Most people have a particular Christmas story they enjoy revisiting every year. My favorite story, however, isn’t about Santa Claus, a magical snowman or flying reindeer. Mine is a World War II story of a Canadian soldier who was captured Christmas Day 1941 while stationed in China and wound up a Japanese Prisoner-of-War for four years.
This true story belongs to my grandfather, which he hand wrote and titled, “Christmas Memories.”
It is impossible to share the entire story in one column, but I’m going to give my best condensed version.
My grandfather on my father’s side, Francis Denis Ford Martyn, who simply went by Ford, was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and enlisted in the Winnipeg Grenadiers in early September 1939, the day after England declared war on Germany for invading Poland.
After he finished his basic military training in 1940, the Grenadiers were sent to Jamaica to relieve regular English Army troops so they could defend their home islands against Germany.
As there was no real threat toward Jamaica, Ford and the other soldiers primarily spent their time basking in the Caribbean warmth and sunshine.
My grandfather had excellent penmanship and was made the Company Mail Clerk, which allowed him ample time to do as he pleased, which was usually spending time with his friends at a nearby bar.
By November 1941, the British finally determined Germany had no interest in invading Jamaica and decided to send them to Hong Kong, China.
When leaving Jamaica, the soldiers boarded ship heading for Canada and the ammunition was sent on another ship to England. They were told their supplies would be sent to them later. Stationed alongside the Gurkha soldiers from India, these tanned, unarmed Canadian soldiers hadn’t been in China long when Japan attacked Hong Kong on Dec. 8, 1941, which was actually the same time as the Pearl Harbor attack because of the International Date Line.
In the midst of panic, Ford had actually been shot in the leg, which he didn’t notice until a fellow soldier pointed it out. He pulled the bullet sticking halfway into his leg muscle and continued.
Still without any ammunition, there were firefights where my grandfather and his fellow soldiers could only hide during the onslaught, including one time in a Chinese cemetery where they dove behind tombstones for protection.
The Grenadier and Gurkha soldiers retreated to Kowloon Island for 17 days until Japanese soldiers overwhelmed them Christmas Day 1941.
In his “Christmas Memories,” story, he called it, “the worst day of my life!!”
The first year of his horrible four-year, prisoner-of-war experience was spent was spent in a Chinese prison.
These poor, trapped soldiers were then transported inside an oil tanker to Japan in conditions that can only be described as “Hell.”
It’s something my grandfather never spoke to anyone about for the rest of his life. Most of the oil was pumped out but much still remained inside. Thousands of men were forced into the tanks and the hatches were locked. They were left inside the pitch black tank without food, water or fresh air for several days. Many men died before their arrival.
When they weren’t digging inside a coal mine, the soldiers were often beaten and given starvation rations of what consisted mostly of a small cup of rice gruel and a glass of water.
He had been beaten repeatedly for bowing too low, bowing too high, moving too slow, moving too fast, smiling or not smiling. One blow from a rifle butt to his face knocked out nearly all his teeth. In his time there, he suffered multiple bouts of dysentery, malaria and beri-beri. He witnessed most of his fellow soldiers die from either the same diseases, starvation, overwork, or too many beatings.
The Japanese soldiers, he said, would use the soldiers for bayonet practice as other POWs were forced to stand at attention and watch. The game-goal was to keep the victim alive and conscious as long as possible and the guard who killed the soldier would buy a round a sake for the others.
After exactly four, long, torturous years, the Grenadiers were rescued from the prison camp on Christmas Day 1945. By then, Ford went from weighing 200 pounds to 98 pounds.
The soldiers were taken to a U.S. Army hospital in Guam, where many continued to die, and the rest were gradually reintroduced to real food. My grandfather was sent by stretcher to a military hospital in Winnipeg and was consistently in and out of the hospital for a year. By Christmas 1946, he was given permission to go home for the holiday.
As any good mother does, she cooked all of his favorite meals she could remember him liking: rump roast of beef, porterhouse steaks, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, peas, hot mincemeat pie, apple pie, chocolate cake, and much more.
As he sat and had a plate prepared for him, his memoir states, “I thought again of the seven long years since I was last at home and what I had been missing. When Dad finally placed my loaded plate in front of me, I’m sure it could have fed all of us a meal in the prisoner-of-war camp.”
After the blessing was said, he stopped eating almost as soon as he started.
“I think it was three forkfuls I ate when I pushed back from the table and said, I can’t Mom — and I cried like a baby!! ‘Christmas memories.’ I’ve had the worst Christmas that anyone could have; and, I believe the happiest Christmas ever in my life. Christmas memories. The very worst and the very best. GOD BLESS.”
There is far more to this amazing story of someone who I am very proud to call my grandfather. I hope it was able to touch your heart in some way. Merry Christmas.
Catherine Kirk is managing editor of the Delta Democrat-Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.