The Captain Was a Doctor

The Long War and Uneasy Peace of POW John Reid

Reviewed by Gregory Loughton

Posted January 21, 2022

John Reid, a newly graduated doctor working at Vancouver General Hospital, joined the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps in August 1941. After a few weeks of basic training and a course in tropical medicine, Reid became part of “C” Force, which included some 1,975 Canadians who were sent to defend Hong Kong during the Second World War.

From December 8, 1941, Reid was plunged into war. Following Hong Kong’s surrender on December 25, Reid endured life as a prisoner of war of the Japanese Army. During that period he kept a secret medical diary detailing the effects of deliberate Japanese mistreatment: starvation, the withholding of medical supplies, forced labour, beatings, and several executions.

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 — the death rate for other Canadians in Japan was 16 per cent, while Reid’s group suffered a mortality rate of just 4.6 percent — as well as Reid’s successful defence of a relatively humane Japanese camp commander at the 1946–48 Tokyo war crimes trials. Also detailed is the destruction in January 1944 by two enterprising Canadian POWs of ship blueprint plans at the Kawasaki Shipyard.

From January 1943, Reid and 664 other Canadians sent to Japan worked at a series of labour camps, mainly the Kawasaki Shipyard and a coal mine. Reid, a non-combat officer, assumed command and earned the respect of his men through a sense of fairness and honesty, an inner toughness, and a natural authority. He held regular conferences with his men, and all food rations were pooled and shared equally.

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Reid’s force of character, persuasiveness, and logical negotiating also won the respect of his Japanese captors. His personal intervention ended some of the harshest treatment and obtained better camp beds and stoves, as well as more medical supplies (including through the black market). He convinced the Japanese to support a “slow work” regimen to ensure better chances of survival for the weakest men. And he gave his men hope, with the message that “this is only temporary … put up with it. We aren’t going to lose. It’s just a matter of time. These people will never defeat us….”

After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, Reid was reunited with his wife, Jean, after having been separated by four years and 7,500 kilometres. Promoted to major in 1946, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (Member). Part of his citation read: “he was able to help the lot of his men immeasurably…. Reid continued to display the highest qualities of humanity, skill, devotion to duty [and] deserved the highest possible recognition….”

Beginning a new life in Vancouver, John and Jean Reid had two sons, Tony (born in 1946) and Jonathan (born in 1948). However, the trials of imprisonment and the struggle for survival had taken their toll. Emotionally unstable, John became increasingly distant to Jean. He had in fact met another woman, Cathy, and from 1948 to 1953 Reid supported two families; he and Cathy eventually had four children. John and Jean divorced in 1951, and in 1954 Jean returned to Toronto with their two sons.

The second son, Jon, had been mystified about his divided family from the age of six, and in his teen years he was confused by his father’s inability to open up about his feelings. After John Reid’s 1979 death from the effects of a stroke and pneumonia, Jon began to write about his father, weaving together family records, newspaper articles, official Canadian Army and Bureau of Pensions records, friends’ and Hong Kong veterans’ recollections, and information from histories of the battle and fall of Hong Kong.

It’s now more than eighty years since the Canadians of “C” Force — the Royal Rifles of Canada and Winnipeg Grenadiers, as well as headquarters troops — fought a valiant but hopeless battle against the overwhelming might of the Imperial Japanese Army. Only a few veterans of this action are still alive. The Captain Was a Doctor honours those who fought and the men who were taken prisoner along with two Canadian Army nursing sisters.

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Gregory Loughton is curator emeritus and an advisor for the Royal Canadian Military Institute museum and has worked with Canadian Hong Kong veterans.

This article originally appeared in the February-March 2022 issue of Canada’s History.

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