Honouring the memory of local WWII prisoner of war
Waterloo student unveils WWII diary that highlights the stigmatization endured by prisoners of war
Waterloo student unveils WWII diary that highlights the stigmatization endured by prisoners of warBy Wendy Philpott Arts
“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.”
Fourth-year History major Anna Good is speaking 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.
In 1942, Hill was captured after he and his co-pilots survived the downing of their plane in El Alamein, Egypt. He was just 22-years-old. During 932 days of captivity, Hill was moved ten times between prisoner of war (POW) camps in North Africa and Europe — minus four days when he briefly escaped from a train in Austria. In the spring of 1945, he was released and returned to Kitchener.
“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 Good was the stigmatization experienced by soldiers who became POWs.
Researching further on the disparity between public perception and lived reality of POWs, Good 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.
A particularly fascinating section of the diary represents a sardonic coping strategy that Good learned was practiced by many POWs. In their diaries, they quote excerpts of real or imagined letters from home to prisoners: “From a wife — Darling, I’ve had a baby with an American Officer, but don’t worry, he’s paying expenses …”
“These entries express understandable anxieties and fears all POWs had, such as losing your fiancé to a real ‘war hero’ or being mocked for having allowed yourself to become a captive,” Good says.
More than a decade after he returned to Kitchener, Hill was still seeking compensation for time endured as a POW. Good examined his copy of The War Claims Commission form titled “Maltreatment Summary — European POW.”