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Ronald Lee's wallet contained tattered photos of himself in uniform and with his commando comrades.Ronald Lee Family/Chinese Canadian Military Museum

When the Second World War ended, Ronald Lee did what so many other returning veterans did. He shed his uniform, took up civilian life, married, had kids and never talked about what he did during the war.

Mr. Lee maintained his silence for 70 years. Beyond a few medals found in his underwear drawer long ago, his six kids knew almost nothing about his wartime experience. Finally, in his mid-90s, he agreed to be interviewed by Catherine Clement, curator of the Chinese Canadian Military Museum in Vancouver.

Having unbridled himself for the first time, Mr. Lee’s bottled-up memories came pouring out, as if he’d been spinning them all his life. He told of poisonous snakes and scorpions, being overrun by monkeys, night parachute training, a bout of malaria, relaxing with mah-jong and whisky after a full day’s training at his commando group’s base in what is now Sri Lanka. And he talked about the risk. “To the Japanese, killing was nothing. If they capture you: Bang, you’re gone! It was the same for us. Kill or be killed,” Mr. Lee remembered.

He had been part of Force 136, a group of 150 courageous Chinese-Canadians from British Columbia recruited as special forces to operate behind Japanese lines. Each was issued a cyanide pill to avoid torture, if captured. One talked later about being so fraught with fear, he put a pillow over his head every night and cried himself to sleep. It was all heady stuff for a bunch of young men, many of whom were barely a year out of Vancouver’s Chinatown.

Yet they would be undertaking their dangerous, secretive missions on behalf of a country that ostracized them, denied them citizenship and the vote, and, since 1923, had specifically barred all further Chinese from immigrating to Canada.

Their bravery and loyalty to a country that mistreated them remains little known to Canadians well versed in the exploits of Canadian troops on D-Day and their hard slogs through Normandy, Italy and the Netherlands.

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Second World War veteran Ronald Lee.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Mr. Lee’s children were astounded to discover what their father had volunteered for. “We had no idea he was part of this heroic group,” his daughter Patty Lee said. Shortly after her father talked to Ms. Clement, he agreed to attend a Force 136 reunion. “When we got there, I couldn’t believe it,” Ms. Lee said. “Everyone knew him, and he knew them. One of them said: ‘Ron Lee, I thought you were dead.’”

There was more to come. Three years later, Mr. Lee lost his wallet. The old vet seemed unusually upset, beyond the bother of replacing his documents and credit cards. Ms. Lee soon found out why. Miraculously, someone found Mr. Lee’s wallet and mailed it to him. His daughter opened the wallet and there she noticed some thin, tattered photos she had never seen before of Mr. Lee in uniform and with his commando comrades. Unbeknown to anyone, he had kept them, from wallet to wallet to wallet, even as he maintained his resolute silence about the war.

When she learned of Mr. Lee’s undiscovered photos, Ms. Clement of the military museum was deeply touched. “Here was a veteran who, until age 95, never spoke of his service to Canada or his contributions to helping Chinese in Canada win the vote. It was as if he dismissed the importance of what he did,” she said. “And yet, these fragile and fading photos, secretly stuffed in and transferred from wallet to wallet for almost 75 years, revealed how much his time as a soldier for Canada meant to him.”

They are now part of a special Remembrance Day exhibit at the new Chinese Canadian Museum in Vancouver, organized by Ms. Clement.

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Beyond a few medals found in Mr. Lee's underwear drawer long ago, his six kids knew almost nothing about his wartime experience.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Mr. Lee had already shown a desire to serve even before the formation of Force 136. Seeking reprieve from what he considered a humdrum life in Vancouver, he volunteered for the Canadian Army soon after war broke out in 1939. But, like other Chinese-Canadians who tried to enlist, he was quickly shown the back door, simply because he was Chinese.

Then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. As the War in the Pacific intensified, Britain’s top-secret Special Operations Executive, designed to spearhead sabotage and foment resistance behind enemy lines, realized the worth of Chinese-Canadians who spoke Chinese and could blend in with local populations. The SOE pressed Canada into accepting them into the military, as Force 136.

For the bold young recruits, it was more than patriotism and a spirit of hazardous adventure that prompted them to volunteer. It was also an assertion of their equality and the belief they were entitled to more than second-class citizenship. And a way to show they deserved the coveted right to vote.

One group specialized in explosives and demolition. Another, which included Mr. Lee, became expert wireless operators. They trained rigorously, in Canada and at bases scattered about Asia, where they learned the basics of jungle survival, guerrilla combat and the art of silent killing.

As it happened, Mr. Lee, who died last year a few months short of his 102nd birthday, was on the tarmac, waiting for an airplane to deliver him behind the lines in Burma (now Myanmar), when word came through that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. “It saved all of our lives,” he told Ms. Clement. “They stopped the operation right there. I wasn’t disappointed. If they hadn’t dropped the bomb, our chances of coming back were pretty well zero.”

Few members of Force 136 had begun their missions before Japan’s sudden surrender. One was wounded. Several became ill. All survived. Today, only a handful remain.

Why did Mr. Lee stay silent about his service until he was in his mid-90s? Partly, he felt he hadn’t contributed much. Also, “It’s something I kept to myself. You know, we don’t go around, telling: ‘Hey, hey, I did this. I did this!’” he told an interviewer in 2017. “But we were happy, see!”

When Mr. Lee’s treasured wallet photos resurfaced, Ms. Lee had new ones printed up by a photo restorer. She presented them to her dad in a Christmas card. “He was delighted,” she said. But later, when the family checked, the new photos were still in the Christmas card, and the threadbare originals that had meant so much to him for all those years were back in his wallet.

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