Heroes Remember - R.J. Routledge

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As part of a Department of Veteran's Affairs series called "Heroes Remember", Major (Retd) Ronald Routledge recounted his experiences as a member of "C" Force, the Canadian Force sent to defend Hong Kong during the Second World War, and as a Prisoner of War at the hands of the Japanese following the surrender of the British Forces on Boxing Day 1941. Mr. Routledge speaks in a series of 18 short videos[1] prompted by an interviewer. This page features the full transcript of the 18 episodes of his fascinating story.[2]

The Japanese Attack Shamshuipo

The only thing I can remember is we were in the Shamshuipo barracks at the time and I had always been taught by my father that if indeed I ever got into circumstances where there was any bombing or shelling taking place to find the nearest hole, nearest hole, nearest shell hole, that I could find because, "Unlike lightning," as he said, "there won't be another shell land in that hole. So you get into that hole." Which I did, together with one other chap, and prior, prior to doing that, I should say that prior, in making my way to the shell hole, a bomb was dropped and I was hit in the arm and two places in my leg, so I was, I was wounded. Interviewer: Once the initial attack had taken place, were you taken for medical care? Yes, once I was picked up. It was pretty confusing you know because everybody realized they had to get out of the barracks and of course they, some, they brought in some trucks and people started getting up on the trucks and very few people, if any there, knew that this other chap and I were, had been wounded, and so they were sort of saying, "goodbye" and, "you'll be in another truck" sort of thing, you know. But that didn't happen and they all left the Shamshuipo barracks and I wouldn't be altogether sure where they all went at that particular time but certainly it was, or someone realized that we were in trouble in that shell hole and came and got us and took us to the Bowen Road Hospital in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Falls

Well then came the surrender, the orders to surrender. But then, once again, it was interesting that the, that was, or Christmas Day was the official surrender, but at Stanley Peninsula, the commander would not agree to surrender on Christmas Day. So, he didn't surrender until the following day, Boxing Day. And in that time, of course, there was a lot of, of shelling and carrying on. Interviewer: There were more casualties taken? Yes. Interviewer: The next day, Boxing Day, 1941, Stanley Peninsula surrendered? Yes. Interviewer: What do you recall about the surrender itself? Surrender? Well, I recall being, everyone had to, we had to stock pile all our arms in one particular place in a field and wait for orders from the Japanese, and the first orders came, I think it was either the 27th or the 28th, when we all had to get in and march all the way back to North Point Camp in Hong Kong. Interviewer: During the period when the Japanese Army were taking possession of you as POWs and marching you back to North Point, what was your impression of those Japanese soldiers? Well, it wasn't a very good impression, I can tell you, because some, some of the, some of our people couldn't march too well and they were treated rather badly, and we weren't permitted to rest at all. We were marched all the way back and frankly I forget exactly how many miles or kilometres it might have been, but it was quite a long distance, quite a long march all the way back to, to North Point. And along the way, of course, we saw victims dead. And it wasn't a very pleasant trip. Interviewer: Were these the men that were wounded and couldn't keep up, that they were made victims? Again, as I recall, some of them were. But most of them had obviously been killed during battle and they were on the side of the roads.

The Nightmare Begins

Housing, billets that we were assigned to were in filthy condition and well, it was just generally not a good sight. The buildings were in poor repair, very poor repair. There was insects and vermin. There was one quite small hut that was made into a small hospital sort of thing for, we had a couple of doctors there, names I can't remember, I'm sorry. But, it was a very small place and there no medications permitted. It was a pretty meagre diet. Some people had some names for it but it was not only a meagre diet of rice, in particular, but it seemed like there were, there were insects of some type and that sort of thing. A lot of garbage food. Interviewer: Given those circumstances that you've just described, the filth and the vermin in the camp, the crowding, the lack of medical facilities or medications, and the poor diet, what effect did that have on the men? Well, it certainly had a very ill effect on the men and it certainly it was the result, I'm sure, of a, lot of the diseases: pellagra, malaria, electric feet, and that sort of thing. I'm sure it was, it had influenced some of those diseases to come on. Interviewer: Was dysentery one of the first diseases? Yes, I'm sorry. Dysentery was a bad one, too. A very bad one. Interviewer: During your stay at North Point, did you develop any of those diseases? I developed the dysentery, the malaria, and one other. I'm sorry, I've forgotten it. Interviewer: Beriberi? Beriberi, yes. Yes. Interviewer: Did you receive any medical treatment for any of those diseases? The medical treatment, they attempted to give me whatever they could, which was nothing, or you know, the doctors did what they could to try to make one better, but they only had so much they could use too. So, I was fortunately transferred to Bowen Road Hospital again. Interviewer: And what treatment did you receive at Bowen Road Hospital? Excellent treatment at Bowen Road Hospital. Interviewer: What were you sick with to take you to Bowen Road Hospital? It was beriberi, I think it was. I think that's the one. Interviewer: How long did you stay at Bowen Road Hospital? Again, I think I was there about a week or ten days. Interviewer: And when you came back, where did you go? Shamshuipo. Interviewer: So in the mean time, during the time you were at Bowen Road Hospital, the Canadians were moved from their camp at North Point to Shamshuipo? That's correct.

