possible and such reinforcement might well prolong resistance for a further considerable period. [Reinforcement] would provide a strong psychological stimulus to the garrison and to the colony.
Churchill accepted the proposal but added the proviso that "a further decision should be made before the battalions actually sailed." When the Canadian Government got the request for "one or two Canadian battalions to be provided," the die was cast. At the Cabinet War Committee held on September 23, 1941 "agreement in principle was reached." Mackenzie King, the Prime Minister of Canada insisted on gaining the assent of Ralston, the Minister of National Defence who was in Los Angeles at that time. With almost indecent haste Ralston was rushed for a decision. In a phone call to Crerar, Ralston was reassured with the CGS's words, "The Canadian Army should take this on." All that was left was to decide which two battalions would go.
The Canadian Army's method of listing units by their level of training was well established, Class A were well advanced and ready for overseas soon; Class B intermediate training complete, ready for coastal defence and Class C "those units which, due to either recent employment or insufficient training, are not recommended for operations training at the present time". It will be hard for the reader to fathom why two units from Class C were chosen, but that was the case. The two units chosen were The Royal Rifles of Canada from Quebec City and the Winnipeg Grenadiers from Manitoba. The Royal Rifles had been on guard duty in Newfoundland, the Winnipeg Grenadiers were doing the same in Jamaica.
To be fair to the Generals of the time, both units had been mobilized since 1939 and 1940 and as C.P. Steacey mentions in The Canadian Army 1939 - 1945, "were of proven efficiency... It seems doubtful whether units more efficient could have been obtained." The Class C listing was more because the units had only been back in Canada a short while. The Winnipeg Grenadiers were on leave when ordered to join C Force. The overall Commander was J.K. Lawson, a Permanent Force officer promoted to Brigadier from Colonel. René recalls that "the Brigadier was concerned over the number of untrained re-enforcements they [the Battalions] had received immediately prior to embarkation." Steacey mentions that "of 448 new volunteers transferred [in]...120 had received less than sixteen weeks training...the minimum before being sent overseas." Apart from some rifle training, firing of machine guns and for René, an introduction to the Thompson sub machine gun there was not much that could be done to correct shortfalls. On Monday, November 10, 1941, word was passed to all aboard that the final destination was Hong Kong which was reached six days later. Nowhere in René's diary or in the history book is it mentioned that Churchill's direction, "A decision should be made before the battalions actually sail" was ever actioned. Canadians were in a theatre of war and they became involved very quickly.
C Force disembarked at Kowloon, the southern most tip of the New Territories. It was here that the soldiers sorted out their kit, were given lectures on the local situation and started to appreciate the strange sights and sounds of the Orient. The headquarters and living accommodations were set up in the Jubilee Building. René wrote, "Labour being cheap, we hired a Chinese boy to shine our buttons and shoes." This luxury was not to last long for on November 22 there was a move to "China Command on the Island of Hong Kong." December 7th dawned and everyone was told that the Japanese had attacked at Pearl Harbour, the war had begun. The very next day the Japanese bombed Kai Tak Airport and destroyed all five Royal Air Force planes. Colonel Hennessy gave the order to his staff to move to a house on The Peak along with the Pay Corps and Postal groups.
