Why I Wear a Poppy

We’re going to go back in time a bit, just to last Remembrance Day for my post today, I want to tell you why I wear a poppy, but to do that, we have to go back a bit further…

During World War 2 Japan’s military entered into war with China, Vietnam, the Phillipines and pretty much every one in the Asia Pacific part of the world. Western forces were seen as a perceived threat to Japanese plans so they attacked Pearl Habour on December 7, 1941, hoping to scare America into remaining neutral in the Pacific.

2000 American soldiers died that day, but that’s not why I wear a poppy.

The war in the pacific was brutal by any standards with tens of thousands of deaths from many nations just in combat. Many more were injured or captured by enemy forces. 140,000 Canadians were captured by Japanese forces and kept as prisoners of war for several years.

Eventually, British, Canadian, and American forces pushed Japan’s forces back far enough allowing for American bombers to drop two nuclear bombs (Fat Man and Little Boy) on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over 380,000 Japanese and forcing Japan’s complete surrender.

But that’s not why I wear a poppy.

Japan’s war prisoners were essentially disposable slaves. They were forced to work in dangerous mines and factories, with little food or water. Executions and torture were a daily occurrence intended to dissuade escape attempts.

Their POW camps had a standing order that should Japan be invaded that all POW’s were to be immediately executed. The end to the conflict came so fast, with the devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that only two camps were able to do this, killing 5,000 Americans, before American and Canadian forces were able to gain control of Japan’s military and POW camps.

Almost a quarter of all POW’s died before the war was over.

But that’s not why I wear a poppy.

October 1941 the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada embarked for Hong Kong to shore up defences against the Japanese. Of the 1900 Canadian soldiers sent to Hong Kong half of them were either killed or wounded in the Battle of Hong Kong with the remainder being captured by the Japanese. The battle of Hong Kong  (sometimes called the Fall of Hong Kong) had the highest death toll for Canadians of any battle fought in World War 2.

Gilbert Robertson was a young man, a farm hand from Northern Manitoba, near Mafeking. In 1939 he voluntarily enlisted in the war at the age of 17. He became a soldier in the Winnipeg Grenediers expecting to fight the threat in Europe they weren’t shipped in that direction. This unit’s first overseas post was Jamaica, a guard duty, meaning that as a unit, and most of the individuals that made up the unit, had never seen combat. They were there for a few months before being shipped to Hong Kong in October of 1941 along with the Royal Rifles of Canada.

The Battle of Hong Kong began December 7, 1941, the same day as the attack on  Pearl Harbour and the Japanese quickly destroyed the airplanes and the lone naval ship the allies had in Hong Kong, and then started to invade overland, and not by sea, as the general in charge predicted. The Grenadiers, perhaps due to the short stint in Jamaica were positioned to guard the beach, by the commanding general.

With the attack on Pearl Harbour and the sinking of other British vessels in the area that day there was literally no help available to them.

In complete contrast to their raw status, the Winnipeg Grenadiers were active in every engagement with the enemy over the next 17 days. However, the Japanese had an overwhelming number of fresh, combat hardened soldiers, air bombing and naval support, while the Allied forces were tired, hungry and running out of munitions. Eventually they were surrounded and captured by the Japanese.

Gilbert survived the battle and was taken prisoner along with 1054 other Canadians and shipped to a POW camp in Northern Japan.

Gilbert starved to death in the POW camp and died on November 29, 1943. The other survivors were set free two years later.

Private Gilbert Robertson was my grandfather’s younger brother. My great uncle who died thirty years before I was even born. A small river in Northern Manitoba is named after him.

Private Gilbert Robertson

Skip ahead to the year 3 BC, that’s Before Children, to all the non-parents reading this, my wife and I hosted some wonderful Japanese students in our home for several years. Hiro Aizawa lives in Sendai, in Northern Japan. You may have heard of Sendai, or even seen pictures of it, after the tidal wave hit it after the Tohoku earthquake, Sendai was particularly hard hit, devastated really, a disaster the likes we’ve never seen in Canada.Over 18,500 people died that day and for weeks I was unable to contact my friend due to no electricity, no phone lines and jammed phone lines. Eventually I reached him, his family was safe, and were awaiting news if they had to evacuate due to the nuclear plant crisis.

There are many reasons I need to go to Japan one day and see my friend, the main one now is that he is still alive to be seen and that Sendai is relatively close to Yokohama War Cemetery where Gilbert, and many other Canadians, are buried.

Another gentleman I know, Uwe Betzing, grew up in Germany, he works down the street from the University I attend, at the IG building. He’s the godfather of my daughter and earns the title of friend often. Nothing dramatic has brought us together – only the bonds of friendship and shared experience.

I really don’t know what Gilbert would think of the company I keep now-a-day’s. I’ll never know what kind of man he was. So when I put on a poppy it’s not in remembrance of him, that would seem hollow as I’ve only ever seen one photo of Gilbert, the one above.

Our one time enemies are now our friends and family, and in entirety of the history of war, that’s about as good as a result that has ever occurred. So when I wear a poppy – to Gilbert and to the 45,000 other Canadian soldiers who died in that war – it’s not in remembrance, it’s simply to say thank you.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Amy L says:

    What a wonderful story, thank you for the recount of history and very true reminder that we now have the privilege of global friendships, not to be taken for granted. Keep up the great writing Rod!

    1. RodSalm says:

      Thanks Amy, I appreciate your comment. Global community. Good words.

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