by Colonel Ret. Chris Weicker
This article is part of the Canadian Military History Colloquium Web Series, created to provide an online space for papers which otherwise would have been presented at the 31st Canadian Military History Colloquium, if not for this year’s cancellation due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Colonel Chris Weicker is from Victoria, British Columbia. He completed over 36 years in the Canadian Armed Forces as a Signal Officer. His overseas tours include Germany (1985-89), Bosnia (2001) and China (2006-2009). On retirement in 2013, he completed a Bachelor of Arts in Pacific and Asian Studies with a focus on Chinese language, history, geography and culture at the University of Victoria. He is currently a graduate student in the University of Victoria’s History Department. The topic of his research is on the history of the Chinese Canadians during World War Two and, especially, volunteering for special operations in the Pacific theatre of war at the end of the conflict.
The contribution of Chinese Canadians to the Second World War is relatively unknown and unrecorded in the official histories of the Canadian military.[i] The aim of this paper is to describe the Chinese Canadian’s contribution to the Allied military effort as it pertains to the conflict in the Pacific from 1944-1946. Canada’s secret contribution was to British and Australian clandestine organizations. They were Canada’s Chinese secret warriors in the Pacific.
Chinese Canadians faced institutional and everyday racism in Canada since their arrival in Canada in the late 1800s. Chinese Canadians were barred from becoming professionals in Canadian society and denied the right to vote.[ii] The majority of Chinese Canadians were living in British Columbia where they faced racism from mainly white Canadians. When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, due to pressure from the British Columbian government, Chinese Canadians, along with other Asian minorities, were not included in the callout of Canadians to the military.[iii] Despite not being called out for military service, Chinese Canadians volunteered to join Canadian Army units, which had no restrictions on their enrollment, unless the unit commanding officer prohibited it. Chinese Canadians were unable to volunteer to join the Royal Canadian Air Force or the Royal Canadian Navy. These restrictions were slowly lifted. The RCAF lifted their restrictions on March 31, 1942 and the RCN in May 15, 1943.[iv] Over 600 Chinese Canadians served in the Canadian military during World War II, both in Canada and overseas. Approximately 490 Chinese Canadians joined the Canadian Army. About 115 served with the RCAF and around 8 served with the RCN. Of the 490 Chinese Canadians serving in the Canadian Army, 134 were recruited for “special duties” with the clandestine British organization, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) for operations in Southeast Asia.[v]
The SOE was formed in 1940 after the defeat of the British Army in France. The organization had three main functions: political subversion and propaganda, sabotage, and the organization of resistance forces behind enemy lines. The SOE organization in India, known as Force 136, was formed in July 1941 and headquartered in Meerut, northeast of Delhi. On December 16, 1944 it moved to Kandy, Ceylon. Training centers were established at the Eastern Warfare School in Poona, the Advanced Operations School in Trincomalee, in Ceylon, and the Political Warfare Executive School in Alam Bazaar near Calcutta.[vi] The SOE assisted the Australians in forming a similar organization known as Special Operations Australia (SOA) or Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD). It is also sometimes referred to as Z Force or Force 137. Both Force 136 and the SOA recognized the need for non-white operatives who spoke English and a local language to operate behind Japanese lines. Due to the large amount of Chinese in the region, SOE turned to Canada to provide Chinese who could speak both Cantonese and English.[vii]
The first use of Chinese Canadians in the Pacific was for Operation Oblivion. Its aim was to infiltrate the Chinese mainland around Hong Kong and work with anti-Japanese forces in conducting clandestine operations against the Japanese. The SOE sent Major Mike Kendall, a Canadian who had lived in Hong Kong and whose wife was Chinese-American, to recruit Chinese Canadians for the operation. With the assistance of the Canadian military and RCMP, he was able to start recruiting Chinese Canadians. By May 1944 he had recruited Roger Cheng, the first Chinese Canadian officer in the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, and thirteen soldiers on training in the Canadian Army for the operation.[viii]
