In search of Mrs. G. C. Fair­burn

Re­search into the fate of a Vancouver nurse cap­tured dur­ing Ja­pan’s takeover of Hong Kong in 1941 led us to a fas­ci­nat­ing tale of wartime hor­rors, tragic deaths — and, above all else, love


This Christ­mas story be­gins not with fes­tive fam­ily rit­u­als or vis­its to Santa at the mall, but in what we som­brely call “the morgue.” That’s The Vancouver Sun’s li­brary of long dead pa­pers, now stored on mi­cro­film, the acid- treated pulp of old newsprint al­ready de­cay­ing into the mulch of his­tory.

The story starts when the rov­ing eye of a colum­nist re­search­ing a piece on Pearl Har­bor and its im­pact on Vancouver snags on what we call a “so­cial item” buried in the small print on page 28 of the edi­tion of Dec. 23, 1941.

The item that catches the reporter’s eye is a short list of names. The head­line reads: “B. C. men, women de­fend­ing Hong Kong.”

The list be­gins with Staff Sgt. Jack B. Thomp­son, who we’re told worked 12 years at Pow­ell River, en­listed in the Royal Ri­fles in 1940 and has a wife and two daugh­ters. Then it moves on to Cpl. Ernest Day­ton, 20, of Chilli­wack and Lance- Cpl. Wes­ley James White. Next are sig­nal­men Ge­orge Grant, 21, of Ab­bots­ford — who mar­ried Agnes Mck­in­non on Oct. 20 and left for Hong Kong six days later — Ernest Thomas, 25, and Ja­cob Rose, 21, all of Vancouver, and Arthur Robin­son, 22, a grad of John Oliver high school.

Far­ther down are four more names: nurses in Hong Kong. One of them is Mrs. G. C. Fair­burn, a grad­u­ate of the Vancouver Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal School of Nurs­ing in 1931. Her name is ac­com­pa­nied by the in­trigu­ing de­tail on which the re­porters’ eye snags:

Mrs. Fair­burn, it’s re­ported, was evac­u­ated from Hong Kong to Manila in Au­gust 1940, came to Vancouver, but then re­turned to the about- to- be em­bat­tled colony in Septem­ber 1941.

Bat­tal­ions sac­ri­ficed

Hong Kong is best known in Canada for the sac­ri­fice of two Cana­dian bat­tal­ions, the Win­nipeg Gre­nadiers and the Royal Ri­fles, in a de­fence that, to bor­row the ti­tle of his­to­rian Tony Ban­ham’s metic­u­lous ac­count, had “Not the Slight­est Chance.”

The colony, far from a United King­dom at the des­per­ate nadir of its for­tunes in the Sec­ond World War, had been writ­ten off as strate­gi­cally dis­pens­able when Prime Min­is­ter Macken­zie King ac­ceded to a late Bri­tish re­quest for re­in­force­ments.

Bri­tish au­thor­i­ties had al­ready or­dered Euro­pean women and chil­dren evac­u­ated from Hong Kong to the Philip­pines and Aus­tralia in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a Ja­panese sur­prise at­tack.

By Aug. 3, 1940, 3,474 had left, among them Nurse Fair­burn.

But the plan was ill- ex­e­cuted, was op­posed by the non- Euro­pean com­mu­nity as racist and dis­crim­i­na­tory, and was op­posed by Euro­pean women who wished to stay with hus­bands or fam­i­lies.

Sub­se­quently, 900 women were granted ex­emp­tions from evac­u­a­tion. They could stay pro­vided they vol­un­teered for ser­vice in one of the aux­il­iary ser­vices to the mil­i­tary. Nurse Fair­burn, al­ready safely out of the war zone, would re­turn to face the haz­ards as a vol­un­teer with the Aux­il­iary Nurs­ing Ser­vice.

