John (Hong Kong Johnny) Stroud: Gander

It was in defence of Hong Kong in 1941 that Canadian soldiers were first committed to battle during the Second World War.

Inadequately trained, improperly armed, and numerically overwhelmed, they fought with what they had the most of, courage. Sacrificed through political and military ignorance, they were forced to endure torture, forced labour of the cruelest kind, inadequate food, and shortage of medical supplies for more than three and a half years, leaving many of those that did survive captivity to suffer physical and emotional problems that lasted throughout their lives. Canadian history has perhaps not been kind or reflective of the true events that befell the Hong Kong regiments. It is fitting that their fight and sacrifice should be brought to significant prominence by the regiment’s mascot, Gander, who, sixty years after this dreadful time, was awarded the Dickin Medal, the “animals’ Victoria Cross’.

Gander and some of his soldiers

Gander and some of his soldiers

As tension in the Pacific grew, the vulnerability of the outpost of Hong Kong, then a British colony, became more and more apparent. It was recognized that in the event of a war with Japan, Hong Kong could be taken over and must be held as long as possible. This decision was reversed late in 1941 when it was argued that the situation in Asia had altered, that the defences in Malaya had been improved, and that Japan was showing a certain weakness in her attitude towards the United States and Great Britain. The reinforcement of Hong Kong would, it was believed, serve as a deterrent to hostile action by Japan, and would also have an important moral effect throughout the Far East by reassuring the Chinese of the intention to hold the colony. Accordingly, Canada was asked to provide one or two battalions for the purpose.

The battalions chosen to represent Canada in Hong Kong to deter a Japanese attack were the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers. By mid-December, the garrison of Hong Kong was making a hopeless stand against an overwhelming Japanese invasion from the Chinese mainland. The survivors of the two regiments surrendered on Christmas Day.

Gander was a huge Newfoundlander dog who, when standing up on his hind legs, stood a good six feet tall. He could have continued in his quiet life as the pet of the Hayden family instead of becoming a hero of the Second World War. He could have carried on being called Pal, giving sleigh rides to the children and hanging out with the servicemen stationed at nearby Gander airbase in east-central Newfoundland. As guard dog to his owner Rod Hayden, who oversaw the fuelling of the thousands of planes that flew supplies from the Canadian base to Britain during the war, Pal, could spend as much time as he liked scaring pilots who mistook him for a bear on the runway. Chasing down the runway, of what was then one of the world’s busiest airports, was a dangerous sport for a dog. It was obvious to the Haydens that Pal was outgrowing his role as a household pet. They didn’t have to look too far for a new home for their gentle giant. The dog’s presence was hard to ignore in the community and his kindly nature was a welcome contrast to the stark life on the base. Presented to a guard and patrol detachment from the Royal Rifles of Canda, Pal began his career as Gander, regimental mascot.

Taking the rank of Sergeant and the name of Gander the dog returned with the regiment to Quebec where he began his illustrious military career. Rifleman Fred Kelly of the 14th platoon gladly accepted he job of being Gander’s handler and can still recall his fondness for the dog that became his shadow. “Gander was no problem at all to look after. I had dogs all my life and we kind of took to each other right away. He ate anything and everything but had a particular taste for beer which he would drink right out of the sink. He was a very playful dog and often stopped me in my tracks by resting his front paws on my shoulders.”

In the summer of 1941, the Rifles, with Gander, who came to be known as Sgt. Gander, at the head, took part in their Farewell Parade through Quebec City. Thousands of people, including friends and family lined the streets to wave goodbye to the Regiment as the men prepared to leave for duty on Hong Kong Island.

Gander’s intervention during battle was to prove a lifesaver. Veterans of the battle still recall how the dog charged at the Japanese soldiers even as they made their first landings on the island. “Gander appeared to hate the enemy on sight,” recalls Rifleman Reginald Law. “He growled and ran at the enemy soldiers, biting at their heels. And what amazed us all was that they did not shoot him then and there.”

On several occasions Gander’s sheer size and ferocity was enough to deter the enemy’s advances. One documented incident recounts how the dog forced a troop of Japanese soldiers to retreat and change the direction of their attack, a move which saved the lives of a group of injured Canadians stranded on the approach road.

But Gander’s final act of bravery took place during the Battle of Lye Mun in December 1941. It was there that Gander made the ultimate sacrifice.

The Canadians were retreating down an overgrown road, pursued by the Japanese,” said Derrill Hendersen, secretary of the Hong Kong Veteran’s Association of Canada and an expert on Gander. “The Japanese threw a grenade that rolled by a wounded soldier and some others who were helping him.”

“We were using the sides of the road for cover as much as possible for there was heavy fire and the Japanese were throwing grenades,” says veteran Rifleman Reginald Law. “By throwing them on the ground, the grenades would roll further before exploding. The last time I saw Gander alive, he was running down the road towards the Japanese soldiers”. “There was an overly heavy amount of fire and I heard several grenades exploding very close to our group. A small group of Japanese soldiers ran from something on the road where Captain Gavey and his men were lying badly wounded. One of the men told me later that the soldiers where running from a big dog. They told me later that Gander had run towards a grenade rolling down the road and that it had exploded just as he had picked it up in his mouth. When the firing eased up, I saw Gander lying dead in the road. He was in the open ground between us, and the Japanese, so no one could get close. With the enemy still advancing, we had no choice but to leave him and we had to assist the wounded”

It was not until 1945 and the repatriation of the Canadian soldiers who had been held as prisoners of war that Gander’s story was told to the outside world. The dog’s exploits are mentioned in the histories of the defence of Hong Kong but no one until recently had taken the steps to verify the story. The spirit of Sgt. Gander, Canada’s canine hero of the Second World War was remembered on November 28, 2004, in London when Princess Anne unveiled a monument honouring the brave dog and others like him. The Animals In War monument, located off Park Lane in London’s West End, honours all animals who have served in wartime but pays special tribute to the 60 animals who have been awarded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) Dickin Medal, considered the Victoria Cross for animals. Gander was the 55th recipient for the award and the only Canadian animal to have received it.