What has to be made clear is that the Administrative Group was not close to the fighting nor to Brigade Headquarters, so René did not see the actual fighting. This was all to change on Friday, December 12 when "the Indian Artillery set up two 3.6 inch guns not fifty feet from the headquarters." The next day Hennessy and Captain Davies, the Paymaster, went to Wong Nei Chong, Brigade Headquarters. The Indian guns were located by the Japanese aircraft and soon Japanese artillery started to pound the area around the house. René recalled, "Shell after shell came pouring into our little area high on The Peak." The two guns were destroyed plus sections of the house. Colonel Hennessy returned, surprised that all in his group had survived the shelling - he had seen the bombardment from the hills. On Sunday, December 14, the siege began, the Japanese Navy shelled the Island from all sides, nowhere was safe. Three days later René came under shell fire and a fellow soldier landed on top of him in his rush to safety. René's words, "You had better find yourself another hole, I don't want to share mine with you" reminds one of the sense of humour one sometimes has when under severe stress. The headquarters house was in bad shape but the Canadians were still working there. Friday, December 19 saw both officers ambushed by the Japanese but they both managed to escape. Colonel Hennessy knew the situation was grave - he gave everyone a drink, saying "Cheers, if they [the Japanese] come our way, we'll give them a good reception." The reception would be the very next day as the shelling grew more intense. The clerks went to the basement and the Colonel was supposed to follow shortly. Twenty minutes later, after heavy shelling, they found the Colonel badly wounded and Captain Davies dead. Hennessy's legs had been torn to shreds, he was conscious but bleeding profusely. René said:
We applied first aid as best we could, we laid him on a door. . . and carried him out of the vestibule. [later] I got my water bottle and [the Colonel's] bottle of whisky, rinsed out his mouth and gave him a good gulp. He would ask me in that low tired voice "lift my legs" and I would pretend to lift them a little, he would sigh and feel so relieved.
Clarke, one of the Canadian clerks went for help and returned with a British Medical officer and some Chinese coolies. The doctor removed the tourniquet with René's help. René said:
My hands were a crimson red. We placed Colonel Hennessy's stumps in splints and bandaged them tightly and then placed him on a stretcher. Just 200 yards up the road en route to a hospital, we stopped, the Colonel sighed, motioned to be put down and he died.
The Canadian clerks were now leaderless, they reported to the British Headquarters but in no time rejoined Captain Bush at the Victoria Barracks. While getting supplies together, the two cars being used were subjected to a bombing. René recalled:
I lay there stunned, my whole body aching. Brunet came over to me and said, "what happened to your face you're bleeding?"... I noticed that blood was running down my sleeve... I couldn't walk. He picked me up and carried me into the. . .War Memorial Hospital. I was taken to the operating room, where Major Crawford removed shrapnel from cheek, thigh, right arm and eye socket. He called me a very lucky lad.
The nurses tended the wounded and René said this of them:
One is amazed at the energy, courage and effort required of a nursing sister, whose duties never slacken or cease. Going from one bed to the other, lending a tender hand, a cheerful word no matter how tired she may be, one cannot help but admire them. After supper was over, the little nurse came to my bedside before going off duty to wish me a Merry Christmas.
The next day a Canadian officer moved René to the Hong Kong Hotel. They were shelled en route taking cover where possible, but were covered by earth as a shell hit nearby. It was not a Merry Christmas for René soon learned, "That our Forces had surrendered the Island of Hong Kong in the afternoon of December the 25th."
The war was over for C Force and their Allies. What followed were years of incarceration under the most inhumane conditions of the Second World War. René's diary has finite detail of certain events. There are notes of despair when each week became blurred into a series of months. René was in hospital when the surrender came. He recalls one awful story about a Canadian officer who was convalescing from a gun shot wound and was subsequently killed with a hand grenade when he tried to stop a Japanese soldier from raping a woman. René said:
There were many other instances where law governing warfare was ignored - wounded Canadians beheaded, others tied with wires, their shoes removed and then made to walk at the point of a bayonet. Those who could not were killed. We had been told that the Japanese would not take prisoners while in combat, their code being "the winner wins, the loser dies."
The Canadians were rounded up and moved to North Point Camp on the Island of Hong Kong. The place was a shambles, huts falling apart, wooden beds and the toilet facilities consisting of poles along the sea wall upon which the prisoners had to balance with the strong winds making it impossible to relax for a moment. René recorded, "Each hut 200 x 20 feet housed 180 men, 12 inches between each set of bunks. " It was here that the number 354 was sewn on to all René's clothing - he had become a number, a number he will never forget.