The two Cana­dian bat­tal­ions, so raw that some Gre­nadiers hadn’t even had ba­sic train­ing and some had ac­tu­ally live- fired their ri­fles only 35 times, ar­rived on Nov. 16, join­ing two Bri­tish and two In­dian bat­tal­ions, a Hong Kong reg­i­ment and var­i­ous units of lo­cal vol­un­teers.

About 2,800 of the Euro­pean women and chil­dren, along with many thou­sands of their Chi­nese and In­dian coun­ter­parts, were still in Hong Kong when the Cana­dian re­in­force­ments ar­rived.

When the storm broke on Dec. 8 — it was Dec. 7 in Vancouver be­cause of the In­ter­na­tional Date Line — Hong Kong mus­tered 14,000 de­fend­ers. They were faced by 52,000 bat­tle- hard­ened troops from the Ja­panese Im­pe­rial Army, which had been wag­ing a sav­age war of oc­cu­pa­tion in main­land China for the pre­vi­ous decade.

Why raise this grim tale at Christ­mas when we cel­e­brate peace on Earth?

A news­pa­per does so be­cause this is the 70th an­niver­sary of these mo­men­tous events, which are rapidly mov­ing to the edge of liv­ing mem­ory.

For the rest of us, it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that the warmth, plenty and safety that en­velop our Christ­mas to­day were bought at great cost. To avert our eyes from un­com­fort­able his­tory is to do the ul­ti­mate dis­ser­vice to those who lived it and whose tri­als de­serve to be re­mem­bered.

Af­ter all, the orig­i­nal Christ­mas Story it­self is one of atroc­i­ties, tribu­la­tion, flight and the tri­umph of faith.

Hong Kong sur­ren­dered to the Ja­panese army on Dec. 25, 1941. It was still Christ­mas Eve in an ap­pre­hen­sive, jit­tery Vancouver more than 10,000 kilo­me­tres to the east, where peo­ple set­tled into their fes­tiv­i­ties in ig­no­rance of what was hap­pen­ing on the other side of the Pa­cific.

By then, 1,550 de­fend­ers of Hong Kong were dead. An­other 2,500 would soon die as pris­on­ers of war in bru­tal, un­der­nour­ished, dis­ease- in­fested in­tern­ment camps.

In the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the de­feat, more than 10,000 Hong Kong women would be raped. The 2,800 Euro­pean women and chil­dren still there would march into the in­tern­ment camps with other pris­on­ers of war.

What was her fate?

So who was Nurse Fair­burn, how did she come to vol­un­tar­ily re­turn to Hong Kong hav­ing es­caped the catas­tro­phe and what was her fate?

To dis­cover this it had to be de­ter­mined whether she was even from Vancouver, although in­clu­sion in a so­cial item sug­gested she was well known. What was her name be­fore she mar­ried? Was she still in Hong Kong when it fell? If so, did she sur­vive and go into one of the no­to­ri­ous prison camps — and did she sur­vive that?

Ten per cent of the de­fend­ers of Hong Kong died in the fight­ing. An­other 20 per cent would die in the camps. One of them was Lance- Cpl. White of Ab­bots­ford, who would die of diph­the­ria on Sept. 25, 1942.

B. C.’ s provin­cial ar­chives had no record of a G. C. Fair­burn mar­ry­ing any­one. Pri­vacy con­straints blocked ac­cess to most of the records from the pe­riod when a wed­ding was most likely, af­ter her grad­u­a­tion from nurs­ing school in 1931. Death records were re­stricted, too.

But a web­site main­tained by Ban­ham, the Univer­sity of Hong Kong his­to­rian who has made an ex­haus­tive study of the pe­riod, pro­duced one tan­ta­liz­ing lead. On a list of civil­ian cap­tives was a Mrs. C. Fair­burn, a nurse at the Univer­sity Re­lief Hos­pi­tal, one of the emer­gency sta­tions set up to deal with the tsunami of wounded that over­whelmed the city’s hos­pi­tals in the fierce fight­ing.

