He spent four Christmases as a Prisoner of War

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By Barbara Dean-Simmons
The Packet

A tin of bully beef, a can of fried tomatoes, a boiled cabbage, a roasted yam and a cup of tea.
That was the dinner menu for Uriah (Hugh) Laite on Christmas Day, 1942.
As meager as it was, it was a bit of treat from the regular diet of barley water, rice, fried vegetables and soup - food that reminded him of the scratch feed the family used to feed their chickens - that had been his fare for the year past.
On Christmas Day, 1941, Laite and other Canadian troops were taken Prisoner of War when the Japanese army invaded Hong Kong during the Second World War.

Laite, who grew up in Petley, and was an ordained United Church minister, had been serving the church in Canada when he enlisted with the Canadian Chaplaincy Service in 1941, at the age of 45.

Dr. Wilfred Martin, in his book Random Islanders on Guard wrote that Laite spent six months in the Chaplaincy service before he was attached to the Royal Winnipeg Grenadiers and assigned to the Far East.

Throughout his imprisonment, Laite kept a diary.

His nephew Maxwell and wife Sylvia have one of the copies of the diary.

In 145 typewritten pages, Rev. Laite detailed daily life in the POW camp and poured out his thoughts and yearnings for home, where his wife and two children were waiting for his return.

In early 1942 he wrote, "The men are keeping in fairly good spirits but long for the day of our release. Of course there are fantastic rumours amongst the men every day about possible chances of our early release, but some of us are inclined to think that rumours will not become fact for a long time.

"We are anxious about home and families and pray that loved ones are hearing the strain of suspense and anxiety with God-given grace. I know that Florence and Grayson are a source of strength for their mother in those trying days. I save their photograph and once in awhile I look at it - too often is not the best for me ..."

Bed bugs, malaria, dysentery, hunger - the prisoners in the camp suffered many maladies.

And, of course, there was the homesickness.

Through the long days of incarceration, they dreamed of the day they would go home.

Sunday, July 5, Rev. Laite wrote: "Grayson's birthday. Dear Son, This morning I spent a long time looking at your photograph and thought of how grateful you were so grateful to have your bicycle last year... God bless you, Sonny boy. You mean more to me than you think and I pray that you will be splendid man I believe it is possible for you to be. . . I plan to be a real Dad and pal to you if I ever return."

Daily, Rev. Laite attended to the sick and tried to keep spirits and faith alive with regular church services.

Dr. Martin noted in his book that throughout his imprisonment, Rev. Laite "worked tirelessly for the benefits of his men, frequently endangered his health by close contact with the many dangerous diseases ravaging the prisoners of war."

Every day was a challenge in the camp, and Christmas Days were bittersweet.

While the men did what they could to cheer each other, with concerts, and carol services, each one of them, including Rev. Laite, dreamed hopefully of being able to spend the next Christmas at home.

Christmas, 1942, he wrote, "All hearts are at home today and we hope that our loves ones are well and enjoying the festive season to the full. I am thinking of the joys of yesteryears and am certain that with the most wonderful and glorious days of my life were those with my lovely family. Tiny Tim's prayer for them, and us is mine today "god bless us everyone."

The services were well attended. I was able to go along to the 12-noon service and to the short evening service. At the close of the latter we sat on the floor and sang Christmas carols.

Our meals today were special . . . at noon, tables were set up between the two huts and most of the men sat at them and ate, while the officers helped to serve."

On that Christmas night the men in the camp held a carol service at 11:45 p.m.

The next day they held church services with Holy Community at 8:30 and 10 a.m., a carol service at noon and an evensong and carol service at 8 p.m.; following the traditions of Christmas in a place where spirits could so easily be broken.

As army chaplain, Rev. Laite did his best to keep men's spirits up and his own faith in God intact.

At night, though, his dreams were often tormented by visions of his family and home.

Dec. 27, 1942, "Last night I dreamt I was at home for Christmas and saw lots of parcels, etc. around the home. Florence, Grayson and Mom were very happy to have me home again and did I enjoy buying a huge turkey.

" I wakened to have rice and chocolate sauce for breakfast; for lunch we had vegetable soup only and for supper we had rice, meat, vegetables and a biscuit - underdone - with tea."

