In the 1930s, Japan engaged in expansionist moves, seizing Chinese territory and ultimately going to war with China in 1937. In 1940, it joined Germany and Italy, becoming one of the Second World War’s Axis powers.
In December 1941, Japan fully entered the war, attacking British, American and Dutch targets in Asia and the Pacific. Fighting on the Allied side, Canada contributed military units and personnel to the war against Japan.
Starting in 1939, Canada reinforced its west coast defences. These efforts intensified as tensions with Japan grew in 1941. Acting on unfounded, racially driven fears, Canada also uprooted Japanese Canadians and forcibly relocated them away from the coast.
Canada declared war on Japan on 7 December 1941. Fearing a Japanese attack on the west coast, it further strengthened its defences on land, at sea and in the air. While Japanese submarines were active along the coast, a major Japanese attack never occurred.
Coastal defence efforts saw Canadians working closely with their American allies. Among them was Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service member Frances Gage. Trained as a radio operator in Canada, she was then sent to Bainbridge Island, west of Seattle, in Washington State. There, she listened to radio signals from Japanese ships and submarines, as part of Allied intelligence-gathering efforts.
Late in the war, Japan released balloon bombs that crossed the Pacific on high-altitude winds. At least 80 reached Canada. Harold Cross was among those trained to respond to the bombs, which sometimes landed in remote areas. His duties included disarming unexploded bombs and gathering information from any surviving components.
He kept souvenirs of his experiences, including photographs, diagrams and fragments of balloon bomb wreckage.
Painter and sculptor Bobs Cogill Haworth and her husband, Peter, were among the civilian artists commissioned to depict the war effort in Canada. They painted military activities in British Columbia and the Maritimes.
Many of Bobs Cogill Haworth’s paintings feature the Royal Canadian Air Force, which operated in British Columbia and Alaska as part of the war against Japan.
Inaccurate rumours, fuelled by racism, portrayed Japanese Canadians as potential spies and saboteurs. In 1942, responding to public and political pressure, the federal government forcibly relocated some 22,000 Japanese Canadians from a 160-kilometre-deep zone along the coast of British Columbia.
Those displaced were allowed to take few possessions with them, and their remaining property was confiscated and sold at below-market prices. Efforts to obtain redress — an apology and compensation from the Canadian government — succeeded in 1988.
David Suzuki and his family were forcibly relocated to an internment camp in Slocan City, British Columbia.
In early 1945, the Suzukis, like other internees, were forced to choose between resettlement further east in Canada or expulsion to Japan. After the war, they settled in London, Ontario. David Suzuki became a scientist, broadcaster and prominent environmental advocate. He later described the forced relocation of Japanese Canadians as “one of the shoddiest chapters in the tortuous history of democracy in North America.”
On 15 August 1943, American and Canadian forces landed at Kiska Island, off the coast of Alaska, one of two Aleutian Islands seized by Japan in June 1942. This operation followed a successful but costly American attack on the other occupied island, Attu. When they arrived in Kiska, however, the Allies found that the Japanese had already secretly evacuated.
E. J. Hughes was among Canada’s first official war artists during the Second World War. Appointed in February 1942, he recorded military activities in Canada and Great Britain before being sent to the Aleutian Islands in 1943.
There, he sketched and painted many works depicting Canadian soldiers carrying out patrols in the islands’ mountainous terrain and wintry environment.
As the conflict in Europe was ending, in spring 1945, Canada was shifting its war effort toward the ongoing struggle against Japan. Ships, aircraft and army personnel were being prepared to join those Canadians already fighting Japan. The war would end before those additional forces saw action.
News of Japan’s surrender reached North America on 14 August 1945. Across the country, Canadians marked the end of the Second World War with celebrations the following day, commonly known as V-J Day, for Victory over Japan.
Canadians faced Japanese forces in Hong Kong, as well as in other locations in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
In October 1941, Canada sent nearly 2,000 troops to reinforce the British colony of Hong Kong. On 8 December 1941 (7 December in North America), Japan attacked. Following brutal fighting, the Allied garrison surrendered on 25 December. Two hundred and ninety Canadians were killed in the battle. The survivors were taken prisoner.
