Second World War veteran Doug Grant, also formerly of the Victoria Police Department, at his home in Oak Bay (Canada). Among other experiences, Grant was a Prisoner of War in a Japanese POW camp for several years, and was on the outskirts of Nagasaki when the second atomic bomb was dropped on August 9, 1945.
Doug, with Oak Bay War Memorial at Cattle Point in the background
He has always figured himself among the lucky ones in life. Lucky to be Scottish by birth; lucky to have been able to join the Royal Navy at the age of 18; lucky to have been assigned to the legendary battle cruiser Exeter (pic); lucky to have survived two great sea battles in her and her sinking; lucky to have been rescued after a dozen hours floating in the Java Sea; lucky to have survived three and a half years in Japanese prison camps and the atomic holocaust of Nagasaki — and lucky today to be living on the fourth floor of the Oak Bay Lodge and laughingly calling it “the Penthouse.”
At 87, widower Doug Grant still laughs easily. He’s a man whose glass is always half full, never half empty.
GOING TO WAR
When he emerged from naval training school at Chatham, England, as Ordnance Artificer 4th Class in late 1941, Grant was told he was being assigned to Glasgow to await posting. He laughs “but I told the lieutenant in charge – you can’t send me there, sir, I joined the navy to get away from the damn place. And I was lucky. There was a young fellow in our group who had just got married and was being assigned to Colombo to await posting. So I swapped with him. He went to Glasgow, I went to Colombo and was eventually assigned to Exeter.”
It would be a heady posting for a young sailor, Exeter having achieved earlier fame in the forced scuttling of the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee off the River Plate in South America, and later the search for and sinking of the Bismark.
Grant’s sea-going career was short-lived but carefully documented in a diary started immediately after his capture by the Japanese and maintained — illegally — throughout his first years as a prisoner.
The remarkable record, penciled lines fading, tells an incredible story of life in a prison camp where starvation and sickness were constant companions and days drifted into weeks and weeks into months. Grant remains anxious that no one reading his diary today thinks he was alone. He knows thousands suffered similar hardships and many much worse.
The notebook is tattered now, pages frayed and delicate to turn, its record of events fading but still readable.
“Feb. 26, 1942: Left Sourabay(a) [Indonesia] at dusk to engage the Japanese fleet … about midday on the 27th the Captain spoke over the ship’s radio saying ‘expect to engage the enemy about 4:30 pm.’ ”
And engage they did with an overwhelming force. The Exeter, boilers damaged, speed reduced to six knots, limped back to Sourabaya for repairs and to bury her dead. A few days later she sailed again, this time heading for Colombo via the Sunda Straits.
Feb. 28, after a gruelling day on emergency boiler repairs and burial detail, the Exeter left Sourabaya around 9 p.m. with everyone at action stations.
“At 2 a.m. an alarm was sounded but I slept through it as I was so tired. I was sleeping on the cook’s mess table between the two shell rooms at the time. Breakfast at 7a.m. Hardboiled eggs and I mean hardboiled … we were not to know this was to be our last civilized meal for three and a half years.”
In his second sea battle in almost as many days, Grant’s action station was “in the workshop waiting for a call to go where I might be needed. That was a very unpleasant experience, just waiting with nothing to do except listen to the Jap salvos straddle the ship and the shrapnel whanging off the sides.”
But he didn’t have to wait long for orders to proceed “to the ‘Y’ turret shell room where one of the shell hoists had jammed.
“It sure had jammed. It took me what seemed hours to free the hoist but it (probably) wasn’t (all) that long. However, all the time I was there working on the damn thing I knew that one of the 8-inch guns was out of action. When I finally freed the hoist I was exhausted. … I remember lying on top of the shells in the shell bin unable to move for what seemed hours but was probably (just) minutes.”
He was still in the shell room when the order came to abandon ship and “if one of the crew topside had not opened the hatch from his side, I might still be in that shell room.”
Once on deck, Grant remembered he couldn’t swim — “but I did have my life tube on. I blew it up and waited.” In his diary, he recalled there seemed to be Japanese ships everywhere “firing everything they had at us”. He wasn’t far wrong. The Exeter was virtually surrounded by Japanese cruisers and destroyers and being pounded unmercifully when:
“I saw some lads up near the bow cut loose a Carley float and toss it into the sea. I waited a few seconds and jumped over the side. I seemed to go down forever. I could feel and hear the ship go past me when I was under. I came to the surface about 50 feet from the Carley float. The ship was still underway (and drawing fire) and that probably helped save a few lives.”
