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Burke Penny and Hong Kong veteran, Phil Doddridge
 at the book display in the Memorabilia Room
 at the Ottawa convention

Beyond the Call. Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, Brigade Headquarters, "C" Force, Hong Kong and Japan, 1941-1945, was recently published by the HKVCA. Here, author Burke Penny writes about the research and writing process, and provides a few excerpts from the book.  

The Sai Wan Bay War Cemetery is situated on the northeast side of the island of Hong Kong, a short distance from the bustling city of Victoria. The graves of two hundred and eighty-three Canadian soldiers are located here, including five members of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals. It is quiet and serene with dramatic rows of white grave markers stretching on and on down a slope towards the sea, against a panoramic view of distant wooded hills. Further south on the island on the Tai Tam Peninsula is Stanley Military Cemetery. Twenty Canadians are buried here including four Signals. The graves are located on a hillside flanked by grassy slopes with flowering shrubs and ornamental trees. The peace and tranquility of these two sites belie the events of December, 1941 when the island hills were the scene of fierce and bloody fighting as the days of the battle for Hong Kong raged on.

Who were these thirty-three members of the Signal Corps and what brought them here to this tiny British colony across the Pacific? What awful circumstances led to nine of them never coming home to Canada? What happened to their fellow Signals who survived? A full exploration of these questions will truly ensure that, "we will remember them." (From Prologue, page 2)

I have this vague recollection of an event long past. It’s a memory dominated by gray. Gray sky, gray buildings, gray pavement; the crowds lining the street also seem gray. It’s cold and raining. It smells of wet wool. The hiss of rain on the street is background to the steady clap of boots on pavement. Rows of them, marching. Soldiers in greatcoats. I’m watching, searching the lines of faces, and…there! The one I’ve been looking for, my uncle, Donald A. Penny, Royal Canadian Corps of Signals.

That scene, on Remembrance Day in Vancouver, I think in 1949 or 1950, is one of my earliest childhood memories. It reflects an interest in things military that has been with me most of my life. In particular, I’ve always been fascinated by the Second World War. I know of no special reason for this – perhaps it comes simply from being born in 1946 into a family that, like so many others, was affected greatly by the events of those years, 1939-1945. My interest in things historical continued. I went on to develop my research skills at McMaster University and the University of Manitoba, and then apply them during a thirty-five year career in the heritage field as a researcher, manager and consultant.

Don Penny, the man in my childhood memory, was with the R.C.C.S. at Hong Kong. Sadly, he passed away in 1982, and I never got a chance to talk with him about his experiences. However, he left a box full of letters, notebooks and other memorabilia which my aunt saved, along with a scrapbook kept by his father during and after the war. It was these letters, notebooks and newspaper clippings that originally got me interested in C Force and the story of our Canadian troops that went to Hong Kong.

Almost five years ago I decided to write a book about my uncle and his experiences in Hong Kong and Japan. Because most of the published material referred mainly to the Winnipeg Grenadiers and Royal Rifles, I thought it was time to pay a bit more attention to the fellows in Brigade Headquarters, and specifically the Signal Corps which made up about a third of the Headquarters unit. The result of my efforts is Beyond the Call.

Although I couldn’t talk with my uncle Don, who was the initial inspiration for the book, I was fortunate to be able to speak with the seven members of the Hong Kong Signal Corps who were still alive when I began my research. I want to pay tribute to Bob Acton, Will Allister, Gerry Gerrard, Tony Grimston, Jim Mitchell, Wally Normand, and Lionel Speller. It was their words and shared memories that strengthened my commitment to push ahead with the project. I owe them a great deal – just for that alone. Unfortunately, many of these fine men are no longer with us. Only Gerry and Wally will be able to read the book that they all helped to create.

Many other Signalmen had their words and actions recorded in interviews, reports, war diaries and newspaper articles, as well as in their own letters home. All these sources became the main focus for my research efforts. I spent many days in Ottawa at the National Archives, the War Museum Research Centre, and the DND Directorate of History and Heritage. Through the magic of interlibrary loan, I was able to spend hours in the basement of my local library in Midland, Ontario, poring over reels of microfilm; not only documents from the archives, but newspapers from across the country. These were a great source of stories about the Signal Corps men who went to Hong Kong.

Mainly through my membership in the HKVCA, I was able to get in touch with a number of family members of Signalmen who could no longer share their stories in person. Many of these family members were kind enough to share copies of documents and letters, and tell me stories passed on to them by their fathers. I know that there is still lots of information out there in people’s attics and closets; scrapbooks, folders of wartime materials, shoeboxes full of memories. You can always find out more if you keep digging. But if you want to publish a book, at some point the research phase must come to an end and the writing needs to begin in earnest.

