80th anniversary of the Fall of Hong Kong: A New Brunswick soldier's story

·5 min read
Hong Kong fell to Japanese forces on Christmas Day 1941 after just three weeks of fighting. The 290 Canadian soldiers who died in the battle included Frederick William Pollack of Norton, N.B.  (Jean-Paul Dallain/The Memory Project - image credit)
Hong Kong fell to Japanese forces on Christmas Day 1941 after just three weeks of fighting. The 290 Canadian soldiers who died in the battle included Frederick William Pollack of Norton, N.B. (Jean-Paul Dallain/The Memory Project - image credit)

New Brunswicker Fred Pollock was angry about his new posting in the fall of 1941.

The Norton man had been in the army for a year and the closest he had gotten to going overseas was when the unit was posted in Gander, N.L.

And his latest job, guarding the coast of Saint John Harbour, not far from his hometown, wasn't what he had in mind when he signed up.

But when his unit, the Royal Rifles of Canada, was given tropical gear and boarded a train for the west coast, the 24-year-old Pollock realized he was on his way to the Pacific and the British colony of Hong Kong.

"I was told he was complaining he was being sent to where the action isn't," his nephew Bill Pollock said in an interview from his Edmonton home. "But he learned the reverse was true."

The Pollock family/veterans.gc.ca
The Pollock family/veterans.gc.ca

Thomas and Ethel Pollock had three sons — Lawson, Fred and Clifford — and they had all helped run the family farm.

Clifford and Fred both liked music and would often play guitar at local dances. The brothers also liked to play hockey.

His younger sister Viola described Fred as playful and willing to spend time with her, despite a 13-year age difference.

Lawson, the oldest, joined the RCAF in 1937 as a mechanic.

The other two followed their brother into military service when war broke out.

The youngest, Clifford, enlisted on Sep. 4, 1939, just days after Germany invaded Poland, and nearly a week before Canada would declare war. He joined a medical unit attached to New Brunswick's Carleton and York Regiment .

Fred signed up in October 1940 and was placed with Quebec's Royal Rifles of Canada.

East Coast to the Far East

When Pollock's regiment arrived in Hong Kong on Nov. 16, along with the Winnipeg Grenadiers, the nearly 2,000 Canadian soldiers joined troops from Britain, India, Singapore and Hong Kong.

The addition of the Canadians brought Hong Kong's garrison to about 14,000. Most had no combat experience.

Britain hoped the troops would deter Japan, then at war with China, from attacking the important but vulnerable colony.

They didn't. On Dec. 8, 1941, a day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, almost 30,000 veteran Japanese soldiers invaded the colony.

Library and Archives Canada/PA-166999
Library and Archives Canada/PA-166999

The soldiers positioned to delay the Japanese advance down the peninsula, who were expected to hold out for three weeks, managed barely four days before withdrawing to the island of Hong Kong. A week later, the Japanese invaded the island.

Pollock, in C Company of the Royal Rifles, was involved in heavy fighting over the week as the Japanese pushed onto the island, including a final stand on the high ground of Fort Stanley, but the battle was hopeless.

On Christmas Day 1941, the garrison surrendered.

Missing

In the days after the surrender, Ethel Pollock would write a letter to the military looking for information on her son.

But the army had no answers for her.

The International Red Cross was still gathering details on the 10,000 Allied soldiers taken prisoner by Japan.

The Pollock family/veterans.gc.ca
The Pollock family/veterans.gc.ca

Nearly a full year later, in a letter dated Dec. 5, 1942, Lt.-Col. F.W. Clarke brought bad news.

"The official next-of-kin of all the known prisoners of war have now been officially advised, and I regret very much to see that the name of your son of whom nothing has been heard since the fall of Hong Kong, is not among them," Clarke wrote.

"It was brutal for her," Bill Pollock said.

He said his uncle had suffered from a medical condition as a child, something that puzzled doctors, and the only thing that seemed to help was when Ethel held and rocked him.

"So I think Uncle Fred was kinda special to her," he said.

veterans.gc.ca
veterans.gc.ca

'A cruel war'

"Surely this has been a cruel war for us."

It's one line in one of the many letters Ethel Pollock would write to the military, this one to a Col. Ralston.

But although she did ask about word on Fred's whereabouts, this June 1944 letter was an attempt to retrieve the belongings of her youngest son Clifford.

On Dec. 31, 1943, tragedy had befallen the Pollock family again.

The Pollock family/veterans.gc.ca
The Pollock family/veterans.gc.ca

During the Battle of Ortona, in central Italy, Clifford Pollock ventured into open ground to try to tend to the wounds of a fallen soldier.

He was killed by a sniper's bullet.

"He must of left many things in Eng. when he left there," Ethel wrote, "such as family photos, his skates. … But most of all Col. I want his guitar. He bought it as a boy, took it with him thro' everything, all those years his comfort.

Could you please trace it, and send it to me. … Am sorry to take so much of your time but this is really undermining my health."

A mother's loss

Bill Pollock said he believed Clifford's guitar was eventually returned to the family. He thought it was found in Scotland, where the unit had trained before landing in Italy.

But receiving the instrument did little to ease his grandmother's pain.

On July 17, 1945, nearly 3½ years after the fall of Hong Kong, the military changed Fred Pollock's official status from missing in action to presumed killed in action, and issued a death certificate.

veterans.gc.ca
veterans.gc.ca

It said Pollock died "on or about" Dec. 21, 1941.

The loss of two sons had taken a heavy toll on Ethel.

"Grandmother Pollock died in 1947 (at the age of 54)," Bill Pollock said, "The doctor said it was really of a broken heart."

Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association
Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association

Aftermath

During the fight for Hong Kong, 290 Canadian soldiers died on the battlefield.

Other New Brunswickers with the Royal Rifles of Canada listed as casualties include John McKay of Nash Creek, Morton George Clinton Thompson of Glen Levit, Edgar Doucet of West Bathurst, Valmont Lebel of Campbellton, John Richard Long of Tide Head and Murray Timothy Mahoney of Sussex.

Many are listed on the Sai Wan Memorial in Hong Kong, dedicated to the Commonwealth soldiers who died defending the city.

veterans.gc.ca
veterans.gc.ca

Another 260 would perish in the brutal conditions of the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, enduring starvation, forced labour and torture.

There is now a park and Canadian memorial at the site of the former Sham Shui Po Barracks, which the Japanese used to house prisoners of war.

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