Some 8,000 Canadians served in Southeast Asia, India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Many were members of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), often posted to British units. The RCAF’s 435 and 436 Squadrons transported equipment and personnel in India and Burma (now Myanmar), while 413 Squadron patrolled the Indian Ocean, searching for Japanese ships and submarines.
Canadian-born Charles Ferguson Hoey joined the British Army in 1933. In 1937, he was posted to India, and in 1942, to Burma (now Myanmar). Both were part of the British Empire.
In February 1944, Hoey led an attack on a Japanese strongpoint. He killed all the defenders but was mortally wounded. For his actions, Hoey was awarded the Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth’s highest award for valour.
The Canadian cruiser HMCS Uganda joined the British Pacific Fleet in February 1945, fighting against Japanese forces.
Starting in April 1945, all Canadian military personnel who were going to the Pacific had to volunteer for that service. This applied to the crew of Uganda, even though they were already in combat. In a vote, the majority of them refused, for reasons including poor service conditions. Uganda returned to Canada after the vote.
Brutalized by Japanese captors and ravaged by disease and malnutrition, the survivors of Japanese prison camps emerged from captivity in terrible mental and physical condition. Of the 1,689 Canadians captured at Hong Kong by the Japanese in 1941, just over 1,400 survived their ordeal.
First World War veteran Percy Wilmot also served in the Second World War and was among the Canadians sent to Hong Kong in 1941. Wounded in the fighting, he then became a prisoner of war. Like other Allied prisoners, Wilmot suffered from malnutrition, disease and abuse, with lasting health consequences.
After his liberation, Wilmot wrote to his son, Stan, from an American hospital: “… the Americans are very good to us … and I shall never forget their kindness.”
Despite widespread racism and discrimination, including barriers to enlistment, between 600 and 800 Chinese Canadians served in the Second World War. Around 150 of them were in Force 136, a branch of the British Special Operations Executive. They were trained for covert missions behind enemy lines in Japanese-occupied territories.
After the war, Chinese Canadian veterans worked to change many of Canada’s discriminatory limits on immigration and citizenship.
“I am a Canadian Naval Officer and I am here to liberate you guys. Aren’t you glad to see me?” With these words, William King Lowd Lore greeted Canadian prisoners of war in Hong Kong who had been waiting nearly four years for liberation.
The first Chinese Canadian to join the Royal Canadian Navy, Lore served as an intelligence officer in Canada, England and Southeast Asia. He retired from the navy after the war as a lieutenant commander.
By the summer of 1945, Allied forces were closing in on Japan, delivering destructive aerial attacks and imposing a punishing naval blockade. After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Soviet Union’s massive attack on Japanese-occupied Manchuria, Japan capitulated on 15 August 1945. It formally surrendered on 2 September.
Lawrence Moore Cosgrave, Canada’s military attaché to Australia, represented Canada at Japan’s formal surrender. With impaired sight in one eye aggravated by a First World War combat injury, he accidentally signed on the wrong line on one copy of the surrender document.
Cosgrave began his report to Ottawa on the event by noting, “Surrender ceremony completed this morning.”
Japan’s surrender officially ended the Second World War. The conflict, with its unprecedented destruction and loss of life, had lasting consequences for the world, Canada and Canadians.
The war killed between 50 and 80 million people, and overturned or weakened colonial empires. Japan was utterly defeated, but it rapidly rebuilt and emerged as an economic power.
The war also changed Canada in many ways. As a result of its role in the Allied victory, the country claimed a stronger voice in this dramatically altered world. Veterans, notably the Hong Kong prisoners, returned bearing physical and psychological wounds. Most Canadians were proud of their contributions, including work on the home front and service in uniform, but were saddened at the cost of victory. All wondered what the coming years would bring in a world soon gripped by the Cold War.