One of the strangest turns of fate I ever experienced happened the morning of Oct. 27 when a new roommate rolled into room 211 Y.R.H.C. He introduced himself as George Churchill whom I recognized was taken prisoner by the Japanese when they captured Hong Kong and was held captive by them for three years, 8 months. I had mentioned him and other Jap prisoners in an earlier column. I spent the past four days taking down all of his experiences – his story follows, told in his own words.
My full name is George Ralph Churchill. I was born in November 1921 at Sandford one of ten children, five girls and five boys. My brother, Bruce, a member of the Algonquin Regiment was killed in France in 1944, accidently shot by his sergeant cleaning a gun. He was buried at first on the grounds of a convent and his name is on the Main Street Cenotaph.
(I replied I had a picture of him marching in a file with two other Yarmouth men, Bill Lawrence and Clyde Nickerson).
Churchill's story continues:
I attended Sandford School where three of my teachers were Miss Sandford, Clair MacKenzie and Glendon Moses, who lived to be over one hundred years of age. I only went to grade four and then off to work for a while. But the Second World War was not long in coming and as soon as war broke out I enlisted at Bridgewater with the West Nova Scotia Regiment. I was young but they took me off to Aldershot near Kentville where I spent a year in infantry training.
Then they asked for volunteers to reinforce a Montreal regiment, the Royal Rifles of Canada. I thought to myself "Here's a chance to see some action'' so I volunteered along with about three hundred others. Those who were accepted were sent to Sussex, New Brunswick, where the RRC's were in training. We spent time in Saint John back to Sussex, then two months in Newfoundland then to Quebec City to join the rest of the regiment. We knew we were going somewhere but they wouldn't tell us where but we were sent by train to Vancouver. The first inkling we had of where we might be going came when we were each issued with a tropical hat, a "pith” helmet.
We were shipped westward across the Pacific and docked at Manila where we saw palm trees growing clear down to the water's edge. Then on to Hong Kong where we landed Nov.16, 1941. I was just twenty.
It was on Dec. 8 when the Japanese attacked us.
(Pearl Harbour was attacked Dec. 7. The International Date Line caused the same day to be Dec. 8 at Wake Island, Manila, Hong Kong).
Japanese aircraft hit our camp hard. I saw none of our planes. Many of us took to the hills and escaped the worst of the attack.
For about two weeks or a little more we went through quite confused fighting. One incident stands out in my mind. I was on guard duty when we found a Jap inside our lines. I managed to get close to him and saw he was making notes as to our positions, I guess. He had a dog with him and the brute growled — not loud. This same Jap or another kept coming back day after day. Finally some of the fellows got hold of him and took all his ammunition but left him his gun and one cartridge and I guess he shot himself just prior to the surrender. "Hari-Kari” it is called, that kind of ceremonial death.
The stories told in "The Valour and the Horror' as to what the Japanese did to the nurses and the prisoners were absolutely true. I have no fault to find at all with the 'Valour and the Horror' in that regard.
The two Canadian regiments in Hong Kong, the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers weren't the only troops in Hong Kong. There were English and Indians from the sub-continent of India... Gurkhas. The Jap soldiers kicked us with steel shod boots ... They picked holes in a fellow's face in the hospital ward where the wounded lay ... One fellow from New Brunswick was dragged from his bed and had his throat cut. From Yarmouth County we had myself and Ken Gates, Angus Jacquard and another Jacquard from Comeau's Hill, Gerald Doucette, and then Ferdinand Lloyd from Shelburne, Carlyle Savage from Berwick, Ferguson, Marshall and Myers from Halifax and Wallace from Kentville. These last five are all dead. Other friends of mine were Stephen Kerr of the Grenadiers, Lockhart of Windsor who went off to Japan and McIsaac who stayed with us at Hong Kong. There was another Yarmouth fellow Gerald Doucette. He was brought up on the Hogg Road and enlisted. The Japs were hard on him and he came back home a mass of scars.
