Canadian Stories · Chinese Culture · The stories of WWII

The James Bonds of Chinatown: meet Force 136

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).

Remembrance Day

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.

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My father marching in the Remembrance Day parade, ~1980s. He’s on the left hand side, in the front. Credit: From the archives of Harold Chu. © Linda Yip. All rights reserved.

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.

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Cecil Yip. Jan 1945. Credit: From the archives of Linda Yip. © Linda Yip. All rights reserved.

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.”

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Page 111, featuring Dick Yip and the members of Force 136. From Saltwater City by Paul Yee.

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.

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Dick Yip and a group of Force 136 commandos, enroute from Meerut, India. They are (clockwise from left) Tommy Wong, Dick Yip, Gordon Lee, Ed Lee, Maurice Jang, Willie Chong, and James Mar. Sep 1945. Credit: From the archives of Dick Yip. © Linda Yip. All rights reserved.

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?

1986-11-11 - Force 136 Veterans at Remembrance Day at Victory Square Cenotaph Vancouver BC - P02775
Chinese Canadian veterans at the memorial parade featuring Ted Wong (front left). Nov 1986. Credit: From the archives of Harold Chu. © Linda Yip. All rights reserved.
1986-11-11 - Force 136 Veterans at Remembrance Day at Victory Square Cenotaph Vancouver BC - P02775
Close up view. The badge says “Force 136 – Malaya.” Credit and copyright as above.

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.

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Chinese Canadian Military Museum, Vancouver, BC. Credit: Linda Yip. © Linda Yip. All rights reserved.

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.

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Military training, Shilo Camp, MB. 1945. Credit: From the archives of Dick Yip. © Linda Yip. All rights reserved.
1945-03 - Dick Yip London UK WWII w notes 1200 dpi YYIP P00377
Dick Yip (standing, far left), Leonard Lee (kneeling, far left) and 3 other Force 136 troops enroute to India. London, UK. Mar 1945. Credit: From the archives of Dick Yip. © Linda Yip. All rights reserved.

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.
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The members of EWS-1. Dick is 5th from right. Poona, India. Aug 1945. Credit: From the archives of Dick Yip. © Linda Yip. All rights reserved.

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.

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Force 136 in India. Dick is 3rd from left. Sep 1945. Credit: From the archives of Dick Yip. © Linda Yip. All rights reserved.

Postscript

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.

Sources

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. **

15 thoughts on “The James Bonds of Chinatown: meet Force 136

  1. What an amazing thing to find out, Linda. I’m not surprised your family didn’t say anything about it – as well as any secrecy your uncle would have been sworn to, WW2 really was hell for the people involved and that generation talked very little about what they went through.

    It’s nice to know more about your uncle.

    1. I still remember being dumbfounded the day I found that photo in Saltwater City. It was like a war was going on in my head – is this Dick? Can’t be Dick – he never said anything about this… but it must be – this guy is a dead ringer for Dick and his name is Dick Yip..! What is going on!??!?

      It’s great to know a bit more about him. I wish I’d gotten to know him when he was alive.

  2. If you have not already seen this short documentary on Force 136 — produced in 2017 — you will enjoy it. Always interesting to hear first-hand accounts of what it was like in the jungle.

    1. Hi Catherine! Yes, I have seen this one. It’s beautifully done – thanks for sharing it here. The story of Operation Obliviion and Force 136 one of the most remarkable stories about the Chinese in Canada I’ve ever run across. Truly something to remember and celebrate.

      1. Hi Catherine – I just realized that you’re the Catherine from the documentary. Hello! (I know, I’m slow.) I’d LOVE to ask you more about Force 136 at some point when you’ve got time.

  3. Thank you for sharing. My Grand-Uncle Leonard Lee is in the London picture with your Dad, kneeling in front of him. Uncle Len is still alive and well and living in Toronto. His cousin Victor Wong is alive and well and living in Victoria BC.

    1. Hi Todd – WOW! If any of you, uncle Len, or Len’s cousin Victor is up for a call, I’d love to talk about it. I have a handful of other photos I’m trying to ID as well, which I can share with you privately. If you’d like to talk further, you can email me at hello@past-presence.com.

      1. Hi Todd – I just realized you’re the brains behind GungHaggis – it’s so great to meet you. I’ve been reading your work for years.

  4. Hi Linda,

    Thank you for sharing this little know history of Force 136 with us. My Uncle Robert W.J. Lee also served. He enlisted in Vancouver in October, 1944 and after Basic Infantry Training he was sent to London, England and thence to India. I share the same strong interest passion as you in history and genealogy. Regrettably my Uncle Bob is now deceased. I have details of my uncle’s service with the Canadian Army but very scant details of service with British Intelligence. Any information that you can share would be appreciated.

    1. Hi Gerry! Thank you very much for commenting. As you can see, I’ve been chasing the facts around Force 136 and Operation Oblivion for over 10 years now. I would be happy to share my research notes with you. I’ll respond to you privately.

  5. Hi Linda,

    Thank you for putting together this Blog. My parents came to Canada in 1946. My Grandfather came to Canada sometime after WWI. I am trying to timeline his arrival. He never spoke much about his early days in Canada.

    The information on Force 136 is most interesting as I did not know about this until I read your blog. Excellent reading!

    I found this information from the Chinese Canadian Military Museum website that was very informative as well. You probably have viewed this link already.

    http://www.ccmms.ca/features/the-story-of-force-136/sd

    1. Hi Jack,

      Your family sounds pretty typical – looking forward, not back. Thanks for the link regarding the Chinese Canadian Military Museum! It’s good to have it here.

      Linda

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