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War between Japan-Britain, U.S. of America, and the Netherlands began on Monday, a December 8, 1941. The Winnipeg Grenadiers Regiment to which I am attached, had headquarters at Hankow Barracks, Shamshuipo, Kowloon, Hong Kong.
On Sunday - Dec. 7 - most of our unit in command of Lt Col. J.L.R. Sutcliffe, moved from our barracks to take up manning positions on the island of Hong Kong. Capt. J. Norris, our Quarter Master, with Lts Blake, Harper - Rations officer - and Harry White were left behind with about forty men to transport Q.M. stores, etc., when ordered by H.Q. at Wan Chai Gap. Capt Terry, Paymaster; Acting Capt. G. Porteous Y.M.C.A. Auxiliary Service Officer and I - all three attached - remained as well.
On Monday morning I was having breakfast at 0745 hrs, when Capt. Norris came in. I told him that I would spend the morning censoring letters which had been unfinished on the previous night. When he quietly asked "Don't you know there is a war on?" It was my first intimation.
Just then we heard the sound of planes, and together we walked on our verandah and counted five planes coming in from the direction of our local airport and the sea. At first we thought them friendly but within a very few minutes bombs were dropping in the harbor and on buildings and land close by. We then realized that they were coming directly towards our camp, looking for concentration of troops which ordinarily would have been on our "Square" at that hour of the morning. All of our men remained under cover while we hurried to our quarters.
Bombs were dropping within one hundred and fifty yards from our quarters, and struck the Jubilee building, causing casualties and deaths amongst British soldiers stationed there. Our quarters were badly shaken by concussion and plaster, glass, etc., were being thrown everywhere. The windows of our dining room were smashed and heavy glass thrown where Capt. Norris and I had earlier breakfasted. Fortunately none of our men were hurt.
As soon as the planes unloaded their bombs they moved off and we were immediately busily preparing to move to our new Head Quarters at Wan Chai Gap, Hong Kong. Our Quartermaster was able to get extra trucks with Chinese drivers. He asked me if I would take charge of one and try to get through with a load of accoutrements. I assured him that I would do my best. Pte Williams of the pay staff sat on top of the load with rifle while I sat inside with the Chinese driver.
We couldn't understand each other and so, with difficulty, went first to the wrong dock. Sensing the possibility of fifth columnists amongst the hundreds of Chinese people surging around our truck I ordered him along the route to a police station near Shamshuipo. There, on request, a police officer talked to him in Chinese and advised him about the proper ferry for us. Without further delay we reached the ferry and on it found another truck enroute to our new H.Q. Fortunately the driver could speak and understand English as well as Chinese, and so he became our guide and interpreter. Our driver was a bit upset as he had been though the barrage of the morning and his truck showed marks of shrapnel, bullet, and bomb splinters all over it. Bullets had pierced his windshield, but he was unhurt.
On arrival at Hong Kong we went to the oil station for gas. Imagine our chagrin when our truck stopped within fifteen feet of the hose as our truck was dry. After taking on gas and oil we left for Wan Chai Gap and reached there in the early afternoon. I was to remain at Headquarters, and for a week made contacts with men in or near that area. On one occasion I visited D. Company - Capt. Bowman, O.C. - which had returned from a couple of days in the New Territories, supporting the Royal Scots in their withdrawal from that area.
On another night, Capt Porteous, Mr French and I took a truck with men, back to Hankow Barracks for extra bedding for our men. On our return trip, Mr. French and I stood guard over our truck while Mr. Porteous took the men into Hong Kong Hotel restaurant for eats. Fifth columnists must have been about but our luck held and we reached our H.Q. with load intact.
On Sunday the 14th Lt Queen-Hughes, our transport officer, was making a tour of the units stationed, and willingly took me with him. Sgt Neal went with us while L/Cpl Singleton drove the car. On our way back we were nearing Wan Chai Gap when we found the enemy sending over a barrage of shells and pitching them right in our road. By keeping cool and timing the shells we got through the Gap. We had only reached a point of shelter near a high cliff when smoke came about us but no splinters hit any of us. A few minutes later I scrambled along and found safety in a dressing station of the R.A.M.C. From then until the fight was over Wan Chai Gap was a very hot spot. Planes would be over daily, spotting positions, and later shells would pour in while bombers unloaded their racks. Possibly they thought that because of its location - about centre of the island - it would be Brigade Headquarters. However the enemy did their best to shell or bomb us off the earth.