(Here I became uncertain about a tale which I had heard but had not been able to verify). A recent addition to the Cenotaph honoring the dead of the Second War pays tribute to three additional names, Hamilton, Muise and G.J. Doucette. There was a Doucette of this name taken prisoner by the Germans in Italy and held until the end of the War. He was a member of the West Novas. Now we have Gerald Doucette taken by the Japanese at Hong Kong, mistreated by them and who also died after the war. One of these has a brother resident of the north side of Queen Street. I wish some knowledgeable person would write to me Room 263 Yarmouth Regional Health Centre and tell me "Which is which". I will be grateful.)
George Churchill continues his Narrative. After two years of training he finds himself a prisoner of the Japanese following the Hong Kong surrender of the Royal Rifles of Canada along with other units, The Winnipeg Grenadiers, English Troops and Gurkhas, Christmas 1941.
We were held prisoners inside Fort Stanley Dec. 25 -Jan. 2. A (?) Christmas was that Christmas of 1941! Here we laid down our arms and picked up food enough to last a while. Then in the New Year we were marched out to North Point to what was formerly a refugee camp. There was no water, holes were in the roof and there were up to 2000 of us there, probably all Canadians at the time. By March 1942 we were becoming more and more hungry, the food was lousy, bad rice, maybe two buns a day. One day I skinned and ate a ground snake. In April we heard of the fall of Manila. Through the summer of 1942 we were still being held at North Point and by now in our weakened condition diseases had made inroads on our health. My feet, my privates swelled.
In the Fall of 1942 we were moved onto the mainland to what were barracks once upon a time. Then a diphtheria epidemic broke out among us. I was ill and sought treatment from a Canadian doctor. When I asked him for help he responded that they had just received a shipment of antitoxin that day. He injected me with a dose and laid me in a wood shed and told me to remain quiet. The next day I woke up and was certain I was having a heart attack, the way my heart was beating. But I got better.
Before the end of 1942 about half the prisoners were shipped off to Japan to work in the coal mines. Only Ken Gates and I, who were sick, of the six men from Yarmouth-Shelburne stayed in Hong Kong. The two Jacquards, Gerald Doucette and Ferdinand Lloyd went off to Japan. The Japs thought the half that were left behind in Hong Kong were too ill to be useful workers in Japan.
Angus Jacquard died in a typhoon in Japan when the bamboo roof of a hut fell in on him. His name is on the Yarmouth Cenotaph. The other Jacquard and Ferdinand Lloyd are still alive.
At Christmas of 1942 we asked a Gurkha officer to intercede for us with our Jap captors to get more food for us at Christmas. He did do so and the Japs listened perhaps because he was an Asiatic as they were and they allowed us more food.
In January 1943 we were still in the barracks and I was still in hospital due to the effects of starvation. I had a bad tooth dug out by the British medical staff. I had a friend named Piper from Winnipeg who went out of his head. He died. I did no work until October or November. There wasn't much to do ... cleaning up the oil dump, gardening, digging in the hills behind some homes for decayed granite, which we dug out with pick and shovel and carried in hampers on our back to a central dumping place. As I say, by then I was able to work a little bit and I think the food got a little better.
By January 1944 the food was basically rice and greens and a very little bit of bony fish. There was plenty of tea to drink for this was China after all. No milk.
In March we received a few Red Cross parcels from the British. By April the Americans were starting to come back and we saw their planes. Then in May I came down with malaria, my third different illness. In June we started to receive a little addition to our food – bran, peanut oil, a spoonful of beans.
Then in July we started to get parcels from the Canadian Red Cross and these included Black Cat cigarettes and I even received a parcel from my mother in Sandford – the chocolate bar was spoiled but the pyjamas and shirts were very welcome. We got no more parcels until 1945.
