By Dale Woodard on August 14, 2021.
Eighty years ago, 1,975 Canadian soldiers boarded a boat in Vancouver, uncertain of where they were going, for what became the Battle of Hong Kong.
Seventy-six years ago on Sunday, roughly 1,456 of those Canadian soldiers were liberated after nearly four years as prisoners in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.
On Friday morning at Lethbridge City Hall, members of the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association held a flag raising ceremony commemorating the 80th Anniversary of the Canadian veterans who fought in the 1941 Battle of Hong Kong.
On Friday night City Hall was lit up with red and green lights, the colours of the Veterans of the Battle of Hong Kong.
Kathie Carlson and Cynthia Melanson are members of the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association whose fathers returned home as POW’s nearly 76 years ago.
They both said neither of their father’s spoke much about the experience.
“When he talked about it, it was usually when some of his war buddies came by and visited him in Swift Current,” said Carlson, whose father, Leonard Corrigan, was a lieutenant. “He would be delighted to have those conversations and then that would be it. You talk to other families and they said the same thing.”
Melanson said her father, Joe Michalkow, also spoke minimally about the experience.
“Different people tried asking him questions, (but) he didn’t want to share very much. Every now and then he would share something. He talked about how there was always green tea.”
Carlson said most of the soldiers who volunteered 80 years ago were quite young, between the ages of 16 to 18.
“My father was 30 and left a family behind, which was interesting,” she said. “But most of them were young and all ready to serve our country. So at this time of the year is when we tend to concentrate on the celebrations and the anniversaries because it was Aug. 15 of 1945 that our soldiers were liberated, set free and sent home after being in a prisoner of war camp for almost four years.”
A total of 1,975 Canadian volunteers answered the call from the Canadian Prime Minister in 1941 to fight in World War II in the Pacific, leaving Canada unaware that they were being shipped to the British Colony of Hong Kong.
They fought the battle when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Hong Kong, and were forced to surrender on Dec. 25, 1941.
Carlson said there were about 12,000 Britain, Scottish and New Zealand soldiers protecting the colony of Hong Kong.
“There was an anticipation there might be war that was concerning. So the powers that be decided maybe they should build up that force a little bit more so they had a little more protection. They (Canadians) weren’t there maybe three weeks and recovering from that long trip to get to Hong Kong and the battle happened.
“They were fighting in the hills of Hong Kong and they fought until they had no ammunition left, no food, no water and it was the brigadier general that decided they had to surrender and that’s what they did on Dec. 25 of 1941. After all those many years of being incarcerated in a POW camp in pretty horrendous conditions, they came back in 1945. Not all of them, 1,975 left and about 1,456 came back. So there were certainly losses of individuals.”
Melanson spoke of her father working in the coal mines as a POW and walking several miles without shoes, instead using cardboard or a piece of wood wrapped around his feet.
Melanson said food was also minimal in the camps.
“He said a lot of it was rice. There was fish that he said was probably half-spoiled. They would put whatever they could into the big pot of whatever they were cooking. He was friends with the cook and when the cook’s assistant died he was able to leave the coal mine and work with the cook. He said if you could catch a mouse or a bird that would go in the pot.”
Melanson said when her father returned to Vancouver a doctor examined him and said he would be lucky if he lived to 55.
“He would have been 26 or 27 at the time,” she said. “My dad lived to be 89 and one of the last things he said was ‘I showed them.'”
On Friday, Carlson and Melanson posed with the original veterans flag from 1947.
Due to its fragile state, a newer flag was flown at City Hall.
“The flag that is flying is (from) our Commemorative Association, the daughters and sons of the veterans,” said Carlson. “It’s not often we get a chance to put it up. It’s meant for us to carry on with the message of what our father’s went through and honour them as much as we can.”
The Commemorative Association started in 1996 when the veterans who were still alive started to get older and couldn’t organize bigger conferences, instead turning those duties over to their sons and daughters.
“We actually have five veterans left and that’s a thrill because the youngest is 97 and the oldest is 105. They’re all down east,” said Carlson.
Melanson said she hopes Friday’s ceremony will educate more Canadians on their country’s role in Hong Kong.
“They didn’t know anything about it and there were a lot of these prairie boys that were there. I think we’ve started talking about it more and letting people know they were there and they did fight for Britain.”
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