I was anxious to keep in touch with men in their front line posts and so on Monday the 15th, I arranged to leave in a ration truck under cover of darkness to get Major Hook's position for a day or so and from there go to see Major Gresham's (A Co), Major Baillie's (C Co), and Capt Bowman's (D Co) men. Just as we were ready to leave our ration dump, shells began to fall in Wan Chai Gap through which we had to pass. Under a real barrage we got through without being hit. Sgt Major C.A. McFadyen and Capt. McGavin (driver) were in front while Pte Smith and I remained outside with the rations. As we neared the Gap the S.M. called "Keep low. Shells are coming over" and come they did but we got through and delivered rations at two or three places before reaching our destination. Tribute should be paid our transport men who without consideration of themselves tried to get rations and supplies through.
On the following days I visited Lt MacKechnie and his men in their pillbox, the C.A.M.C. in their post along the valley, and on the afternoon of the 18th spent a few hours with Lt H. Young and his men at Aberdeen. This area was badly shelled and bombed as shipping lay in the harbor nearby. Lt Young was keenly interested in showing me a secret passage by which he could reach his position and after we had ascended and descended it he sent word to the scribe of his Co telling him that I was the first to go with him. He was in the best of spirits, looked after his men and later led them in a worthwhile attempt to repulse the enemy. We deeply regretted his passing during the fight but are grateful that he was killed instantly and so spared from any suffering. He was last heard to say as he went into position "Heigh Ho Silver".
After dark the ration truck came through from Major Hook's H.Q. and picked me up at Aberdeen - the place of a million odours - to take me through to Major Gresham's position at Little Hong Kong. On the way we missed the proper road - easily done in the dark - and stopped at one of his platoons H.Q. Lt Pendregast sent along two of his men with me. We reached there in good time. One of the first things the Major did after his cordial greeting, was to show me a large piece of shell which had been found quite near during the day, having been dropped there the previous night. A large magazine filled with ammunition was near his position, and I presume that the enemy was trying to destroy it, hence the large shell.
After a while with him in his office, Capt. Tarbutt and I were advised to go to the shelter near the office, and get some needed rest. Everyone had been pretty much on the alert since the 8th and very little good rest was had by officers or men. Basement floors and such like were more often used than any bed or shelter bunk.
We had just laid down when Sgt Major Osborne called us to report to the office immediately. We were informed that a small detachment of enemy forces were attempting a landing at Lymun and that we were to be ready to move at a moment's notice. A few minutes later however the report was contradicted and the order cancelled. Capt Tarbutt and I again returned to our bunks and were really asleep when we were again called and told that trouble had started at Jardine Lookout, near Wan Nai Chong Gap and this time we were ordered to move immediately.
In a very short time our H.Q. staff platoon led by Major Gresham, were on the move. The major had telephoned his platoon commanders and all were soon moving towards the scene of action. I asked the major what I was to do. He could have left me with the English section of the Middlesex Regt, so I was pleased when he said that I could come along with him. I was with our own men and was content.
Very cautiously we hurried towards Wan Nai Chong area. Near there we halted for a short while to ascertain, through runners from D Co - Capt Bowman - contacting us, the position, or movements of the enemy forces. While waiting there, Major Gresham decided that instead of allowing me to go into action I should go along to Capt Bowman's H.Q. at Wan Nai Chong. Our Brigade H.Q. was also there.
When Pte Kohut came along for me, and I made ready to move, Major Gresham turned to me and quietly asked "Padre, you'll write to Mrs. Gresham, won't you?" He was killed a day or two later while in the act of surrendering to the enemy forces. Capt Tarbutt was killed earlier in the fight, while Lts Vaughan and Eric Mitchell (brothers) were reported missing. Lt McKillop was wounded, taken prisoner, and later died and was buried at Argyle St. Military prison camp. Lt Pendregast was wounded slightly, and is in prison with us.
When I reached Capt Bowman's headquarters, he was in (5:30 a.m.) telephone communication with Brigade headquarters, and later with our own O.C. Lt Col Sutcliffe, appraising him of the situation. The enemy was soon within firing distance of our place and some of our men were soon in actual conflict with them.
At about 0900 hours on the 19th snipers were noticed quite near. This checked the movement of our men in front of our shelter but with Bren, Tommy and Rifle our men kept up constant fire. By keeping the steel doors to our shelter open we were able to occupy the trench in front and during the whole day there was a great deal of firing.
19th, 7:30. Lt Blackwood came to us from H.Q. at 0730hrs. At 1100hrs he, with Pte Wm Morris, went out to the highway near Brigade H.Q. and under heavy fire and at great personal risk brought Lt Col Walker of the H.K.V.D.C. (Hong Kong Voluntary Defence Corp) who had been badly wounded earlier in the day, to our kitchen shelter nearby. Pte Dowsell of our transport had been severely wounded, in the early morning, and was the first casualty I had seen and while I really expected them, when I first saw one I felt heartsick. Then I realized that I could be of some practical service and so in the absence of First Aid men, from that hour until our surrender on the 22nd was busy with wounded.
