Hong Kong Reunion: Retracing the Battle of Hong Kong

Hong Kong Reunion: Retracing the Battle of Hong Kong

by Colin Standish

In tiny Stanley village, past the Repulse Bay Hotel, where young Canadians were bayonetted and thrown off steep cliffs, I stood in a Commonwealth military cemetery. All told, 20 Canadians are buried on this small bluff that served as the last stand for the Canadian Forces stationed here in the Second World War. And this was where my grandfather, Company Quartermaster Sgt. Colin Alden Standish, was captured on Christmas Day, 1941.

My grandfather was a young man from rural Quebec when he enlisted in the Royal Rifles Regiment in 1940. He received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his bravery under fire but then spent 1,377 days (three years, eight months) as a prisoner of war in Japanese concentration camps. I went to Hong Kong to track down Canadian war sites and try to understand what he went through.

On Dec. 8, 1941, the Japanese army swarmed the border of Hong Kong’s New Territories. I could still see the remains of the concrete trench system, the Gin Drinkers’ Line, which stretches across the entire Hong Kong peninsula. Many parts are easily accessible, but some sections are filled with mud.

A sign reading “Piccadilly” adorns one of the tunnels, which were all named after landmarks in London. Today, the tunnels are guarded by roving bands of monkeys.

Sweating in the 30-plus heat, I hiked the steep peaks of Hong Kong Island. The fighting was heaviest in the area known as the strategic Wong Nai Chung Gap, which overlooks a main pass between the mountains. All the pillboxes and bunkers remain as they were in the 1940s. I had a hard time imagining Japanese and Canadian bayonet charges up the steep mountainsides.

On Dec. 18, the Japanese army on Kowloon crossed the Lye Mun Gap to Hong Kong Island under the cover of darkness.

My grandfather and other young Quebecers in the Royal Rifles came under fire that night, before being forced to retreat to Tai Tam Reservoir in the Wong Nai Chung Gap and then to Stanley village. The rubble of the Canadian barracks still stand inside the fort, their bullet-scarred walls bearing witness to the ferocious battle.

My grandfather supplied the men in the fort until it was no longer possible to defend it. Then he organized and executed a co-ordinated relief effort under heavy fire.

Most of the 290 Canadians killed in the battle for Hong Kong are buried at Sai Wan Cemetery. In all, more than 1,500 Commonwealth graves dot the rolling grounds of the military graveyard. I tried to ask the Chinese groundskeeper where the Canadians are buried. He didn’t understand.

As I turned away, maple leaves jumped out from the tombstones in front of me. My back and shoulders tingled. The rows of white headstones look out over a concrete jungle below. Among 30-storey high-rises, this resting place seems very far away from home for these men.

Sham Shui Po was the concentration camp for Canadian PoWs. Today, Sham Shui Po is a park where children play on swings and the elderly play chess.

I am disappointed to not find any official Canadian markers among the trees. The only remnants I found of the camp are the 1940s-era razor-wire fences.

Sham Shui Po is where my grandfather was imprisoned before he left Hong Kong for Japan in December 1943. There, he learned to build trains, memorize his concentration camp number, niku-go (25), eat rotten rice and insects (grasshoppers were his favourite), and avoid beatings. A slave labourer, he was starved and prodded into working 14-hour days in dangerous factories. At 6-foot-2, he weighed 95 pounds when he was freed in August 1945.

Of the 1,975 Canadians who went to Hong Kong in 1941, 1,050 were injured and 560 never returned home. Another 87 came home legally blind, and 200 died before reaching 50.

My grandfather’s story had a happier ending. He returned home a decorated soldier, married my grandmother and joined in running a thriving family business, but his experiences in the PoW camps always haunted him. He died at age 74 and is buried in Rougemont, the Hong Kong veterans’ symbol, HK, engraved on his tombstone.

Back in Canada, I think about the sacrifice made by men my age and even younger. I think of the devastation their deaths and injuries had on rural Canada. My grandfather once wrote to his family: “When I come home, my wandering days are over.”

Though I am not sure if Hong Kong has put to rest my wandering days, I feel I better understand the man whose name I proudly share.

QUOTES

Quartermaster Sgt. Colin Alden Standish, DCM, described his three years and eight months as a Japanese prisoner of war:

“The Japanese worked the two prisoners all day and in the afternoon tied their hands behind their backs and sat them on the side of a deep gully. They then bayonetted the two and kicked them down into the gully. Neither died immediately and the Japanese came down and killed Cusner.”

“Food was very short and medical supplies non-existent. For a time we averaged only 13 ounces of food per day. Meat was one teaspoonful a month. When anyone went to the hospital or was sick in camp, the man’s ration was cut in half, so we had to give part of our rations for the hospital, which was a wooden hut.”

“(The Japanese) decided to teach me a lesson as they had been stealing PoW rations and were afraid I would report them. They beat me up and made me stand with a three-gallon pail of water in my hands stretched out in front of me. When the pail would go down they would beat me up again.”

“We lost a lot of men due to starvation and we had to cremate them … the body was put on the ground and the slabs piled around it, then the whole thing was put on fire. Sometimes it was very hard to get the fire going. The burning produced a very black smoke. … I can still remember the smell.”

“Our workday started at 5 a.m. and lasted until 7 p.m. when the men got back from the factory … You also had to supply the number of PoWs that were asked for to go to work.

“This was almost impossible as you had to send out men with malaria and high temperatures.”

“Our food has only been rice, potato tops, weeds, occasionally fish heads and guts [in] hot water.

On Sept. 1, 1945, “You ought to have seen the boys when we got the first bread – even the U.S. Marines cried when they watched [the Canadians] eat.”

Also on Sept. 1, 1945, “At last a free man and not having to write what [they] tell you to write.”

In Guam on Sept. 12, 1945, to my great-grandparents, “I’ve only had one letter from you since 1942.”

Excerpts written by Colin Alden Standish in personal letters and in Grant Garneau’s The Royal Rifles in Hong Kong: 1941-1945.
Sherbrooke: Progressive Publications, 1980

Categories: Opinion

About Author

Colin Standish

Colin Standish has a law degree from Université Laval in Quebec City and a history and politics degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Colin was born and raised in the Eastern Townships of Quebec and is currently a candidate for the Liberal Party of Canada nomination in Compton-Stanstead. He has learnt French in order to be able to study his chosen degree subject in the language.

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