Major Kendall selected an isolated location on Lake Okanagan, BC to establish a training camp. The training was done under the command of Major Hugh Legg and lasted from June to August 1944.[ix] It consisted of weapons handling, field work, demolitions, medical, and wireless training. The training routine demanded excellent physical strength. Every morning the men would rise early and plunge in the cold lake for a swim. Swimming was not a skill they all possessed as Chinese were restricted from using public swimming pools in Canada. The steep slope behind the camp was used for physical training, along with the use of logs for strength training. The men were trained in the use of various small arms, such as pistols, rifles, shotguns, submachine guns. Later, in Australia they were trained in the use of captured Japanese weapons. In addition, the men were trained in demolitions of all kinds and medical training. These skills were of great importance during their operation.[x]
Captain Cheng and Sergeants Norman Low, Raymond Lowe, and James Shiu took wireless training. Sergeant Roy Chan also took wireless training in his spare time. The students were taught wireless operation and maintenance and Morse Code. Wireless skills were practiced daily with a wireless station at Pacific Command HQ in Vancouver and during training schemes. Towards the end of their three months of training the men practiced their skills on training schemes held in the local area and around BC. By early September 1944, the men had completed the training at the secret camp. Captain Cheng and Sergeants Low, Lowe, and Shiu traveled by plane to Meerut India for a month-long wireless course. The rest of the group closed up the camp and in early October traveled by ship to Australia. Here more advanced training in Japanese weapons and tactics and boat handling were taught in Melbourne and at the Commando School on Fraser Island, Queensland.[xi]
By December 1944, the group was ready to be deployed by submarine to the area around Hong Kong. It was at that point that military politics became an issue. The Americans were now responsible for Allied operations in China. They objected to Operation Oblivion as it involved working with Chinese communist guerrillas. As a result, the operation was cancelled on January 26, 1944. Immediately the SOE started to look at trying to revive the operation. In the meantime, some of the Operation Oblivion crew completed parachute training in Australia in anticipation of them being deployed in another location. Finally, on June 7, 1945, Force 136 decided to reassign some of the operatives to SOA for their use, while the remainder who had failed parachute training were placed under command of the Canadian Military Attaché and repatriated back to Canada.[xii]
Captain Cheng and Sergeants Chan, King, Low, and Shiu were picked by SOA in June 1945 for Operation Hippo. The aim of Operation Hippo was to infiltrate operatives in British Borneo and Sarawak (on the island of Borneo) and train the Iban head-hunters against the Japanese. They then advanced through the jungle to the Allied POW camp in Kuching. Ten other Chinese Canadians, out of a group of fifteen Chinese Canadians who had been recruited and sent to Australia, were assigned to the follow-on operation, Operation Hippo II.[xiii]
The five Chinese Canadians were part of a larger group of 11 soldiers. On August 10, 1945, Captain Cheng was part of the lead party to arrive by Catalina flying boat near Sibu in British Borneo. A few days later the rest of the group arrived by Catalina flying boat. The operatives made contact with the Iban headhunters and started providing them weapons and training. In return the Iban taught the operatives about living in the jungle. A few days later the operatives, including Sergeants Chan, King and Shiu, and the headhunters conducted patrols in the area against the Japanese. Captain Cheng and Sergeant Low stayed with the headquarters and provided essential communications back to SOA.[xiv]
On August 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan; however, some Japanese forces in Borneo continued to resist. Operation Hippo II was cancelled. The Operation Hippo operatives in Borneo took on the role of freeing Allied prisoners of war, monitoring Japanese forces, and maintaining peace until their withdrawal on October 15, 1945. Captain Cheng recommended for recognition all four Sergeants for their outstanding work in the field. In 1946, the four Sergeants were awarded the Military Medal for their actions in Borneo.[xv] In the meantime, other Chinese Canadians were being recruited, deployed and trained for Force 136.
