There is a moment when even a prisoner sees an opportunity to contribute to the war.
A shipyard is a massive and highly complex industrial system. In 1943, before the age of computer automation, the basic production process could be roughly summarized as follows. A marine engineer would design, in blueprint form, drawings of a ship’s components. These parts would then be rendered into wooden moulds or templates that could be used to trace out the shape of each part on thick steel plate, which would guide the acetylene torches used to cut the steel into required form. As each part was cut from steel sheets, it would be transferred to the appropriate vessel under construction and riveted, welded, or bolted into place. The high volume of ships being produced at the shipyard, and the large number of parts contained in each one, meant that tons of paper blueprints and templates had to be stored on site. The two-building facility where they were stored comprised a single tiny nerve center within an industrial shipbuilding process that otherwise spread out over many square miles—a fact of considerable interest to anyone who might want to bring production to a sudden halt.The crucial question was how. Since the yard worked on a 12-hour day shift, any scheme Clark developed would have to be executed in broad daylight, under the noses of Japanese guards—an impossible task. What he needed was some way to set the destructive act in motion on a delayed basis, so that it would unfold when the site was empty.At the work sites to which they’d been assigned, Clark and Cameron began squirreling away a variety of combustibles that they could use to produce a primitive firebomb—such as paint thinner, oil, rags, oil-soaked shavings, benzine, resin, paper, and celluloid. To time the operation properly, they used a candle, which, once lit in the afternoon, would burn down for several hours until it ignited a hand-made fuse that would, in turn, set off the assembled combustibles.It took Clark and Cameron a year—acting without the knowledge of anyone else, even fellow POWs—to gain access to the target buildings, establish a safe hiding place for the bomb, smuggle in the combustibles, and put the device together, all the while knowing that an unexpected search or a single mistake would lead to certain, and possibly gruesome, death....Shortly before quitting time on the afternoon of January 20th, they set up their device behind a pile of rubbish in one of the rarely inspected storerooms in the mould loft, lit the makeshift candle fuse, then marched back to Camp 3D with their comrades. At 8pm that night, with every POW in camp and accounted for, the candle burned down to the fuse and the bomb ignited, just as planned. The storage building and the neighbouring blueprint facility were engulfed in flame. Because of the nature of the combustibles, the initial incandescent blaze emitted an enormous amount of heat and smoke, and the handful of security officers on site were powerless to extinguish what soon became a raging inferno.The result was everything Clark and Cameron had hoped for: Work at the massive shipyard ground to a halt. In the days to come, some limited construction did recommence on ships that already were near completion, but building new ships had become impossible. This included the anti-submarine vessels that the Japanese navy desperately needed.To say that the Japanese were furious is an understatement. And the feared Kenpeitai—Japan’s military police—were soon in our camp, questioning the Canadian warrant officers and anyone else they suspected might be involved. But two things blocked their discovery of the truth. First, the pact of secrecy Clark and Cameron had agreed to had been total. No one (including me) told the police anything because, aside from this pair of conspirators, no one had anything to tell. (In fact, I didn’t discover the facts until the war was over.) Secondly, the fire had consumed the evidence. Clark and Cameron left no telltale signs that could be traced to them or any of the other POW workers.
Staff Sergeant Clark and Private Cameron escaped detection until the end of their captivity, and both survived to return home to their Canadian families. For their brave actions, they were decorated by the King. “Charlie” Clark won the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) and Private Cameron the Military Medal (MM).Clark also became an energetic leader of the community of returning Canadians soldiers, and eventually formed the Hong Kong Veterans Association of Canada. Tragically, soon after returning home, this brave man died in a house fire. And with him perished his detailed notes of how he and Cameron had so bravely carried the war to their enemy.Back home in Alberta, Private Cameron became active within his community as a Big Brother, Kiwanis Club member, and Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) volunteer, in which capacity he taught blind people to play golf and curl. While writing this account, I asked his family about his wartime exploits. They told me that they’d only learned of them when he was decorated and written up in the press. When asked why he hadn’t told them about it previously, Cameron had simply smiled and said he “was just doing my duty” (an admirably humble formulation that, as his 1944-era Japanese captors might have noted, wasn’t literally true).