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My Story – Frank E. Christensen

By Frank E. Christensen (Verbatim)

March 8, 1988

I was born on December 28, 1920, according to my birth certificate (my mother says December 27) in the R.M. of North Cypress in Manitoba. I spent my first three years of life on farms in the Brookdale, Oberon, area of Manitoba, then we moved to the R.M. of McCreary. When I was five, we moved into the village of McCreary and at six I started school there. I went to Rosamond School in McCreary until I was eighteen.

Following school, I worked for a while in the Duck Mountains, building roads into the Blue Lakes. I also did odd jobs, when I could find any, to make a buck. In the meantime the war had started and I was restless. A lot of my friends had joined up, and were coming home on leave with money in their pockets, saying how nice it was to have a steady job.

In September 1940, I hitched a ride into Winnipeg, and on September 19, 1940, I joined the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders. I took my basic training at Fort Osborne, and then I was sent to Barriefield, Ontario, on a signals course. From February 1941 until April or May, I learned Semaphore and Morse code. We were also introduced to some new, two-way radios that weighed about 20 lbs., and took two men to operate; one to carry it on his back, the other to send and receive. On returning to Fort Osborne, I was a qualified signaler. After a two-week leave, which I spent at home in McCreary, we spent the rest of the summer improving our signals skills on various maneuvers.

Toward autumn of 1941 the Winnipeg Grenadiers returned from Jamaica. Their new assignment was to go somewhere in the Far East. They were short of signalers in the battalion; fifteen or so of us QOCH, SSR, and PPCLI signalers from Fort Osborne were assigned to the Winnipeg Grenadiers. We were moved to the Grenadiers on Water Street in Winnipeg in early October, and on October 25, 1941, we left Winnipeg by train for parts unknown. On October 27, we sailed from Vancouver aboard the Australian liner Awatea with a small armed merchant cruiser, Prince Robert, as an escort. We stopped at Honolulu and Manila for very short periods of time and arrived in Hong Kong around the latter part of November. There we disembarked and were paraded to Camp Sham Shui Po in Kowloon.

After two or three days of sorting out and getting established, I found myself, with the rest of the signalers, in No.1 Platoon, Headquarters Company, First Battalion, Winnipeg Grenadiers, Camp Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong.

It was a different world. Instead of company size parades, it was battalion parades. Being in No. 1 Platoon HQ Coy, I was picked a couple of times as right marker for the battalion. For those who do not know what that is, it means that 950 to 1000 men line up to the left of you or behind you, quite a thing for a 20 year old from a small town.

During the next couple of weeks we went on maneuvers a few times, but not often enough to get acquainted with the area. On my time off I went across to Victoria (on the island of Hong Kong) to see the sights. I had my first Singapore Sling and enjoyed a rickshaw ride. I wrote home once or twice to let them know where and how I was, but I don't know if the mail got out.

We went on manoeuver again around the 5th of December 1941, leaving most of our personal belongings in camp. The Japanese started bombing us on December 8, (Dec.7 in Canada). We never did get back to camp.

During the first part of the war I was on a telephone exchange at a place called Pok Fu Lam. The exchange was in a steep gully that was quite safe from artillery fire, but not so safe from aircraft bombing. We got shook up a few times. As the fighting progressed and communications got cut off from various places, the calls became fewer and fewer until we finally abandoned the place. Some Middlessex people, (British military?), picked me up and took me with them down to an open stall marketplace close to Happy Valley race track. We were to guard against any enemy coming up a front street, a back alley, and another front street. Three of us were there for about three days, with no relief and nothing to eat. Finally, on Christmas Eve, the other two were wounded by artillery fire. One was in real bad shape. The less wounded fellow and I carried him back about three blocks to where an English officer and a driver with a 3\4 ton (truck) were. They were taking wounded back to a hospital. On my way back to the market stalls around 9:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve I ran into the wrong end of a machine gun. With the first burst of fire I was shot into the arm which spun me around and made me flop into the gutter beside the sidewalk. The second burst was sprayed right over my back and put two holes into my right foot and about three more in the small pack on my back. What a present to get in your sock on Christmas Eve. I cursed the gas mask on my chest. It kept me from getting any lower. I played possum until just before daybreak when the shelling started again and I heard the machine gunners about two blocks away move out. Then I skedaddled back – using my rifle as a crutch – to where I had left the two wounded the evening before. I waited there for a while until half a dozen wounded were gathered. Then they loaded us into the 3\4 ton and took us up a winding road to Bowen Road Military Hospital. They gave me a shot immediately – for lock jaw they said – and, as I wasn't in much pain, my foot was numb, they cared for the worst cases first. Eventually I was put under and patched up. When I came to again, in a hospital bed with a cast on my foot, I found out that I was a prisoner of war. The Governor of Hong Kong had signed the surrender. Three days later I had my 21st birthday. I can truthfully say that I was never "free, white and twenty-one." I thought I had gone through hell, but during the following months and years I found that I had only entered the gates of it. During my internment I was subjected to starvation, disease, humiliation, slave labor, bed bugs, lice, fleas, lack of adequate clothing, brutal Japanese guards, and various forms of slow torture.

