Canada in the Second World War

Events

I Shook Her Hand

Edited by Barry Broadfoot, Six War Years 1939-1945: Memories of Canadians at Home and Abroad, 1973, p. 377-379. 

Canadian and British prisoners of war awaiting liberation by landing party from H.M.C.S. Prince Robert, Hong Kong, 30 August 1945.

Canadian and British prisoners of war awaiting liberation by landing party from H.M.C.S. Prince Robert, Hong Kong, 30 August 1945.
Photo by Jack Hawes. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-114811.

I don’t know if everybody expected us to be only 85 pounds and be wearing rags, but when we came to Canada they treated us like we were in cotton batting. They meant well, and I guess it was right that we should be grateful. Think of it, not everybody had spent one-sixth of their life in a Japanese prison camp. I was twenty when Hong Kong was captured and I was twenty-four when we got home.

Everything was a blur. I mean that. We didn’t eat much but potato soup with some fish in it, but we stole more than our share of rice, and the Americans who first had us looked after us pretty well, so when I got home, I was in pretty fair shape. Except I was very nervous and I would cry sometimes over little things, and I didn’t know what was happening. Canada was a changed place. The people were different, it seemed.

I remember coming home on the train. I don’t know if we were the first Grenadiers to come home but they treated us pretty good and some reporters and photographers got on our coach at Brandon and rode with us to Winnipeg and it was one long string of asking questions and taking pictures and I was afraid. I don’t know why, but I didn’t say anything. Then this photographer came back and he said he’d done something wrong with his camera and he’d like to take another picture and I broke down and started to cry. The photographer looked like a nice guy and it was smoothed over.

Then we got into Winnipeg, the station across from the Fort Carry. I used to play in the old fort in the park there when I was a kid. I’d joined up when I was nineteen. I think there were lots of people in the station. Maybe the mayor, for all I know.

What I should be telling you now, if I can, is that I had a wife too, but I didn’t know what she looked like. I mean I wasn’t sure. The Japs had taken away our wallets and things and when I got mine back, or maybe it was my paybook, her picture was gone. Her name was Mary. We’d had a few dates. I couldn’t afford much. We’d go bowling, five pins, and then have a Denver sandwich, and then I’d walk her to her boarding house and that would be it. Three weeks before I went to Hong Kong we got married, and I was afraid I wouldn’t know what she looked like. I don’t think my brain was working all that well.

I guess I should say that I didn’t really know her. Hadn’t heard from her, you see. We got no mail. A couple of guys did, but the Japs always seemed to lose mine.

I can’t remember much about the station. Maybe there was a ceremony. There were a lot of people moving around and then, just like that, I hear this voice, say, “Hello, Johnny.” I turn around and there she is, and it’s not the girl I thought it would be, because I honestly couldn’t remember. It was all a blur.

You know what I did? I’m not kidding. I shook her hand. Like that, I shook her hand. She was a little thing.

I remember her saying, “C’mon, Johnny, we’re going home. Have you got your bag?” and I had a little bag and I picked it up and walked out. It was October. The sun was shining. I remember that. About eleven in the morning. I could stretch this out and tell you other things, but all I remember is, I was crying and a taxi guy jumps out and opens the door and we get in. I couldn’t remember if I’d been in a taxi in the past four or five years, but if I had I guess it was in Victoria or Vancouver. Wherever we landed. I can’t, I don’t think I can remember.

It was just a short trip, a few blocks. She just held my hand, and I must have just held hers and wiped my eyes with the other, with a hankie, and then we got out at the Garrick Hotel. I don’t know if it is still there, but it was a funny little place. Little but tall, and we got out and she said, “Here’s home for now, Johnny,” and I got out and I remember when we were walking up the first flight of stairs the taxi driver comes charging up and he’s got my bag. I’d left it. There was nothing in it anyway. I had nothing, just army stuff. Not even a gift. When he got to us he held out the bag to Mary and he squeezed my arm, right here where the muscle is, and he said, “Everything’s gonna be fine. You wait and see.” I’ll always remember that guy.

We got to the room, just an ordinary hotel room in an ordinary hotel, you might say. It wasn’t even a good room. A 2-dollar room, I’d say. I did some dumb things, like going to the dusty window and making knots-and-crosses in the dust, playing a game with myself, I asked her how her dad was and she said fine. I think I wasn’t crying any more. Hell, this was 30 years ago. How can I remember everything?

I sat down on the bed and she went to her bag and brought out a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label. Never forget it. She held it up and said, “You’re home, Johnny. Johnny’s home,” and I got up and hugged her. That was the first time. I think, honestly, that that was when she just started to get through to me. That she just wasn’t some little girl who had picked me up in the station.

I said we weren’t altogether right. We looked okay, 150 pounds, new haircut, new uniforms, the medals we’d earned, and I guess I had about 3,000 bucks back pay coming and enough for a start, but we weren’t right. We weren’t right emotionally. We weren’t ready for our wives. Know that?

I poured myself a drink and one for Mary and another and another and in about an hour we had finished the bottle. I mean I had. She had a couple, maybe three. Then I took off my tunic and lay down on the bed and zonk, that was it. Out. Before I went under I saw Mary taking off her blouse and her little skirt and she lay down beside me and she held me.

That was the start of my coming back to the world. I can’t put it any other way. It took a long time and I was terrified a lot, but that was the start and that was it. The start.