Letters from the camp
“If you had to eat what I had to eat, you wouldn’t be complaining about this.”
That was one of the few things Joan McLeod ever heard her father, Don McLeod, say about his time as a prisoner of war in Hong Kong during the Second World War. He didn’t talk about it much.
The memories of that time, said the Qualicum Beach resident, were too painful for him to discuss and he stayed pretty much silent about what happened to him until his death in 1989.
A window onto that time opened a crack recently however, when McLeod received a phone call from a cousin in a small town near Ottawa.
“Out of the blue I got a call from my cousin in Stittsville,” she said. “She had just moved from Toronto and had been unpacking boxes with her husband, Roger, when they discovered an envelope in the bottom of one of the boxes.”
Inside that worn and faded envelope, she said, were three postcards sent from her father to her aunt, Margaret Walsh.
“It was unbelievable,” McLeod said. “I couldn’t believe they could find something that old. The boxes must have been her mom’s because when her mom died they moved a bunch of stuff from Winnipeg and when they moved again they must have used a box that had had their mom’s stuff in it. It’s totally amazing that they found it.”
Dear Margaret: Just to say hello and am keeping well. Trust you and relatives and Helen are in good health. Looking forward to seeing you again. Delighted with Muriel’s letter. Regards to home folk and friends.
Your loving brother
The front of the card didn’t contain a scenic picture, but rather was a dull tan colour, marked as coming from Hong Kong Prisoner of War Camps ‘S’ camp (Sham Shui Po) on Aug. 2, 1944 and having been examined by DB.
That censor made sure that everything at least appeared to be going well for the Canadian prisoner, but the reality was far more grim.
“It was very painful for him to talk about,” McLeod said. “He always tried to present things in as good a light as he could, but it was a tough time for him.”
Tough indeed. McLeod, a rifleman of the Winnipeg Grenadiers, was part of a last-minute 1,975-member expeditionary force sent from Canada on the troop ship Awatea to reinforce the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps in October of 1941.
The mission was doomed from the start. Hong Kong’s defences were minimal, with virtually no air force or naval presence at all. The two battalions, which included Quebec’s Royal Rifles of Canada, were not battle ready and all their vehicles had been sent to help reinforce the Philippines.
On December 8, 1941, barely eight hours after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, the Japanese 21st, 23rd and 38th Regiment — 52,000 men, attacked the Allied contingent of 14,000 at Hong Kong.
The fighting, lasted just 18 days, with the Japanese forces forcing the Allies out of first the New Territories, then Kowloon and, by Dec. 13, onto the island of Hong Kong itself. There, they quickly took the only reservoir and steadily pushed the outgunned and outnumbered Allied forces back until, on Christmas Day, the Allies surrendered.
“He was hardly there for any time at all before they were overrun and he was pitched in jail,” McLeod said.
Dear Sister: Keeping well and anticipate happy reunion. Hope all at home are well. Fondest love to relatives and Helen. Keep that smile.
He wasn’t well of course. Nobody was. Besides being tormented by cruel guards and forced to work as slave labour, McLeod and his fellow prisoners were fed a starvation diet of 500 to 700 calories a day, essentially a little rice and a few greens. Within a year, that meagre ration was down to 250 calories, made up of a couple of spoonfuls of rice and whatever maggots and other vermin were infesting it.
In all, 267 Canadians perished as a result of their treatment. McLeod was one of the lucky ones.
“My dad was 69 when he died,” McLeod said. “He had lots of health problems, based on what happened to him in the camp, the starvation and so on. It wrecked his health. He was always very frail and he would catch things all the time.”
What it didn’t wreck though, was his optimism.
Dearest sister: Your delightful letter came as a blessing to me. Thank you for all your interest and love. Please don’t worry about me, as I have the reputation of being well able to take care of myself and I look forward to meeting you all again. What a reunion and won’t we have a house warming. Tell auntie to expect one of my old squeezes. Glad you are happy in your work and know you will do well. Deepest affection to Helen and the home folk with extras for my lovely sister. Chins up and cheerio. Lovingly, Don McLeod.”
“He was cheerful most of the time and he would sit down and talk to anybody. He always had something to say,” McLeod said. “He must have been an optimist when he started because otherwise I don’t see how he could have survived it.”
He did survive though, to see the day, three years and eight months later in 1945, when Japan surrendered.
The envelope held one other thing besides the postcards. It was a news clipping showing McLeod and his family looking at a cheque for $1,343 in compensation for his nearly four-year ordeal.
McLeod plans to donate the post cards to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, after making copies for family members.