The sting of remembrance

On his ninth bombing mission during the summer of 1944, air-gunner Bill Gibson’s Lancaster bomber was shot down. He bailed out and landed on a French farmhouse. Gibson and the pilot eventually connected with the French underground, who hid the Canadians with elderly caretakers of a small church.“They kept chickens and tame rabbits for food,” recalled Gibson,” and each morning for breakfast they’d give us café au lait.” But according to Gibson, his pilot refused the coffee and food feeling sure the French were trying to poison them. He sensed doom ahead. Not long after, the pilot’s fears were realized.

When the underground ferried Gibson and several other fleeing RCAF crewmen through Paris, they were taken to a hotel to await passage to Spain, thence to Gibraltar and finally England.

“Sure enough,” said Gibson, “[there’s] a knock at the door. We went out the side door and into these two big cars. I was in the front seat with my pilot. In the back seat was a second man and my navigator and wireless operator.”

As the car passed the Arc de Triomphe, Gibson looked out the windshield and saw “two swastika flags over an archway. It still didn’t registeon me. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. But I felt something in my ribs and looked down. It was a .45 automatic and the driver said in German, ‘Police. You’re our prisoners.’ With that the car turned under the archway and into Gestapo headquarters.”

Gestapo interrogation
Gibson’s crew had been betrayed. The Gestapo interrogated them, beat them up and then threw them in Fresnes prison (near Paris) booked as”gangsters, terrorists and saboteurs.” After 32-days’ solitary confinement, Gibson and other cellmates were put into boxcars aboard a train bound not for a stalag, but for Buchenwald, a Nazi concentration camp. The Canadians learned later, this was a death camp reserved for spies, Jews, homosexuals and any other political prisoners the Nazis chose to torture or exterminate.

What Gibson and 26 other Canadian survivors of the death camp also learned later was that few — not even Canadian government officials — would acknowledge the airmen were incarcerated in the horror that was Buchenwald. It’s a fact lost even during Remembrance Day observances.

En route to the camp that summer of 1944, the Canadian airmen were stripped of their identity tags. Once there, they were issued a pair of britches, a shirt and a small cloth hat. The Jewish prisoners around them had to wear a yellow star on their clothes, criminals another colour and homosexuals a different colour yet again.

The daily food ration consisted of a litre of soup (made from water and bits of cabbage) and a piece of black bread. Everybody was ordered about by SS guards who milled through the camp with dogs, truncheons and firearms. The 165 Allied airmen were among 45,000 prisoners, whom Bill Gibson wryly described as “semi-permanent  occupants.”

Torture, executions
In addition to learning about the mass murders, Gibson and the others soon discovered that Buchenwald was also the final destination for at least 33 British Intelligence agents during the war (among them Canadian Frank Pickersgill, brother of former Liberal cabinet minister Jack Pickersgill.) Most of the agents were questioned, tortured and executed by firing squad or strangulation — often in front of other prisoners.

After V-E Day, when Gibson was finally patriated, he went to a doctor at Camp Hill (Veterans’) Hospital in Halifax. The doctor told him his wounded shoulder entitled him to a partial pension. At the pension advocate’s office, another doctor took Gibson into his office and said: “The trouble with you guys that were overseas, is that you come back here and think the country owes you a living.”

With only a disability pension of $3.75 a month, Gibson began what seemed a lifelong march through doctors’ offices, pension board hearings and drug stores. This quest for his rights ended years after his original examination with a lump-sum payment. The other campaign — for Canadian government recognition — continues via the K.L.B. (Koncentration Lager Buchenwald.) However, to date, no official acknowledgment has been given to the airmen’s sacrifices and suffering during what Gibson calls “one of the darkest pages of our history.”

Forced labour camps
Another equally dark and not well remembered page of history was written at Kinkaseki. This Japanese forced-labour prison camp was located on the island of Formosa (later Taiwan). One inmate was a young private in the (Scottish) Gordon Highlanders — John Emmett (later an émigré to Canada) — captured by the Japanese at Singapore in 1942.

“At 6 o’clock, the morning after we arrived at Kinkaseki,” recalled Emmett, “we — with our sunburned bodies — joined the walking dead [about 450 other POWs] for the daily routine. First was roll call…then parade and next a march up a steep hill and down about 300 steps to the entrance of the copper mine.”

Clad only in loin cloths (it was 130-degrees Fahrenheit underground) and with just the strength that a scoop of rice and tepid tea could provide, the POWs descended into the mine down four or five flights to tunnels. There, they gathered the copper ore by hand, hauled it in baskets and threw it down chutes into bogies (rail cars) for transport above ground. If prisoners didn’t gather their quota of ore, they were hung by their hands and beaten with hammers.