“There was never time for the med­i­cal staff to take shel­ter dur­ing air raids or shelling at­tacks,” wrote Bri­tish his­to­rian Brenda Mcbryde of the bat­tle in Quiet Hero­ines: Nurses of the Sec­ond World War.

“More beds al­ways had to be made up for the wounded, who were left on their stretch­ers in all kinds of un­likely places ... Some­how each pa­tient was washed and fed, his wounds dressed, and pre­pared for op­er­a­tion. Some­times when a stick of bombs fell un­com­fort­ably close it was not en­tirely clear as to who was com­fort­ing whom be­tween pa­tient and nurse.”

Nurses stayed bravely at their posts, even as the Ja­panese army over­ran de­fen­sive po­si­tions. Hos­pi­tals were hit by bombs and ar­tillery shells. They ran out of med­i­cal sup­plies.

The main sup­ply de­pot was cap­tured and its med­i­cal staff slaugh­tered. In one hos­pi­tal, the op­er­at­ing the­atre took a di­rect hit. In an­other, the only method of an­ti­sep­sis was to soak rags in dis­in­fec­tant and drape them over the open wounds of men stacked on stretch­ers in the cor­ri­dors.

“Nurs­ing in the dark­ened wards be­came a night­mare,” Mcin­tyre wrote. “Pa­tients were car­ried to the al­ready con­gested lower floors where there was scarcely room to move be­tween stretch­ers and beds. The dead were buried each night, in quick­lime, in the near­est shell hole.”

Nurses worked un­til ex­haus­tion over­came them.

Bri­tish nurse Brenda Mor­gan, just en­gaged, was killed when a shell hit the mess where she pre­pared a hot meal for other nurses. Her fi­ance a young of­fi­cer, would die in the fight­ing shortly af­ter.

At St. Stephen’s Re­lief Hos­pi­tal, the two med­i­cal chiefs were shot and drunken Ja­panese soldiers ran amok, bay­o­net­ting more than 50 wounded Cana­dian, Bri­tish and In­dian soldiers in their beds.

In one act of hero­ism, a young nurse shielded the body of her pa­tient and was bay­o­net­ted with him. Her name has never been de­ter­mined. In three hos­pi­tals, nurses were gang- raped and then mur­dered.

At yet an­other re­lief hos­pi­tal, a Cana­dian sol­dier later re­ported to a war- crimes tri­bunal that he was led past the de­cap­i­tated bod­ies of eight St. John’s Am­bu­lance vol­un­teers, many of the head­less corpses still kneel­ing.

In­side the hos­pi­tal, nurses were taken off four at a time to be raped, although this time none were mur­dered.

How­ever, at other hos­pi­tals, nurses and other cap­tives, both civil­ian and mil­i­tary, re­ported be­ing treated cour­te­ously and with ap­par­ent con­cern for their safety.

His­to­rian Charles G. Roland cites one in­for­mant who re­ported that cap­tured of­fi­cers were later taken to wit­ness the ex­e­cu­tion by fir­ing squad of 14 Ja­panese soldiers whom they were told were be­ing pun­ished for par­tic­i­pat­ing in the orgy of vi­o­lence.

New leads

In the midst of this chaos and car­nage, few records sur­vived.

But a query to Ban­ham added two more bits of in­for­ma­tion. Nurse Fair­burn, he said, was Cana­dian, a Mary Con­stance Fair­burn, born May 6, 1900. She was in­terned at the Stan­ley Camp af­ter the fall of Hong Kong but was repa­tri­ated in 1943 when Canada ne­go­ti­ated an ex­change for a cap­tured Ja­panese con­sul.

Yet a broader search for in­for­ma­tion about nurses at Hong Kong proved sur­pris­ing. Although these women played a cru­cial role both dur­ing the bat­tle and later in keep­ing thou­sands alive in the camps, ex­cept for a chap­ter in Mcbryde’s ac­count, al­most noth­ing had been writ­ten be­yond lurid ac­counts of the atroc­i­ties at the end of the bat­tle.