Force 136 in India
In the summer of 1944, the British War Office, on behalf of the SOE, asked Canada to provide Chinese Canadians for employment with Force 136 and SOA.[xvi] The Canadian government decided in August 1944 to callout Chinese Canadians for employment with the Canadian Army. In December 1944, Canada authorized SOE to recruit 150 more Chinese Canadians.[xvii] Major Legg conducted a recruiting drive across Canada recruiting 136 Chinese Canadian soldiers in the Canadian Army. Most had only been in the Canadian Army for a couple of months. As already noted, 15 of them had been sent to Australia to support SOA.[xviii]
In the end, 117 of 121 of the Chinese Canadians recruited for India started to arrive by ship via Britain in early March 1945. The men were screened for operational training as wireless operators or paramilitary interpreters. Those found unsuitable were assigned as POW interpreters or as base station wireless operators. The operational training consisted of paramilitary training. Those who passed this training were put on advanced training as operatives for eight weeks or interpreter training for four weeks. Additional training was conducted on the handling of small boats and beach landings. Basic wireless training of three to four months were held in Poona. Those who passed the training and continued to volunteer for operations were sent to Trincomalee for parachute training. By June 1945, a total of 56 continued to volunteer and were in the process of completing their training. They were soon available for operational duty behind enemy lines. All were assigned to operations in Malaya.[xix]
A number of named operations were planned for the regaining of Malaya. The main mission of the operatives was to work with the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army guerrillas, as well as to locate Allied POWs. The Force 136 operatives worked in Patrol Liaison Teams (PLT) with a Chinese Canadian, usually as paramilitary interpreters. Resupply of the teams was done by air drops of canisters of food and supplies. The Galvanic series of operations was based on five PLTs dropped around Kuala Lumpur. Sergeant Bing Chu Lee was dropped with the team on May 30, 1945 but they were separated due to faulty navigation on one of the planes. It took two weeks to meet up together and establish their HQ. Sergeant Lee was employed as a wireless coder and was responsible to encode and decode all traffic between the team and the Force 136 headquarters.[xx]
The Galvanic Orange PLT was dropped on May 31, 1945. The team was reinforced with another drop on July 10, 1945 but the British wireless operator drowned in a pond. Sergeant Ted Wong, due to his excellent Cantonese language skills, was sent soon after to act as both wireless operator and paramilitary interpreter. Sergeant Henry Fung’s PLT, as part of Galvanic Brown, was dropped on July 24, 1945 north of Kuala Lumpur. They made contact with the guerrillas and provided interpretation between them and the team. Once the war was over, they maintained peace between the guerillas and the Japanese They were relived on September 9, 1945 with the arrival of Indian Army troops. The Galvanic Green PLT dropped on July 28, 1945 and included two Nationalist Chinese wireless operators and Sergeant Bing Lee Chinn, as paramilitary interpreter. Unfortunately, both the Nationalist Chinese wireless operators and the local guerrillas did not speak Cantonese. Nevertheless, Sergeant Chinn managed to interpret between the PLT and the guerrillas. By the time they were established, the war was over. They were relieved in September by the British Army. Finally, the Galvanic Slate PLT also dropped on July 28, 1945. Sergeant Bob Lew was employed as a paramilitary interpreter. The marched for days through the jungle to establish their camp and liaise with the guerrillas. Japanese troops were present throughout their area of operations. Even with the surrender of Japan on August 15, 1945 the Japanese Army was not willing to surrender to the team and insisted on surrendering only to the British Army. On September 9, 1945 the British Army landed in Malaya but did not arrive in the Kuala Lumpur area until September 13, 1945, one day after the formal surrender of the Japanese in Malaya.[xxi]
The Sergeant Brown PLT was dropped in northern Malaya on July 14, 1945 with Sergeants Charley Chung and Harry Ho as paramilitary interpreters. They had some difficulties interpreting between the local guerrillas and the team due to the dialect spoken by the guerrillas. After the surrender of Japan, the team were ordered to march through the jungle for two weeks to the Kangar. There they accepted the surrender of the Japanese and stayed in the city maintaining peace until December 1945.[xxii]
