Ken Ewing's Story

Surviving Against All Odds

I was born in Hampton, New Brunswick in a family of 12. In the spirit of adventure or it might have been the spirit of the foolhardiness, I stretched the truth and told the army I was 19, though I was only 15 and underage. My father had been a Lieutenant in World War One and worked as an engineer through the depression. He also became an army engineer in World War Two. Three older brothers were in the service; Art was shot down over Belgium in 1942 and died there.

While my father was away on a survey, I told my mother jokingly I might join the army so I may not come home that night. I hid my school books in a cedar hedge and when I returned three days later she threatened to take me out of the army, but I said I would join someplace else. Knowing I had made up my mind, she relented but made me promise I would go back to school after I got out of the army.

I joined the Royal Rifles of Canada, primarily an English speaking Regiment out of Quebec City. About a month after I began my basic training, our battalion was sent to Newfoundland where my time was divided between guard duty and training. Most of us were given some combat training before we were drafted for Hong Kong, but the reinforcements picked up along the way to Vancouver, though some were well trained, were for the most part green. Some had never fired a rifle. We were issued shorts and summer shirts, but weren't told until after we left Hawaii that we were going to Hong Kong. We were to bolster a garrison, and I was quite happy. I was going to a new country and a new experience, and even though I knew there was danger I was too young to worry.

Hong Kong was a culture shock. It teemed with Chinese, the influx from North China fleeing before the Japanese. When you walked down the street you were besieged by beggars and propositioned by prostitutes. Everything was cheap and a soldier's pay went a long way. The bars we frequented in the downtown had the atmosphere of a frontier town but with an exotic and oriental flavour. During odd moments of silence in this city of overwhelming tragedy, lonely, plaintiff oriental music wafted over shops and vendors' stalls.

We trained for a few days, maybe a week, and then took up our positions, but our motorized vehicles and Bren gun carriers went to the Philippines along with our mortars. Three weeks later, on December 8, when the Japanese invaded the New Territory, a short trip across the water from the island of Hong Kong, we had to expropriate trucks from the city. Still, there was little fear of the Japanese. We were told one British soldier was worth 11 Japanese soldiers. They didn't have night vision and easily became seasick. To our surprise, the Japanese came across the water and at night.

Hong Kong's vulnerability was a well kept secret on the island, though not elsewhere. Few of us knew that high command believed Hong Kong couldn't be defended and that the British preparation wasn't thorough. Because our guns were trained out to sea, we had little artillery support after the Japanese landed.

I was a rifleman in A Company, and at 16 perhaps the youngest soldier on Hong Kong Island. We took up positions to defend from a sea borne invasion and my company was assigned to concrete pillboxes facing the sea on the eastern sector of the island. Eleven of us manned our pillbox, which had a cliff as a backdrop and a light machine gun mounted on the top. There were bunks inside.

We had only manned the pillbox a short time before the Japanese invaded the island. On the night of the invasion, December 8 between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m., our section was ordered along with another 20 or 25 men to climb Mount Parker about 1, 700 feet above sea level and hold it at all costs.

Led by a guide, we climbed the mountain along a gully that was used during the rainy season to carry water to the reservoir. I was pretty well at the end of the line, carrying a box of magazines for the Bren, a light machine gun. The climb was brutally hard. We often grabbed hold of shrubs to pull ourselves upward. Groups became lost in the blackness as the front of the platoon outpaced the ones behind.

We laboured all night, climbing, stopping, scrambling. I staggered at times from sheer exhaustion. By the time dawn broke three of us had become separated from the platoon. Looking up, I saw a small Japanese spotter plane circling the top of the hill and a long line of Japanese soldiers moving across the skyline. Suddenly, there was pandemonium. I thought this was the end. The Japanese opened fire with light machine guns and rifles, killing two of our corporals near the front of the column. I hugged the ground as bullets whispered overhead. Some ofthem were snipping the branches of bushes. It was my first time under fire, and my heart was pumping hard and my body trembling. I pointed my rifle up the mountain but under the withering fire I couldn't get my head up. No training could have prepared me for this.

