A sister recalls the day in 1941 when she last saw her baby brother — before he joined the Battle of Hong Kong
William Joseph McGinnis was the kind of kid who constantly sought adventure — something that was usually in short supply in small-town Nokomis, Saskatchewan, in 1941.
“He was one of those kids that always liked to go places, always on the go,” recalls his big sister, Evelyn McAninch, now 101. He’d even run off from time to time, leaving the family concerned over his whereabouts, always to return hours later.
“He was an interesting kid, that’s for sure.”
It took a number of tries for Bill McGinnis to sign up for the Second World War, always lying about his age. He finally made the cut a month shy of his 18th birthday, enlisting in the 2nd Battalion, Saskatoon Light Infantry.
It was a rite of passage to manhood for her baby brother, McAninch recalled from the dining room table of her Oakville condo.
Bill went for basic training at Camp Dundurn, a Canadian Forces hub 40 kilometres south of Saskatoon. But he missed his bus there while visiting with his sister and had to take a taxi to catch up with his future battle mates — a moment in time Evelyn wishes she could change.
“We were very close. I could’ve talked him out of it,” said McAninch.
The siblings were inseparable in their younger years. Evelyn watched over Bill after their mother died when he was two and she was five. Their father died years later, in 1939.
“He might’ve waited a while longer and would’ve missed going to Hong Kong,” she said, remembering that day in 1941. “I never saw him again after that day.”
McAninch, who also served, doing administration in Saskatoon for the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, still harbours guilt about it.
She tells Bill’s story any chance she gets, more so in the month of November.
By mid-October 1941, the five-foot-seven, 132-pound McGinnis was assigned to the Winnipeg Grenadiers, champing at the bit to go places.
On Oct. 27, 1,975 Canadian troops, made up of the Grenadiers and Quebec City’s Royal Rifles of Canada, set sail from Vancouver on His Majesty’s Transport ship Awatea to Hong Kong.
For tactical reasons, their destination was top secret and unknown to the soldiers on the ship.
After refuelling stops in Pearl Harbor and Manila, the troops arrived in Hong Kong and received their official orders: defend the island against the Imperial Japanese forces.
The operation, Canada’s first major contribution to the Second World War, is acknowledged as one of the darkest times in our military history.
The British under Prime Minister Winston Churchill, preoccupied on other fronts, misjudged the Japanese forces, downplaying the threat of attack.
The mostly inexperienced Canadian troops, now joined by British, East Indian and Australian defence volunteers, had a few short weeks to familiarize themselves with the mountainous terrain of Hong Kong.