Scarred for life, by the Imperial Japanese Army — Two Canadian survivors of WWII in Asia who died in 2019 —

Satoko Oka Norimatsu

As we approach the 75th anniversary year of the end of World War II and the Asia-Pacific War, I would like to write about the war experience of two Canadian men who died this year.

One is Marius van Dijk van Nooten, who died on August 23 at age 88 in White Rock, BC.

I met him at an annual peace education symposium for high school students, about a decade ago.

Marius was born in 1930 in the Netherlands and spent his early years in Bandung, in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) as his father was an officer at Royal Netherlands East Indies Army.

From December 7, 1941, Japan waged war against the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands, which had colonized much of Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Its purpose was to gain resources to continue the war that had started with Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in September 1931.

Japan needed to gain access to resources in Southeast Asia, particularly oil-rich Indonesia, and to cut the supply routes to China by Western nations such as Britain and the United States.

It is often said that the war started with the Japanese “surprise attack on Pearl Harbor,” but Imperial Japan attacked Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Guam, Philippines, etc., on the same day.

It took Japan only a couple of months to conquer the Malay Peninsula, as the British forces surrendered in Singapore on February 15, 1942.

The Dutch East Indies Army also surrendered to Japan on March 9, 1942.

For the three years between then and Japan’s defeat in August 1945, an estimated 100,000 Dutch civilians were interned across Indonesia, and about 13,000 died. Marius, then 11 years old, was playing soccer when he was suddenly taken by the Kempeitai (Japanese military police) and was tortured, as he was interrogated for his connection to a Dutch woman who was allegedly engaged in resistance.

For three years after that, he was separated from family and spent time in three different concentration camps.

For Marius, every day was a fight against hunger. At one point, he chose a cookbook as his one permitted belonging, so that he could look at the recipes and imagine much better food than the watery rice that he was being fed.

That was how he kept his sanity at the concentration camps, where he slaved from age 11 to 14.

Burying the bodies of other internees who had died from beriberi and TB was just one of the things he was forced to do.

After the war, he went back to the Netherlands and immigrated to Canada in 1954. He started off as a potato peeler; then he worked his way up to be the captain of a commercial ship.

When he testified about his war-time experience, he talked merrily with a sense of humour, but, in fact, severe PTSD had started in the 1980s, forcing him to retire from his job.

Gerry Gerrard, a Canadian veteran who died on May 22 in Victoria, BC this year at age 97, was another man who spent his post-war life suffering from nightmares and flashbacks, recurring memories of war-time abuse.

When the war started, he was one of the 1,975 members of the Canadian forces sent to take part in the defense of Hong Kong.

I had an opportunity to interview him in October 2016 for a Japanese weekly journal.

In the Battle of Hong Kong that ended with the Japanese victory two weeks after its start, 260 Canadian men died, and the rest were captured. For the 3 years and 8 months after that, Gerry was put to slave labour in construction, shipbuilding, and steel manufacturing in Hong Kong and Japan.

267 more Canadian POWs died from hunger, diseases, and violence during their captivity, and those who survived, like Gerry, spent the rest of their lives with physical and mental scars, which affected their children and grandchildren.

Neither Marius nor Gerry received a sincere apology or compensation from the Japanese government.

Both men would have rather not bought Japanese products, but they both held my hands, and that was because they wanted me to tell their stories to people in Japan.

In the days leading up to the year 2020, my heart extends to those who died without ever seeing justice in their lives.

This is an English translation of the author’s article that appeared in Ryukyu Shimpo on December 29, 2019.

Satoko Oka Norimatsu is a Vancouver-based writer. She is co-author of Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States, the 2nd edition (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018).


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