Minutes after coming under fire, Lieut. Colin Blaver, seeing the platoon was pinned down and the Japanese held the high ground, ordered a retreat. But I and the two soldiers with me exposed to a steady stream of Japanese fire knew nothing of the order. I crawled through the shrubs dragging the box of Bren magazines along the ground, taking advantage of the natural protection of the mountain and to my relief eventually met the rest of the platoon scrambling down the mountain.

The whole night was a haze to me but what seemed to have happened is that our guide lost his way either by design or inexperience and the Japanese who were better conditioned and better informed reached the top ahead of us through an alternate route. The Japanese aided by spies who posed as civilians had everything mapped out. In the weeks before the invasion the Japanese merchant class, which had a significant presence on the island, seemed to disappear.

In the morning, we straggled into the A Company position at Stony Ridge. B Company was also occupying positions in the area.

When we left our pillboxes the night before, we were dressed in khaki coveralls, too skimpy to protect a man from the cooler nights, about 10 degrees Celsius. But they were the warmest clothes we had. We had a ground sheet and a blanket, a water bottle, front pouches filled with ammunition and grenades. But there were no mortars, very little food and there would be no more water. The reservoirs had been emptied, and because crops on the island were planted with human waste other water courses were polluted.

The following morning we were ordered to Repulse Bay, roughly a two-hour march. Civilians occupied the famous hotel there and we were ordered to protect them from the Japanese. Everything about those hours smacked of confusion to the infantry soldier in the ranks. At Repulse Bay, the Japanese occupied the garage of the hotel. We mounted a platoon size attack from the beach and drove the small group of Japanese defenders away. I remember seeing two of the dead they left behind. We stayed at the hotel until dark when my platoon was ordered to rendezvous with 150 British soldiers at the ordnance depot and return with them. Though they were experienced soldiers some of them hadn't fired a rifle for years.

Very late that night with British ordnance personnel added to our ranks we were ordered back to Repulse Bay. Next morning, we marched along the dirt road exhausted, some men sleeping on their feet as they marched. When we stopped for a break a few men had to be slapped awake before they would get moving again.

We had little to eat or drink and I was feeling dehydrated. Eventually the column marching in ack ack formation approached the hotel but Japanese controlled the road from hill positions. The Japanese let some of the exhausted formation through; then a machine gun and rifles opened up on the middle of our column scattering us across the mountain. Crouching, crawling, trembling, while hundreds of tracer bullets ricocheted off the road and rocks, I got within 200 yards of the hotel before I took refuge with some of my platoon (plus a British captain and some ordnance soldiers) for the day in a civilian house. Several of the wounded also made the safety of the house, which I thought at the time must belong to a rich man. When I wasn't on guard, I slept fitfully sometimes wakened by the moaning of the wounded or the rattle of a nearby machine gun. In the early morning while still dark, we started for the hotel again, leaving the wounded behind with a medic. Later, they were all shot.

After we slid silently into the darkness, we began hearing Japanese soldiers but we couldn't see them. By then, the Japanese had set up positions round the hotel and surrounded the defenders we had left there. The Japanese heard us, too. Very pistol flares popped, exploded high overhead into shimmering, shadowy red lights that illuminated the road, hills and valley. When a flare popped, we froze on the ground while nervous Japanese riflemen and machine gunners fired ragged volleys and stuttering bursts. Pretty tracer bullets formed arcs that ricocheted from the ground and disappeared into blackness.

Under the confusion of darkness, I became separated again and found myself with a group of five men. Heavily outnumbered and unable to move forward, we looked for an escape. We headed back the way we had come, eventually climbing the hill overlooking Deep Water Bay, maybe an hour away. Daybreak shocked us. We looked down over the vista of the bay and there spread before us across a piece of flat ground that a few days earlier had been a sports field was a regiment of Japanese. A playing field of the British Empire was lined with rows of tents, the equipment of war and the donkeys to carry it. We had a British captain with us but from then on we were leaderless and had no contact with any of our units. Since the invasion, I had been ambushed three times, and many in my platoon had become casualties. We had wandered for seven days in all, without much food and with hardly any water.