Tough Japanese Guards

They were typically vicious and on guard all the time. There were a number of people on the outside who were very, very sorry for those of us on the inside and, in fact, on occasions, were bringing food, food stuff, to the fence line and passing it through the fence to some of our people on the inside, and some of them were caught and they were decapitated or bayoneted. Interviewer: By the Japanese guards? Yes. Interviewer: Were these typically Chinese people that were trying to help you prisoners? Some of them, yes. But as I recall it, also there were also some Phillipino-type people, but I, I would say yes, typically Chinese people. Interviewer: If this was how the Japanese guards treated the non-prisoners, how did they treat you prisoners? For having accepted sort-of thing? Having accepted, or being caught with the...? Interviewer: Well, I was thinking just generally. How would the Japanese guards treat you POWs? As long as they didn't catch us doing something wrong and it was just a matter of guard duty. That's really all it was. Interviewer: If they caught you doing something wrong or, or you weren't properly respectful to them, what would happen? Oh, you could, you could be beaten and maybe even deprived of a meal or two. But for the most part, it would be a beating. Interviewer: During the time that you were at Shamshuipo, were you beaten? At Shamshuipo? No.

Life At Shamshuipo

I had been appointed as a member of the ration party. In fact, I was appointed to be the second in charge cause I was a sergeant and the officer in charge was a captain, and there were another five or six people on the ration party, but the, the ration party, when, when I speak of it as being a ration party, we had in Shamshuipo, a ration depot, that's what it was, it was a ration depot. And the Japanese used to bring a great many of their stores into the depot and then they were distributed to various places right around Hong Kong, right around the island from this storage depot. You can say that it was a job that was put to have cheap labour or no-pay labour for the, for the prisoners of war. And so that's what we used to do, so at, at the time that I had, had the.... Interviewer: Diphtheria? ...Diphtheria test, I was a member and second in charge of that ration party. Now, you know, I'm, I'm sure that the rations that we, ourselves, in Shamshuipo Camp, came from that storage area or storage building, but I'm sure also that the officer in charge was under supervision as to what would be dealt out to the various kitchens or kitchen, if you will, in the area to be, to take care of the prisoners of war there.

Caught And Tortured

On the 1st of July, 1943, the Red Cross appeared in Shamshuipo and the Japanese were going to show the Red Cross how well we were being treated and so on, so they ordered us to go down and play soccer on the field in front of the Shamshuipo barracks, great, huge field, and I was walking from my billets down to the field when I passed by the ration depot and all of a sudden I looked over and there were about three or four Japanese and one Chinese chap standing there and when I looked over, the Chinese chap pointed at me and the three or four Japanese chaps rushed over behind me with fixed bayonets and told me to go over to the depot where I would be told something. When I got over there, they, they didn't really tell me anything except that they handcuffed me and put me in the back and on the, gave me a little slapping around and a few little points with the bayonet and I was taken from there down to Jund (sp) Armoury Headquarters for questioning. But all this was a result of the truck driver telling them that it was I who was receiving and sending messages to the outside.

