Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Beyond the Call. Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, Brigade Headquarters, "C" Force, Hong Kong and Japan, 1941-1945

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.

Although I couldn’t talk with my uncle Don, who was the initial inspiration for the book, . 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.

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)

Burke Penny

Donald A. Penny, Royal Canadian Corps of Signals was Burke Penney's uncle.
Burke Perry  was fortunate to be able to speak with the seven members of the Hong Kong Signal Corps who were still alive when he began my research. He pays tribute to Bob Acton, Will Allister, Gerry Gerrard, Tony Grimston, Jim Mitchell, Wally Normand, and Lionel Speller.

Link Hong Kong Veterans Commemerative Association

Link Canadian Signallers of "C" Force, establish a signals post on hillside. Hong Kong, 27th November 1941.

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