HMS Exeter. Off Sumatra 1942
He made it to the Carley float with some men on the float itself, others hanging on in the water. “We watched the Exeter go under. A very sad sight … [then] the Jap fleet dispersed and we were … left alone in the middle of the Java Sea.” They remained alone for many hours.
“We drifted about … the sun burned the hell out of us. I was fortunate, I [had] jumped over the side with my [gun] flash gear still on. This saved my head and face from being badly burned. We switched places periodically with the lads in the water. … Each time I went into the water I wondered about the sharks. Perhaps we were lucky and the explosions … scared them away. Just the same, I wondered when they might come back.”
In the late afternoon a Japanese destroyer hove to “about two miles from us.
“We had quite a discussion among us on the raft … [and] decided to head for the Jap ship. The trip over those two miles was petty hair-raising. … We eventually got alongside … and climbed up on to the deck as it was getting dark. We were on board a few minutes and she sailed off leaving quite a few of our lads still in the water. … I’m sure they never made it to a PoW camp.”
It was March 1, 1942. Doug Grant was 19 and on his way to
3 1/2 years of confinement, during which he constantly told himself that, in spite of the starvation diet, he was just lucky to be alive — his glass still half full.
On February 27, 1942, it was badly damaged in the Battle of the Java Sea, the largest surface engagement since Jutland in the First World War. It was ordered to a friendly port for repairs with its two escorts, but they were intercepted by a much larger Japanese fleet.
In the ensuing action, called the Second Battle of Java, Exeter was damaged by gunfire and a torpedo. It lost power and was finally scuttled by its crew.
From HMS Exeter, about 50 were killed, while 650 were made prisoners of war. Of these, 152 would die in Japanese PoW camps.
HMS Exeter was sunk on March 1, 1942, when, with two escorts, the destroyer HMS Encounter and the American destroyer Pope, it was intercepted by nine Japanese warships.
All three Allied ships were lost in the action.HMS Encounter, had passed up a chance to escape by turning back in a brave but futile attempt to protect Exeter.
The prisoners were having breakfast when the red alert sounded just after 6 on a bright August morning. They huddled in shelters for a while but eventually resumed their tasks in a Japanese dockyard. Five hours later, at precisely 11:02, the world would change forever.
It was Aug. 9, 1945, and Grant was there, a prisoner of war eyewitness to the holocaust called Nagasaki. He wrote in his diary:
“At 11 o’clock, I was standing at the [work] bench when from behind the hill in the direction of Nagasaki a colossal sheet of flame shot into the air … followed almost immediately by the most terrific explosion … [it was] like the flash of a million photographers’ light bulbs at one time … [most thought] a large concentration of oil tanks had been hit (and) caused the terrific sheet of flame, the heat of which we felt although we were seven or eight miles away. … I myself thought they had struck a cordite dump because the flame was so intensely blinding.”
What Grant — a former Victoria police inspector, now 86 and living in Oak Bay Lodge — didn’t know was that he had witnessed and survived, by the grace of God and a ridge of high hills, the explosion of the second atomic bomb. The first had destroyed Hiroshima three days earlier, but Grant, trained only in traditional weaponry, had no knowledge or concept of that catastrophic event.
Nagasaki’s dockyard is located across a bay from the city proper. The day after the great explosion PoW Grant wrote:
“Boatloads of injured very severely burned [arriving] … hundreds of wooden caskets being made by girls for the dead … pretty grim. … We have heard that between 50 and 60 thousand were killed in the explosion.”
Those grim notes were among the final entries in a diary scribbled hastily and secretly, concealed in many hiding places since 1942 when he was taken prisoner. U.S. Army Intelligence requisitioned it in 1945 as it sought evidence of prison camp atrocities. It would be several years before the Pentagon returned it to the young sailor who was by then a police constable in Victoria.
What follows are excerpts from a record kept by one man, but applicable to thousands. His long journey as a PoW began when he was deposited on a small island on the Celebes Sea.
