He was led like a lamb to the slaughter”- Isaiah 53:7
He rests in God’s beautiful garden, in the sunshine of perfect peace.” Those words are on the tombstone of Private Percy Iles, a 25-year-old soldier from my home province of Manitoba, who lies buried in the Sai Wan War Cemetery in Hong Kong. He died during the Japanese invasion and occupation of the city, which began in December of 1941.
Sai Wan truly is a beautiful garden. It sits high on a quiet scenic hill that slopes gently towards the South China Sea. It is not hard to invoke God’s presence in such a lovely, peaceful place. When I visited it on a balmy morning recently the sun was shining. In the powder blue sky, huge hawks swooped among wispy clouds. Tiny yellow butterflies lit on some of the tombs while friendly gecko lizards flitted over the tops of others. Song birds were chirping in the lush flowering trees.
I walked slowly along the endless rows of stark white granite stones, each representing a soldier who died defending Hong Kong during the Second World War. About a hundred of the 2,000 gravestones mark the final resting places of men from the Winnipeg Grenadiers regiment, my home city. I read the names and inscriptions on each of their markers and realized many were teenagers or in their early 20s, the same age as my own sons. Tears came to my eyes as I thought about the mothers of these boys receiving the news that their children had been killed or captured by the Japanese. In the midst of a cold prairie winter did those grieving women struggle to imagine what it was like in this hot, foreign, far off place where their sons had been sent to die?
Each time I visit Sai Wan I am reminded of the words from Isaiah 53:7, “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter” because that is exactly what happened to the soldiers who died from 1941-1945 during the Japanese invasion and occupation of Hong Kong.
Winston Churchill knew Hong Kong was indefensible against the formidable Japanese military. He decided, however, that holding off the enemy there for as long as possible would show support to China’s Chiang Kai Shek. The Winnipeg Grenadiers had just returned from garrison duty in Jamaica and had no front-line battle experience, yet they were one of the regiments chosen by Prime Minister Mackenzie King to represent Canada in Hong Kong. Along with the Royal Rifles from Quebec City they joined troops from England, India, Scotland, the Netherlands, Singapore and Hong Kong in what was almost sure to be a losing battle. Military equipment which was to accompany the Canadian troops never reached Hong Kong. Intelligence reports about the Asian post which were to have been sent to the Canadian commanding officers somehow ended up in Australia. Unbeknownst to the British, Japanese intelligence officers had infiltrated their ranks in Hong Kong almost a year before and had been gathering information. Thus, Japan was well prepared when they began their assault on Dec. 4 only hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Despite their lack of experience and supplies the Allied soldiers fought heroically, holding the city until the 21st when they telegraphed Prime Minister Churchill and asked permission to surrender. He refused and so they fought on until Christmas Day when the Japanese finally captured the city.
Those soldiers who had survived the battle might have wished themselves dead. The Japanese entered military hospitals, raping nurses, shooting doctors and bayoneting the wounded to death. Prisoners were housed in filthy, cramped quarters described as “the foulest imaginable.” They received little food and no medical care. During the four years of the occupation some captured soldiers were even shipped to Japan to work as slave labourers in factories. The many who died as prisoners are buried along with their comrades in the Sai Wan cemetery.
Visiting Sai Wan and remembering what happened in Hong Kong during the Second World War is for me a moving reminder of the futility of war and the need for people of faith the world over to work for peaceful means of resolving conflict. Many of the Manitoba soldiers who died in Hong Kong were from religious families. This is clear as you read the fallen men’s grave markers. You can see how their loved ones were struggling to make sense of what happened. “We cannot Lord thy purpose see” says the tombstone of Private G.A. Rutherford. Many Manitoba families have inscribed spiritual messages on their sons’ gravestones.
“The Lord is my Shepherd.”
“God takes our loved ones from our homes but never from our hearts.”
“He died fighting for God and right.”
“Redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, ever with the Lord.”
“The Lord watch between me and thee when we are absent from each other.”
Although families obviously gained comfort from their faith as they mourned their sons, so did those who grieved for the men and women from other countries and other religions who died defending Hong Kong.
Sai Wan is a curiously ecumenical place. Soldiers from all the nations who fought in Hong Kong lie there together. Although in life the religious differences of these people might have separated them, in death they share a bond that seems to transcend those differences. From the inscriptions on their gravestones you learn that Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, Jews, Anglicans, Sikhs, Buddhists, Dutch Reform, Greek Orthodox, Methodists and Presbyterians are all buried at the Sai Wan cemetery. The soldiers there continue to draw people of different faiths from many places in the world together as they come to pay their respects
Perhaps in their own way the fallen soldiers of Hong Kong are on a mission of peace that transcends their death. Looking over the sea of tombstones at Sai Wan fills the visitor with a fervent desire to do their utmost to prevent such a tragic loss of human life from being repeated. It also gives one a glimmer of hope for the future. If soldiers from so many different religious backgrounds could unite in a common purpose, perhaps in our present day, people of faith can also rise above their differences to save our world and bring it to a place of peace and understanding.