In early August 1945 four additional PLTs were dropped in southern Malaya. The Humour Orange PLT included Sergeant Victor Louie as paramilitary interpreter. The PLT did not have time to commence training of the guerrillas before the surrender of Japan. They, like the others, maintained peace and help restore civil administration. The PLT leader took Sergeant Louie with him to negotiate the surrender of the Japanese in the city of Malacca. Sergeant Louie stayed in Malaya until the beginning of 1946. Sergeant Ernie Louie was part of an all-Canadian PLT that was dropped on August 5, 1945 in northern Johore as part of Operation Tidewater Green. He spoke Cantonese, while the Canadian second in command spoke Mandarin. They stayed in their base for five days before marching through the jungle to establish a base camp and a drop zone for the supply of food for the locals and the guerrillas. With the surrender of the Japanese their mission was to search for Allied POW camps. At Kluang they found 900 POWs and they arranged food and medicine for them. They remained in Malaya until November 12, 1945.[xxiii]
The last Chinese Canadian to be deployed in Malaya was Sergeant Billy Lee. He was part of the Operation Snooper PLT led by a Canadian. The team dropped on August 24, 1945 into Johore. They moved south to Singapore and met the Japanese commander of the 7th Japanese Army who had decided to surrender. From there they moved to the POW camps in the area and arranged for drops of food and medicine. The Royal Navy arrived in Singapore on September 5, 1945. Sergeant Lee stayed in Singapore until early October when he traveled to Kuala Lumpur to meet up with the other Chinese Canadians deployed in Malaya. The Chinese Canadians located in both India and Australia were slowly repatriated to Canada as space became available. The last to leave were the Chinese Canadians deployed in Malaya. They were gathered together in Kuala Lumpur in Nov 1945 and moved to Meerut India in December. In January they were sent to Bombay to await for a ship to take them to England, which they reached on March 28, 1946. From England they sailed to Halifax arriving in late April 1946.[xxiv]
Chinese Canadians were sought out by the British SOE for missions behind enemy lines in China, Borneo and Malaya. Thirteen were trained for clandestine work near Hong Kong as part of Operation Oblivion. When the operation was canceled Captain Cheng and four Sergeants were selected as part of Operation Hippo with SOA on the island of Borneo. They were there from August to October 1945. The four Sergeants were each awarded the Military Medal for their actions behind enemy lines. At the same time, 117 Chinese Canadians were being trained in India for operations behind enemy lines. The training was intensive and demanding. 56 of them volunteered and underwent the training necessary for operations with Force 136 in Malaya. Ten were parachuted into Malaya as part of various PLTs in north, central and southern Malaya. They worked with the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army in attacking the Japanese. Once the war was over, they remained in Malaya for months longer keeping the peace, freeing POWs and providing support to the civil authorities. In December 1945 they returned to India and it was not until April 1946 that they all returned to Canada.
Overall, 79 Chinese Canadians either deployed on operations or were poised to deploy on missions from Australia or India. The fact that so many Chinese Canadians were willing to undergo demanding training and willing to deploy behind Japanese lines in dangerous conditions is noteworthy. Their contribution to the success in the Pacific theatre of operations needs to be recognized as a valuable contribution to Canada’s military history.
The majority of Chinese Canadians who participated in the Second World War returned to Canada to civilian life but with a renewed sense of desire to overturn racism within Canadian politics and society. The repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act by the Canadian government in 1947 was a major achievement in Chinese Canadian relations with their government. Some did rejoin the Canadian military but not right away. One example was Gordon Quan from Victoria, who joined the Canadian Army Reserves in the Service Battalion in the early 1950s and served for many years there. He retired as a Regimental Sergeant Major.
[i] Gilbert Norman Tucker, The Naval Service of Canada: Its Official History (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1952). C.P. Stacey, Six Years of War: The Army in Canada, Britain and the Pacific (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1955). Brereton Greenhous, Stephen J. Harris, William C Johnston and William G.P. Rawling. The Crucible of War, 1939-1945: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Vol 3. Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1994.
