After 70 years, veteran gets Japanese apology

Esquimalt resident Gerry Gerrard spent four years as prisoner of war

  • Dec. 23, 2011 6:00 a.m.

Gerry Gerrard’s Esquimalt townhome is filled with family photographs.

There are photos of his children and grandchildren, many are of his late wife Evelyn, one sits on the table near his recliner, only an arm’s length away. The display also includes plaques, photographs and mementoes of Gerrard’s time as a Hong Kong veteran.

Gerrard’s first name is actually Horace, although no one has called him that in years. “My wife, I don’t think she ever called me Horace. She always called me Gerry,” a nickname he earned as a soldier, he said, his strong voice breaking slightly.

Evelyn died last year after 64 years of marriage. Evelyn waited for Gerry after he went overseas to fight in the Second World War. She waited for more than four years, not knowing where he was or if he would ever come home.

“When I came back, she was waiting on the dock,” he said with a smile. “We got married six weeks later.”

Gerrard began his career as a soldier signing up with the reserve army in Red Deer, Alta., at the age of 16.

He was later sent to Victoria where he worked as a wireless operator. For two years he helped protect the West Coast, then he was transferred to the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals. Gerrard and his fellow soldiers were soon on a ship headed to China.

After 18 days at sea, they arrived in Hong Kong. Three weeks later, 20-year-old Gerrard was a prisoner of war.

Gerrard was one of hundreds of Allied soldiers that surrendered in the Battle of Hong Kong on Christmas Day in 1941.

“It was a hopeless situation,” he said. “We had been fighting 24 hours a day for a couple of weeks.”

Gerrard thinks about that Christmas in 1941 each year. He remembers his days as a prisoner of war more often. “It’s always in your mind. Every day you think of something that happened over there.”

During 17-and-a-half days of fighting, 290 Canadians were killed and 493 were wounded trying to defend Hong Kong. On Christmas Day 1941, unable to fight any longer, the Allies had no choice but to surrender.

In his recliner in front of the fireplace, Gerrard recalled the day.

He was near Wong Nei Chong Gap when the Japanese landed.

“I can’t even remember where I slept the whole time. I know it wasn’t in a bed. I guess it just happened to be anywhere I was. You catnapped quite a bit, and when you did, before you opened your eyes you just lay and listen to see if you heard strange voices – Japanese language,” he said.

He was with two other signalmen when they heard of the surrender on Christmas.

“We always set up a little ways away from headquarters because of the bombing and shelling that went on whenever we went on the air,” he said.

“Then it got quiet so we sent a messenger back to headquarters and he saw the Japanese walking in. That left us a bit behind the lines and we made our way out and didn’t find any troops.”

They turned toward the main headquarters and found others hoping to make a last stand. “Then the order came through to surrender.”

The Japanese took them back to their own camp. “They took us right back to Sham Shui Po barracks, where we had been. Of course it had been stripped clean by the Chinese, all the wood frames, the wood doors, anything wood they took because they had a shortage of fuel for cooking. So we just had open buildings made of tile and stucco.”

He was held there for a year. He was then transferred to the mainland and later to a camp in northern Japan.

He took the experience one day at a time.

“(We were) wondering what was the future going to be. What they were going to do to you, from then on you just live from day to day. The food was bad, there was no medical supplies, then they started working us. You had to be on the parade square at daylight and you were getting back just as it was getting dark.”

Gerrard and the other prisoners were beaten, starved and forced to work in mines, shipyards and foundries. Many suffered disabilities and many died prematurely.

“When we first went to the camp in Kawasaki in Japan, the commander of the camp gave us a speech and told us that we would probably never see Canada again. That they would be taking over Canada,” Gerrard said.

“He said we would probably end up dying in the camp. So I was just determined that wasn’t going to happen. Whenever I got down, I would think of this and it would help me. I was just determined they weren’t going to get the better of me.”

He credits a strong genetic makeup for his survival. “Fortunately, I guess my genes were pretty good. If you got some disease or something in your weakened condition, if you got one thing, you’d get another.”

After four Christmases away, Gerrard and the other servicemen were freed.

“We went back to camp that night and things were still the same. The next morning we got up to go to work and the guards had all disappeared – that was the start of our freedom.”

Many years later, he is recounting his story because the Japanese government formally apologized to Canadian prisoners of war for their suffering.

For Gerrard, it’s a case of too little, too late. “There was an odd feeling about it. We were told we had to keep it a secret from the media (until after the Dec. 8 event in Japan).”

There was no media coverage in Japan and Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney was not in attendance during the apology, Gerrard said.

“There was a few in our organization (Hong Kong Veterans Association) that thought they ought to apologize. But it didn’t matter to me. I had let it go,” he said.

“This important gesture is a crucial step in ongoing reconciliation and a significant milestone in the lives of all prisoners of war. It acknowledges their suffering while honouring their sacrifices and courage,” Blaney said in a press release.

The man giving the apology, Toshiyuki Kato, Japan’s parliamentary vice-minister for foreign affairs, was sincere, Gerrard said.

“He seemed genuine, but I wondered if it was done on behalf of the embassy or if the government of Japan was behind it. I thought that should have been better represented than it was. They didn’t even take a picture.”

But photos aren’t something Gerrard needs to remember.

“There’s always something reminding you of it, I think all the fellows have that problem. At times like this when you bring it all up again, I lose a lot of sleep over it.

“You’ve got to keep putting it behind you, to drop it, to think of something else. It’s a bit of a struggle sometimes, but as you get older it gets easier, the old memory is failing.”

 

 

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