Wednesday, November 19, 2008

John Ko Bong, commando (1912-2008)

Mary, Peter, John and Andrew Ko Bong

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 19, 2008


John Ko Bong enlisted to fight for democracy on behalf of a nation that deprived him of rights because of his ethnic heritage.

Born in Canada, he came of age at a time when ancestry trumped birthplace. He could not vote, nor hold certain professions, nor even swim in public pools.

He was working in a family business when Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. The Chinese community in Canada, which for years had been raising funds for the defence of China against Japanese aggression, had to decide how to contribute to the Canadian war effort.

“We had a big public meeting to say which side shall we take,” Mr. Ko Bong told the filmmaker Wesley Lowe as part of an oral history project. “Are we going to fight side by side with the Canadians? Or are we going to sit on the fence and let the Canadian boys do the fighting for us?”

Mr. Ko Bong and Roy Mah argued in favour of joining the war effort.

“Roy and I decided that we’re not going to be fence-sitters. We’re not going to show that we’re too yellow to fight. So we went up to the Canadian Scottish people at the Bay Street Armouries (in Victoria) and then we joined up.”

After basic training, Mr. Ko Bong volunteered for a perilous assignment made possible by his ethnic heritage. He was to be parachuted behind enemy lines as a saboteur in what was called Operation Oblivion. The name did not hold promise of a safe return.

The Oblivion volunteers showed devotion to a land in which they were treated as less than full citizens. They would later cite their wartime service to demand rights they felt they deserved by birth.

A Chinatown formed in Victoria soon after the discovery of gold in the Fraser Canyon in 1858. By 1912, the neighbourhood covered about six square blocks, including brick buildings, narrow alleys, and ramshackle cabins built of scavenged wood. It was into this bustling community of 3,458 residents that a boy named Ko Jhon Bong was born.

His given name was misspelled on his birth certificate. He was the fourth son of Jew Fun Shee and Ko Bong, who was also known by the anglicized name George Bong Simon, a couple who had named their first three boys Matthew, Mark and Luke. This apostolic quartet was followed by Mabel, Ruby, Mary, Peter, Andrew and Garnet.

Mr. Ko, who was born in Guangdong province in China, arrived in Victoria at age 16 in 1896. He became a naturalized citizen in 1909. Two years later, he met in Victoria with Sun Yat-sen, leader of the republican movement in China, who was on the cusp of overthrowing the Manchu dynasty. Mr. Ko later launched the Chinese New Republic newspaper, the proceeds of which were funnelled to republican leaders in his homeland. He even became a pilot and opened a flying club so he would be prepared to serve in an air force defending free China.

The father’s sense of duty and dedication to a noble cause left an impression on his children.

Young John attended grade school in Victoria, where his father owned a jewelry store. The eldest son, Matthew, took over the store after the family moved across Georgia Strait. John graduated from Vancouver Technical High School at age 15. In Vancouver, the family opened adjacent storefronts — G.B. Simon Jewellers and G.B. Simon Sporting Goods — on Main Street between Keefer and Pender in Chinatown.

Just weeks after the bombing of Pear Harbor, Mr. Ko Bong returned to Victoria, where he enlisted with the Canadian Scottish Regiment (Princess Mary’s).

His sister, Mary, beat him into uniform. She joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps shortly after its creation in 1941. She worked as an instrument mechanic, handling optics for compasses and binoculars. Miss Ko Bong was one of just six Chinese-Canadian women so far identified by the Chinese Canadian Military Museum to have served in uniform. Brothers Peter and Andrew would also serve during the war.

In December, 1942, John Ko Bong and Robert Lowe, representing the Victoria Chinese Youth Association, petitioned B.C. Premier John Hart for an end to discriminatory practices. The pair pledged their loyalty to the war effort, while insisting a fight to preserve democracy meant they should have the right to vote.

“These restrictions are particularly difficult for Chinese-Canadians,” Mr. Ko Bong wrote. “They, being born in Canada, cannot be considered as Chinese citizens. Because of Oriental parentage, British Columbia does not recognize them as Canadian citizens.

“Under these conditions,” Mr. Ko Bong wrote, “ can anyone be justly to blame if he wonders whether all the professed ideals we are fighting for are after all but mere hollow illusions and that the land for which he is willing to lay down his life can never be truly called his own?”

The premier promised to take the message to Prime Minister Mackenzie King.

Mr. Ko Bong underwent basic training at Vernon, B.C., before being shipped to Newfoundland, where he was instructed in the use of anti-aircraft guns at Gander.

Mr. Ko Bong was undergoing yet further training — this time in infantry tank support at Camp Borden, Ontario — when he was ordered to report to Toronto.