Even these are glossed over in the of­fi­cial his­tory of the Bri­tish army’s med­i­cal ser­vices in Hong Kong and the Far East. There were a few first per­son ac­counts in print and a Bri­tish spe­cial­ist in women’s his­tory had pub­lished a pa­per de­tail­ing the im­por­tant role of women and nurses in mak­ing the Stan­ley Camp sur­viv­able. She points out that al­most all the his­tor­i­cal ef­fort had been de­voted to the plight of mil­i­tary pris­on­ers of war.

None of this helped in dis­cov­er­ing Mary Con­stance Fair­burn.

Then a ran­dom search of bor­der cross­ing doc­u­ments from Canada to the U. S. be­tween 1895 and 1956 turned up an­other tid­bit. A Mary Con­stance Fair­burn had crossed at Su­mas, Wash., on Jan. 29, 1947. She’d listed her birth­date as May 6, 1900, in Per­nia, B. C. — and a con­tact in Canada named B. Franklin Bon­nell.

There’s no Per­nia in the Gazetteer for B. C. But could that B. stand for brother? Was her un­mar­ried name Bon­nell?

A search of cen­sus records for 1901 turned up a Mary Con­stance Bon­nell in Fernie, aged one. A search in 1911 turned up a Con­stance, aged 11, and Franklin, aged eight, in the same house­hold.

Their fa­ther was Saul Bon­nell, a Mcgill Med­i­cal School grad­u­ate lured west by the Klondike gold rush in 1898 who wound up the coal min­ing camp’s doc­tor.

Saul Bon­nell served as Con­ser­va­tive MP for the East Koote­nays af­ter the elec­tion of 1917, los­ing the next time to a Lib­eral by 136 votes and then fail­ing in a bid for the provin­cial leg­is­la­ture in 1924. He would later be elected three times as pres­i­dent of B. C.’ s Col­lege of Physi­cians and Sur­geons.

Wrigley’s Di­rec­tory for 1926 showed him prac­tis­ing medicine in Vancouver and Con­stance Bon­nell work­ing as a clerk at the Cana­dian Bank of Com­merce. Franklin Bon­nell was a stu­dent at the law firm of Davis, Pugh, Davis.

By 1929, the di­rec­tory listed Con­stance as a nurse and Franklin as a lawyer — he’d later be pres­i­dent of the Vancouver Bar As­so­ci­a­tion — both liv­ing at 3690 Selkirk with Saul Bon­nell. There the trail pe­tered out. But then an email ar­rived. It was from An­gela Peck of North Vancouver. She’d seen the men­tion in the Pearl Har­bor story. She is Con­stance Fair­burn’s step­daugh­ter. She had an­swers.

Fam­ily con­nec­tion

An­gela was born in Hong Kong on April 7, 1935. Her mother, Kath­leen Fair­burn, died of com­pli­ca­tions in the birth a few hours af­ter she was born.

First, she straight­ened out the mys­tery of G. C. Fair­burn. The reporter in 1941 had mis­heard. It was T. C. Fair­burn. The er­ror lin­gered to be­devil a colum­nist 70 years later.

An­gela’s fa­ther, Thomas Camp­bell Fair­burn, born in 1893, had been a mer­chant sea­man. He ran away to sea at the age of 14, served in the last of the great sail­ing ships and then took a shore post­ing in Hong Kong in 1934 and brought out Kath­leen, whom he’d mar­ried when she was 19.

The grief- stricken wid­ower’s in­fant daugh­ter — “I had a let­ter he wrote to his mother the day she died, he was crazy about her” — was sent to his sis­ter, “Aunt Micky,” in Ire­land.

Then, in 1936, he met Mary Con­stance Bon­nell in Hong Kong while she was trav­el­ling with her friend, Trixie Hugh- Jones.

