A meteorologist, businessman, politician and writer, Bernard Jesse was a pillar of his community in Estevan, Sask. Despite his successes, Mr. Jesse was haunted by a dark past, having been a prisoner of war in Japan, where he was beaten regularly and forced to do slave labour in a coal mine.
The son of a Michigan couple who had settled in Western Canada under the Dominion Lands Act that promoted settlement, he grew up on the family farm near Wordsworth, Sask., a small village about 200 kilometres southeast of Regina. The third of seven children, he was a competitive lad who enrolled at the local one-room schoolhouse a year earlier than usual. He had insisted on an early start to his education because he didn't want to be outdone by his sister Violet, who was a year older.
When the Depression hit, the Jesses weren't affected as much as other farm families on the Prairies. While his father worked as a foreman for the railroad, Bernard and his older brother, Reynold, would ride the rails to Manitoba in the summer, picking up work as farmhands where they could. The boys would earn a few cents for a 14-hour day of hard manual labour and used the money to buy new school clothes in the fall, dickering with shopkeepers to get a good price.
After finishing high school, Mr. Jesse went to Sudbury, where Reynold was working in a mine. Once there, Mr. Jesse decided mining wasn't for him and decided to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Even though the Second World War had started, the air force wasn't recruiting, so Mr. Jesse signed up with the Winnipeg Grenadiers, a woefully equipped infantry regiment that was still using old uniforms and rifles from the First World War. His training was minimal - he learned how to march and assemble and disassemble weapons, but there were no bullets for shooting practice. But his pay was 75 cents a day, a lot more than he could make farming.
In early 1940, the regiment was sent to Jamaica to perform garrison duty and guard German prisoners of war. Mr. Jesse worked as a motorcycle scout, keeping a watch on islanders who were thought to be sympathetic to the enemy.
By September, 1941, the unit was back in Winnipeg - but not for long. To discourage sabre-rattling by the Japanese, Britain figured it should send soldiers to protect Hong Kong. Since British troops were at a premium, Canada was asked to contribute, and in October, the Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles from Quebec set sail for the colony. Neither regiment had much experience, but few were overly concerned, since Japan was not yet at war. Following a zigzag pattern to avoid targeting by German submarines, their ship took 33 days to reach Hong Kong. On Nov. 16, they marched ashore to the beat of a military band.
Three weeks later, the Japanese struck - just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Canadians were entirely unprepared. Outnumbered and outgunned - their artillery and machine guns had been mistakenly sent to Manila - they fought bravely with little more than rifles, grenades and side arms.
Mr. Jesse was stringing up a telephone wire when he saw the Japanese planes overhead. Over the next several days, he was involved in a number of minor skirmishes, but did not appreciate the severity of the situation until the pill boxes the men were holed up in were hit by mortar fire. Out of 14 men in his unit, only Mr. Jesse and three others survived.
The four men were then sent to guard a bridge, where they encountered a truck with loudspeakers that announced the fighting was over. Skeptical, Mr. Jesse and the others held their position and later retreated to headquarters. It was there, on Christmas Day, that they were told they were prisoners of war. Their fighting days were over. For others in Hong Kong, the situation only became worse. In what became known as "Black Christmas," Japanese soldiers went on a rampage of looting, attacking hospitals and schools and terrorizing civilians. Hundreds of men were murdered at random and an estimated 10,000 women were raped.
After packing up as much food and clothing as they could carry, Mr. Jesse and his comrades were marched to an old building where living conditions proved to be poor. An outbreak of diphtheria hit the camp, throwing Mr. Jesse into a state of delirium. The illness eventually caused him to lose his sight.
Nursed back to health by fellow prisoners, his vision returned and he was sent to Japan to work in a Tokyo shipyard, cutting steel. That came to an end when the site was attacked by U.S. bombers. Everyone ran to the safety of bomb shelters except Mr. Jesse. The diphtheria had left his legs permanently crippled and he could move no faster than walking pace.