Canadian vet to mark V-J Day

Second World War veteran Bob Kennedy describes combat in three theatres of the war that culminated...

Second World War veteran Bob Kennedy describes combat in three theatres of the war that culminated with the surrender of Japan on Sept. 2, 1945 — his 25th birthday. (Craig Glover, QMI Agency)

JONATHAN SHER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:54 AM ET

LONDON, Ont. - Bob Kennedy steps up to the microphone, straightens his tartan cap and glances down at the next bawdy song he'll sing to entertain guests who have come to his south London home to celebrate his 90th birthday.

He's the headliner at his own party and that doesn't surprise those who know him best -- he's told jokes and has sung songs to friends, family and fellow veterans for as long as they can remember.

If someone's surprised, it's Kennedy himself, not that he's the life of the party but that he's alive at all.

It's not the first time he's stood on his birthday in awe at his own mortality.

Sixty-five years earlier, Kennedy felt a similar blend of joy and relief as he stood on the deck of HMS Gambia in the Bay of Tokyo, part of an Allied armada there as Japanese leaders signed a surrender that officially ended the Second World War.

The Allied force was overwhelming, especially the Americans, and U.S. General Douglas MacArthur timed the ceremony so that as the Japanese leaders lifted the pen to sign surrender documents on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri, thousands of American planes flew just overhead.

That night, Allied soldiers celebrated and those in the British fleet were treated to a double tot of rum -- about five ounces -- and the one and only beer they'd get on a naval vessel.

That day became VJ-Day in Canada, short for Victory Over Japan Day.

It would be mostly overlooked in Europe and celebrated with aplomb in the United States, where the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour had been the first on American soil since the War of 1812.

For Kennedy, that day meant something more personal: He'd live to see more birthdays after what before had seemed like a path to certain death.

From the sunlit room of his kitchen in South London, the Glasgow native recalls how he grew up in the shadow of a military base where he delivered milk to married soldiers and their families. His Scotland of the 1930s was one where men struggled to find work in the face of the Great Depression, so at age 17, Kennedy signed up to become a Royal Marine.

"I joined up to see the world. I didn't think there would be a bloody war," he says.

Kennedy pulls out a framed black-and-white photo of his graduating class of 1938, points to several and lingers at one.

"Captain Phillips. He was killed at Dieppe. Quite a few of the boys were killed at Dieppe."

Kennedy was assigned to man the big guns for the British fleet, first in the Atlantic Ocean, where the Royal Navy struggled with German U-boats to control the shipping lanes.

His closest brush with death came in 1942 in the Mediterranean Sea.

The Allies had been using the island of Malta to attack Axis convoys taking supplies to armies in North Africa, so when Nazis blockaded the island, the Allies sent military convoys to get supplies to Malta.

Kennedy was assigned to man the big guns of the flagship of the 15th Cruiser Squadron, HMS Naiad, and in March it was lured from port in Alexandria, Egypt, by a false report of a damaged Italian vessel.

The ship was in total darkness when Kennedy felt it jolted up from the sea, a torpedo from a U-boat exploding the engine room.

The Naiad lurched to the right and quickly began to sink.

With explosions rocking the ship, Kennedy and a crew mate made their way to the stern, where seawater was already coming over the deck. They jumped into waters cold from winter, kept afloat by a life jacket the sailors called a Mae West for the way the chest inflated.

Hours passed. Kennedy's arms and legs began to stiffen from the cold. He prayed. In his mind he saw the faces of family back in Scotland, urging him to hang on.

After five hours, they were spotted and picked up by a destroyer.

Eighty-three of his crew mates perished.

But while that night was awful, worse things awaited in the Pacific, where Kennedy joined HMS Gambia, which had been lent to the New Zealand navy.

Tales of Japanese brutality were rampant and Kennedy didn't doubt them when the Allied fleet came under assault at the battle of Okinawa.

