Canadian soldier's watch found on WW II battlefield, finally coming home to family

For years, the last surviving memento of rifleman Ray Donald Jackson's life lay in the dirt in Stanley, Hong Kong, where he died.

His family didn't even have a photo to remember him by. He was just a memory — a man who died serving with the Royal Rifles of Canada in the bloody Battle of Hong Kong in December 1941.

But now, thanks to the kindness of strangers with a keen interest in military history, that's about to change.

A military history group in Hong Kong discovered Jackson's wristwatch in the hillside of Stone Hill in March, and now, it's heading to his surviving next of kin as a testament to Jackson's life and service to his country.

"I'm absolutely floored. I can't tell you how thrilled I am to get this piece of history," said Jackson's great nephew, Stephen Burgess.

"After 76 years of lying in the ground … it defies all odds, really."

It all began on March 27, when the military history group was roaming the area, searching for lost things. They're a crew of amateur historians that look for moments in history like bullet shells and watering canteens — reminders of a bygone time when war raged across Stanley.

They collect artifacts of the Battle of Hong Kong, one of the first battles in the Pacific in the Second World War. It happened on the same morning as the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attacked Hong Kong, which was still a British Crown colony at the time.

Search is on

Over 1,000 allied soldiers died in battle there — Jackson among them. His body lies at Sai Wan Military Cemetery in China. Many others were wounded or captured before an eventual surrender to the Japanese.

Dave Willott was the member of the military metal group who found the watch. When he cleaned it, he found the Jackson's name and rank etched on the back: Pte. Ray D. Jackson B68205.

Online searches brought the group to the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association in Canada. Within 24 hours, they had tracked down Burgess — who of course, is a military history buff. He's one of Jackson's closest living relatives. The soldier died at 21, and didn't have children.

On Saturday, Burgess will be presented with the watch at a ceremony at the Royal Canadian Legion on Spring Street in St. Catharines, Ont., and he's overjoyed that it's coming back to him.

"Anything to do with war and the service Canada had… it's very important that this stuff be preserved and cherished," he said.

'It astounds me'

A member of the group that found the watch even made a wooden box to house it, with the emblem of the Royal Rifles of Canada engraved on the lid.

Right now, the watch resides with Lori Atkinson Smith, who is a member of the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association in Canada.

Though she says she can't wait to meet Burgess and give him his great uncle's watch, she's treasuring her time with it now, all the same.

"It's a peaceful feeling, when I hold it, strange as that might sound. It just calms me," she said. "And it astounds me that they were able to find it and we can present it to his next of kin."

adam.carter@cbc.ca