After Japan's victory at Hong Kong, the Japanese took almost 1,700 Canadian prisoners. The Canadian contingent surrendered on Christmas Day 1941. The Japanese rounded up Canadian POWs into two camps: Sham Shui Po, which had been the Canadians' original camp when they arrived in Hong Kong, and North Point, which had originally been a camp for Chinese refugees. As Private Don Nelson of the Winnipeg Grenadiers explained, the Japanese were harsh captors right from the start. "They were pretty rough on us. They tied our hands together with barbed wire. A lot of boys that fell and couldn't walk because they were wounded so badly, they were cut loose and bayoneted right there. They don't believe in taking too many prisoners..." (1)
Those POWs who survived suffered through the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of the Japanese camps. Donald Geraghty, of the Royal Rifles of Canada, described the barracks of Sham Shui Po as the "filthiest thing I've ever seen in my live. No wonder the English are dying." (2) The conditions at North Point camp were scarcely better due to the appalling overcrowding.
Food and disease became main threats to survival in the Hong Kong POW camps. Lance-Corporal Harold Englehart of the Royal Rifles of Canada recalled: "Our primary concern was the food situation. We were always hungry. That's all people used to talk about: food, or the lack of it ..."(3) Corporal Lucien Brunet of the Canadian Postal Corps added: "I ate with chop sticks. I had a spoon and fork, but you know the reason why I ate with chop sticks? It took me longer to eat my meal that way ..." (4)
Rice composed almost 90 per cent of the Canadian POWs' diet. Fish, whale, or dolphin meat were sometimes used to augment POWs' rations. For the most part, the POWs' food was woefully inadequate in quantity, unappetizing in appearance and taste, and lacking in nutrition.
Lack of food and poor nutrition added to the risk of disease. In an undernourished state, Canadian POWs became even more susceptible to a plethora of diseases and ailments including diphtheria, pellagra (vitamin deficiency), malaria, and dysentery. Medicine was seldom available to treat the POWs who contracted these maladies, although sporadic supplies arrived courtesy of the International Red Cross. Many of the afflicted died before they could get treatment.
Of Canada's 1,700 Hong Kong POWs, only 1,428 survived the Japanese POW camps and made it home to Canada. The issue of compensation for these prisoners has never been resolved'. The brutality meted out by the Japanese to Allied prisoners of war was such that even more than half a century after the war most ex-POWs express a deep hatred and an almost complete unwillingness to forgive the Japanese. This bitterness is in good part due to the lack of public contrition or even recognition by the Japanese government and public for the grievous treatment inflicted on our prisoners. But ex-POWs of all Allied countries are also bitter about the failure of their own governments to pursue aggressively the Japanese government for compensation and formal acknowledgement for the subhuman treatment inflicted on their soldiers. The ex-POWs feel betrayed by their own governments, which they see cynically putting trade and commerce before the interests of servicemen who suffered severely at the hands of the Japanese. Canadian prisoners of war in Europe faced very different conditions.
After Dieppe, many Canadians languished in German prisoner-of-war camps. Canadian POWs in German camps did not have to contend with the same conditions as their counterparts in Japanese POW camps. Tropical diseases were not a threat and the health of the average POW was relatively good. Nevertheless, they experienced the same sorts of deprivations that are basic to the prisoner-of-war experience. Guards, dogs, and barbed wire were constant reminders of their captivity. Endless boredom seemed to be a constant companion. Many POWs later recalled the drudgery of an endless stream of meaningless tasks. The all too infrequent arrival of a letter from home seemed to be the only event that broke the cruel monotony of POW's daily routine. Moreover, the basic necessities of life, including soap, clothing, water, and especially food, were always in short supply. In German POW camps, the basic daily diet was a couple slices of dark bread, sauerkraut (which was usually rancid), and a small amount of horse meat. The quantity and quality of food both decreased during the latter stages of the war, when Germany was assailed from all sides. Thankfully, the Red Cross made the food situation tolerable by supplying ample quantities of varied and nutritious foods on a fairly regular basis.
The Germans captors also tended to treat their POWs with more respect than did the Japanese. Canadian POWs reported that the Germans, for the most part, adhered to the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners. Nonetheless, the Germans could at time be severe captors. Trooper Cliff Hooey also later testified that guards would "think nothing of pistol whipping" prisoners during morning roll call. Warrant Officer Keith Tate had an even grimmer memory of German brutality. Tate witnessed the "out and out murder" of fellow prisoner Les Stevenson, whose only violation was to go to the lavatory during an air raid. One of the guards shot him for this infringement of the rules. (5)
Lieutenant Howard Paillefer's recollections of his German jailers were just as severe.
"I can't complain of any bad treatment .., unless we broke the rules ... [O]ne day, ... a group of the fellas were playing quoits [a game similar to volleyball] ... Once the quoit was thrown beyond the barbed wire restraining line that was about ten feet inside the main barbed wire fence. Admittedly, there were signs saying 'Achtung. Warning. Do not cross the restraining line.' And one fellow stepped over it to get the quoit, and he was shot and killed on the spot ..."(6)
- 1. Daniel G. Dancocks, In Enemy Hands: Canadian Prisoners of War, 1939-45 (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1983), pp. 228-229.
- 2. Daniel G. Dancocks, In Enemy Hands: Canadian Prisoners of War, 1939-45 (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1983), p. 233.
- 3. Daniel G. Dancocks, In Enemy Hands: Canadian Prisoners of War, 1939-45 (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1983), pp. 230-231.
- 4. Daniel G. Dancocks, In Enemy Hands: Canadian Prisoners of War, 1939-45 (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1983), pp. 234-235.
- 5. Daniel G. Dancocks, In Enemy Hands: Canadian Prisoners of War, 1939-45 (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1983), p. 96.
- 6. Daniel G. Dancocks, In Enemy Hands: Canadian Prisoners of War, 1939-45 (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1983), p. 97.