Gander’s Dickin medal awarded is on display at the Canadian War Museum in the Hong Kong section of the Second World War Gallery in Ottawa.

5 Responses to “John (Hong Kong Johnny) Stroud: Gander”

  • Jeremy Swanson says:

    Sadly much of the Gander story is not correct. More importantly perhaps is that the Dickin medal was awarded in Ottawa in October 2000 and not in 2004. The story of Gander and mention of him by the veterans was started by a conversation with this writer in August 1995 and research and subsequent verification of the story and action was begun at the end of that month by my team. Work on the verification part of the project took three years to complete and the application and confirmation another 9 months on top of that. The medal was indeed once on display for a few months at the old Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. It is not on display now and neither is the story of Gander. It has been more than 6 years since the medal was last seen by the public or the story told. A book on which I collaborated however has been written by Ms Robyn Walker of Ontario.

    Sadly there is more interest in Gander’s story from overseas than there is in Canada. It has always been my feeling that there should be a statue of Gander in Canada. This would intrigue Canadian youth enough to foster an interest in the related history and then of more general military history as a result.

  • When my war museum team started the research and verification project in respect of Gander at the end of August 1995 they interviewed many of the veteran soldiers of the Royal Rifles who were there at the battle and who were thankfully still living at the time of the revelation of the Gander action. Besides being briefed by my volunteer researchers frequently I personally viewed every account and also interviewed some of the veterans themselves including the redoubtable Roger Cyr who had carried the accounts of several veterans related to Gander for many years with him. Roger at one point in my office tearfully drew out a sketch of the ‘final action’ as he knew it to have happened and this was later corroborated by veteran Reginald Law in a written account, including a sketch which dominated the file and finally led to the award of the medal. In those accounts the grenade action (at which Reginald Law was present) was in a defensive (partly sandbagged) firing position on the high ground above the road mentioned in the blog account provided by Derril.

    Professor (Ret’d) Howard Stutt the lead team researcher was fastidious in compiling the veterans accounts and briefing me as the project continued. Indeed it was reported during my own research that it was from the area of this road which the attacking Japanese troops were throwing or launching their grenades at the defenders on the higher ground. The 7 defenders including Reginald Law were all wounded (by grenade fragments) and lying helpless in the defensive circle they had taken in their firing positions. This final grenade landed right in the middle of their position where no-one could reach it (some of them had been throwing grenades back down the hill) and would probably have killed them all had Gander not streaked in and picked up the grenade and run off with it preventing the explosion in the first position. The whole event could not have taken more than 6 seconds from the time the grenade landed to it exploding (such is the fusing on these explosives) It was these vital seconds which Reg Law and his comrades witnessed and were convinced that were all that it took for Gander to save them all from death or severe further wounding. Fred Kelly and others all saw Ganders body at the position they remembered at the high ground when they were marched away from the defences to captivity.

  • Alexa DeWiel says:

    Mr. Swanson, thank you for the clarification. I appreciate your time and dedication and trust that by posting your response, I am rectifying all errors. John Stroud, as you may know, died in April of 2008, so regrettably he will not read your account. My blog was initially to be a book, begun about five years ago. Life intervened and for various reasons the project was delayed. I received a frustrated phone call from Mr. Stroud about two years ago, from which I quote: “…throw everything else aside and get cracking on that book. I just turned 85. That’s an order!”

  • Emmie Flanagan says:

    My father was a prisoner of Hong Kong and he spoke very highly of Sergeant Gander, as children we even had a St. Bernard named Gander. Dad had an incrediable memory of the three and one half years he spent as a prisoner of war (POW). If this were, say Jan.29th…he would recollect the day (be it 1942,43,44 or 45) he would then tell us, his children, the atrocities of that day.
    As a child of a this “prisoner of war”, I remember seeing many tears fall from my father’s eyes and I (at the tender age of 49)felt there was a need to ensure to keep his memory alive (as well as his many friends and commards from the Royal Rifles).

    My wish is to have a monument of Sergeant Gander placed in Belledune, New Brunswick along with names from the Royal Rifles (Gaspe and New Brunswick) who so vallantly fought for our freedom. I believe the Village of Belledune is a perfect location because so many of these men were from this area. Belledune NB is also geographically centered for all Royal Rifles from Newfoundland to Ontario and some eastern states of USA.

    My plan is to have a statue of Sergeant Gander and his fellow commardes names placed (in granite) at our Heritage Park, over looking the beautiful Appilation Mountans of Quebec.

    I have clearence to do this from Phil Dodrige (president of HKVA – Royal Rifles Division) and several other living Hong Kong Vets.

    But I may need some help – the unveiling is next year Summer or Autumn 2011 – 70 years since the “Battle of Hong Kong” and the loss of their mascot “Gander”.

    Let me know what you think.

    PS John (Johnny) Stroud’s name will be included in this memorial because I know how much he cared and I think I just got a visit from him (he’s beligerent but has so much passion for this project).

    I remain,

    Emmie Flanagan

  • Carol says:

    Would you please let me know if the project to erect a statue of “Gander” is still active. I represent former school students who grow up in Gander during WWII and we are very familiar with “Pal”. We are investigating the possibility of erecting our own monument to Sgt. Gander here in the town of Gander as a tribute from us. I sincerely hope someone will get back to me regarding this.

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