From the darkness of pre-dawn to the darkness of evening, seven days a week, Emmett kept up this pace for the better part of three years. The only rest came at night or the few times the Japanese celebrated a national holiday or when he fell ill from skin ulcers (caused by burns from copper sulfide in the mine), dysentery or beriberi (due to malnutrition).

No medicines
“I got the coveted red card once for malaria,” explained Emmett. “It meant you could bed down in the care of the medical officer, [POW] Ben Wheeler, a doctor from Canada, who issued me the red card. He had no medicine, but he always did his best. He used soya paste for the beriberi…he chopped up charcoal for dysentery…He once nursed another doctor in the camp back to health by giving him a transfusion of his own blood through bamboo cane…Ben was known among the POWs as ‘man sent by God.'”

The Kinkaseki POWs didn’t know about the end of the war until September 1945, a month after the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. Soon after, American planes flew over the camp and parachuted in Red Cross boxes – tragedy amidst joy. The supply drop landed on the camp’s makeshift hospital and killed four men inside.

Finally evacuated to the Philippines, John Emmett weighed a mere 72 pounds, less than half his normal weight.

“Of the 16 in my regiment who were at Kinkaseki only six or seven of us survived,” lamented Emmett. “I somehow knew I’d survive. Each day I went down and up those stairs into the mine I counted every step — all 800 of them — I never gave up hope.”

When Emmett was returned to Britain in 1945, none of his family knew he was alive. He was demobilized and found work in the lighthouse system — finding solace by working and living alone. In 1948, he emigrated to Canada, where he served in the army and later as a weather forecaster for the federal environment department.

Until recently, he has honoured a 1945 gag order (not to tell his story). To this day, John Emmett has received none of the volunteer medals due him for service in the Second World War.

Korean war prisoners
In the 1960s, American novelist Richard Condon concocted a communist plot against the U.S. presidency rooted in the treatment of American POWs in the Korean War. His book, The Manchurian Candidate, merely approximates the months of interrogation, deprivation, confinement and attempted brainwashing that Len Badowich and 32 other Canadians actually endured in North Korean prison camps in 1953.

Late in the Korean War, Pte. Badowich and his Royal Canadian Regiment platoon defended a position known as Hill 187. On the night of May 2-3, his trench was bombarded by Chinese artillery and Badowich remembers thinking: “They’re gonna come after this barrage ends. And they sure as hell did, even before the smoke cleared they were on us.”

Badowich and six others were captured that night. They were marched for days northward to an abandoned farm where the Canadians were housed and questioned by their Communist Chinese captors.

“The first interrogation was simple enough,” Badowich remembers. “They wanted us to talk about military matters. But later they found out I had trained Katcoms [South Korean volunteers in the U.N. armies]” and the interrogation changed tone:
“When is the South Korean army going to take over from the Canadian Army?”

Badowich thought: “How the hell would I know? I’m 19 years old, a nobody, and they’re asking me political and strategic questions!”

POWs for propaganda
This went on for three days — the interrogator pushing Badowich and Badowich unable and unwilling to provide any more information. In punishment for his resistance to such pressure, Badowich (and several of the other 33 Canadian prisoners) faced reduced rations, beatings, sensory deprivation in solitary confinement and monotonous brainwashing sessions.

 The Chinese camp commandants saw the POWs as opportunities in the propaganda war in Korea. They coerced the Canadians to participate in film screenings, lectures and demonstrations and to sign petitions against U.N. Command and the International Red Cross. Not one Canadian took part. Not one Canadian signed.

“When I got back,” after the truce in July 1953, recalls Badowich, “the first thing they did was have us swear allegiance to the Queen because the King had died while we were in the camps…” as if their loyalty was ever in question despite resisting the brainwashing and the torture. A further insult: officers even mingled among the freed POWs, listening for any signs of Communist sympathy.

“Then, there was more interrogation by our own intelligence,” Badowich continued,” as if we’d committed a crime. ‘Why didn’t you escape?’ they asked us. How the hell do you escape in Korea where everybody is Oriental and you’re white? Where do you go? Those kinds of questions left the worst taste in my mouth.”

For a long time, he rarely spoke about the North Korean camps – the deprivation, the torture and the brainwashing. Even now as he recounts the insanity of it all, Badowich senses that fewer and fewer people believe him.

Not acknowledged
Every November, Canadian military veterans and civilians gather to salute the heroes and the dead. But what it took to survive Buchenwald, Kinkesaki or the POW camps of North Korea is not generally acknowledged.

Of course, Bill Gibson, John Emmett and Len Badowich will join the ranks out of respect. But the horrible irony former prisoners-of-war face every November 11th is that while the population genuinely wants to remember the service of Canadians in the First and Second World Wars and in the Korean War, the POWs themselves would just as soon forget.