The Torture Continued

They wanted to know, they insisted that I tell them not only how much I knew, but who else I was aware of that was in this chain that was doing this passing of messages and so on. And... Interviewer: They wanted you to expose the other people? Yes. Yes. Yeah. But I, I wouldn't expose them but they, well, it was them, not only up to this time was I badly beaten, and, but they exposed me to their infamous water torture in an effort to make me talk Interviewer: What was the water torture? The water torture is where they put you on the floor or on a board not unlike what you see over there and they put a small piece of rag over your mouth and they continually pour water into it until you can't, you think you're going to suffocate. And then they lay off until you've blown as much water out that you can again talk and they keep on asking the same questions over and over and over and want to, want to know who else is involved, and I was fortunate enough to withstand and I never did tell them. So, but this was, kept on for quite some time, as a matter of fact, and, and when they finally let up on, on me, they sent me into a, a little room and low and behold I met the person who I had been passing messages to in the, in Shamshuipo. And I didn't, he, he obviously was caught, caught before me, or at least he was certainly given the treatment before me because he was in bad shape too. And from there, it was days of periodic beatings and the same sort of thing. Torture.

Moved To Stanley Prison

The two of us were next to each, next, or in cells adjoining and two were in the opposite side of the jail house in cells that were next to each other but upstairs, and fortunately, we all knew the Morse Code. So we made a method of talking to each other by means, the one next to me, I would do it on the wall and they had a trap in the door leading into the cell. And the ones across the way, Captain Ford and Flight Lieutenant Gray, I was able to, we were able to make movements, movements with our fingers which sort of indicated dots and dashes which are the Morse Code. Interviewer: Were, in fact, you men discovered by the Japanese communicating in that fashion? Yes we were. Interviewer: What, what happened to you when you were found signalling? Well, we, we were given another beating, as a matter of fact, when we were found signalling and told not to do it again sort of thing. But we wised up to the fact that we had to watch, as long as that little trap door was open, we had to watch very closely to see where the attendants, the prison attendants were before we did any signalling, but we, we kept it up. Interviewer: After that beating that you received when they discovered that you were communicating in that fashion, a few days later, did they take you down to the prison office? Yes. Interviewer: What was the purpose of that? The general purpose was to tell us to behave in accordance with prison requirements or we would be, we'd receive punishment. Interviewer: Were you asked or forced to sign a document? I'm sorry. Again, that's where we were forced to sign a document also and we had no, no idea really what the document contained because it was all in Japanese language, but we were forced to sign the document, yes.

Charges of Espionage - Court Martial Pending

Interviewer: During the Court Marshall itself, do you recall being asked questions by the Japanese officers? No, we were not talked, we were not, we certainly were not spoken to by the Japanese officers. Interviewer: Were statements read about your conduct? Statements were read in Japanese and they were not interpreted until it came to the point where they said we were being charged with an offence of espionage. Interviewer: After you were told that you were to be tried or charged with espionage, what happened then? Well, certainly Colonel Newnham, who was incidentally a very sick man at the time, and Captain Douglas Ford stood up and over their, over the court's objections, they insisted that Hardy and I, or the others involved, were ordered by them, given orders by them, to do what we were doing and that we were not personally responsible for, for the acts that we were accused of. Interviewer: What effect did that, did those statements have on the Japanese officers? Well, at that particular time, it had a, certainly looked, it appeared to look like they had a, a very adverse affect. Interviewer: Was a sentence passed down ultimately on you men? A sentence was passed down ultimately wherein Captain Ford and Colonel Newnham and... Interviewer: Flight Lieutenant Gray? Flight Lieutenant Gray, thank you, were all sentenced to death and the rest of us were sentenced to fifteen years hard labour. Imprisonment. Interviewer: Where did you go after you had been convicted? Back to Stanley Prison. Interviewer: Mr. Routledge, you mentioned to me that at your Court Martial, that there were, that Colonel Newnham, Captain Ford, and Flight Lieutenant Gray had been sentenced to death. Yeah. Interviewer: What happened to them? They were shot and it's, that's one thing I do recall. It was the 18th of December that they were, they were executed.