March 9, 1942: “Arrived off Makassar. Not much of a place to look at … Marched right through town in the blistering heat. 99 per cent of the lads without any clothes. After a two-mile hike we arrived at our new home. Not bad as prison camps go. It was a native military camp before the Dutch ran to the hills … where 16 native soldiers lived, 80 (prisoners) live now … one thing in its favour … it’s all stone floors so we’ll be able to keep it fairly clean. …
“At 6 p.m. we got two biscuits each, the first we’ve had since 8 a.m. and that consisted of about an eighth part of a biscuit and a watery cup of coffee so we didn’t hesitate digging into the hardtack. … Turned in on the stone deck and I don’t mind telling you it’s bloody cold and on top of that we are practically eaten alive by the mosquitoes.”
For the next few years, food would be a dominant theme in his diary: “Half a bun for breakfast this morning … At 5 p.m. we get our next meal … a handful of rice and a dried fish head … It’s the most awful looking thing I’ve ever seen … It stinks like hell and the flies have been crawling over it … but as I’m semi-starving it tasted delicious …
“Some [prisoners] are even boiling up grass to try to make soup and some are catching sparrows. You have to have about 10 of them before you can taste anything. I sold my [navy-issue] tropical shorts to the natives for 35 cents. I bought four eggs and three small native buns.”
The weeks drag into months, the months into wearying years.
There are bouts with dysentery and malaria – and often thoughts of home, but never despair:
“One thing that worries me in here: do the folks at home know we are still alive? I often lie awake an night and think that only a year ago I wasn’t in the navy – and (now) here I am a survivor and a PoW.”
But in the misery of it all there was always a touch of joyous humour, especially on rare days when food was, by PoW standards, plentiful:
“Sold my breakfast this morning for 25 cents. Went working party and had a swell time in the grass cutting party. At stand easy the Jap guards opened up a case of ship’s biscuits and gave us three each. When dinner time came I was able to buy five cents worth of banana fritters before the lorry came with dinner (consisting) of rice, greens and an egg – then the Japs brought down what had been left from their meal…I got a whopping big ladle full of meat and greens and by God it was lovely. The finest thing I’ve tasted since I left the ship…”
With the atrocious diet there were ailments of every kind:
“The rash I have on my backside is giving me the devil at night. Practically everyone in the camp has got it. The best cure seems to be sunshine so the camp is now like a nudist colony with everyone trying to cure their pimples.”
There were worse health challenges: “Another dose of malaria. It’s a queer illness…. you seem to freeze to the marrow and go all groggy…started on quinine. Dysentery and beriberi took constant heavy toll.
Aug. 25, 1942: “My 20th birthday today. Working between the aerodrome and the docks carrying telephone poles.”
His next three birthdays would be Nagasaki to which the prisoners were transferred shortly after a disastrous escape attempt.
Sept. 9: “A Dutch naval officer and two ratings escaped last night but were turned in by natives 25 miles up country. General muster…everyone searched for arms.”
Sept. 11: “Had my head shaved this morning. All prisoners had to have it done. All money in camp collected (but) I’m still hanging on to 10 cents”
Sept. 14: “Camp mustered to hear a proclamation concerning the Dutchmen who escaped…. They were executed.”
A few weeks later the prisoners were shipped to Nagasaki, security was tightened, the prisoners photographed and finger printed and put to work in the shipyards and the diary fell silent for a while.
Oct. 30, 1942: “I think this will be the last entry in this diary until after the war. The Japs are taking everything from us. We are evidently going to be paid because we have been told we have to buy our toilet paper.”
It wasn’t until 1945 that Grant could resume his detailed personal record with perhaps his most telling entry in late August that year.
Aug. 25: “My 23rd birthday today and I have the best present I have ever received FREEDOM! This will be my fourth birthday in a prison cap…The next one I will be having Mom’s famous treacle pudding and, oh boy, am I looking forward to that”
He later wrote this undated footnote: “After a couple of days of medical and radiation checks we finally left our prison…I am sure it will affect the lives of all of us imprisoned there, both mentally and physically for the remainder of our lives … After our release from camp we were taken into Nagasaki …(to) witness the awful destruction … Unbelievable … There are no words to describe that terrible scene. I will always wonder if we will ever be able to justify using such a terrible weapon against innocent civilians – or even a cruel enemy such as the Japanese were.”