Kamikazes struck all five British carriers, says Kennedy, slapping his kitchen table five times. One took aim at the Gambia, barely missing.

"If you hadn't had a bowel movement for awhile you had one right there. They'd come out of the sky out of nowhere and come straight down."

He dreaded what was planned next: An invasion of Japan itself.

With mountains framing most of the main island, the only place for an amphibious landing was Tokyo Bay. The Japanese were dug in and some estimated more than a million Allied casualties if civilians resisted, too.

In early August 1945, the Gambia and Allied fleet were ordered to back away 640 kilometres (400 miles) from Japan. Something was up but no one knew what.

The world would learn Aug. 6.

A single American plane dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, destroying everything within two kilometres of its detonation, killing 66,000 people from the blast and unleashing radiation that would kill countless more in coming years.

On Aug. 9, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing between 40,000 and 75,000.

Six days later, Japan surrendered.

There would be no invasion.

In the weeks after the war, Kennedy went ashore in Japan to bring back Allied prisoners from a prisoner-of-war camp outside Kobe. The city was beautiful but the camp was awful: Prisoners who survived brutal treatment were bone thin, their bellies distended. One told Kennedy he ate snakes and rats to keep alive.

Estimates vary considerably of casualties in the Pacific War that began Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese launched attacks on Pearl Harbour and British Malaya. But the Americans alone estimated 41,322 soldiers in their force were killed and another 129,274 injured before the Japanese surrender Aug. 15, 1945.

"I don't know, to be quite honest with you, how I got to this age," Kennedy says, his eyes growing watery, his voice tired.

"I don't know, It surprised me. Between the battle of Crete, the Malta convoys, the Pacific fleet, Okinawa. Jesus, I'll tell you. Everyone dropped down on their hands and knees and thanked God they dropped those (atomic) bombs. Without that I doubt I'd be here today."

Kennedy lifts his head with resilience learned over nine decades.

"I'm here and I'll have a party here Saturday. I'll put on my highland kilt and I'll have a glass of Glenfiddich single malt scotch."

How the Scotsman settled in London is an unlikely tale. After the war, he decided to move to New Zealand, whose beauty had struck him while he served in the Pacific.

The normal route of travel east was off-limits because of unexploded mines along the way. So Kennedy went west, with plans to get to Vancouver and sail across the Pacific. With only 50 English pounds -- about $200 Cdn -- he sailed to New York, then took a train to Toronto. Only then did he learn Vancouver wasn't close to Toronto.

"Little did I know the expanse of Canada."

The fare was costly and Kennedy was almost out of money so he hooked up with a fellow Scot who helped him get a job at the Royal York Hotel as a bellhop.

"It was the biggest hotel in the British Empire, with 2,300 rooms. I know that because at 2 a.m. I delivered bills under all the doors."

He planned to earn enough to continue his journey. But there was a setback, one he didn't want to discuss, only saying it was related to his military service and he ended up in Sunnybrook Military Hospital.

There Kennedy would fall in love with a Canadian nurse named Jessie Bruce and she with him. "Can you see why?" he beams showing her photo.

In 1949 the couple moved to London. Kennedy worked with National Defence and the Ontario Liquor Board. They became parents -- Bruce and Jim Kennedy still live in the city -- and later grandparents.

A long life has brought joy, but also loss. Friends died. Kennedy stopped playing golf in his mid-80s because no one was left to play with.

A few years ago Jessie died.

Once there had been 28 Royal Marines in the London region; now it's down to seven.

But one tradition endures.

Kennedy didn't take many wartime souvenirs and most of what he did he gave to friends. But he still has three Japanese glasses he believes were used by its navy to celebrate victories at sea.

Kennedy isn't one for sake -- he swears Glenfiddich has been the key to his longevity.

Each birthday he fills those glasses with rum.

"Every 2nd of September my boys and I have a tot of rum and we say, 'Thank God.' "

jonathan.sher@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/jsherLFPRESS


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