This book, the twenty-fourth volume in the laudable New Brunswick Military Heritage publication series–a series written by academics and other scribes–is worth reading. Andy Flanagan’s account of how his grandfather, James Andrew Flanagan, barely survived both Japan’s capture of the British crown colony of Hong Kong in December 1941 and then four hideous years of mistreatment and starvation in Japanese prison camps is unique. Its singularity stems from the daily diary that James Andrew kept during his captivity, a diary that he stored in a locked “iron box” beside his bed until his death in February 1993.
That such a document exists at all is exceedingly unusual. Most records produced by officers and enlisted men during Hong Kong’s doomed defence, both official and personal, were burned when the colony surrendered on Christmas Day in 1941. Some documents were seized by Japanese soldiers; others were irretrievably lost when prisoners died or were transported to dismal work camps in Japan’s home islands. Many starving and ailing prisoners, even if they had an inclination to keep a diary, lacked the energy to do so or access to paper and writing utensils. It is even more surprising that this diary was not destroyed as some Japanese guards knew that James Andrew kept a diary. Sometimes, the guards demanded to read its contents; sometimes they forced him to make changes–removing accounts, for example, of the murder of prisoners of war and local Chinese residents–and sometimes James Andrew understandably censored himself to avoid the severe physical punishment so freely administered to him and other prisoners by cruel and capricious guards.
Using the diary as well as other documents amassed by James Andrew during and after his military career, and drawing on numerous recollections made by his grandfather after the war’s end, Andy Flanagan relates the tragic story of his grandfather and some of the 246 Maritimers that made that fateful voyage to Hong Kong in late 1941. That so many Maritimers were present might surprise some, as the battalions sent to Hong Kong, the Winnipeg Grenadiers, and the Royal Rifles of Canada were supposedly locally raised, the latter unit coming from Quebec City and Quebec’s Eastern Townships. This fact, however, is not surprising to people who have studied C Force’s tragic history; the under-strength battalions so speedily despatched to Hong Kong had to be topped up with men wherever they could be found hastily in Canada’s scattered training facilities. This inefficient process caused [End Page 330] considerable consternation later when a politically charged, and very flawed, royal commission examined why C Force went to, and then was lost, in Hong Kong. That James Andrew survived his ordeal is even more astonishing given the frequent beatings, diseases, and starvation rations that decreased his weight to a skeletal sixty-eight pounds by August 1945. It is particularly poignant to follow James Andrew’s transition from a naive and scrawny recruit who fiddled his weight to make muster, to the confused and bloody melee at Hong Kong, to the long years of torture and privation, and, finally, to freedom that brought with it the bitter travails of ill health and post-traumatic stress. Survival is the only victory here.
The book lists the Maritimers who served in C Force, and it has many interesting photographs, some of them taken by James Andrew on the voyage to Hong Kong. Some of the documents created by him also have been photographed. My quibbles are few. James Andrew’s handwritten account of the battle for Hong Kong is included, but as a small and difficult to read photograph; likely, I will not be the only historian who will regret that its contents were not transcribed and printed as an appendix. And anyone seeking a detailed explanation of why C Force was organized and sent by the Canadian government will have to look elsewhere. Andy Flanagan mentions some...