A Canadian medical officer and prisoner of war returns from the Second World War a hero — and a very different man.
In August 1941, John Reid, a young Canadian doctor, volunteered to join the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps with four friends from medical school. After five weeks of officer training in Ottawa, Reid took an optional two-week course in tropical medicine, a choice which sealed his fate. Assigned to “C” Force, the two Canadian battalions sent to reinforce “semi-tropical” Hong Kong, he was among those captured when the calamitous Battle of Hong Kong ended on Christmas Day.
After a year in Hong Kong prison camps, Reid was chosen as the only officer to accompany 663 Canadian POWs sent to Japan to work as slave labourers. His efforts over the next two and a half years to lead, treat, and protect his men were heroic. He survived the war, but finding a peace of his own took ten tumultuous years, with casualties of a different sort. He would never be the same.
About the author
Jonathon Reid has worked as a filmmaker, English teacher, freelance writer, magazine editor, and partner in a magazine publishing firm. He lives in Toronto.
Excerpt: The Captain Was a Doctor: The Long War and Uneasy Peace of POW John Reid (by (author) Jonathon Reid)
Chapter Three: Canada’s Turn to Help: The “C” Force Mission
In July 1940, the Reids rented a flat in “The Pasadena,” a two-storey, California-style apartment building near the corner of West 11th Avenue and Hemlock Street, a 10-minute walk to Vancouver General Hospital, where Reid was doing his residency.
Jean found life in Vancouver an adjustment. Reid was busy at the hospital, often day and night. She was far from family and friends, and the sometimes endless grey or rainy days could be dispiriting, much like the war news. A fear of heights inherited from her father made the looming North Shore Mountains an unsettling barrier rather than an inviting prospect (even driving across the newly opened Lions Gate Bridge took a summoning of nerve). On her own much of the time, finding ways to make new friends didn’t come easily. Extremely happy in her life with Jack yet not entirely at home in Vancouver, Jean kept house, tried new recipes, wrote letters, went for walks, and painted.
For Reid, this residency year seems to have been entirely positive. Work at Vancouver General was a stimulating change. The dramatic locale — ocean, beaches, mountains, and sky — offered a sense of openness and freedom that the gentler, insulated countryside of Southern Ontario lacked. The more relaxed West Coast life, after the provincial stuffiness of Toronto, appealed to him. Medical colleagues who liked to extol to newcomers the virtues of the setting — the ocean playground, the rarity of city snow, year-round golf, Vancouver festooned with cherry blossoms in March — were in Reid’s case soon preaching to a convert.
Chief among the friends he made in Vancouver during his residency was Dr. Lyall Hodgins, founding partner of The Clinic, a private medical facility established on Seymour Street in 1937 whose doctors had privileges at Vancouver General Hospital. Hodgins, whose clinic was the first of its kind in western Canada, became a close friend and mentor of Reid, and by the spring of 1941, a prospective partner in practice. Although Reid was planning to enlist in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps after his residency, Hodgins offered him a job at The Clinic, a position that would be waiting for him whenever he returned from his war service. When the Reids left Vancouver for Toronto in June 1941, “J.A. Reid, M.D.” had been added to The Clinic’s letterhead, Hitler was invading Russia with three million Nazi troops, and the United States was about to place an embargo on all oil and gasoline exports to Japan following Japan’s occupation of French Indochina. If the embargo remained in place, Japan’s warlords planned to strike south from China and take control of oil-rich North Borneo, the Dutch East Indies, and everything in between.
Reid was one of a number of University of Toronto medical graduates of 1937 and 1938 who signed up for the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps in August 1941. Bill Bigelow was another, just back from his honeymoon in Manitoba after a July wedding in Toronto where, tit-for-tat, Reid had been his best man. Other friends were Gordon Gray, originally from Edmonton; Torontonian Bruce Charles; and William Mustard from Clinton, Ontario, who, like Bigelow, would be instrumental in the postwar advancement of open-heart surgery with his development of the heart-lung machine.
The five-week medical officer’s training course was conducted at Lansdowne Park in Ottawa. A four-page photo spread published in Toronto’s Star Weekly in September 1941 featured Reid’s class of about 30 novice RCAMC lieutenants going through their paces at Lansdowne earlier that month. The pictures show the men in their newly issued khaki shorts and shirts in a variety of poses: attending a lecture on military law, assembled around a sand table of miniaturized terrain being instructed in battle tactics, evacuating mock wounded by stretcher through a trench they had dug themselves, ogling the camera wearing helmets and gas masks, and — hidebound military protocol — learning how to manipulate and salute with an officer’s swagger stick. The rest of the magazine was filled with similarly upbeat stories on the current Canadian and British war effort: the Canadian 3rd Division disembarking in England, pictures of the latest in London air-raid shelters, a British channel gun doing “a spot of shelling” of the occupied French coast, “war dogs” being trained to transport ammunition strapped to their flanks in battle conditions, a bevy of laughing British “farmerettes” harvesting a bumper crop of wheat on the Sussex Downs.