[ii] Peter S. Li, The Chinese in Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1988), 23.
[iii] Scott Thompson, “Real Canadians: Exclusion, Participation, Belonging, and Male Military Mobilization in Wartime Canada, 1939-45.” Journal of Canadian Studies Vol. 50, no. 3 (Fall 2016), 692.
[iv] Mathias Joost, “Racism and Enlistment: The Second World War Policies of the Royal Canadian Air Force,” Canadian Military History Vol 21, Issue 1 (Winter 2012): 19.
[v] Marjorie Wong, The Dragon and the Maple Leaf: Chinese Canadians in World War II (London: Pirie Publishing, 1994), Appendix. Additional information has been compiled by the author from primary military sources and from the Chinese Canadian Military Museum website, http://www.ccmms.ca to arrive at these possible amounts.
[vi] Roy Maclaren, Canadians Behind Enemy Lines, 1939-1945 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1981), 1. and Charles Cruickshank, SOE in the Far East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 83-88, 266.
[vii] Patrick Howarth, Undercover: The Men and Women of the Special Operations Executive (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980): 214-21. Alan Ogden, Tigers Burning Bright: SOE Heroes in the Far East (London, England: Bene Factum Publishing Ltd., 2013), 304-309.
[viii] National Archives (NA), HS8/103, SOE America: W/T Operators Canada Part 1,“Oblivion,” April 27, 1944. and Maclaren, Canadians, 182-185.
[ix] NA, File HS1/133, Directive to BB/234, March 9, 1944. Note that BB234 was the SOE codename for Major Mike Kendall and DZ/C was the SOE code name for Major Hugh Legg. File HS1/133, Report SO/722 by G.406, May 4, 1944. G.406 was the codename for Squadron Leader Hubert Sichel of British Security Coordination New York. Debra Faraguna, “Commando Bay,” 41st Annual Report of the Okanagan Historical Society (1 November 1977), 85-86.
[x] Wong, Dragon and the Maple Leaf, 123-131. British National Archives, File HS1/133. A series of 16 undated photos were in this file related to Operation Oblivion training, including a group photo, wireless hut and wireless training, living quarters and field-craft.
[xi] NA, File HS1/133, “Report on Wireless Training,” 1 July 1944; File HS1/133, AD/1627, Oblivion Conference, August 25, 1944; and File HS1/133, SO/206, September 7, 1944.
[xii] NA, File HS1/133, Chungking 60 K2798, January 26, 1944; HS1/133, K1615, February 2, 1945. Brief History of Operation Oblivion, May 23, 1945; and HS1/133, “Oblivion Personnel,” June 7, 1945.
[xiii] NA, File HS1/245, SOE Far East: Australia, Vol. 1, Operations: Hippo, “Operation Hippo,” July 28, 1945.
[xiv] Wong, Dragon and the Maple Leaf, 204-213.
[xv] NA, HS1/128, SOE Far East: China, No. 83, Vol. 2, Canadian Chinese Personnel. Letter CMHQ to British War Office, April 23, 1946.
[xvi] NA, File HS8/103, Oblivion, ADS/1846, April 27, 1944. Chinese W/T Operators, London Report No. S.O./760, May 15, 1944. From BSC New York to Ottawa, May 24, 1944.
[xvii] Canada, CWC Meeting Minutes, December 13, 1944, Heritage, War Cabinet Committee, 1938-1945: “Loan to British Army of 150 Canadian Born Chinese Personnel for Operational Employment in the Pacific Theatre of Operations.” December 9, 1944. http://heritage.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.lac_reel_c4876/1337?r=0&s=1 “Army; Loan of Chinese personnel to British Army.” December 13, 1944. http://heritage.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.lac_reel_c4876/954?r=0&s=1.
[xviii] NA, File HS 8-104, Letter Legg to Drew-Brook, December 29, 1944. British National Archives, File H8/105, London Report No. S.O./806, January 30, 1945.