I spent the first four, hungry months at Bowen Road Hospital; then I was moved to Sham Shui Po prison camp in April 1942. There were mostly Brits in this camp at that time, only a few of us Canadians. We were given two thin blankets and slept on and under these on a cement floor in the hut we were assigned to. Three months later I was moved to North Point prison camp, where nearly all the inmates were Canadians. My buddies in the signalers were surprised to see me alive. We had a bit of a reunion and compared notes and anecdotes.

It was from this camp that four Canadians escaped one night during the rainy season. I remember it well. When the Japs found out, we were forced to stand out in the rain for hours, while they counted us time after time. I had a high fever at the time which we thought was either malaria or dengue fever. That standing in the rain didn't help a damn bit, but I got over it. I believe it was in this camp also that I had my first bout of dysentery. If you want to lose weight in a hurry, this is about the fastest, most painful way to do it. I sure don't recommend it for anyone. I was only in this camp for a couple of months; then we were all moved over to Sham Shui Po again, around the 26th of September 1942. There we were introduced to slave labor. The camp had to supply so many men a day to work as white coolies on enlarging Kai Tak Airport. We moved a small mountain by hand to build a new, longer runway so their bigger planes could land. Here we learned the three "B's": boots, bayonets, and rifle butts. If we were moving too slowly, or hadn't filled our quota for the day, we would be subjected to one or the other of the above. It was a miserable existence. During this three or four month period there was also a diphtheria epidemic in camp. Men were dropping like flies. It was hard to fill the quota of men required for the work parties, and some sick ones had to go. Our doctors caught hell from the Japs for not doing enough to keep the men from dying. They got slapped around quite a bit. The Japs checked us out for diphtheria. I found out I was a carrier, but couldn't catch it myself. I was greatly relieved. But I did get beriberi at Sham Shui Po. I was puffed up like a balloon. My bottom lip was touching my chin and my top lip was touching my nose. My eyes were swollen shut so bad that I couldn't see out of them for a week. They had to lead me out for roll call every day, and anywhere else I had to go for that matter. After about a week of this I gradually deflated until I could find my own way around again and I was put back on the work parties again.

Another thing I got was pellagra. My skin became all blotchy. The blotches got scaly and then cracked into open sores. I guess this was caused by the lack of vitamins in our diet. At one point during my imprisonment in Hong Kong I was down to 108 lbs. I was just a bag of walking bones, but grin and bear it, I did.

Around Christmas of '42 a Swedish hospital ship came to Hong Kong. I guess we were all hoping to be on it and out of this mess, but it was not to be. As far as I know only the two Canadian nursing sisters were repatriated on it, no one else – not even the amputees. We were destined for another kind of ship. Around the middle of January '43, the Japs decided they needed a slave labor force in Japan. Anyone who could walk across the road was slated for this draft, including me. I was sure the tropical diseases were not as severe in Japan and the conditions couldn't be any worse there than in Hong Kong. If you are going to hell anyway, you might as well go all the way.

On January 19, 1943, the first draft of Canadian POWs, me among them, was herded onto an old freighter, the Tatuta Maru, and down into the hold. Have you ever heard of the Black Hole of Calcutta? Well, this was the equivalent, if not worse. In the four days that I was on this ship, I managed to get on deck only once for about five minutes. There were no signs of any kind on it indicating that it was transporting POWs. We only had a few buckets serving as latrines and were given only sloppy rice to eat. There wasn't enough floor space for everyone to lie down at the same time, so some sat with their backs against the wall. The only daylight we saw came through a square hole at the top through which the full latrine buckets went up and the mushy rice ones came down.

Around the 22nd of January we disembarked in Nagasaki, Japan, and boarded a train for Yokohama. From there we were marched to a new POW camp in the Kawasaki area, which is between Yokohama and Tokyo. There were 500 enlisted Canadians and Captain Reid, who was our Canadian M.O. I think he was the only Canadian officer to go to Japan, and we were damn lucky to have him. He must have saved the lives of at least half of us at one time or another. We were put to work in the Nippon Kokan Shipyards at various jobs. Four or five others and I worked with a two-wheeled cart delivering oxygen tanks to the various welding areas. It was a monotonous job. Cold in the winter, we had inadequate clothing, and hot in the summer. We worked ten days and then got one day off to do our laundry, get haircuts, kill body lice, and shake the fleas out of our blankets. Among a group of healthy, well-fed men the talk gets around to sex sooner or later, but in all the time I was a POW, I never heard the topic brought up even once. Instead we would talk about all the gourmet dinners we were going to have when we got home. During the four years in prison camps I received three, maybe four, Red Cross parcels (or parts thereof). They helped, but one a month would have saved a lot of men from starvation.

At one time in 3D-camp they put all the diphtheria carriers (there were about 12 of us) in isolation. They partitioned off a bay in one of the huts. We were kept there for about a month or better. There must have been a diphtheria scare or epidemic in the area surrounding the camp. For us it was a respite from work, but the rations were damn poor.

