A few months ago, I was given a rare and precious gift – two photo albums and several envelopes stuffed with small black and white photos. In them were pictures of my uncle’s life. The thing is, my uncle Dick was kind of like a Chinese James Bond. For real.
He was a member of Force 136. If you’ve never heard of it, well, the members were sworn to secrecy, and many took their oath to the grave. Certainly I never heard of this ultrasecret spy school for the Chinese of Canada from my uncle (or my dad, for that matter).
All I remember from my father’s and uncle’s time serving in WWII is that Remembrance Day was a big, serious deal. My father, Cecil Yip, would assemble his outfit well ahead of the parade, making sure that his shoes were spit-shined and his medals polished. He’d put on his purple beret and navy suit jacket festooned with his medals, and he’d set off for Chinatown. He’d meet his brother Dick and the other members of the Army Navy Air Force Veterans of Canada, Unit 280, to march in the Remembrance Day parade.
He did this every year of my life until his death in 1989. Sometimes, he marched with tears in his eyes.
Clearly, it meant a lot to him. I’d ask him silly questions such as, “Dad, what was it like for you in the war?” but he’d shake his head.
I wasn’t there. He couldn’t explain it.
A startling discovery
I found out that Dick was a member of Force 136 about a decade ago when I was reading Paul Yee’s Saltwater City. There, on page 111 was a large photo of a group of Chinese men who’d been posted to Poona, India. I recognized his face instantly, barely bothering to read the confirming caption: “Front, left to right, Herbert Lim, Willie Chong. Back: Larry Goon, Dick Yip, Bud Quon, Hubie Lee, Gordon Wong.”
I had SO MANY QUESTIONS, beginning with How do I know nothing about this??? I was ashamed. He was family and I knew nothing about it.
Several years later, I was scanning a huge cache of family photos. In it were some pictures from a 1986 Remembrance Day parade. One of the veterans was wearing a crest that said “Force 136” – now where had I seen that before?
What was Force 136?
There’s not a lot of information out there on Force 136, at least compared to the hundreds of books on other aspects of WWII. I started combing the Canadiana sections of used bookstores looking for the smallest scrap of information. If it had so much as a paragraph, I bought the book. It became a bit of an obsession. (That’s how I amassed the titles in my Books – Chinese Canada section.) I heard about an out of print book called The Dragon and the Maple Leaf by Marjorie Wong, which detailed the Chinese Canadians in WWII, and I paid top dollar for it.
Finally, I found the Chinese Canadian Military Museum (CCMM). I talked to the curator, Larry Wong, who patiently answered my questions and invited me to visit the next time I was in Vancouver. It took me years to find the time to get there, but when I did, it was worth the wait.
On the CCMM website it says about Dick Yip:
Like many Chinese Canadians during the Second World War, Dick Yip (K.7853) signed up for the Canadian Army but was never called up due to the fact he was Chinese.
After the Japanese entered the war, and invaded large swathes of South East Asia, things changed. Men like Yip received a letter inviting them to begin their training as soldiers.
Yip would not be any ordinary soldier. He agreed to become part of a very special and rather secretive assignment. He would be loaned to British Intelligence, trained in survival and guerrilla warfare tactics, dropped behind Japanese lines, and tasked with seeking out and assisting local resistance movements in the jungles of South East Asia. In other words, Yip would become a combination spy and commando soldier in Force 136.
The fall of Southeast Asia in WWII
Picture this. It’s December, 1941. Japanese forces have steamrollered over Asia. Country after country from Thailand and Malaya to Penang and Borneo has fallen. The Allies are reeling from the dual shock attacks at Pearl Harbor, where 2400 were killed, 1000 were wounded, 20 naval vessels and 300 planes destroyed; and at Hong Kong, where 11,848 Allies are killed and thousands more captured. Southeast Asia is in chaos. Things are looking dire for the Allies.
Force 136 – Chinese commandos for a covert war
Force 136 was an experimental division of the secret British organization Special Operations Executive (SOE), whose mandate was simple: sabotage, subversion and guerilla warfare. SOE needed to find, train, and deploy soldier-spies throughout Southeast Asia and Australia who looked and talked like locals but were Canadians. The Chinese in Canada weren’t, strictly speaking, Canadian, but they’d do. It was ridiculously dangerous. Those who went were not expected to return.
The first group of 13 men was recruited in the summer of 1944 and initally trained at a camp in the Okanagan, somewhere between Penticton and Kelowna. Four spoke Cantonese – they were earmarked for operations in Hong Kong.
By January, 1945, SOE had ramped up operations considerably. 117 men arrived in Poona, India, for final training and deployment. They’d come from training camps in Red Deer, AB; Shilo, MB; and Camps Borden and Barriefield in Ontario to assemble first in Ottawa and then in London, England.
They were sent in waves from Canada, so that if one group didn’t make it, the next group might. Some travelled by ship from Halifax, risking the deadly Atlantic crossing where U-boats hunted. Once in London, they had a few days of R&R before the last leg to India, although it’s debatable how much relaxing could be done when London was the favoured bombing target of the Luftwaffe.
Dick was in London in March, 1945. It’s likely he travelled with the third group to leave Canada, leaving for London on Sunday, March 18th. He would have been issued the regular clothing for overseas soldiers – battledress, khakis, and a beret.
Once in India, he took 8 weeks’ training as a field operative with Eastern Warfare School (EWS)-1, which included:
- jungle survival,
- enemy tactical training,
- using readily available bamboo as a weapon, as food, as a utensil,
- First Aid,
- cleanliness and hygiene in a jungle setting,
- navigating small watercraft,
- industrial sabotage, and
- wireless training.
The sudden surrender of Japan
Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ten of the Force 136 commandos had already been deployed – the rest were in training and in various stages of readiness to go. Dick, who was days away from deployment, was saved from what amounted to a one-way trip.
He was 21 years old.
I’m not done researching Force 136 – not by a long shot. It’s a fascinating story-within-a-story. Most of the books I’ve read cover the wider topic of Special Operations Executive, its secret operations and its networks, but few focus on Force 136. I’m still in discovery mode, and if you know something about it, please send me a note via the contact form below. I’d love to share research notes with you.
[Update] I’ve amended the caption for the photo in London thanks to Todd’s comment below. If you recognize anyone in these pictures, please let me know. I’ve got a small stack of military photos and I’ve got facial recognition software with Adobe Lightroom.
Thanks to Valerie Wong’s comment, I’ve also ID’d her dad, Ted. He’s the one wearing the Force 136 crest.
I would love to ID every one of these soldiers and give them their proper due. Especially since their mission was so covert, the Canadian Army appears to have had and still has trouble recognizing their service to Canada.
Battle of Hong Kong. Accessed 30 Dec 2018 at World War II Database.
Dick Yip. Accessed 30 Dec 2018 at Chinese Canadian Military Museum.
Pacific War. Accessed 30 Dec 2018 at Wikipedia.
Pearl Harbor. Accessed 30 Dec 2018 at History.com.
Wong, Marjorie. The dragon and the maple leaf: Chinese Canadians in World War II. 1994. London, ON: Pirie Publishing. (Out of print)
Yee, P. (2006). Saltwater City: an illustrated history of the Chinese in Vancouver. Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyre.
**Also huge thanks to my aunt who gave me the photos. **