An enemy sniper had found himself a good position near our shelter and was a constant menace to our movements, as he had our trench covered. He had plenty of arms and ammunition as well and was very active. Capt Bowman decided to clear the position. He, under cover of our own guns (1115-1130hrs) went our armed with a Tommy gun. He did not return.
Capt Howard Bush of Brigade H.Q. came to us in the forenoon, and during the afternoon, Lt R.W. Philips, now Capt - 2 I/C of D Co - and he were standing near our steel door when a grenade came from the enemy, struck the door and exploded, wounding Mr. Philips badly in face and eyes - he has since lost his left eye - Capt Bush was wounded slightly in the lips and face. Other men were wounded during the day. I had just moved from a position near the officers and was caring for one of the wounded chaps when the grenade exploded.
We had been able to keep in touch with our H.Q. during most of the day and were told that reinforcements were being sent in during the evening, a truck for our wounded, and that a Bren Gun Carrier would likely bring food for our men. Hoping that the promised help would become a reality we took our six wounded men across our trench and along to the kitchen near the highway. Just before leaving for the shelter Major Hodgkinson of H.Q. staff came on a reconnaissance and left. He and most of his men were later wounded. He was picked up and taken to Queen Mary Hospital, while two of his men came into our shelter, suffering from wounds. Both of them - Sgt Watson and Cpl McAuley - have suffered a great deal since.
On December 20th we were again in touch with our H.Q. and were told that Major Hook was coming with his company in an attempt to relieve us. Our spirits were high as we knew the Major would get through if anyone could but he was intercepted by a stronger Japanese force before he could reach us, and at 1700 hrs when we were expecting B Co we saw instead a considerable force of the enemy above Brigade H.Q. along the side of Mt Nicholson. Our telephone communications were cut on that day. During the early evening Pte Williamson told Capt Bush and Capt Billings of Brigade H.Q. that we had only 800 rounds of ammunition left. They decided to try to get through under cover of darkness to Wan Chai Gap or Battle Box, to appraise them of our plight. Capt Bush mentioned it to me and I said that they could please themselves but I felt that my place was with my wounded and would remain. I was sorry to see them both leave as all of our officers were wounded and most of our men pretty nearly worn out.
On the morning of the 21st before dawn, Lt Blackwood received his first wound, in foot and ankle. During the day the enemy closed in on our position, and with our many wounded - we had twenty or more then, in our improvised shelter - increasing we were in a precarious position. Our men were being worn out and had no rest, or food, since the night of the invasion. Some of the enemy were attempting to get to our shelter, as they saw the activity there, and knew that many wounded should be in the shelter. A mills bomb dropped down our ventilator would have ended everything for us, but our men were alert and kept all avenues of approach covered.
Our kitchen was a concrete building of about fifteen by fourteen feet, with a large window space but no window. On the 20th I had my men fill the space with any boxes, tins, sacks of rice, etc., which could be found. This would prevent hand grenades, etc. from entering. Our door was the regulation size. We put all our cooking kettles and boilers, piled one on top of the other, in the half of it and kept the other half for exit or entrance. There were many times when the little building shook like a leaf in a wind, when trench mortars, hand grenades, machine gun bullets., etc., rattled around, but it stood the test. It is interesting to note that our original shelters were blown to bits and any man who sheltered there was either seriously wounded or killed.
On the evening of the 21st Major Lyndon of Brigade, who had already come through the Japanese lines, after an awful experience while on reconnaissance, came to our shelter and after saying that he was hoping to get through to our H.Q. turned to me and said "Padre, since no M.O. (medical officer) is here, you are in charge of the wounded. I shall try and get water for your men." At first he suggested water to be boiled before giving it to them, but I pointed out that such was an impossibility as all utensils were in use as barricade, and any fire would be the reflection needed by the enemy as a guide. He agreed and left, and was killed before getting far from our Gap. On leaving he said, "Padre, I shall commend you for this."
My work during those days and nights consisted in bandaging wounded, trying to make them comfortable for rest on the concrete floor, and getting any drink - such as milk, pea or carrot juice from the tinned vegetables, of which we had a few in shelter. From the first I rationed everything, and this kept our lips moistened, until the 21st when we were out of everything. Water, in small portions, was brought in by a soldier, but that also was finally exhausted. We also found a few cigarettes, and the boys enjoyed them, and twice someone, looking for ammunition, found a small amount of rum. They brought it all to me and I rationed it as well.
