Canadian veteran describes going to war at 17, being captured and regaining his freedom

WATCH: 92 year old George MacDonell describes going to war, fighting the Japanese then spending about four years as a prisoner of war in Hong Kong and Japan.

So often when we think of war heroes, we think of those who died in battle. But hundreds of Canadians also died in prisoner of war camps, many of them in Japan where the regime was especially brutal.

One World War 2 veteran wants Canadians to know about those quiet heroes, the soldiers who risked torture and their lives to do damage to do damage from behind enemy lines.

92 year old George MacDonell has published a new book, “They Never Surrendered” to chronicle the stories of POW’s.

MacDonell enlisted in the military at 17 years old. Although it was a lifetime ago, the memories remain vivid.

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He was with his regiment, fighting alongside the British in Hong Kong when the Canadian soldiers found themselves badly outnumbered by as much as eight or ten to one. On Christmas day the British surrendered, forcing the Canadians to also lay down their weapons.

Nearly 1,700 Canadians found themselves in the hands of the Japanese, first in a prisoner of war camp in Hong Kong, then Japan.

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“In both camps we were slowly being starved to death,” said MacDonell.

They were put to work as slave labourers, but were not given enough food.

One in three prisoners would die of disease, starvation or abuse.

“You’d be severely beaten until you were insensible,” said MacDonell.

But he explained they never gave up. Their sense of duty drove them on, not just to survive but to keep fighting, taking enormous risks to carry the war to the heart of the Japanese empire.

MacDonell was sent to Yokohama, where POW’s slaved in the largest shipyard in Japan.

For over a year two soldiers from Toronto plotted in total secrecy to destroy it.

WATCH: Veteran describes plan to destroy prisoner of war camp from within. Christina Stevens reports. 

Staff Sgt. Charles Clark and Cpl. Kenneth Cameron honed in on the buildings and acquired the blue prints.

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“They figured out how to cause a raging fire that destroyed that part of the shipyard, so the shipyard shut down,” said MacDonell. They did more damage than all the American bombings of that ship yard during the entire year.”

He believes they are heroes who deserve to be remembered.

Another was Dr. John Reid, who, at great personal risk, defied Japanese authorities. He saved lives by refusing to let sick prisoners work.
MacDonell wants Canadians to be inspired by their valor.

He said if it were not for so many heroes, there would have been far fewer men still alive when help finally came almost four years later, a day that is etched in his memory.

“It was a pretty exciting day when the United States Marines showed up in their armoured vehicles, smashed down the gate of the camp and said let’s get out of here we are in a dangerous place,” MacDonell recalled.

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