To compensate for the severe manpower shortage in Japan caused by the war in 1942, the Japanese began to ship allied Prisoners of War to Japan to work as slave labourers in coal mines and heavy industry. The trip itself was death-defying. Because the Japanese refused to mark their prisoner transport ships with a red cross or some agreed upon symbol to identify them, thousands of Allied Prisoners of War were lost at sea when unsuspecting American submarines mistakenly torpedoed some of these transports. One such ship, the Lisbon Maru, carrying 1,800 British POWs from Hong Kong to Japan to work as slave labourers, was sunk in the South China sea on October 1, 1942, by the American submarine USS Grouper, whose captain had no idea of the precious cargo in the hold of the ship he was attacking. Eight hundred and forty-six prisoners died, either by drowning or were shot by the Japanese as they tried to swim clear of the wreck.
Under these dangerous conditions the first draft of 663 Canadian prisoners, of which I was one, left Hong Kong for Japan on January 19, 1943. Our unmarked transport was the Japanese steamer Tatsuta Maru.
Prisoners were jammed into a section of the hold of the ships to such an extent that the lack of space necessitated sitting, standing and lying down in 4 hour shifts. Toilet facilities consisted of large buckets lowered from above.
After a nightmare 4 day trip made particularly hellish by a dysentery epidemic that broke out in the battened down hold, we arrived in Japan - dehydrated, starving, half dead, and covered with filth. We were told we were destined to go to a camp called 3D and to work in the Nippon Kokan shipbuilding yard in Yokohama – the biggest shipyard in Japan.
After leaving the ship, we were taken by train to our new camp which was about a mile from the shipyard.
Within a day or two of our arrival at Prison Camp 3D, we were sent to the shipyard to begin a work schedule of 13 days on, one day off.
The Nippon Kokan yard was huge. It produced both civilian ships and naval vessels for the Imperial Navy. As an island nation this shipyard and its naval output was vital to Japan’s survival because of its heavy losses at sea inflicted by American submarines.
What surprised us all as we were assigned our work stations around the shipyard, was how little damage it had suffered despite numerous attacks by American heavy bombers. The rising rate of production of urgently needed ships was unaffected by these attacks. C.A. “Charlie” Clark, a fellow prisoner at Camp 3D, was particularly struck by the lack of success of the allied bombing campaign, and that got him thinking.
Clark was an unusual individual who, besides his current service in “C-Force”, had served as a Canadian soldier in World War I and been wounded at Vimy Ridge in 1917. Born in England, Clark emigrated to Canada in 1915. He had spent most of his civilian career as an employee in Canada’s Postal Service and in 1940 volunteered again, now age 44, to serve in Canada’s army. Because of his postal experience and previous army CLARK & CAMERON...UNSUNG CANADIAN HEROS by George S. MacDonell 2 The Tatsuta Maru carried 663 Canadian POWs from Hong Kong to Japan on 19 January 1943 record Clark was quickly promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant and placed in charge of the “C-Force” Postal Service at Brigade Headquarters. During the battle of Hong Kong in combat, he distinguished himself for his courage and devotion to duty.
Clark realized that the Nippon Kokan shipyard was a critical factor in Japanese war production, essential to Japan’s survival. He knew that a successful attack on the shipyard – he was already thinking of an “inside job” - would hit the Japanese where it would hurt the most. He also knew the consequences for anyone caught committing even the smallest hostile act against Nippon Kokan. Secrecy was paramount, but as he began to plot his sabotage Clark realized he would need at least one accomplice. After careful consideration he approached Private Stanley Cameron of the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps. He had chosen well. Cameron immediately volunteered to risk his life with Clark and never to reveal anything about the plot that they now set out to concoct. The first step was to assess the target.
A shipyard is a massive complicated industrial creation, a steel fabrication manufacturing process employing every kind of skill, from electronics to acetylene welders. In 1943, the basic process to build a seagoing vessel was roughly as follows:
Because each ship type was different this necessitated tons of paper blue prints and templates all carefully stored so they could be available for any ship under construction, and they all had to be stored for easy access.
If one was intent on sabotaging the shipyard, what on the huge site was the best target? Where was the point of greatest vulnerability? Where and how could two prisoners possibly cause significant damage in such an enormous, spread out, decentralized industrial enterprise covering many square miles of heavy machinery and equipment and thousands of watchful Japanese workers?
By going for the unsuspected choke point. The point of vulnerability that Clark identified was the Japanese practice of storing all the ships’ blueprints and all the wooden moulds and templates in two adjacent buildings. Destroy those buildings, Clark reasoned, along with the blueprints and wooden forms in them - those designs and prototypes essential to the creation of every part of every vessel in the yard – and work in the shipyard would come to a standstill.
The crucial question, of course, was how? Since the yard only worked on a 12 hour day shift, whatever preparations made for sabotage would have to be executed in broad daylight, right under the noses of the watchful Japanese. This meant that somehow the attack would have to take place at night when the shipyard was virtually empty. How, since they had no electronic timers or devices of that nature, could they time their assault?
The sabotage Clark decided on was arson, timed to occur after dark. The method would be a cleverly contrived easily ignited “fire bomb.” From their work sites Clark and Cameron began stealing and squirreling away a medley of combustibles such as paint thinner, oil, oil soaked rags, oil soaked shavings, benzine, resin, paper, chemicals and celluloid – a flammable combination guaranteed to cause an instant inferno when lit. The fuse would be a candle, timed to burn down for several hours till it ignited a hand made fuse that led to the combustibles.