Every evening at dusk I would get a tin and "take up the collection" as I used to say - used the tin as a urinal - and then settle the boys away for the night, give them a cigarette, which was to be the last until morning, and then sit amongst them and keep chatting and trying to keep them cheerful, until sleep took them off. All through the nights some chap would be saying, "Padre, fix my arm", "Padre, fix my bandage", "Padre, lift my leg", "Padre, give me a drink", etc., etc., etc. The Lt Col was awake a great deal with pain in his leg, and it seemed that, crowded as we were, if a chap moved in any part of that shelter it would affect him, and so I sat near his feet or leaned by the wall near him during each night.
During the whole of my ministry I have tried to be a helper of others but for nothing am I more grateful than the opportunity of serving in such a capacity.
Just before dawn on the 22nd Lt Blackwood was again wounded and crawled into our shelter. With him came Cpl Boyd - wounded. Altogether, including three English soldiers and four Chinese, we had thirty wounded men in that shelter. Shortly after dawn we were told that our ammunition was exhausted. Capt Philips consulted Lt Col Walker, who gave us no hope of being allowed to live, even though we surrendered, but the only thing left for us to do, Capt Philips, wounded, bandaged and weak though he was, stepped out of the shelter to surrender.
Before our surrender I decided that it would be to our advantage if no arms or ammunition were found in our shelter, and so the boys cleared everything out and left nothing whatever there which would be to the disadvantage of the wounded. We were amply repaid later for this precaution, as after our surrender, they made a thorough search of our shelter, after asking me if any arms or ammunition were in the place.
Immediately after our surrender I was led out and searched. Through their interpreter they learned that I was a chaplain - or minister as he called me. I showed them my bible and field dressings and told them that my duties were with the wounded. I had made a complete list of our casualties in my notebook. They took it and my pencil. I asked for water for my wounded which they readily gave me, but watched closely as I gave each chap an allowance. After I had finished and I took some, the interpreter asked, "Oh, you give your men drink first?"
On my return from questioning I realised that the walking might have a chance, and said "Boys, if any of you can walk, for God's sake do so." Many of our wounded would have been, if we could have taken them out ourselves, stretcher cases, but a stretcher was found for Lt Col Walker only. Three of our Canadians, Cpl Boyd, Pte Swanson and Pte Dowsell, and one English Sgt, and one English private, were left in the shelter.
I was then taken under armed guard along the Gap to Brigade Headquarters, and along the trenches to other shelters, and advised to call any men to come out with hands up. It was in one of these trenches that I was saved by only a step. Pte Remmelard of the W. Grenadiers, with a few men from British and Indian regiments, were covering the entrance to their trench shelter, with door ajar and rifle ready, when we entered. He saw the Japanese officer, but waited for him to get nearer and was just going to fire when he saw me and heard me call. If that officer had been killed, none of us in Wan Nai Chong would have been living now.
During the rounds I found the body of our Brigadier Lawson, and was given permission to take his identification disc off his wrist. He had been shot apparently, nearing or coming from his Headquarters. Later I asked for, and was granted permission to take a few tins of milk along to my remaining wounded. On my return to the shelter I was left with my stretcher cases, while Capt Philips, Lt Blackwood and all others, numbering over forty, were taken to the Japanese Headquarters established just above Wan Nai Chong Gap. Private Japanese soldiers were left in charge of us and took watches, rings., etc, from us.
Shortly after noonday I was taken up to the said Japanese Headquarters and given two ration biscuits (Canadian), small piece of bully beef and a drop of water. Imagine my feelings when, as I stood and ate, one officer - subaltern - stood over me, and made a circle over my head, and then pointed upward. I glanced up and saw that I was standing near a big tree, with a branch standing out from it, just over my head. Probably he was telling his fellow officers something about a halo, but I thought of a piece of rope over that branch and around my neck.
Our men were resting by the roadside nearby. A high ranking officer came and looked at my haversack, and I asked if I could speak to my men. He understood my request as he readily answered, No! When I had finished my food I was put in charge of an N.C.O. carrying revolver and sword, and three privates with fixed bayonets, and taken down the road. Our first stop was shortly after leaving, when I was thrust into a large water culvert. I thought "This is the end" but after a short while was called out, and together we hurried over the hillside to a road and walked along in the shelter of a high bank - because of shellfire - for quite a distance. We then turned abruptly to the right and went down the hillside to another road.