Garbage and human waste attracted millions of flies and in no time, dysentery ravaged the camp. René spent six days in the hospital with "total abstinence of food of any kind...and on my discharge I was seven pounds lighter." The quality and quantity of food got worse and worse. René ceased smoking because those who could not would trade part of their meagre ration for a smoke. In March 1942, an event happened that deepened the rift between the officers and men as "the officers drew their first money." A lieutenant got 30 yen, captain 65 and a major got 120 yen per month. "The officers could now buy extra food and cigarettes." The men would get a small allowance later when they were forced to work outside of the camp. The only attempted escape by four Canadians from North Point Camp happened just after the rainy season. René recalled:
They had timed the guard on his rounds and found that at 11 p.m. there was no guard covering the area near the hospital. They had made arrangements with a Chinese sampan operator they had met on a work party to get them to the mainland. At the appointed hour they made a clean getaway over the perimeter fence. Next day the escape was discovered, then they were beheaded by the Japanese without any trial or explanation. At the camp the prisoners were formed up on the square for hours in the rain. Finally everyone was ordered to sign a pledge not to escape. All did but one. He was so mistreated that he returned after six days, a broken man, crying and out of his mind. His stubbornness did not pay off, poor lad.
Work parties began in a big way. Very heavy tasks, little food and long hours. One task was to "enlarge the Kai Tak Airport on the Mainland." For this the POWs received "15 cents per day for a NCO and 10 cents for a private." A tin of sardines cost $3.25, thus it took over a month's work to purchase one. At the end of June 1942 there was no longer meat in the ration. Beriberi then struck the prisoners. In René's words:
It was like a continuous electrical pain going up and down the leg muscles. At times a numbness of the legs , as if they were freezing, then so hot. Some ran water over their feet to stop the pain, but this stopped the circulation, the foot turned black, toes rotted and this necessitated amputation.
On September 26 all POWs were moved to Shamshuipo Camp on the China Mainland, this was for all nationalities captured at Hong Kong. The conditions were beyond description. René continued:
There were no beds, just a platform three feet off the ground. Each man had a three foot space, alongside another. The platform was oozing with bed bugs and fleas. Only when totally exhausted could a man sleep. When we tried to sleep outside on the ground the Japanese stopped the practice.
It will come as no surprise that these conditions would cause another epidemic - this time it was diphtheria. "The death rate mounted quickly, soon to reach a daily average of five." It was only after 89 POWs had died from diphtheria that the Japanese High Command finally did something. René remembers that, "A doctor Saito visited and he put the blame on the Prisoner Medical Officers, he got so mad he hit them in the face with a piece of hose." The senior Canadian - Dr. Crawford - stood up to Saito and said, "If the Japanese are so concerned over the great number of deaths in camp, why did they not send serum?" After a few more days serum did arrive and the doctors finally got the disease under control.
As if all the foregone events were not enough, a Japanese Sergeant came to the camp. He had spent time in British Columbia before returning to Japan. The POWs called him the "Kamloops Kid" and his first words were "You are to obey all commands, if you disobey you will be punished." René wrote in his diary, "The brutality perpetrated by this Japanese mad man continued until we left for Japan on January 19, 1943. [When the war was over the War Crimes Court tried and sentenced this particular sergeant to be hanged].
An official of the Red Cross came to inspect. Food was trucked in, Red Cross parcels were promised and, in general, a totally false picture shown. No one was allowed to approach the man. The next day, when the visit was over, the trucks came and took all the food and amenities away.
In December, René developed a very bad pain in his eyes. The doctor ordered him to take his bedding and move to the hospital area. After seventeen days of thinking, "Am I going blind?" he asked to go back to his hut. His eyes got no worse and a pair of borrowed dark glasses seemed to help.
René and some 800 Canadians were then loaded aboard the Tatuta Maru and sent to Japan. They sailed for three days under the most appalling conditions with no chance to visit the lavatory. The ship docked at Nagasaki. With over 100 men in each rail car the POWs were taken to Kobe where 300 got off, the remainder, including René, went onto Yokahama where they were to work in the ship yards. The work was hot and dirty and required very heavy lifting. By April René had a serious problem with haemorrhoids. In no time the British doctor in the camp was told to operate. When the Japanese were told there was no anaesthetic the reply in Japanese was, "Its alright, this is a small operation, it will not hurt." This event gained René a week off work. He will never forget the British doctor's words, "Well son, I'll make it fast!"
