War vets fight for recognition

Christmas Day, 1998, will be a joyous occasion for most Canadians. However, for 353 aging veterans it will be flooded with horrific memories of a time more than half a century ago when they were imprisoned, starved and tortured. And of the ensuing years when they have been all but ignored by their own government.

While the guns have been silent since Japan’s surrender in 1945, these valiant and proud survivors who suffered so much are still fighting — battling the apathy of both the Canadian and Japanese governments. They’re fighting for their rights as recognized by the Geneva Convention and the United Nations. They’re also waging a war for recognition of the fact that they weren’t treated as ordinary prisoners but rather as slaves of labour under the most miserable and barbaric of conditions.

These 353 men are the survivors of two Canadian regiments, the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers. In November, 1941, 1,975 Canadian servicemen, many still teenagers, were sent to Hong Kong to bolster two infantry brigades of the British and Indian armies in this remote outpost, far away from the war raging in Europe. The Canadians, mostly untrained recruits, were excted to finish their training amidst the peace and quiet of Hong Kong.

The peace and quiet — nor the training – didn’t last long. Three weeks after the Canadians arrived, on Dec. 8, the Japanese launched a massive attack on Hong Kong from mainland China. The Japanese quickly battered the poorly armed defenders, pouring like molten lava through Kowloon and then over to the island of Hong Kong. The Canadian, British and Indian soldiers put up a brave fight but there were too many of the enemy with too much firepower. At 3:15 p.m. on Christmas Day, 1941, those still breathing surrendered.

Over 200 Canadian soldiers died in the bloody battle. Another 267 Canadian prisoners perished in the brutal prison camps between 1941 and 1945. Some were executed, others starved to death. Many were forced to work for the Japanese as slave labourers under savage conditions.

Today, Hong Kong is one of Asia’s most vibrant and fascinating cities, with few scars or memories of war. But, for those who know where to look, there is one reminder. On the gentle slope of a hill on the east side of Hong Kong island, overlooking the bustling city, is the inspiring and provocative Commonwealth war memorial and cemetery. The cemetery contains 1,578 graves of the soldiers, sailors and airmen who died defending the island or later in the POW camps — 283 known Canadian soldiers are buried there. Many others are not identified.

It’s a heart-wrenching experience walking through the tranquil, immaculately groomed cemetery, looking at the headstones listing the names, ages and regiments of those slain — many in their teens, some as young as 16.

Some of the headstones are without names: “A soldier of the 1939-45 war known only to God.”

Today, the surviving Hong Kong vets are trying to force the Canadian government to recognize a provision of the Geneva Convention which states prisoners made to work must be paid at the same rate as that nation’s own war workers. That works out to $24,000 in 1998 dollars for each of the 353 survivors and the 400 widows of veterans who have died since the end of the war. A pittance for over three years of brutality and slavery — and a total package of $17,955,000.

“The claim is based on slave labour,” says Roger Cyr, 76, the national president of the Hong Kong Veterans’ Association. He worked as a slave building the Hong Kong airport, as well as in shipyards and coal mines in Japan. The claim has been validated by United Nations human rights organizations and twice by the Canadian House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.

“There are considerable grounds for optimism that finally something will be done,” says Cliff Chadderton, patron and chief negotiator for the Veterans’Association. “There’s another report tabled in parliament by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs committee in which all parties supported the claims of the Hong Kong veterans.”

The group decided not to sue Japan for compensation after becoming suspicious of Japanese justice. Recently, a Japanese court ruled in favor of two Korean slave labourers and gave them a 12 cent award. “A miscarriage of justice,” says Chadderton, explaining why the veterans are pursuing their claims through the Canadian government rather than directly with Japan. The Canadian vets have no expectation of even an apology from the Japanese government, let alone compensation.

The vets also contend they were cheated out of back pay for time and mistreatment spent as prisoners of war. Because of the horrific conditions suffered by Canadians held by the Japanese, 27 per cent died in captivity, compared to four per cent who died while in German prison camps. Evidence obtained through Access to Information revealed that in 1949 Canadian officials ignored an Order in Council by the government to increase back pay to the vets to compensate for their hardships.

Chadderton, also CEO of the Canadian War Amps, adds: “The Hong Kong veterans were delivered a double-whammy at the hands of their own government. Talk about gross insensitivity.”

Hopefully between now and Christmas 1999 this shrinking band of forgotten and mistreated heroes will receive a small token of recognition from their own government for their long ago suffering and patriotism.