All we had to do to take up time was to talk and tell stories. We had a few Zane Grey Western novels, of all things but very little else to read. But we kept telling ourselves and telling each other we would get out some day. We even made up the rhyme "We'll get the gate – In forty-eight."
For Christmas of 1944, which was to be our last in captivity but we didn't know it, we had saved up our food for three weeks and had ourselves quite a good Christmas.
By January 1945 there were lots of air raids. We were still in the old barracks, out working some. There was not too much brutality at this time - a little slapping. We never heard any hard news as to what was going on in Europe like V-E Day in May but we did hear rumors that the war was going badly for the Japanese. We had the "Banjo Gossip,'' tales which we exchanged on the latrine and the "Bamboo wireless'' which brought tales from farther afield. Canadian Red Cross parcels picked up again in May.
As near as I can recollect of 2,000 Canadians 300 were killed in the fighting about equal between Royal Rifles and Winnipeg Grenadiers, 300 died in prison in Japan and at Hong Kong and the rest came home by one means or another.
The Red Cross parcels we got in May 1945 along with our other food lasted us through the summer. By July (1945) the Japanese attitude toward us had changed for they seemed to know now they had lost the war. They were kinder to us. They even took us to a warehouse and gave us sugar.
In August came the atomic bombs and the guards simply melted away. A Canadian ship, I believe it was a corvette with a name like Prince Rupert, (I think) anchored. The skipper came ashore and took us in charge. Then in September the Empress of Australia took us from Hong Kong to the Philippines. The Canadian Medical Corps picked us up at Manila, nursed us, clothed us. We spent three weeks in Manila. Then we came home in a troop ship named the Admiral Williams, I think. We landed in San Francisco and Alcatraz Island, another prison, was pointed out to us. This was an American ship and they used us first rate - plenty to eat - they couldn't have used us better.
It was October by now and we went from San Francisco to Vancouver. There were four hundred Canadian ex-prisoners on the ship including some from Japan.
As near as I can figure about 60 Canadians died at Hong Kong, some of these had been wounded in the December fighting. A lot more died in Japan.
We had brutal Japanese officers all right. One was the "Kamloops Kid" a Jap brought up in Kamloops, B.C., and now in the Jap Army. He killed three Winnipeg Grenadiers who escaped and were recaptured. He was hanged after the war. We also had "Scarface" and "The Pig" the Jap Colonel, a big fat guy.
During an air raid the Japs refused to let us look up at the planes. We couldn't see the Southern Cross or watch an air raid. The Japanese became furious during an air raid, jumping up and down in their frustration.
We were all in camp in British Columbia and others kept on coming in from Japan. To me there didn't seem to be much difference in condition between those who went to Japan and those who stayed in Hong Kong. But the Hong Kong crowd were in worse condition to begin with as many had been wounded or were sick a lot like Ken Gates and me. Ken Gates' parents didn't hear anything about him in three years. He died about 10 years ago. The Japs had tried to make us sign a paper that they could shoot us if we escaped and were recaptured. One man named Porter refused to sign, a lot of us refused, and the Japs took him into Hong Kong and beat him up.
I had one egg and one banana in three years. Another Nova Scotian was Jack McKay of Halifax. He is still alive and in charge of the local group of Hong Kong veterans. I know there is a newsletter issued from Hong Kong by a man named Gomes. I have seen a few copies. I know Dave Hall has done valuable work in keeping alive the memory of us Hong Kong veterans. That's all I can remember. I may be mistaken in places.
I came home to Yarmouth, married, and we had five sons. My health is bad and my biggest problem is emphysema. I live in Dayton.
(Your author taught one of George's sons George at Hebron School. I felt it might be indelicate on my part to ask him anything about his father's tribulations at Hong Kong. One other son, Harvey, is a policeman at Berwick and a third is with the RCMP in British Columbia.)
Originally printed in Historically Speaking by Arthur Thurston Friday, November 5, 1993 and Tuesday November 9, 1993.