Hong Kong POW Eddie Cambelton turns 90

© 2007 Gordon Alexander

Posted 09.24.08

RICHMOND, QC | Edward "Eddie" Campbelton never thought he would get to be 90 -- or even much older than 24 -- when he was taken prisoner by the Japanese army in Hong Kong on Christmas Day, 1941.

A corporal in a mortar platoon of the Royal Rifles of Canada, Eddie and his buddies had been fighting for seventeen days when they were overrun by Japanese army units.

Eddie was born in Richmond, Quebec, on September 29, 1918, and started out working as a deliveryman for the Canadian National Railway Express Company. What would eventually be twenty-three years on the job was interrupted in 1939 by World War 2.

He joined the Royal Rifles of Canada and was a junior Non-commissioned Officer in the Pacific campaign until captured by the enemy.

"Eddie was responsible for neutralizing a lot of enemy soldiers with his ability as a mortar bomb launching expert," says Peter Hill, a friend and current commander of the Richmond Legion, Branch 15. Eddie gives a half smile and indicates he would rather not talk about that.

"We were put to work and we never knew what was going to happen to us by our Japanese Guards," he says.

" Out of 1,975 men we lost 500 and the remainder of us became POWs. Only 74 of us prisoners came home after the war was over.

When I went into the army I weighed 135 pounds but I was only 67 pounds when I got out four years later."

He remembers a single scanty meal of rice and sourdough bread a day.

After being overrun by the Japanese he and the other prisoners had to strip their old barracks down to turn those buildings into their own prison facilities.

Prisoners were worked eighteen hours a day rebuilding the Hong Kong Airstrip and then were sent to work in the coalmines. They were housed in wooden shacks along a sea wall.

"We had to work on a daily quota system and couldn't finish work until that quota was met," he says.

"We didn't get mail for three years -- nobody back home knew if we were alive or dead. Some of us thought we would never get back home -- the few of us that did had to keep thinking that somehow we would be OK and get home. It was the only thing that kept us going, although from one day to another you would never know what was going to happen."

"It crossed my mind on numerous occasions that I might not be coming back " he said

Cambelton recalls the day the war ended for them: "We woke up one morning, it was quiet and the guards were all gone. Not a trace of them and we could see food being dropped at the next camp by US Airplanes. We jumped into a truck and drove down to the food depot and had a huge feed of rice. We just knew that the war was over, We all were undernourished and needed months of rehabilitation before going home -- most of us were just skin and bones.

According to recorded accounts of this campaign in the Pacific during World War 2, the Royal Rifles of Canada, Headquarters Company, Platoon 2) and the Winnipeg Grenadiers were involved in the defense of Hong Kong alongside 12,000 other defenders, including naval and air force personnel and many non-combatants.

Records show that these defenders had virtually no navy, air force, heavy artillery, or reinforcements to assist them. Facing them were approximately 60,000 battle-hardened, fully mechanized, fully reinforced, fanatical, tenacious Japanese troops, fresh from battles in China.

Most, if not all, of these Canadian soldiers had no previous battle experience. It was not that they weren't ready and they were prepared. But, when the battle began, it had only been three weeks since they arrived in this totally unfamiliar environment far from home.

As the motto of the Royal Rifles dictates, "Our soldiers were willing and able men and women, surrendering only when told to do so by the Commander-in-Chief."

On Christmas Day, 1941, after fighting for 17 and one-half days, they surrendered. The Japanese colonel who accepted the surrender told the Canadian officers, "I had never known men could fight so hard."

Today at 90, Eddie still walks like a soldier, proud and erect, with a smile at the corner of his mouth and a twinkle in his eye. Sometimes he chooses not to talk too much about his role in the Pacific conflict and those horrible years as a P.O.W. Eddie's siblings have pre-deceased him -- he has no children but has two half-brothers.

"I have known Eddie for over forty years," says Ross Davidson of Richmond. "I knew him back when I worked at the A & P store.

Ross and Eddie walk around town every morning and then head up to Dyson & Armstrong's garage when they have a coffee break in the waiting room as the have been doing for over twenty years.

Eddie does not like to play cards or watch TV but enjoys touring in the countryside to take in the scenery and look for deer.

Eddie and his wife Ruth Alma Gagnon of 59 years, live at the Mackiver apartments here. He is a devout member of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Melbourne where he has the honor of being the official bell ringer. The church will host Eddie’s birthday party this Sunday when all his friends will likely show up to wish him well.

In the Richmond legion is an old black and white photograph of a group of young Richmond area men, including Eddie Campbelton, all Hong Kong vets who were photographed when they retuned home. Today, Eddie is the only one left.

Copyright © 2008 Gordon Alexander/Log Cabin Chronicles/09.08