Hell At Stanley Prison

During the time that we were on these rations, as you said, it was something like about two weeks we were confined to the quarters with these Chinese or in the Chinese section and at that time, or during that time, a Major Charles Boxer of the Lincolnshire Regiment and a Commander Craven with the Royal Navy became imprisoned for having been caught with a radio while they were in their, presiding in their camps. And Charles Boxer not only spoke seven different languages, but spoke Japanese very, very fluently, and with the Japanese and speaking it to the Japanese, he never really stopped being a Major, a senior officer, and they began to pay attention to him. So he had us, fortunately, transferred from the Chinese area to the Japanese, where the Japanese prisoners were interned, and the food improved a lot. Interviewer: During that period of time, were you and the other men still suffering from diseases? Not at that particular time. Not that it was noted at that particular time, but after we were transferred over to the Japanese, the Japanese side of the prison, the, Sergeant Hardy took very ill and at that particular time also, there happened to be a, a Dr. Solomon Clark who was imprisoned, and, for what, I don't recall what the reasons were that he was imprisoned but some of the better Japanese guards and so on allowed Dr. Solomon Clark to see us periodically and certainly when Sergeant Hardy took sick, they allowed Dr. Solomon Clark to, to see him quite frequently. And even with Dr. Solomon Clark's coaxing, they allowed me to go into and join Hardy in his cell to help to feed him and look after him sort of thing, which I did, and fortunately, he, he recovered.

Canton Prison – Worse

Deplorable. Deplorable. Now Stanley Prison wasn't a very great place admittedly, but Canton, it was just strictly deplorable. Both the accommodations, the cells, and the conditions generally, and the food. It was just absolutely deplorable. Interviewer: Were you confined in your cell or were you allowed to work? We were confined to the cell, we had no work to do, we were permitted to go out maybe once or, every two or three days to wash out of a basin that they provided us with, but that was, that was it. We did not work, no. We had to sit and face the wall entirely all day long. Interviewer: During this period of time, did you receive any medication for the various diseases that you men were.... No. Interviewer: What do you remember about the Japanese guards that were there at Canton Prison? They were extremely cruel also. Again, they had quite a number of Chinese prisons, prisoners and they certainly, I shouldn't say treated, mistreated the, the Chinese, but they gave us the same sort of treatment, in fact, for a year. If we were caught doing something that they thought we shouldn't be doing or standing up instead of sitting or sitting down with our knees crossed or, you know. But no, they were, they were pretty cruel.

Little Food Results in Rapid, Large Weight Loss

Interviewer: During the time that you were in Canton Prison, did you receive any Red Cross parcels? No. Interviewer: Did you receive any mail from Canada? No. Interviewer: Do you recall, with the diet that you were receiving and the conditions that you were living under, do you recall how much you weighed during that period of time? Well, I went down to a hundred pounds, you know, I was maybe a hundred and eighty odd pounds when I was, was my normal weight, but I was down to about a hundred pounds. Interviewer: At Canton Prison? Yeah. Interviewer: You stayed at Canton Prison until the end of the war? Yes.

It’s Finally Over!

Before a few days that we were informed, we had gotten very accustomed to the, to distinguishing between the sound of a Japanese aircraft and an American aircraft, and we couldn't believe it when we heard so many what we thought anyway, and turned out to be correct, American aircraft flying over, but they were not dropping shells or doing any bombing at all, but they were coming over quite low. And we later learned on, or learned that the Americans had dropped a note or notes over, right over the prison, addressed to the commander, commandant of the prison instructing them to release us. But I'll never forget when we were taken before the camp commandant and we were told that, by him, that the, his Gracious Majesty, the Emperor of Japan, had graciously granted the Allies a truce and if the terms of the truce were successful, we may be released. Interviewer: What did you think when you heard that? Did you believe it? I think, in the matter in which it was said to us by the commandant, we, we believed it. We weren't altogether, you know, we weren't satisfied that there weren't some junior people, junior to him, might not try to get us before we were freed, but we did. We made it alright.

The Return To Allied Care

About four days after this announcement was made to us by the Commandant, Prison Commandant, we were taken and put on a train and taken back to Hong Kong. And we were hospitalized in Hong Kong, as a matter of fact, for, for quite a while. Interviewer: When you came back to Hong Kong, did you, were you then in the custody of Allied servicemen? Yes, we were. We were turned over by the Japanese to, very formally, by the Japanese to the British Army, well, British Officer in charge. Interviewer: When that happened, were you then convinced that you were going to survive after all? I think so, yes. Yes. Interviewer: What was your reaction when you finally went out of Japanese custody into Allied custody? Do you remember your feelings? It was, it was very difficult, quite, very difficult to realize the drastic difference, again, and coming back to, to life. Very, very different and it was a real pleasure. Interviewer: Tell me, Mr. Routledge, if the war had have lasted another winter, could you have survived at Canton Prison? Well, that's very difficult for me to answer that question, honestly. I think it would have been a struggle, a real struggle. But I, to be absolutely honest and for, well, I can't say surely. Interviewer: At the, after you were returned to the Allied side, word of your exploits and your deeds became known to the authorities and in fact, you were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for your efforts. That's correct. Interviewer: And the Distinguished Conduct Medal is for conspicuous gallantry in the face of the enemy and is the second highest award for gallantry in the British empire. So I'm told.

