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Funeral Customs

We had been discussing Orville McKillop, Portage la Prairian who lived at 166 Dufferin Avenue, of the Winnipeg Grenadiers and their defence of Hong Kong as the Japanese attacked. Through this melancholy drama the Canadians stumbled, it seems, in tragic bewilderment. They fought for the most part in platoons and companies, often alone and out of touch with higher command. All too often they did not know where they were. Their own motor transport never did arrive -- it was caught in Manilla by the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbour – and they were baffled like all strangers by the jumbled mass of mountains on the Island, with gullies, gaps and valleys running this way and that in endless complexity, making it difficult to know which way you were facing, which bay was that glistening at the end of the road or whether the hills they saw in the distance were in fact the Island at all. Sometimes they fought magnificently, sometimes not well at all. The Winnipeg Grenadiers defence of the Wong Nei Chong Gap was one of the glories of that action. Today if you wander over that Gap closing your ears to the thunder of the traffic, ignoring the luxurious new condo highrises and the cheerful clunk of tennis balls, you may sense it as it was December 1941. When the road was a country lane and was strewn with barbed wire, debris, burned out vehicles and Canadians. Towards the end , the Japanese were close enough to lob grenades directly into the Canadian positions. Imperturbable to the end, Company Sergeant Major J.A.R. Osborne of the Winnipeg Grenadiers was picking them up before they had time to explode and throwing them back again! Because he was exhausted, Osborne spotted, too late, one about to explode on the ground amongst his men and he chose the only protection available and threw himself on it and was killed. Later Osborne was posthumously awarded the only Victoria Cross of the Hong Kong campaign. “I say he was a real soldier” touchingly declared one of his men, “and of the best I have ever known.”

The last shots were fired in the small hours of December 26th. and a sad peace fell over the Island. As in war, few had time to dwell on defeat at Hong Kong before the more calamitous fall of Singapore filled the press.

Most of the Canadians were interned at Sham Shui Po where they soldiered on sicker by the day, starving, tortured for four years. Many were shipped to Japan to work in the coal mines. Many, among them Lt. Orville McKillop of Portage la Prairie never made it out of the internment camp, where it was said McKillop had gasoline soaked bamboo sticks shoved under his fingernails.

There was probably no campaign that seemed to possess more of a sacrificial quality than this brief sad exploit of the Canadians in Hong Kong.

After the war, the bodies of most of the soldiers who died were buried in a cemetery at Sai Wan near the eastern end of the Island. Overlooked by hillside cemeteries of the Chinese, it obeys their ancient laws of balance and placement, feng shui, in it’s exquisite setting on a slope above the sea. Magnolias bloom all about it. Elegant long-tailed magpies perch in it’s trees. The Canadians are at the foot of the cemetery on a small plateau and their graves are clustered around a tall granite cross.

Who was Orville McKillop and what did he really feel as he breathed his last on those brown hills? Perhaps he felt a great sense of waste.

The defense of Singapore offered some hope of success; the defense of Stalingrad offered the probability of it; but the defense of Hong Kong was really nothing but a gesture. “Face”, that allegedly oriental abstract so familiar to the British Imperialist, demanded a show of defiance in the Pearl of the Orient!

“Everyday that you are able to maintain your resistance,” signaled Churchill, “you all help the Allied cause all over the world and by a prolonged resistance can win lasting honor which we are sure will be your due.”

It was all nonsense of course, a few days this way or that made not the slightest difference to the Allied cause. But that is exactly why it is important that each year Portage La Prairians remember the tragedy for Orville McKillop and many other Portagers who simply disappeared from our streets, by remembering and saluting them for the heroes they are.

Sometimes when you are downtown with your kids, walk to the cenotaph and read aloud a few of the names that are chiseled there. The guys and gals would appreciate it. You will also be educating your dear children on the values of democracy and how seriously we defend it. That democracy is under peril right here in Portage la Prairie. I would hate to think we could raise a generation oblivious to the dangers of creeping Fascism.

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Photo is Sai Wan War Cemetery, where Orville McKillop is buried, taken in 2016 by Bjorn Christian Torrissen.


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