The ethnic heritage for which he was discriminated had new-found value among war planners in British intelligence.

The Special Operations Executive enjoyed success in planting agents in occupied Europe, where they organzied acts of sabotage designed to disrupt enemy activities. The SOE wished to establish a similar program in Japanese-occupied Asia, but found the pool of potential recruits to be severely limited by race. As it turned out, Canada had a small supply of loyal soldiers who could be dropped into enemy territory and blend in with the local ethnic Chinese populations.

A select group of 12 recruits arrived by train at Penticton, B.C., in May, 1944. They travelled by boat to estabish a camp about 15 kilometres north at Dunrobin’s Bay on Okanagan Lake. Although the camp was supposed to be secret, locals soon renamed the site Commando Bay, a name it carries to this day.

The men were to infiltrate Japanese-occupied territories in Malaya and Borneo and elsewhere in Asia as part of the SOE’s Force 136. The recruits were taught radio telegraphy, amphibious infiltration, jungle survival skills, and sabotage techniques. They were schooled in the techniques of the silent kill, as well as in the use of small arms. Photography and propaganda were also on the curriculum. They practiced what they learned in demolition class on an abandoned cabin not far from camp.

While Mr. Ko Bong was fluent in both English and Cantonese, some of the recruits did not speak Chinese, rather defeating the purpose of the force, so language lessons were added to the commando training.

Operating as a self-sufficient group, Mr. Ko Bong became the group’s barber. (Many years later, he saved pennies by cutting his own son’s hair, though the crew cuts he scissored were mostly unappreciated by their recipient.) A watchmaker by trade, he became adapt at repairing equipment.

After a series of underwater training exercises along the British Columbia coast, including mock raids against a pulp mill and a ferry terminal, the dozen men sailed for Australia, where they were to be taught parachute jumping as the final lesson before being sent into combat.

A history of the Commando Bay camp by Debra Faraguna describes an unexpected development as they neared their destination. Their American troop ship was ordered to the Philippines, so the commandos were dropped off on the coast of New Guinea, lacking provisions and a means of continuing their journey. They tracked down a signals office, which put out word of their dilemma. After several days sleeping beneath palm trees, a civilian liner picked them up to complete the last leg of their journey in luxury.

The sudden end of the war came before Mr. Ko Bong could put his training to use. Others in the group did see action. Four of the 13 commandos of Operation Oblivion were awarded the Military Medal for their bravery behind enemy lines in Borneo. Mr. Ko Bong was sent to Manila, where he was to handle prisoners of war released from Japanese camps.

“They came in walking like human skeletons,” he once recounted. “All you could see was their heads and their ribs, you know, skinny legs with no meat on them.”

They returned home to a Canada still not yet ready to recognize the veterans with full rights of citizenship. The federal government finally extended the right to vote to Canadians of Asian ancestry in 1948. British Columbia granted voting rights a year earlier, ending a disenfranchisement dating to 1874.

About 70 Chinese-Canadian veterans applied to the Royal Canadian Legion, but their request for a branch was rejected. Instead, they The formed their own branch of Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans Association in Canada, Pacific Unit No. 280. Many went on to distinguished careers, including Douglas Jung, who became the first member of Parliament of Chinese ancestry.

Mr. Ko Bong returned to work in the family business in Vancouver, which eventually relocated farther south on Main Street. He served as a steward and elder in the Chinese United Church, where he was also known for singing with the choir.

The filmmaker Jari Osborne told the soldiers’ story in the 1999 National Film Board documentary, “Unwanted Soldiers.” Among the veterans was her father, Alex Louie.

Mr. Ko Bong told her never doubted the rightness of fighting for his homeland.

“If you’re on a ship and it catches fire, you fight the fire,” he said. “Canada was our ship. There was a war on. You pick up the nozzle and you fight the fire.”

In doing so, he helped end a long and tragic period of legal discrimination.

John Ko Bong was born on Nov. 18, 1912, at Victoria. He died, aged 95, on June 17 at Mount Saint Joseph Hospital in Vancouver. Mr. Ko Bong leaves a daughter, Victoria, of Vancouver: a son, Mervyn Ko, of Lethbridge, Alta.; a granddaughter; and, a sister, Mary Ko Bong, of Toronto. He was predeceased by his wife, the former Ida Sue Yek, who died in 2003. He was also predeceased by five brothers and three sisters. He outlived one of them, Garnet, who died in 1931 at age 7, by 77 years.


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Healthy Start said...

Thank you, Tom.

This article about my Grandfather is an eloquent delivery of interesting facts recounting the proudest times in his life of service. I treasure a literary keepsake such as this, as I am just learning now about the details of my family's rich history.

E. Ko