Britain, leader of the Commonwealth, and by the summer of 1941, the island fortress standing alone against Nazi-occupied Europe, would be the initial destination of almost all the armed forces, aircraft, and other war matériel shipped or flown overseas from Canada during the Second World War. But as Reid’s class at Lansdowne Park was going about the business of becoming medical officers bound for Britain with the rest of the Canadian Army, decisions were being made in London and Ottawa concerning the menace to British holdings on the other side of the world, decisions that would mean other plans for two of the ”graduates.”
Japan had been on the attack in the Far East for 10 years. Its invasions of Manchuria in 1931 and China in 1937 were first steps in establishing the Japanese-conceived “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” ostensibly a union of Asian states to counter Western imperialism and achieve regional self-sufficiency, in reality Japan’s guise to impose its imperial domination over the entire Far East and gain control of the resources— oil, rubber, tin — that Japan’s industries and war machine badly needed. “It is Japan’s mission to be supreme in Asia, the South Seas, and eventually the four corners of the world,” boasted Japanese General Sadao Araki in 1935.
The scale of atrocities and barbarism committed by the invading Japanese troops during the subjugation of Nanking in 1937, when up to 300,000 Chinese civilians were butchered over a period of six weeks, showed the viciousness of Japan’s intent. Its refusal to ratify the Geneva Convention after signing it in 1929 and its resignation from the League of Nations in 1933, after the league’s unanimous condemnation of the occupation of Manchuria, revealed Japan’s contempt for world opinion.
Throughout the 1930s, Britain monitored the defence status of its bases at Hong Kong and Singapore in case war with Japan broke out. Singapore, a massive, well-fortified naval and military installation that had been under improvement since the early 1920s, was considered a fortress stronghold. The 100-year-old Crown Colony of Hong Kong, a tiny British holding on the coast of China, 1,600 miles northeast of Singapore, was another matter.
Nathan M. Greenfield, author of The Damned
The Captain Was a Doctor is a powerful saga... It is an extraordinary and redemptive reminder of the basic decency in imperfect human beings that can come to the surface, despite a prevailing atmosphere of heightened distrust.
Literary Review of Canada
With The Captain Was a Doctor, author Jonathon Reid has produced a full tapestry of a book about his father. Highlights include John Reid’s success at caring for the men under his command in Japan.
This first-rate biography of a complex man who was an outstanding doctor and war hero yet also a damaged and deeply troubled man cannot have been easy for a son to write. Jonathon Reid has done it with insight, intelligence and compassion. The result is a compelling read which has much to say about Canada and the Second World War and, more generally, about the cruelty of war as well as human courage and persistence in the face of appalling odds.
Margaret MacMillan, bestselling author of Paris 1919
Jonathon Reid’s is a splendid and well-written account, carefully researched in his father’s papers and other records. This fine biography tells us much of Canadian courage and character in the greatest adversity.
J.L. Granatstein, author of Canada’s Army
Matchless...The Captain Was a Doctor [is] an unforgettable book.
Carol Bishop Gwyn, author of Art and Rivalry: The Marriage of Mary and Christopher Pratt
This is a story of incredible heroism, and the toll it took in Dr. John Reid’s personal life. Author Jonathon Reid has written with admiration and compassion about the man who did so much to save lives in the brutal POW camps of Japan during World War II. He extends the same compassion to the father who returned from the war a changed man, unable to keep the promises he had made or tell the truth to those who loved him. A poignant and moving book.
Charlotte Gray, bestselling author of The Promise of Canada
The Captain Was a Doctor is a haunting exploration of a decorated hero of the Hong Kong campaign during the Second World War....This is a moving story by his son attempting to understand how his father endured the war, and how he left part of himself behind in the prison camps.
Tim Cook, author of Vimy: The Battle and the Legend
Takes the reader on an emotive journey through a man’s life with a focus on the battle, the brutal incarceration and the grim realities of life and death behind barbed wire. This is a must-read book for both the general reader and for anybody interested in the Pacific War.
Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong