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.
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.
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.
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.