Reunion With The Family

I was hospitalized in Hong Kong for about three weeks, and then, I was put on a, a hospital ship and went to a hospital again in Manila, where I was, stayed for roughly another two weeks until I was sent back from Manila to, back to, well we, it was on a, an American warship called the General Howes. I was sent back on that ship via California back to Vancouver. Back to Victoria, actually. Interviewer: What do you remember about returning to Canada? That I breathed a sigh of relief again. Interviewer: How soon was it before you got back to Saskatchewan? Um, well, as I recall it again correctly, I was back in Saskatchewan in something around about October of the, of 1945. Yeah, about October, 1945. Interviewer: What was the reaction of your mother and father? Oh boy! They were just so, well, they thought it was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to them. Interviewer: How did you feel about it? I felt pretty much the same way.

Dealing With The Experience

I made up my mind, even when I was laying in the hospital bed, that I was going to try and put these things behind me as quickly as possible. And so opportunities came along to either leave the service or go back to school or, or both, and I just decided that I was going to concentrate on forgetting what I had gone through and get on with what there was left in life. So I did, I decided to stay in the service because there were opportunities there, and even during the time that I was there, I was given opportunities to go back to school, different schools, which I did. And I just dwelled on putting things behind and I think I was able to do so. Interviewer: An interview like this, would you have done an interview like this before, earlier in your life? I, that's a very difficult question for me to answer to be quite honest, Neil. I am not sure that I like doing the interview even now because it takes me back, and, but anyway, I'm, I am very grateful to everyone, my, my offspring and my relatives, sisters and so on. They certainly wanted me to do this and talk to you, but. Interviewer: Is it important to you that Canadians understand what you men went through? Well, yes indeed it is. And of course, the more I talk to other people who thought that I should certainly do it reminded me, in fact, that it is important, there's no question about it.

His Thoughts About The People Of Japan

To be quite honest with you, I have no ill feelings with the Japanese now at all. Let's face it, Neil, they, at that particular time and that particular period, they, it was a militarily operated and governed country, and they, you know, they, that was, that was it. It was just military, military, military and their own people, I think, in, in some cases, I think their own people didn't like what they were being instructed and governed to do. Even in, whilst in Stanley Prison particularly, we had a couple of the guards, one of whom was the executioner, they were doing guard duty, but by golly, they were very good, they treated us well. They really treated us well. They'd go, or they'd allow us to stand up and do a little exercising, which we shouldn't have been doing at the time, we should have been facing the wall, they would throw us in the odd cigarette. Very, very good people. And so I, no, I have absolutely nothing against the Japanese people at all at this stage. Interviewer: Those individual Japanese guards that would help, help you men, what would happen to them if they were discovered doing that? They would get the kind of treatment, as a matter of fact, that they had to give us. That, that's what they'd get.

His Thoughts About The Government of Canada That Sent Them

The Canadian Government, with the kind of advice that they were getting at that particular time, and in spite of the fact that they were initially asked by Britain, Churchill, to provide some assistance to go over there, I think they, well, once again, it's revealed that Churchill changed his mind but was never able to change Mackenzie King's mind at that particular time. But it was an error in sending troops or allowing troops to go to Hong Kong, particularly the kind of troops we had available at that time, with all due respect to them, every one of them, ill trained, ill equipped, and you know, you, you hear individuals, even individuals who were in Hong Kong blaming officers and so on and so forth for some of the situations that they were, they were in. But it, it was nothing more than a big mistake sending people, ill trained and as untrained as they were at that particular time, for the possibility that war would, was likely.

References and Footnotes

  1. Veterans Affairs Canada - Heroes Remember Series - R.J. Routledge
  2. Used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with VAC terms of use.