One winter I got what I thought was the flu. I went to see Captain Reed, our medical doctor. He put me right to bed in a bay that was used for the very sick. He said I had a touch of pleurisy. I was hacking and coughing and taking shallow breath. Every time I coughed it felt like I was being stabbed in the chest with a knife. I eventually got over it, but once again I was down to skin and bones. Because several others and I couldn't walk to the shipyard, they put us to work in the camp. They brought in work benches where we sat all day straightening welding rods. This went on for about a month or two, before I and a few of the other worst cases were taken to a hospital camp called Shinagawa, a little north of Tokyo. There we met prisoners from all the camps in the Tokyo/Yokohama area. There were some sad cases. Five or six prisoners were dying every day. The rations weren't any better than at 3D-camp, but there was no work to do. The Red Cross came in and inspected the camp, but they must have been blind. The Japanese said we each had six blankets, but we had been made to fold the three we actually had to make them look like six. Just prior to the inspection we were each given a portion of a Red Cross parcel, which had to be displayed in a conspicuous place. We were not allowed to talk to the inspectors when they came through, so they left with the wool pulled well over their eyes.

I was glad to get back to 3D a month or two later. At least I was among friends and had Captain Reed to watch over me. While I am on the subject of sickness, the last real one I got was the mumps, which put me back into isolation. The guys there kidded me. They said I didn't have the mumps, or even a mump, only half a mump. They didn't go down on me, or swell up both cheeks, just on the one side. Could that be why I am partly deaf in one ear now?

By the spring of 1945 the Americans were bombing the Yokohama/Tokyo area, both heavy stuff and firebombing. I remember one night in March of '45. They firebombed our area all night. We could see these big four motor bombers coming over our camp in wave after wave. I remember one being blown out of the sky. It must have been hit in the bomb bay, because it simply blew up over our heads. The ack-ack was fierce. We saw a couple more planes on fire turning out to the sea. They must have had submarines out there picking up downed crew members. We had a ten foot high, solid bamboo fence around our camp and couldn't see out, but it wasn't hard to see the flames rising high all around us and to hear the screams of the Japanese people outside the fence. When we were taken out to work at the shipyard three days later, the whole area was a desolate waste. Everything that would burn was gone, except the prison camp and the shipyard. We heard later that the shipyard was American owned and would go back to the owners after the war. We had spent the night in a couple of air raid shelters which we had built in the prison camp. The next morning we checked our huts and bunks. There were shrapnel holes in the roof and the odd bunk had a hole through it. The long table between the rows of bunks had a shrapnel hole right where I usually sat to eat my meager meals. I guess I would have had an iron supplement in my rice bowl at breakfast, if I had left it on the table. We sure needed all the vitamins and minerals we could get, but not in big chunks like that.

A few days after this raid a small American fighter plane flew over the prison camp. He was very low and we could see him looking down from the cockpit. He waggled his wings as he went by. We knew then that they knew the prison camp was there. I guess that's why it was missed on the big raid earlier. The Japanese civilians at the shipyards were right mean after that, but it seemed like the heart had gone out of most of them. There were a few fanatics left though, who made life miserable for us.

About the end of March or beginning of April the prisoners in 3D-camp were broken up into groups. I was in a group of about 200 who were shipped north by train to Sendai, a coal mining area. When we entered this camp, we were given the most thorough search I had ever gone through. We had to strip down to nothing and leave our stuff in piles. Then we were moved to the other side of the compound where we were given another pair of pants and a jacket. After the Japs had gone through our piles and had taken whatever they wanted, we were allowed to go back and pick up what was left, except for the clothing. They didn't take the tea which we had been able to get at the black market at the shipyard. The mostly British prisoners at Sendai were pleased about that. They drank our tea till it came out of their ears.

We were freed the day after the war ended, but stayed at Sendai camp for about another week before being taken back to Tokyo by train. I was taken aboard the USS Iowa for a few days before being flown to Guam. I was there for a week to ten days. I also spent a few days in the military hospital in Honolulu, and then three days in San Francisco, before traveling by train to Vancouver. There we received Canadian uniforms and pay. A day or so later I was on a train heading east. I arrived in Brandon, Manitoba, on September 27, 1945.

The world, as I had known it, was no longer there. Everything around me had changed. I couldn't understand it, or adjust to it. But I had to do something with my life. So thirteen months after my discharge from the army and thirteen gratuity cheques later, I went back into Winnipeg and joined the army again, this time as a Royal Canadian Engineer. The military was my security. I could cope with life from within this framework.

When I retired from the army in 1967, I looked back, not only on the suffering and deprivation of the life as a Japanese prisoner of war, but also on several winters spent in Churchill, Manitoba, while attached to the RCASC Arctic Platoon, on a stint fighting in Korea (52-53), and on two years of being stationed in Germany, as well as the regular postings within Canada. In total I served 26 years in the army.

I can truly say, "I have been to Hell and back," but I survived. I married and saw my children grow up, – and I am still able to smell the roses and count my blessings.

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