While visiting Hong Kong in May, my friend told me about a plaque near the start of a hiking trail that commemorated a Second World War soldier from Winnipeg. She suggested I go see it and so I took a taxi to the Wong Nai Chung Reservoir Park path. However, I couldn’t find the sign when I started out. What I did find were crumbling pieces left over from when Japanese forces overran Hong Kong’s defences. They were part of the Canadian soldier’s story.
“Take the trail with the wooden gate,” said my friend Digger. She had given me a map, too, showing the route I was supposed to take. When I got to the path via the taxi, I saw a wooden gate and a trail sign. So I went through it and started my trek.
The air was about 25 degrees and the humidity was high but I didn’t find it too bad. I was in the shade of the trees and there was a slight breeze. The path wound around water pipes tucked near a berm and there were men working on the reservoir every few metres. They stopped what they were doing to let me continue my jaunt.
There was a sign up ahead and I stopped at it.
“This must be the Winnipeg mention?” I thought to myself.
Indeed, the plaque said the Winnipeg Grenadiers were part of a larger force defending the valley. I had found the sign!
I walked on through air tinged with the scent of dead leaves and damp earth. It didn’t smell bad to me; it’s like an interesting spice. I followed the pipes as far as I could until I got to a fork in the road. There were three ways to go and no signs — and my map had none of the features I had encountered.
“Okay, I’ll continue straight.”
I did, until I came upon a Road Closed sign.
“Okay, I’ll turn back.”
I walked all the way back to the fork and decided I would go up the stairs. Up is always good.
On the ascent, the steep ascent, I came across two decaying structures. They weren’t sticking out of the earth or rock but out of concrete. What’s this?
Pillboxes that had been defended in the fight against Japanese forces. (Some Canadian troops were positioned in pillboxes in the area. I’m not sure if they were at these ones.) Japanese soldiers discovered these pillboxes and dropped grenades through the ventilation shaft, seriously wounding many. The Japanese eventually got control of the pillboxes but not before sustaining heavy casualties. (In fact, it was a company of Winnipeg Grenadiers that fought hard to keep its position and killed many of the enemy. So many, the Japanese forces didn’t believe they had been held off by only 50, mostly wounded, Canadians.
I was putting the pieces together. I was hiking in an area that had seen heavy fighting. These were battles I had never heard of in my time at school, and I was a history major. I kept going, following the faint trail.
Digger had said the terrain was challenging and it was. The path was overgrown and bushes were crowding in on me. I had a stick with me to clear the cobwebs away although some still managed to grab my face. The slope was straight up and I was scrambling to get to the top. The views were rewarding and I could see the harbour and the hills of Kowloon. I saw beautiful black and blue butterflies and heard enchanting bird songs. All while I was dripping in sweat.
I kept going…and popped out onto a well-manicured trail.
I had been on the wrong path the whole time. Where was I now? I asked a man hiking past that question and showed him my map. He said I should turn around and walk back. He was going that way so I tagged along.
Roland and I chatted along the route. He was retired and hikes around Hong Kong. He didn’t know where Calgary was but he knew lots of stuff about Canada.
“Do you know Osborn?” he asked. “From Winnipeg?”
“Oh, I’ve heard there’s a sign about him somewhere.”
“Here it is.”
The plaque was at the end of the trail (what would have been the head of the trail for me). The words have been worn down by the sun and heavy rains but what John Robert Osborn did will always stand out.
On Dec. 19, 1941, Company Sergeant-Major Osborn was with a company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers. They were stationed on the hillside being attacked that morning by Japanese forces. Under heavy fire and with no regard for his own life, Osborn guided Canadian soldiers to join the rest of the company.
In the afternoon, the fighting ramped up, leaving Osborn and other Canadians in the company isolated from their battalion. Japanese forces were now lobbing grenades at them and Osborn tossed them back. Then one landed out of reach. There was no way he could get to it and throw it back.
He used himself to protect the other men. He covered the grenade and was blown up with it. He died to save others.
I had heard this story of sacrifice before. It was a Heritage Minute in 2005. However, I didn’t remember the name of the man in the story. Now here I was, in Hong Kong, near the site of the heroic act, and I felt ashamed I had forgotten him.
Often, the Second World War is synonymous with Europe. To some people, the Asia war was far away. Yet, it isn’t — especially for those people who had loved ones fighting in the Pacific. I had a great-uncle who spent time as a Prisoner of War in Malaysia. One of my family friends saw photos of my Wong Nai Chung Reservoir Park hike on Instagram and asked if I had found her father’s leg. He had been a solider in Hong Kong during WWII as well.
I had been walking around Jardine’s Lookout, which has a fascinating history even before the Battle of Hong Kong. But that’s another story.