I had begun to hope that I was being given a chance for my life, and taken nearer to city of Hong Kong, but on entering another road, we were met by a small group of the enemy. When we came within sight of these men, one soldier rose from a hunched position and shouted in English "British bugger, kill him now". My N.C.O. escort spoke, and I was still alive. After a brief halt I was told to hold my hands over my head and hurry along the roadblock. I was feeling too near exhaustion to hurry, but with hands up, I walked along for a short distance, when I was again met by another small group of the enemy. On seeing me, they rose from a haunched, to a firing position, and drew their rifle bolts as they raised their rifles. Again my escort called, and again I was safe. After that I was led down another hillside and encountered more soldiers, without mishap.
A little later I was taken to the top of a knoll and the N.C.O. called me to his side. We knelt together, and he, pointing across the valley, then touching his eyes and face, indicated to me - as I interpreted - that across the valley were men with face and eyes like mine. When he knew that I understood, he said "Ha" and pointed down the valley and indicated that I could go. I felt very grateful for his gesture and felt that perhaps, no only was I being given a chance, but our men left behind would also be saved. I wanted to show my appreciation so gave him my best smile and handshake, and departed.
Naturally I took whatever shelter I could, as I came down Happy Valley - the name I learned later - but hadn't gone far when I heard voices on my left, looked hoping to find British troops, but saw instead another small group of the enemy. They must have known of my presence as I noticed that telephone wires were strung on the ground all along our route, and only waved their hands in a gesture as if to say "Keep going". I needed no encouragement and immediately came to a steep bank and swung, with aid of tree branches, down to the road.
After a pause I cut across the road, and saw, in the distance, a large nullah - a large concrete waterway through which waters flow in wet season only - open, dashed across to the nullah, and went down a ladder to the shelter of it. The nullahs are roofed in certain sections and under one of these I found a number of Chinese folk who were taking shelter from raids, etc. I rested there for about an hour and was given boiled water and toast. This was the first food I had eaten since having dinner with Lt Young at Aberdeen on the eve of the invasion. After the rest I walked further down the nullah but stopped twice for shelter from shells, and bombs, whenever a barrage was on.
After reaching the vicinity of homes near the racecourse, I determined to make contact with some home and learn the way to a hospital. I saw a large modern home and thinking that it might be European, climbed out of the nullah and walked up to it. I found it occupied by Chinese and Eurasians. As I neared the entrance, a woman came to the door and asked what I wanted. I replied, "rest for a few minutes". She unlocked the gate and let me in and gave me milk and biscuit, and told me about hospitals in the vicinity. I decided to go down to the race course to a naval first aid station established in the race course grandstand, or pavilion. She then decided to send her servant with me, but had me cover my uniform with a long raincoat, took my steel helmet and covered it with newspaper, gave it to her maid and sent us on our way.
We went down the streets, passing houses which had been badly damaged by shells, etc., and as we neared the grandstand, I heard voices on my left. I turned and found three British soldiers in a trench by the side of the road, with a truck standing nearby. I asked what the trouble was and they replied "We were just machine gunned coming across that open space over which you have just come, and will remain here until after dark." "Well", I said "I will try to make the last three hundred yards". So giving the girl the coat, taking my hat, which she had carried, I ran across the open space to the station. On reaching there I was met first by first aid men and later by the M.O. for all civilian hospitals in Hong Kong. When he heard my story he said "I will take you along to a place where you will get a badly needed rest." I breathed a prayer of thankfulness, got into a Red Cross car with him and two Chinese first aid men and later reached the Queen Mary Hospital. When he took me into the reception room he said "Take this officer and put him to bed and don't let anyone talk to him for three days." I remained there for twenty-nine days.
On December 25th the colony surrendered and firing ceased at three o'clock in the afternoon. Two or three days later our M.O. - Major Crawford - came and said "Laite, we had you listed as killed". (Before going to bed on the 22nd, I had Dr. Selwyn Clark, who took me along to the hospital, promise to get my report through to Battle Box, and our own Colonel).
(Rance report) Pte Rance of the H.K.V.D.C. who is one of our interpreters tells me that he has been through Wan Nai Chong Gap since the war. The Japanese have erected a large poster telling of the fight and of how half their number attacking Wan Nai Chong died there. The number includes two of their high ranking officers. It also speaks of capturing a high ranking Canadian officer there. The wording must be wrong as the only high ranking officer taken was Lt Col. Reg Walker of the H.K.V.D.C. - wounded. Brigadier Lawson of our own brigade was killed there, as well as Capt Bowman. Men who displayed outstanding ability and courage during the fight at Wan Nai Chong were:
Lt T. Blackwood, L/Cpl Price, Pte Williamson, Pte Morris, who helped Lt. Blackwood, with Lt Col Walker.