“Prisoners of war did not feel like heroes. They felt like they had somehow failed their duty. It was extremely debilitating for men to be taken prisoners — and that notion permeates this diary.”
Anna, a history major, speaks about her research on the diary of Cameron Hill, a resident of Kitchener who was a flight sergeant with the Royal Canadian Air Force, No. 40 Squadron during World War II. She discovered his story while reviewing Special Collections and Archives for a primary-source History research topic. The materials she found include Hill’s Wartime Log (the diary) and numerous other documents and personal items
“It was simply stunning,” she says. The diary proved a goldmine for first-person evidence of what Canada’s World War II POWs endured.” The most pronounced takeaway for the history major was the stigmatization experienced by soldiers who became POWs.
“Time stood still for POWs — they were trapped and unable to contribute to the war effort. Throughout the diary, Hill would write things such as ‘[I would rather be a] 1943 hero than a 1940 coward.’ Many secondary sources discussed the emasculation that this caused, which many men brought home with them.”
Researching further on the disparity between public perception and lived reality of POWs, Anna found “newspapers would publish editorials describing how being a prisoner of war was so fantastic, with segments titled ‘War Prisoners Learn to Cook.’ Of course, Hill's entries contradicted what was being portrayed back home, and thus his war diary became an outlet — a way to fix the misconstrued messages — even if no one was able to read it.”
Hill’s diary includes entries about daily experiences, lists, quotes — Winston Churchill: “The days are very long, the hours crawl like paralysed centipedes” — and creative content such as poems, cartoons and drawings by Hill or his comrades, including airplanes, prison scenes, maps, young women and scenes from home.
The course essay she wrote is titled “Distorted Public Perceptions: A Look into the Life of a Canadian Prisoner of War in the Second World War.” In it, Anna discusses how the distortion was exacerbated by the Canadian government’s mishandling of their POWs. They did not establish a dedicated office of POW affairs, and the government “found themselves tangled in a bureaucratic fiasco by 1943 when there were […] close to 10,000 Canadians in captivity in enemy hands,” Anna writes in her essay.
It was non-government organizations that stepped up to support Canadians in captivity, Anna learned through her research.
“In 1942, there were already about 900 organizations that had been established to assist Canadians who had been captured. The YMCA was one of the top three — they sent a wide variety of shipments including the Wartime Logs, books, rations and musical instruments.”
She adds that Hill noted in the diary when parcels arrived and when they didn’t: “No parcels, no smokes, no nothing, things are grim.”
More than a decade after he returned to Kitchener, Hill was still seeking compensation for time endured as a POW. Anna examined his copy of The War Claims Commission form titled “Maltreatment Summary — European POW.” “It was essentially designed to place a dollar figure on the suffering of POWs,” says the history student. “The compensation categories included ‘Aggravating Malnutrition’ at a $50 lump sum and ‘5 box-car trips’ at $20 each. Hill eventually received a cheque for $377.20 as the full settlement for two and half years as a POW.”
At the end of her essay, Anna comments on the struggle with stigmatization and misperceptions former POWs had (and have) when they returned home.
“Captured or not, all veterans deserve our respect and our honour for their service, and it is unfortunate we have not fully come to this realization.”
Anna is emphatic about her archival research experience: “It was fantastic, with more to discover at every turn. I absolutely loved working with the collection.”
Credits: Colour photos courtesy of Liam Good @liamgoodvisuals