[xix] NA, File H8/107, Telegram BSC New York to London, April 18, 1945. London to BSC New York, May 5, 1945. The remaining four were repatriated to Canada due to illness or unsuitable for operations in the tropics; File HS1/128, CCGF/3, June 11, 1945. T.20/29/4821, August 1, 1945. HS8/107, No. 360, July 20, 1945.
[xx] Wong, Dragon and the Maple Leaf, 164-165. Each of these operations were given a two-word code name, such as, Galvanic Orange or Tidewater Green. The code names are shown in italics in the text.
[xxi] Wong, Dragon and the Maple Leaf, 165-171.
[xxii] Wong, Dragon and the Maple Leaf, 174-175.
[xxiii] Wong, Dragon and the Maple Leaf, 172-173.
[xxiv] Wong, Dragon and the Maple Leaf, 180.
Your article makes clear the wide range of military positions and theatres of war Chinese Canadians participated in through the British Special Operations Executive. The high degree of training and finesse involved in the missions show how highly specialized forces were required to be for operations across Southeast Asia. I wonder if you know anything about what these Chinese Canadians did once they returned home, and whether it was common for them to join the Canadian Armed Forces after the war?
Thank you, Chris, for shedding more light on the contributions of these Chinese Canadian vets. Personally, I have only gleaned information from some of the resources you have cited.
My father is Sergeant Norman Low who contributed to Operation Hippo. He passed in 1960 from war injury complications so his stories were silenced early. One significant point does stand out. Force 136 were volunteering to work behind enemy lines and were not expected to return. Presently, I have been more active to share this history with more people so that their efforts are no longer hidden nor forgotten. Again, thank you for taking such a great interest in this piece of history.
The Chinese Canadian Military Museum in Vancouver has strived to present and preserve the veterans’ contributions. I knew many of them through my parents. In answer to Kyle P’s question, many went on to raise a family and work in some business. Some gained further education then professions that, in the past, Asians could not pursue. Fortunately, I, and all Chinese Canadians, owe a great deal to these brave veterans who built the lifestyle and freedom that we enjoy today.
Thank you very much for writing this article. As a first generation Chinese-Canadian myself, whose family came to Canada as refugees from Laos in 1980, we appreciated the warm welcome shown to us by the many Canadians (especially folks from the Bells Corners United Church) who assisted us in settling into our new country, which has become our permanent home. We are fortunate that we have not had to face the harsh reality of these Chinese-Canadians living in that era. We sincerely thank these pioneers for what they did, fighting for their country, a country which did not recognize nor want them. In doing so, they have earned rights for many of us who came afterwards, including my family and I who now all proudly call ourselves Canadians!
I am fortunate for having had an opportunity to proudly serve my adopted country for over 30 years and counting…
Vive le Canada!
Major Samson Young,
Thank you for your service and your supportive comments.
So glad you appreciate the hardships these pioneers overcame. Presently so many locals and newcomers do not know this history.
Congratulations on winning the 2021 Edgar Wickberg Prize in Chinese Canadian History!
I am wondering if it might be possible to read your thesis? I am a genealogist who specializes in Chinese Canadian family history and I am hugely grateful to know you have undertaken this important work.
By the way, the photo captioned, ““Chinese Canadians undergoing training with Force 136, India,” Chinese Canadian Military Museum,” features my uncle Dake Wing Yip.
Linda send me an email at [email protected] and I will send you a copy.
I just read your piece on SOE Force 136 and was wondering if you had any info on operations in Burma. My father was in Force 136 and he trained in Poona as a radio operator. He received the Burma Star for his service. I feel proud that his service contributed in some small way towards getting the Chinese Immigration Act (exclusion) repealed and the right to vote. My father was able to get a Veterans Land grant to buy a farm in Burnaby.
I also would like to congratulate you on receiving the Ed Wickberg Prize. I was on the CCHSBC board for several years.