The strain of imprisonment was getting to all of them and René wrote, "I was very discouraged. I had a young lad next to me - he was crying - the strain had been too much for him. I thought, will this never be over." René's diary reflects his feelings in two sentences:
February, March, April and May always the same, work - work. June, July and August, those miserable months - that suffocating heat and those damn flies.
Food got scarce and René said. "I was so hungry that I couldn't lift the sledge hammer to work on the pipes. I was down to 98 pounds." The civilian workers tried to help the prisoners when they could. At long last a parcel from Canada came, the first and the last! Christmas 1943 came and went - one Red Cross parcel per man was issued. In January 1944 René was elated when eight letters arrived from home, dated 1942 and 1943 complete with snapshots of family. The POWs who received no mail got to read their friends' mail which helped to raise their spirits. Things were looking up and in June the Japanese workmen told them that France had been invaded. The next exciting event occurred when Allied Aircraft bombed Japan. In February they watched U.S. B29s bombing and saw five shot down. The skies over Tokyo were all in flames. René wrote "the most exciting night of our internment had come to an end."
In the first week of May the prisoners were told "to pack up and be ready to move to the northern part of Japan." The Canadians were to work in the coal mines. These are René's graphic words about his first time underground:
We entered the tunnel and boarded a little train which was lowered down the slope by a steel cable. This tunnel was the outlet for the hot air coming from the coal face, the heat was over 100 degrees. My clothes were wet with thick steam. I felt a tightness in my heart. It seemed that we were leaving behind everything that was alive. My only comfort - I was not alone.
The descent went on right up to the coal face. Very soon the manual labour took its toll with blistered hands, feet burning hot, sulphurous water pouring out of the rock with the dreadful smell of rotten eggs. All of this was too much and one day René fainted. Work did not improve for the 5'3" soldier; he could not get the drill to the roof of the rock face so he was sent to work on the coal pile.
Air raids, rumours and stories from the Japanese made it obvious that the war was coming to an end. Then it happened. In the words of René Charron:
August 17th - We're back on the job again filling those coal cars, but we can sense a feeling in the air. Something is up. The (the guards) are not acting as usual. They are listening to the radio in the shack next to the coal pile. The telephone rings. The Japanese answers Mooshee, Mooshee, Hi . . . Wakaru (Hello, Hello, Yes . . . I understand / literal translation). He came up to us and said "Shegoto Shemai" (stop working). When we marched into camp the officers told us, "the war is over." My friend Brunet cried out with tears in his eyes, "We made it - we came a long way, but its over now." What a feeling to be free at last!
It may seem as if the rest of the story would be an anti-climax but not so. Next came the period of adjustment. The first change was not freedom, but food. The men searched the countryside for food, trading blankets and clothing taken from the Japanese soldiers. One lad was cooking over a small fire and when asked what was in the pot he said, "I've got chicken, onions, potatoes and carrots and I'm going to eat the whole damn thing, even if I roll over and die of a belly ache." The Americans parachuted food and cigarettes from fighters and on August 28th a B29 bomber dropped a note saying that soon a squadron of bombers would drop supplies. The note read:
To the guys below: I am in Saipan and will soon fly for 16 hours to your location. Hope we find you alright. Don't know how soon you will be out of that hole but we are going to drop supplies and say hello in one form or another. If some of you are in the States soon, I would appreciate a card. My address is: Lt. Reeves Byrd, 1713 Greenleaf Drive, Royal Oaks, Mich, USA.
[Eventually René did write and heard from the pilot's father. His son survived the war.]
Along with the food that was dropped came complete U.S. uniforms. On September 9th they left the camp, were checked by doctors and then went aboard the USS Iowa. René said, "We could see the dockyards where we had worked. The American sailors gave us their bunks and treated us with such kindness." Next day a doctor said that René was fit to fly home by way of Guam 1550 miles away, island hopping across the Pacific to Oakland, California where the ex-POWs were greeted by a Canadian officer with funds for the rest of the way home. The sixty Canadians went by train to Vancouver where Canadian uniforms were issued. René wrote in his diary, "29 September. We are on our last mile of our long journey. We'll be in Montreal at noon. I'm so excited I can't sit still."