The months rolled on, and 1942 turned into 1943

Jan. 14, Rev. Laite wrote, "It is now 9:30 p.m. For the past two hours I have been visiting B group and my heart bleeds as I think of them. Nearly every man has bad feet. Each man in the eight huts is a patient, as each one suffers from one form of sickness or another."

The winter of 1943 was one a tough one for Rev. Laite.

In February, he was diagnosed with dysentery and spent about two weeks in the sick hunt, on a liquid diet of soup.

By March 7 his dysentery had cleared and although he still suffered from a bad neck, he hoped to be back on his feet and helping minister to others.

Christmas, 1943, his third Christmas as a POW, Rev. Laite again was thinking of home and dreaming of the day when he could spend Christmas with his family once again.

His daughter Florence had turned 17 that year, and his son Grayson was just a few years younger.

"During these days my thoughts are naturally of home, and I like to sit alone at time and fancy the home I left, with Mom and the family. I pray they are still keeping well and content.

"I look forward to a reunion that will help us forget our years of separation, because of the larger joy that will be ours when," he wrote in his diary at that time.

Christmas, 1944, Rev. Laite toured the camp hospital with another officer and wrote, "Everywhere, hopes are high that soon we shall be home, and that peace after this time of chaos will be permanent."

In the meantime, the POWs did their best to have a good Christmas day.

"A concert is in progress in the adjoining hut ... for hospital patients (walking) only. The place is packed."

Their 11 a.m. church service that day had to be cancelled when the air raid sirens went off.

"Since lunch we have had another, so apparently the Yanks are busy, even on this day," wrote Rev. Laite, alluding to the pressure America was putting on the Japanese.

"This afternoon I spent time looking at snapshots of family and read letters from Stan, Florence, Cis, children and the best of wives. I know how their thoughts are with me today. Other officers and men are doing similar things," he wrote.

At 6:30 p.m. that day Rev. Laite had just begun the Christmas carol service when the air raid sirens went off again.

"I did not hear it, fortunately, so we just carried on for awhile . . . we had a good service and all are pleased that even amidst the raid we did carry on."

As with previous Christmases in the camp, the men were served a little extra for their Christmas day meal in 1944.

However, many of them were sick as a result.

"Since we have been a very long time without much fat, it was too much for our sensitive tummies. Three officers are in the hospital," wrote Rev. Laite.

In the summer of 1944, Rev. Laite was sick once again, this time with Malaria fever.

It was a month before he was well enough to go back to the main camp, but by then he had lost considerable weight. He was now just 130 pounds. When he was taken prisoner in December, 1941, he had weighed 185 pounds. Years of poor food and sickness as a POW had taken their toll.

Fortunately for the prisoners, the tide was turning and the Second World War was almost at an end.

By August, 1945, the Japanese had surrendered and by Sept. 28, 1945, Rev. Laite was on a naval ship bound for home.

"Ours is a very happy ship," he wrote in a letter to home on that date. "Most all the passengers are from prison camps. We have suffered ... but are very happy now on the road to recovery.

"We felt pretty starved when we came on board and could hardly be satisfied, but we are not asking for second helpings any longer."

His physical self may have been weakened, but Rev. Laite's spiritual self remained strong. Once back in Canada he resumed his career as a minister in the United Church of Canada.

He and his family lived in British Columbia, where they celebrated many Christmases together, until his death in the 1970s.

However, he occasionally returned to Petley, to his boyhood home, to reconnect with family and friends.

Sylvia Laite recalls one of his visits, just a few years after the war, when he held a meeting at the church in Britannia.

"You could hear a pin drop," she said, as he spoke about his experiences as a POW. "What he went through, we can only imagine."

Organizations: Canadian Chaplaincy Service, Random Islanders on Guard, United Church of Canada.He

Geographic location: Petley, Canada, America British Columbia Britannia

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Recent comments

  • Jim
    December 25, 2013 - 12:58

    A wonderful and tragic story. Thank you for sharing it.

  • Jim
    December 25, 2013 - 12:57

    A wonderful and tragic story. Thank you for sharing it.

  • Mernie
    December 25, 2013 - 12:08

    what a lovely story for me to read on a Christmas Morning...