It took Clark and Cameron a year, acting in secret even from their fellow POWs, to gain regular access to the target buildings, to establish a safe hiding place for the “bomb,” then to smuggle in the combustibles and put the device together, all the while knowing that an unexpected search or a single mistake would lead to a most certain and horrible death.
It is one thing in the heat of battle in a combat team to act courageously and instinctively to save yourself or your comrades. This kind of courage was of a higher degree. To coolly plot and prepare for such a daring act of sabotage, knowing full well the risk and the consequences, takes something beyond the bounds of courage. It took two remarkable Canadian soldiers who were willing to continue the fight to the very centre of their enemy’s heartland. It was time to get even for what happened at Hong Kong.
On January 18, 1944, Clark and Cameron were finally ready. Shortly before quitting time they set up the device behind some rubbish in one of the little used and rarely inspected store rooms in the mould loft, lit the makeshift candle fuse, then marched back to Camp 3D with their comrades. At eight that night, with Clark and Cameron and their fellow POWs safely in camp and accounted for, the candle burned down to the fuse and the “bomb” went off and combustibles burst into flames. Soon the storage building and then neighbouring blueprint buildings were engulfed in a raging fire.
Because of the special nature of the combustibles, the initial incandescent blaze gave off such heat and smoke that the handful of unprepared security officers at the yard were completely overwhelmed by surprise and a raging inferno.
The result was everything Clark and Cameron had hoped for. In one night the massive shipyard ground to a halt. While in the days to come some limited work recommenced on a few nearly-finished ships, all new ship construction ceased, including all work on the Japanese anti-submarine naval vessels so desperately needed by the Japanese Navy for the war at sea. They’d done it. Two brave Canadian prisoners of war had accomplished what the American Air Force had so far been unable to: put Nippon Kokan out of action.
To say that the Japanese were furious and appalled at this catastrophe is an understatement, and the Japanese state police, the Kempitai, were soon in our camp questioning the Canadian Warrant Officers and anyone else they suspected. Two things blocked their discovery of the truth. First, the secrecy had been total between Clark and Cameron. No one else knew anything to tell. We POWs were as in the dark as the enraged Japanese. Secondly, Clark and Cameron left no telltale signs in the ashes of the fire or the surroundings that could be traced to the POW workers at the shipyard.
Ironically, it soon became clear amid the uproar that the shipyard manager and our Japanese Camp Commandant were not anxious to find out that the POWs under their command were guilty of arson, a finding that most certainly would have led to their court martial and a sentence of death. Better to conclude, officially, that spontaneous combustion was the culprit. In these curious circumstances the investigation ground on, with Clark and Cameron watching with trepidation for any sign that their plot had been exposed. But no evidence was discovered, and finally the heat of the investigation began to die down.
The final irony is that our claims of innocence were too readily accepted, thanks to the arrogant Japanese conclusion that we Canadian POWs would have neither the skill nor the courage to do such a thing.
Lieutenant-Commander Edward V. Dockweiler, USN, who was the senior Allied Officer at Camp 3D at the time of our departure, wrote a report on the Nippon Kokan fire for the American and Canadian military authorities after his release from prison camp in 1945. The key points of his report are as follows:
“About 20:00 hours on 18 January 1944, a large fire broke out
in this yard, completely destroying the steel shed, ships outfitting
stores, prisoner of war mess hall, riggers lobby, tool rooms, part
of the shipfitters shop and mould loft.
At this time, the yard was engaged in building escort destroyers and merchant shipping.
Its tonnage production was about 8,000 tons per month.
The fire was started by Staff Sergeant Clark, Canadian Postal Corps. and Private K.S. Cameron, Royal Canadian ordnance Corps....
This act of sabotage greatly crippled the production of this yard and directly minimized the Japanese war effort, and the contribution to the Allied War effort that these two men made under the handicap of being prisoners of war, cannot be overestimated. Their conduct as prisoners of war, while under my jurisdiction, was exemplary and fulfilled the highest traditions of the Canadian Army.”
Staff Sergeant Clark and Private Cameron escaped detection and both survived to return home to their families after the war. For their brave actions they were decorated by the King. “Charlie” Clark won the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) and Private Cameron the Military Medal (MM).
Clark became an energetic leader of the returning Canadians soldiers and eventually formed the Hong Kong Veterans Association of Canada. Ironically, soon after release, this brave man died in a house fire, and with him perished his unpublished account and his detailed notes of how he and Cameron had so bravely carried the war to their enemy.
After the war and after recovering his health, Private Cameron became a very valuable member of his local community. He was a “Big Brother” and a member of both the Kiwanis Club and The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), where he taught the blind to play golf and to curl. When in writing this account, I questioned his family, they told me when he was decorated and written up in the press they asked why he hadn’t told them about his exploits – he smiled and said he hadn’t mentioned it because “I was just doing my duty.”
I believe the conduct of Clarke and Cameron, while seemingly powerless, defeated, POW’s to plan and cripple the Japanese war effort on that scale, and in the way they did was exceptional.
I think that among all the acts of Canadian bravery during World War II, their courageous conduct ranks with the most selfless and admirable.
George MacDonell, November 2020
Sue Beard ORBIT Design Services©