Prison camp kindness gains overdue honours

9 Jun 2013, Victoria Times Colonist

by JIM HUME

It was three o’clock on a humid July afternoon as the P&O liner Arcadia eased its way from its Hong Kong berth to the open sea. On the promenade deck, a seven-year-old boy pressed to the rail and watched with great wonder.

A few days ago, I asked David Buchan if he could remember how he felt that afternoon in 1962 when he, his widowed mother and his grandmother left Hong Kong for Vancouver and ultimately Victoria. He thought for a moment:

“There was a yacht with a lot of my mother’s friends on board. A piper was playing and they were all singing ‘Will ye no come back again? Better loved ye canna be, will ye no come back again?’ ” His voice faltered as the childhood memory echoed down the years. A tear fell.

It would be early August before Arcadia swung around the northern tip of Vancouver Island and headed down the Inside Passage for Vancouver. There had been three ports of call en route, with Hawaii best remembered by the boy because “I saw a black bear at the zoo and I tasted jelly for the first time.”

His mother, Nathalia Petrovna, widow of William Muir Augustus Erskine (Bill) Buchan, had other things on her mind as she watched forests slide by. David remembers her telling him later in life that on the grey, rainy day they sailed between Vancouver Island and Mainland, she thought: “Oh, my God, I’ve moved to the frontier.”

On Aug. 2, 1962, they disembarked in Vancouver, and a short time later they took the ferry to Victoria.

Another childhood memory clip kept alive by later storytelling: “As we arrived in Victoria, the sun came out, and my mother said it was a sign from God — ‘We’ll settle here.’ ”

And settle they did, first in residence at the Empress and later on Rockland Avenue where David, born in Hong Kong on Nov. 24, 1954, still resides.

It was on Rockland that the son increased knowledge of his family’s history from the Russian Revolution in the early 1900s to incarceration in a Japanese prison camp in the 1940s, to the death of his father in Hong Kong in 1958.

David remembers that his mother never tired of telling him how she and his father met and married in Shanghai in November 1941. And how a month after their marriage, the Japanese entered the Second World War, arrested her new husband (a British national) with several thousand other “nationals” and confined him in the Lungwha prison camp. And how she voluntarily chose to join him in what the Japanese called a Civilian Assembly Station, but inmates knew as stark prison camps.

Of the many stories she told young and maturing David about life in Lungwha, one was repeated more often than others, until the shadow of dementia finally shut down Nathalia’s recollections of the many kindnesses of camp commandant Capt. Tomohiko Hayashi. And David decided “this shining example of a humanitarian Japanese prison camp commandant in an otherwise black, barbaric world of depravity” deserved some modest recognition.

In February 2012, he wrote to Minister of Veteran Affairs Steven Blaney suggesting a statement be made in the House of Commons to “recognize posthumously [died 1984] his [Hayashi’s] assistance to Allied prisoners of war interned in occupied China.”

He provided documented examples of the commandant’s kindnesses, from the provision of his own money to buy needed medicines to making his own car available to persons requiring transportation for daily shots of insulin.

Such gestures were “very much part of his longstanding commitment to look after prisoners in his care. … He did his best to keep all the prisoners [in his camp] alive.”

Hayashi’s humanitarian approach to the care of the prisoners in his care did not meet general Japanese government standards. Hardcore guards complained regularly about Hayashi’s softness toward his prisoners.

On Thursday, Victoria MP Murray Rankin asked Parliament to recognize the former commandant’s “high principled actions [that] saved the lives of many allied prisoners of war.” Son Sadyuki Hayasy was in the visitors gallery to hear the tribute to his father.

So was David Buchan, who had worked for 12 years gathering evidence to earn recognition for the Japanese man who saved his mother’s life.

“It’s a long way to go to Ottawa for a one-minute speech,” he says. “But it was important to me — and worth it. “

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(Jack Knox wrote a detailed story on Nathalia Buchan’s adventurous life for the Times Colonist in January 2011. Steven Spielberg’s movie Empire of the Sun, based on J.G. Ballard’s novel, was supposed to reflect life in Lungwha but was soundly criticized by survivors as catering more to Hollywood box office demands than to facts. There were 15 Civilian Assembly Centres (Camps) providing Internet background reading.)