I had a very deep and overwhelming desire for liquid, a desire that consumed my attention and overshadowed even thoughts of safety. The British hadn't anticipated that the reservoirs would be emptied. There was no drinking water to be had. On Christmas Eve, when people at home were singing Christmas carols and wishing one another the joy of the season, we watched a Japanese patrol consisting of three soldiers and a Chinese porter burdened with equipment walking along the road. The shelling and small arms fire had been desultory, and in the last day had pretty well stopped. We held a meeting that would decide our fate. Isolated with Japanese all around us, we rationalized that holding out would be pointless. We voted to give up.

Rather than relief, I felt ashamed. We put our hands over our heads and walked down off the hillside. The Japanese tied our hands behind our backs and that's how we spent Christmas Eve, sitting straight up, back to back. I later thought how lucky we were not to be slain there. Another group from A Company picked up at Repulse Bay, 29 in all, were murdered at Euclid Castle.

The Japanese patrol opened a bottle of beer taken from the British Tennis Club at Repulse Bay when they ransacked it. They gave each of us a mouthful. At one point, a Jap threatened one of us and put a revolver to his head. I think he was playing head games with us. In the morning, we were escorted to the Repulse Bay Hotel and then to Argyle.

Three days after I was captured, I was sent to North Point prison camp, where I was assigned a place on the floor. I had no blankets, pillow or mattress. The doors and windows were gone and the building walls and foundation had been partly destroyed. We had everything from bed bugs to fleas and body lice. I went 28 days without a bowel movement, caused partly from not eating. When I woke on the morning of the 29th day I had dysentery. The cramps were so terrible I couldn't move. The doctor sent me to the makeshift hospital but I could only get a bed on the concrete floor. Conditions were rough, with open pails used to handle the excrement.

At the hospital, I was offered the regular ration, two-thirds of a cup of rice. But the rice tasted like sawdust and I couldn't eat it. So I gave it to an Englishman. At that moment, I realized I had to change my ways if I were to survive. I had an epiphany and I never forgot it all the time I was in prison camp. Eat or die. Struggle or give in to death. I didn't have to look far to be reminded. One chap in my company just turned his face to the wall and died.

The Japanese guards were brutal. You soon learned that you had to salute them or get a beating. Scurvy became commonplace. Your teeth loosened in your gums and your testicles turned red like a piece of raw meat. The prisoners called it strawberry balls. When I moved to Sham Shui Po prison I saw a bucket of salt and had a hankering to eat some. So I reached down and scooped a handful; I ate it as you would sugar. The swelling in my throat and the nodules there disappeared.

Shortly after, I went to work in the diphtheria ward as a medical attendant. Until the death toll started to rise and Canadian patients were dying, there was no medicine. On the worst day five died. Some of the orderlies were beaten and Dr. John Crawford was beaten. The Japanese blamed him for the deaths in the camp, but the real reason was no serum to fight the disease. When serum arrived, the outbreak subsided.

About a year after I was taken prisoner, when slave labour was needed in Japan, I was drafted for the shipbuilding yards. Only healthy prisoners were to be selected but a quota had to be met and the standard sometimes dropped. I travelled on a passenger liner with a lot of Japanese sick and wounded. We spent the four days in a black hole with buckets for toilets. We landed at Nagasaki where the second atomic bomb was later dropped. We ended in Camp 3D near Tokyo Bay where we were used for heavy labour in the shipyards. About 500 Canadians riveted and worked as general labourers, carrying and lifting heavy materials. A group of Japanese labourers were also used. I think they were prisoners, because every morning they marched to work doing double time.

In the beginning we had good rations, and I enjoyed working because it broke the boredom. But after a short time they cut the ration. Then they cut it again. Marching out to work on an empty stomach became a great chore.

After about a year, my third year as a prisoner, I began to spit blood. I didn't report it, because I didn't deem myself more sick than other prisoners. I spent parts of days during winter, unable to work, hidden in a warm spot. The Japanese foreman never reported me. He is one of the reasons I have no special hate for the Japanese.