The structure for the book is a timeline beginning around the start of WW II and ending in October, 1945. The main subject is really the thirty-three men of the Signal Corps. We follow them through the months of recruitment and training, the trip to Hong Kong, their participation in the battle, the subsequent years as prisoners of war, the period of liberation, and finally, the trip home to Canada for those who survived.

On October 28, Captain George Billings called his Signals section together on deck for the first time. He introduced himself as a graduate of Kingston Military College and told them he had just returned from service in Britain. The group of thirty-two soldiers facing him represented various parts of the country: nineteen were from B.C., six from the prairies, three from Ontario, and four from Quebec. Four of them were still in their teens, most in their early twenties, and only three were over twenty-five. All but five were single, although a few had left special girlfriends behind. About half had served in the armed forces, either with militia units or the Active Service Force, for at least two years; only a few had less than a year of service. So although the young men had not trained or worked together as a complete unit, for the most part they were well trained and had gained considerable experience in their specialties as operators, dispatch riders and linemen. (From Chapter 2: Destination: Hong Kong, page 48)

During the months and years to follow, four would be killed in action, two would succumb to wounds received in battle, and three more would die from illness while being held as prisoners of the Japanese. Nine of the thirty-three would not make it back to Canada. Six of the men spent the rest of the war after the battle in Hong Kong. Eighteen were sent to Japan where they worked in mines, shipyards, foundries and on the docks. Their camps had names such as Kawasaki 3D, Niigata, Sendai, Ohashi, Narumi, Suwa, and Sumidagawa. How any of them survived the beatings, poor food and terrible conditions of the camps was a constant amazement to me.

We were housed in these two barn-like huts built mostly of bamboo. Each had a wide centre aisle running the full length with sliding doors at each end. There were no partitions. Ten bays ran crossways from side to side. Each half bay had two sleeping platforms for fourteen men. Built two feet off the dirt floor and divided by a five-foot space. In it stood a long rickety table on which we marked our numbers for our rations. The platforms were made of tatami matting, divided by inch-wide wooden slats into sleeping spaces 37 inches wide and 7 feet long. A waist-high shelf ran along the back of the "beds." We were issued a bowl, four wood-fibre blankets that held no warmth, a small round hard pillow and a cotton bedsheet. (Will Allister, from Chapter 5, Prisoners of War – 1943, page 182)

After a while, the cast was taken off and my arm was put in a sling. I was put on work detail clearing six inch thick ice from a road. We did this with pick and shovel. I used my right arm, which was in a sling, to hold the pick and with my left arm, I would swing the pick. I used the same method for the shovel.

All this time, the only shoes I had were pieces of straw and rags wrapped around my feet. One day, we were notified that shoes would be available at our place of work the next day. I went to regular work that day to get a pair of shoes. I got the shoes, but I was told that since I could walk to work, I would be on regular work detail at the foundry, from then on. (Rolly D’Amours, from Chapter 6, Prisoners of War – 1944, page 238)

We had chicken feed for food, mixed with some white rice. For soup we had the tops from the vegetables….It was so hot in the mine that we wore only a mine belt….

[They] were always slapping us around for no good reason. They used to tell us the mine was dangerous then grin at us and give us a few kicks and punches and tell us to get to work. (Jack Rose, from Chapter 7, Prisoners of War – 1945, page 293)

Thursday, October 4

In Vancouver, Mrs. Douglas received a telegram from the Director of Records in Ottawa:

K34017 Signalman John Taylor Douglas has now arrived San Francisco is enroute to Victoria BC and is expected to arrive there fifth October, 1945.

A newspaper article, filed from Oregon, listed some of those on board the nineteen car train and provided a few details. Acton, D’Amours, Dayton, Douglas, Dowling, Jenkins, Keyworth, Kurluk, Naylor, Rose and Speller were the Signals on board. (From Chapter 9, Coming Home, page 343)

With few of the veterans still alive (only two former Signals at the time of writing) it is important for family members to "take up the torch" and ensure that the story of the battle of Hong Kong and the following years of imprisonment are not forgotten. Even though most of the participants are no longer with us, their experiences live on through the letters, diaries, service records and other documents held by families and various archives, and through the shared stories passed on to sons, daughters, grandchildren and other relatives. These are all important elements to be valued, protected and shared, as a way of honouring not only the thirty-three members of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, but all members of "C" Force. (From Epilogue, page 354)

I want to thank the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association for agreeing to be the official publisher of Beyond the Call. Through a special funding arrangement, the costs of printing have been covered, so all the proceeds from sales will go directly to the organization. Copies can be purchased from the Books section here on the Association website.

If you would like to contact me with information about the men of the Hong Kong Signal Corps unit, or if you have questions about the book, my email address is: linbur@rogers.com.

Burke Penny

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