Chance plays a part in all our lives. So it was with Kenneth Cambon, who lied about his age to enlist in the army in 1940. What did he know about "risk," the watchword of the old and timid? He was after adventure and escape from a tedious job. Who could have predicted that he would spend nearly four years as a prisoner of the Japanese? No matter what else happened in the rest of his life -- a medical career as an otolaryngologist, a long and happy marriage, children, the publishing of his memoirs -- everything was coloured by a spontaneous decision he made as a 16-year-old boy.
Mr. Cambon came from a military family. His father George was a professional musician in the regimental band of the Royal 22nd Regiment (the Vandoos) in Quebec under the command of Georges Vanier, who would later become governor-general of Canada. His grandfather on the side of his mother Lucy (née Duffield) was the garrison commander in Barbados before bringing his family to Canada after the turn of the last century.
George and Lucy Cambon had four children, Margery (Bunny), Noreen, Ken and, after a nine-year gap, Austen. They lived on Cartier Avenue near the Battlefields Park in Quebec City and sent their children to the nearby St. George's School. As a young man, Ken was not a distinguished scholar. He completed Grade 11 at Commissioners' High School in 1940 ( junior matriculation) and found a job as a soda jerk at The Citadel Cigar, across from city hall, at the magnificent salary of $10 a week, plus the occasional tip and training as a short-order cook. One day, he had had his pay cut in half because he had broken a coffee pot, and was disconsolately walking home when he passed a recruiting sign for the Royal Rifles of Canada. The advertised pay was $1.30 a day, so Ken lied about his age and signed up in July of 1940, just before his 17th birthday.
Private Cambon trained as a rifleman in Valcartier, Que., Sussex, N.B., and Gander, Nfld., all geared towards Arctic warfare. Instead, the Royal Rifles were sent to Hong Kong to defend the British Crown Colony in an ill-fated stand against what would soon become swift and brutal military aggression by the Japanese. After the Canadian, British and Hong Kong regiments surrendered on Christmas Day, 1941, Pte. Cambon was taken prisoner by the Imperial Japanese Army. He spent the next 44 months in execrable and inhumane conditions in PoW camps in Hong Kong and Niigata, Japan, out of contact with his family for many desperate months until they were finally notified by telegram that he was a PoW. This seemed so much better than the other dire possibilities -- killed or missing in action -- but of course, they didn't know about the conditions in Japanese PoW camps. Some time later, Pte. Cambon's sister Bunny, an army nurse in England, sent him a carefully worded birthday card, but it wasn't delivered to him until the early 1990s, after it turned up in a war memorabilia collection.
After the Japanese surrendered in August of 1945, he was released from Niigata, more dead than alive. He had "celebrated" four birthdays as a PoW. In one of his last diary entries, on the eve of his 22nd birthday, he wrote: "I honestly can't imagine myself ever eating what I desire, drinking with jovial companions, reading, ever enjoying life again." One of his last forced acts was to help dig a deep pit in front of the camp, ostensibly the foundation for an air-raid shelter, but in reality a mass grave following Japanese Field Marshal Terauchi's order late in the war: "At the moment the enemy invades Honshu, all prisoners of war are to be killed."