The two Montreal men, René and his friend Brunet were met by a Major General and they walked down the platform of Windsor station and there "was my mother, she broke through the crowd and held me so tight I could hardly breathe. I learned my Dad had died a few months before my release." What of Mary? René said, "She was overseas with the Montreal (Eaton) Masquers Concert Party, playing the bagpipes for the troops."
Mary was rushed home by ship to Halifax and by plane to Dorval. René closes his diary with the following:
Mary arrived at Dorval and when I saw that silvery plane in the sky I felt such happiness and gratitude. At last, this moment for which we had been waiting and longing for had come. We were together again.
When I asked René what sustained him through all those weeks, months and years, he said:
I was a section leader, some nights I would hear one of the younger men crying on the sleeping platform. I would go and talk to him. While I was doing that for him I was doing it for myself. This had a great effect on me. It was that incentive to help my men that helped me.
All these years later René can speak of Hong Kong and Japan, the brutal treatment, lack of food, sickness and above all the endless days in captivity. He remembers the cruel guards, the "Frog", the "Black Prince" and the "Kamloops Kid". He also remembers the doctors who did their best to stop people from dying of their wounds and infectious diseases. He wiIl never forget friendships forged in the fire of war.
As the POWs came home, the terrible losses from the battlefield, prisons and forced hard labour camps became public knowledge. The siege of Hong Kong lasted but days and the Canadian Infantry from the Royal Rifles of Canada and Winnipeg Grenadiers were in some of the fiercest of battles. The total battle casualties from the Quebec City Regiment was 7 officers and 253 other ranks. The Manitoba Regiment lost 15 officers and 253 other ranks. There were 4 killed by the Japanese after capture, another 9 died of wounds at time of capture. The figures go on and on with 67 officers and 1,349 other ranks returning, most in very poor health. The fatality rate for Hong Kong POWs was higher than those imprisoned by the Germans. At Hong Kong in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Sai Wan Bay there are 283 Canadians and at Stanley there are another 20 buried. In Japan at Yokahama there are the cremains (ashes) of 137 Canadians. At the ceremony at Sai Wan Bay in Hong Kong on November 11, 1994, Prime Minister Cretien said of the Canadians at Hong Kong:
They went into battle against veteran enemy troops. They did so without hesitation - with confidence - with audacity. They carried the fight to the enemy, counter attacking even in the final hours. No troops ever fought more bravely or with greater skill against more hopeless odds... Today we enjoy the legacy for which they paid. Let the generation remember today how that peace was won.
Roger Cyr, current president of the Hong Kong Veterans Association said on television recently, "There are some 465 to 470 of our friends left alive." The story of Hong Kong and Japan comes to a close with court cases demanding financial benefits for the veterans of C Force being presented at the United Nations. The case is not closed.
René was released from the Canadian Army in 1945, in Montreal, with the rank of Warrant Officer Second Class. In 1948, René and Mary moved to ValleyfieId, Quebec, where René took on a senior secretarial position with Montreal Cottons (now Dominion Textile) at a salary of $50.00 a week. Mary died of cancer in 1951, leaving René with a three year old daughter, Patricia. René then married Madeleine in 1952, and they have two children, Jocelyne and Daniel. In 1990, René and Madeleine moved to Vanier to be close to their children and three grandchildren. Their son Daniel, a former major in the Armoured corps, brought this story to me in January 1995. René is also a long time member of the Valleyfield Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.
Although the many years of suffering at the hands of the Japanese have taken their toll on René's body and soul, his wife and children are the first to say that he has always maintained a positive outlook on life. Indeed, surviving an experience such as this has made René, as well as his family, appreciate every moment of freedom life has to offer.
On 24 December 1995, Daniel phoned me to say his Dad had died on 20 December, almost fifty-four years after he had been captured in Hong Kong.