One night I started haemorrhaging and coughed up a pint of blood. I was sent to Shinagawa Hospital, so primitive an abandoned cattle barn by comparison would be considered an edifice. After I was there a while, a contingent of doctors, including Dr. Anthony Dawson Groves, came to the hospital. He put into place an apparatus that would save my life. A hollow needle was pushed into my chest cavity. According to the theory, the air coming in through the needle collapsed the vacuum around the infected lung. The collapsed lung in a position of rest was able to heal. The poorly trained Japanese doctor with the team, because he was the conqueror, insisted on putting the needle into my chest cavity. The first time he punched the needle in too low and hit my diaphragm. Though I had been given a localized anaesthetic I gritted my teeth in pain. The second time he punched the needle in too high. The pain was less, but still excruciating. Fortunately, he gave the needle to Dr. Groves for the third try.

I was never beaten but near the end of the war, at Shinagawa, I was assigned a tent next to the supply hut where the Japanese kept their food supplies and our Red Cross parcels. When the Japanese had a party, they usually stole a Red Cross parcel to give the buffet some variety. An observant chap, Jim Murray, noticed the Japanese sergeant-major didn't use a key to open the door. Murray sneaked into the hut and stole one Red Cross parcel. In a few days, he stole another. But he left telltale footprints in the dust round the hut and one of the guards saw them.

When the Japanese came to ferret out the culprit, I was taking some bullion powder from a dying sailor's drawer so the Japanese wouldn't find it. When I turned round, I was face to face with an aggressive and angry guard. I was taken to headquarters and was about to get a beating except the little interpreter intervened. But I didn't escape punishment. I was sentenced to five days in the cage, and to my surprise a British soldier, George "Topper" Brown, told the Japanese he was also involved. He didn't want me to face the most dreadful ordeal of my life alone. It was one of the most selfless acts I've ever seen. The first 24 hours we had to kneel on the floor. After that we stood, we slept standing, stealing a few hours in the early morning hours to lie down when the guards dozed off.

Every muscle went numb, every bone ached and we were closer to death than life. I felt more relief leaving that cage than I did being repatriated at the end of the war. Once you became sick your ration was reduced. But in the hospital, I gained weight. I went from 100 or 110 pounds to 120 pounds. When I joined the army I weighed 150 pounds. I received parcels in the camp and a total of 27 letters from my mother. In one way a quarantined barracks was good. The Japanese fearful ofT.B. often turned the other way.

Towards the end, we heard B-29s flying overhead every day. We saw the flames from the firebombing of Japanese cities and once had the only kitchen in the prison burned by an incendiary bomb. On the day of surrender the Japanese were all lined up to hear the emperor's speech. Afterward, some of them had tears in their eyes. They were broken and the brutal Samurai religion that sustained their pride was broken.

On the 20th of August an allied brigadier general and a private soldier after walking four miles from the main prisoner of war camp came into the hospital. Then boxes of food and supplies rained down from the sky. Afraid for our lives, we told the Americans to drop the food away from the camp.

The Japanese guards stayed around, but one by one began disappearing. Several guards who had been kind to us were sent off with a note telling allied soldiers to be kind to them because they had treated us justly. Though the Japanese camp sergeant major lost 10 ofhis family in a firebombing, he treated us fairly.

I was sent to a hospital ship anchored in Tokyo Bay. About a month later the ship sailed for San Francisco. I arrived home in Hampton, New Brunswick in November but only for an afternoon. I had to return to the army hospital, where with a new diet and expert medical care, I regained my health. When I joined the army, I was a young fellow who thought he knew a lot more than he did. The prison camp taught me to put away the things of a child and begin thinking like a man, to understand the things that counted. I learned perseverance. If I wanted something after I was released from the army, I went after it. I learned a man honoured promises. I honoured the promise I made to my mother when I enlisted though I didn't think I was capable of post secondary studies. I went on to finish high school and enrolled at the University ofNew Brunswick where I completed a degree in geology. I went to work for the government in the Department of Energy Mines and Resources in 1952.

I have but one regret, that the Canadian government that sent us to Hong Kong didn't do its homework, though I'm not as hard on MacKenzie King as others. On the plus side, I have nine children and I consider myself a very fortunate person because I have survived against all odds.