It’s been a long, long time since Horace “Gerry” Gerrard was a prisoner of war in Second World War work camps in Hong Kong and Japan.
Still sharp at 95, Gerrard, has no problem remembering details of his time as a prisoner of the Japanese army following the ill-fated battle for Hong Kong in 1941. One of hundreds of Canadian servicemen captured following the surrender, he is today one of just 14 surviving veterans from that theatre of operations.
The affable Langford resident was in the spotlight this week, honoured for his amazing 68 years as a member of the Public Service branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, located in a heritage building behind the old Queen’s Printers on Government Street.
He also accepted the presentation of a wall plaque from the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association dedicated in his name, which spotlights various facts about the Hong Kong battle and the taking as POWs of many Canadians.
After a brief thank you speech, Gerrard, also the last living member of Royal Canadian Corps of Signallers from that era, chatted with the News about his wartime experiences and the conditions he lived in.
“The first year as a prisoner [in Hong Kong] I didn’t even have a blanket, I had a piece of very light canvas and I used to just throw it down, lay on it and pull it over me,” he said.
“When we got into Japan, they gave us four blankets and we thought, ‘oh my God, this is really good.’ But they were made from wood fibre and they laid together like boards. There was really no warmth in them.”
After arriving in Japan he was put to work at a shipyard in Tokyo Bay, then in January of 1943 he and others were shipped to the mountains, where Gerrard found himself working in a blacksmith shop. The work was hard, the hours long and there was little in the way of nourishment provided.
“You were hungry all the time, all the time hungry. And of course then a lot of fellas got hit with dysentery and it would run them down.
“You’d see a fella and he’d get some disease and being in a weak condition he’d die of several diseases,” he said.
“I remember one guy, he was 58 pounds. I got weighed once, that would be in ‘43, my average weight was about 150 or 155, and I was down to 113.”
While he suffered from various conditions while a prisoner, he was discharged “A1,” meaning he didn’t need to go to a military hospital before heading back home.
Other former prisoners weren’t as fortunate, however.
Duncan resident Gerry Tuppert, B.C. regional director for the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association, said that segment of Canadian Second World War military history left many suffering.
“It lasted 17 days, but in my estimation the real battle was the three years and eight months of survival, the constant deprivation and the conditions [in the work camps and living quarters],” he said. “Disease was rampant after the first year and they lost a lot of men. Then they were shipped off to Japan as slave labour.”
Tuppert’s father, whose image pre- and post-capture graces an association ID card hanging around his son’s neck, was among the Canadian soldiers captured by the Japanese in 1941. He worked in a coal mine and suffered lifelong effects, Tuppert said.
“My dad never drove a vehicle when he came back his eyesight had deteriorated so much … He worked in a coal mine, he had coal dust and he had bronchitis all his life.”
The family members of Hong Kong veterans Tuppert has spoken to brought up other physical effects of the time as a prisoner of war. “They would say, ‘oh dad would always walk with a limp because he was beaten,’ or something else happened. These are the things that are important to know and appreciate. There were huge sacrifices made.”
Gerrard’s daughter Pat White and grandson Kevin White were on hand for Tuesday’s presentation, as were many current Legion members. Some of them will no doubt be at the Victoria cenotaph Nov. 11 to see Gerrard lay a wreath on behalf of the Hong Kong veterans, a task he has undertaken for decades.
It’s his way of maintaining a link to a past that was dark in many ways, but bright in how it made him feel a part of something bigger, fighting against tyranny with other Canadians.