Book Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy: The Damned

 

The Damned – By Nathan Greenfield – Published by Harper Collins – 462 pp

Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy

On the last day of April 1863, a company of 65 soldiers of the French Foreign Legion fought in the action that would earn them a place of immortality in the lore of their service. While escorting a convoy to the besieged Mexican city of Puebla, the French were ambushed by a hostile force of over two thousand revolutionaries. The legionnaires made a gallant last stand in the Hacienda Camarón, and in the end all but three of them were killed. In awe of their tenacity, the Mexican commander magnanimously permitted the three survivors to keep their arms, and to accompany the body of their Captain back to France as an honour guard. Ever since that time, “Camerone Day” has been faithfully celebrated as one of the most important anniversaries in the Legion’s storied history.

Had the Canadian soldiers who surrendered to the Japanese in Hong Kong on Christmas Day of 1941 known what subsequently awaited them, they might well instead have chosen to follow the same path as the legionnaires at Camarón.

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Far from being incarcerated in the austere but relatively civilized conditions that prevailed in German POW camps, as soon as they were taken into the custody of the Japanese they found themselves consigned to a vision of hell that would have easily rivaled anything Satan himself might have conceived. In The Damned, author and historian Nathan Greenfield tells the story of that tragic chapter in Canadian military history.

The Canadians who fought in Hong Kong were members of the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada, militia regiments that had been hastily mobilized at the outbreak of the war. Ottawa had been pressured by the British to provide troops for the assignment in Hong Kong, and both units were chosen by 749 General H.D.G. Crerar. Because the defence of the colony was not viewed to be a high priority, Crerar selected regiments that were not considered to be readily deployable to other theatres where action was more likely. In what must have been an early example of political correctness, he deliberately picked the Grenadiers because they were from Western Canada, and the Quebec City-based Royal Rifles because they contained “an important proportion of Canadians of French descent.”

After a 34-day voyage across the Pacific, the Grenadiers and the Riflemen disembarked in Hong Kong in mid-November 1941. At first, service in Hong Kong seemed like a pretty good deal: in return for shouldering the relatively benign chores associated with garrison guard duty, the virile young Canadians were provided with ample opportunities to savour the many pleasures of an exotic locale. The party proved to be enjoyable but short lived. Barely three weeks after the Canadians’ arrival, on 8 December 1941 Hong Kong was attacked by thousands of Japanese troops in what would become one of the opening salvoes of the war in the Pacific.

Seventeen days later, the colony lay in the hands of Japanese hands, and its citizens were subjected to a horrific orgy of brutality and rape perpetrated by the conquerors. For the Canadians who were still alive, their surrender to the Japanese signaled the beginning of a gruesome struggle for survival that would continue for most of the next four years.

The defence of Hong Kong represented the first occasion in the war when Canadian soldiers were put to the test in combat, and by all accounts the eventual outcome was a catastrophe. Even so, The Damned lays to rest some important misconceptions about what really transpired during that fateful time. Popular lore has it that the Canadians were green, poorly trained troops who rapidly collapsed in the face of the Japanese onslaught. In reality, Greenfield shows that while the younger soldiers certainly lacked combat experience, in many cases they were commanded by senior officers and NCO’s who were decorated veterans of the Great War. Moreover, both units were likely as well trained as any other in the Canadian Army of 1941, and both distinguished themselves through the spirited efforts they made to defend the colony in the face of overwhelming odds.

Moreover, even though the Canadians’ overall efforts ultimately proved to be in vain, individual acts of heroism abounded. One of the most noteworthy examples in this regard occurred on 19 December 1941, when Sergeant Major John Osborne of the Winnipeg Grenadiers threw himself on a Japanese grenade, thereby saving at least six other men from certain death and earning Canada’s first Victoria Cross of the war. In addition to Osborne’s magnificent sacrifice, members of the Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles earned numerous other lesser decorations for their valiant deeds in the face of the enemy.

Sadly, the Japanese cared little about the courageous efforts of the Canadians, and not at all about their welfare once they became guests of the Emperor after their surrender. The second half of The Damned is devoted to recounting details of the horrific conditions which the Canadians endured while in captivity, and also discusses the ingenious tactics they used to stay alive, and whenever possible, thwart the Japanese war effort through sabotage.

Malnutrition, disease, and overwork were ever-present enemies in the Japanese POW camps, but arguably the greatest threat that the Canadians faced was the barbaric and unremitting brutality of their captors. One of the worst offenders in this regard was Kanao Inouye, a Japanese officer who, in a seemingly perverse twist of fate, had been raised in the interior of British Columbia, and who was the son of a Great War veteran who had been awarded the Military Medal while serving with the Canadian Corps.

The “Kamloops Kid”, as Inouye was nicknamed, was widely despised for his relentless and indiscriminate cruelty. The most lethal weapon in his arsenal was his flawless command of English, which he used to great effect in manipulating and harassing the Canadian prisoners. Inouye eventually got what he had coming to him after the war, when he was sentenced to death by a war crimes tribunal. Executed on 25 August 1947, the man who was known to the POWs as “Slap Happy” reportedly shouted “Banzai” as he climbed the gallows steps.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons that emerge from these pages relates to the significance of the impact that can result when two diametrically-opposed cultures clash in time of war. The Canadians viewed themselves as Christian soldiers, and in accordance with their perceptions of the laws of civilized warfare, they surrendered with the expectation of being treated with a modicum of decency as prisoners of war. None of them in their wildest dreams could ever possibly have imagined the fate that actually would befall them at the hands of their captors.

The Japanese, in contrast were governed by the deeply ingrained warrior code of Bushido, which traced its roots back to the medieval samurai, and which held that the only two honourable exits from battle were victory or death. By virtue of the fact that the Canadians had voluntarily surrendered, the Japanese concluded that they had effectively forfeited their moral right to exist. As a result, the Canadian prisoners were deemed to be subhuman chattel fit only to be worked to death in the service of the Emperor, and accordingly the Japanese saw absolutely nothing wrong with the treatment that was routinely meted out in their prison camps.

The Damned is an important and compelling book that deserves to be read by every Canadian. In telling the story of this fateful chapter of our history, Greenfield does an admirable job of depicting both the magnificent fighting spirit the Canadians displayed in their heroic but ill-fated defence of Hong Kong, and also the indomitable will to survive which enabled them to persevere through the agonizing years they spent as prisoners of the Japanese. Damned indeed these brave lads were, and as much due to the stupidity and shortsightedness of their own government as because of the bloodlust and cruelty of the enemy. But even so, The Damned makes it clear that the courage and sacrifice of that small band of brothers who so fearlessly fought at Hong Kong is a story of which all Canadians should rightfully be proud.