“She was a de­mon trav­eller,” An­gela says. “She was al­ways on boats. She thought I was crazy [ to marry young and] to have kids and tie my­self down.”

The two mar­ried in 1937. In 1939, with a home leave and war clouds loom­ing in Europe, the cou­ple trav­elled to Bri­tain to bring to safety the step­daugh­ter Con­stance Fair­burn had in­her­ited with her new hus­band.

“We must have been out by Septem­ber of 1939,” An­gela says. “I would think we re­turned to Hong Kong in the spring of 1939. To be hon­est, I do not re­mem­ber my par­ents there, I re­mem­ber the ser­vants. I re­mem­ber the chow dog from Hong Kong.”

And she re­mem­bered the out­lines of her mother’s “won­der­ful colo­nial life­style, en­ter­tain­ing, play­ing mah- jong.”

“She was a lady,” An­gela says. “She was very well read. When she came here for a meal, it was like the queen com­ing!”

Soon it be­came clear that war might en­gulf the dis­tant colony, too. The fol­low­ing Au­gust, women and chil­dren were or­dered evac­u­ated. Con­stance took her step­daugh­ter to Manila and then back to Vancouver where she had fam­ily.

But in Au­gust 1941, with ten­sions mount­ing and war im­mi­nent, Con­stance de­cided she should be with her hus­band in Hong Kong. He had been called up from the Royal Navy Re­serve. An­gela was placed in the care of a fam­ily friend and her step­mother left by steamer. She had only a few scant weeks with her hus­band be­fore war rolled over them.

“I think she went for love,” An­gela says.

Life- al­ter­ing ex­pe­ri­ence

Con­stance must have vol­un­teered for the colony’s Aux­il­iary Nurs­ing Ser­vice to be al­lowed to re­turn. She was as­signed to the Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal on Dec. 7, the day the at­tack be­gan. Her ser­vice of­fi­cially ter­mi­nated on Dec. 25, 1941, the day she be­came a pris­oner.

Her hus­band, too, was cap­tured. As a mil­i­tary pris­oner he went to a se­ries of POW camps, where he would re­main un­til the war ended. The ex­pe­ri­ence changed him.

“Fa­ther got out in 1945,” An­gela says. “I re­mem­ber VJDAY. We were at the beach at English Bay. I lived in that water. I re­mem­ber the big horn go­ing. I think he came home a month later. He seemed dis­tant. He didn’t seem to give a damn.”

Thomas Fair­burn got a job mon­i­tor­ing marine traf­fic in and out of Vancouver Har­bour and fir­ing the evening gun at Brock­ton Point. He died on Dec. 24, 1977, the an­niver­sary of Hong Kong’s fall and his en­try into cap­tiv­ity 36 years ear­lier.

What Con­stance Fair­burn ex­pe­ri­enced as a nurse and later in the camps, no­body knows, not even An­gela. Like many sur­vivors, she never talked about it with her step­daugh­ter ex­cept in the most gen­eral terms. She main­tained her si­lence right up to her own death in 1996.

There was one thing that al­ways irked her, though, An­gela says.

When Con­stance fi­nally got home from the Ja­panese prison camp in 1943, the Cana­dian govern­ment pre­sented her with a bill for $ 920.93 for its trou­ble in repa­tri­at­ing her.


Mary Con­stance Fair­burn was in­terned at the Stan­ley Camp af­ter the fall of Hong Kong in 1941.


An­gela Peck de­scribes her step­mother, Mary Con­stance Fair­burn, as ‘ a de­mon trav­eller.’

The pipe- smok­ing Thomas Camp­bell Fair­burn with his first wife, Kath­leen ( above), and with his sec­ond wife, Mary Con­stance ( left). Thomas re­mar­ried af­ter Kath­leen died giv­ing birth to their daugh­ter, An­gela. Thomas and Mary Con­stance both later be­came pris­on­ers of war in Hong Kong.

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