Sixty-four years later his thinking hasn’t changed. “I can understand Hiroshima,” he says. “It was first and it did end the war for which I must be eternally grateful. But Nagasaki? I really don’t think that can ever be justified. The war was over with Hiroshima. It was enough.”
It would be more than a month after the Aug. 9 nuclear bombing of Nagasaki that Doug Grant could at last feel he was on the way home. But in mid-September 1945, he was able to write in his diary:
“Sept. 15: Start my long journey home at 6 a.m. Never want to see these shores again.”
He was on board the USS Chenango, a former oil tanker converted to aircraft carrier and now charged with the duty of moving thousands of PoWs, military and civilian on the first leg of a journey to their homelands.
The past few weeks had been a chaotic swirl for them all. First had been the bomb, then Japanese captors suddenly releasing Red Cross medical supplies, clothes and food long withheld from their slave labourers. Then came US aircraft parachuting luxuries into the camps and finally soldiers in jeeps – vehicles never before see by long time prisoners – and doctors with medical care of a quality the prisoners had forgotten ever existed.
The young sailor Grant opened his new diary (his original camp diary, had been requisitioned by U.S. Intelligence): “Sept. 12: There is a big cheer when the Skipper of the US Naval Hospital Ship Haven (Pic) steps ashore and tells us it’s our last day in Japan….”
As it turned out, it was three more days before they sailed but they wallowed in what seemed to be the ultimate luxury “billeted on the hangar deck, damn good quarters and messing on the cafeteria system” with movies every night.
Their first stop was Okinawa, then on by military aircraft to the Philippines and a transfer to another aircraft carrier — HMS Implacable (pic)– for another long haul across the Pacific to Vancouver via Hawaii. En route they were issued new uniforms and “warm clothing.”
Doug Grant’s diaries are surprisingly free of complaints but a word here and there provides clues to a less than prefect journey. “Oct. 1: Got sick … feel pretty bad. Don’t remember much the next few days. Oct. 5: Beginning to pull round now. Getting a bit of appetite back. Oct. 11: Arrive Vancouver. Eleven of us go in ambulances to the Canadian Military Hospital … Lovely hospital, tons of food and plenty of fruit.”
After a few days sightseeing and enough local friendship and hospitality to bring him back to B.C. two years later, he boarded one of five trains jammed with prisoners heading home to whistle stops or large cities from coast to coast.
On their train journey across Canada en route home from Japanese prison camps former PoWs were feted at every stop.
Meticulously Grant recorded the journey, the endless, wonderful welcomes and receptions by the Red Cross or local Women’s Institutes providing fruit and cakes, coffee and cigarettes.
Grant knowing the value of “a smoke” as currency and for pleasure used his gifts frugally and saved most of them for his Glasgow homecoming.
Or thought he had.
“When we docked at Liverpool I had a kitbag full of cigarettes I’d saved across Canada,” he tells me. “And you know what, customs confiscated the whole damn lot because I hadn’t paid duty on them. Can you believe it? Shelled, sunk, captured and imprisoned for close to four years and they confiscated my fags!”
The Scottish burr, softened but not lost in his years as a Canadian, leaves the distinct impression that 64 years later English customs and excise are not on his Christmas card list.
In the last pages of his diary, Grant listed some minor other “tragedies” of his trip home, including the small town in Quebec where he “just missed some silk stockings. I have tried every place right the way across but it’s nearly impossible.”
And every now and then a reminder: “Oct. 22: Arrive Debert [Nova Scotia] at 8:15 p.m. … in ambulance to hospital. Oct. 25: Leave hospital at 7:30 in trucks to train station … arrive alongside Ile de France … get settled down in hospital about 1:15 p.m. Sail at 6 p.m. Send cable.
“Oct. 9: Visit from the skipper. First time I have seen him since Makassar. Then on Oct. 10 just eight emotion-packed words to end the journey he had started four years earlier when he joined the navy. “Got my first glimpse of England this morning.”
And the diary falls silent.
By Robby G: Many thanks to Jim Hume, Special to Times Colonist (Canada) for giving his kind permission to reproduce this excellent article. Also his son, Nic Hume for the photograph of Doug Grant.