The voices of Canadian servicemen fade in and out, at times clear and booming, at others distant and muffled. But for their families, these scratchy, static-laden messages were the sound of hope.
The men were prisoners captured during the Second World War by the Japanese army, which broadcast their messages home over Radio Tokyo. Short-wave radio enthusiasts on the west coast of the United States listened in, making a hobby of recording the messages onto cardboard discs and sending them to the soldiers’ families.
One such POW was Lawrence Stebbe. A signalman with the Winnipeg Grenadiers, he was captured on Christmas Day, 1941 during the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. He toiled as a prisoner for more than three years at an airport in Hong Kong, a shipyard in Tokyo and a coal mine near Sendai. Dysentery, beriberi and skin ulcers were regular occurrences, and many prisoners died. At one point, Mr. Stebbe temporarily lost part of his sight as a result of malnutrition.
In 1944, he recorded a message for Radio Tokyo, along with a fellow Manitoban, Alec Henderson. The broadcasts were picked up by James Eichen of the War Prisoner’s Recording Studio, a volunteer group in Long Beach, California. He sent both discs to Mr. Stebbe’s family in Beausejour, Manitoba.
Mr. Stebbe’s father could not bring himself to listen to the recordings and hid both away. The record intended for Mr. Henderson’s family was never delivered.
Not much is known about Mr. Henderson, but his broadcast may offer some clues. It begins with the greeting “hello, Elmwood,” a neighbourhood in Winnipeg. At one point, he mentions someone named Molly. He also mentions the San Antonio Mine, which is a gold mine near Rice Lake, Manitoba. Mr. Henderson relays several messages for some of his fellow prisoners, rhymes off a list of men who are healthy and directly addresses his own family.
“My sincere hope for your health and happiness until I return,” he says, concluding with: “May God bless you and keep you well.”
Mr. Stebbe survived the war, returning home to go into business operating a chip stand and, later, a shoe store. He died last month.
The story of the POW messages was unearthed by a researcher at the Historica Dominion Institute’s Memory Project, which provided these sound files and photographs to the Globe. If you have a prisoner-of-war message, or another story from the Second World War or Korea please visit The Memory Project.