By Cecilia Nasmith Today`s Northumberland
The beautiful Victoria Park cenotaph in Cobourg saw the 75th anniversary of VJ Day observed Saturday in what was actually a family affair, according to organizer Shelagh Purcell.
Her late father Leonard Corrigan was much in her thoughts as the milestone approached and, unable to find another commemoration being planned, Purcell organized one herself. Her son Mark – vice-president of the Hong Kong Veterans Commemoration Association – was master of ceremonies.
“I wanted a family gathering of people who had relatives in Hong Kong,” Purcell said.
“No speeches. Nothing of that kind. Concentrate on the families.”
With 34 families in the Cobourg-Port Hope area who’d had send loved ones to serve in Hong Kong, according to HKVCS records, “I said it was too many to ignore.”
Mark Purcell’s remarks included a history of how 1,975 Canadians (his grandfather among them) came to be fighting the Japanese in Hong Kong. After the British surrendered to Japan, the Canadians were overrun by 30,000 Japanese soldiers and taken prisoner on a Christmas Day. They would be in prison camps for three years and eight months before the world’s first atomic bombs would at long last bring an end to the Second World War.
US President Harry S Truman agonized over using the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But he knew the Japanese were determined to fight to the death, and progress on that front promised to require too many months and too many Allied lives. Within a week of the bombs dropping, Emperor Hirohito surrendered.
“For people like me, who had a father there it meant his coming home,” Purcell stated.
“The survivors of the prison camps were liberated on that day.”
Purcell was six years old when her father arrived home in Winnipeg on the train. It was the first time she had the chance to see him, and her treasured photo of his picking her up for the first time was shared at the event – accentuating its focus on the families of those who sacrificed so much.
The brutality of their treatment in the Japanese prison camps was legend, Purcell added. Of those soldiers in German prison camps, only 6% died in custody. For Japanese camps, that figure was 25%.
The event marked the survivors forever after. Some would never talk of it again, while some talked of what they had experienced incessantly. Some would find Christmas a wrenching time, as it marked the anniversary of their being taken into custody.
Corrigan came out of the experience with remarkably little bitterness, Purcell reported.
“My father never spoke a word against the Japanese people. He thought they were wonderful. He could tell the difference between the Japanese people, and the Japanese military,” she said.
A gentleman named Tanaka had been his bat boy in the First World War, and Purcell recalls the long car trip they took to visit him in person just so Corrigan could personally tell the man he held no rancour against him.
Only five known Hong Kong veterans remain, she said, one of whom is 103 years of age.
The association’s president sent greetings to the event, as did the president of Probus Canada, and the presidents of the Cobourg and Port Hope Royal Canadian Legion branches attended in person.
Members of several of the families whose loved ones went to war in the Pacific theatre of operations were there, including 11 people from Peterborough. Purcell was also pleased to welcome Lena Quinn, the sister of a Hong Kong veteran.
She is grateful for the help of Mayor John Henderson, who brought in members of the Cobourg Legion (Branch 133) to be part of the ceremony. The colour party and the Cobourg Pipes and Drums – with their closing rendition of the traditional piping song The Battle is O’er – added much to the spirit of the occasion.